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Home > Information Index > The Advent of Thatched Hut Tea

Spring, 2001 Newsletter - "The Advent of Thatched Hut Tea"
  "Tea as a Philosophy of Life"
Part IV: The Advent of Thatched Hut Tea


   A new type of tea ceremony took form by the fifteenth century. Although this new direction retained certain elements of the Buddhist tea ceremony and the artistic displays of popular tea gatherings, it soon transcended these early practices of tea. With literally hundreds of years of development, this final form of the Japanese Tea Ceremony would become a permanent part of Japanese tradition.

   The new ceremony was no longer an adjunct to Buddhist meditation. Rather, the ceremony itself was considered a form of meditation, and the precisely codified interchange between host and guests evoked a degree of social and spiritual perfection. In this final form the actual tea plays a minor role. The preparation for the ceremony, the ambiance of the tea room and surroundings, and the attitude of the host and guests are all of paramount importance.

   An instrumental figure in the development of this ceremony, later known as Cha-no-yu, was the Buddhist priest No-ami (1397-1471). As aesthetic consultant to the Shogun, No-ami was an authority on nearly every art form of the day. A significant contribution of No-ami's was the precise codification of the tea ceremony, including the manner of arranging ornaments, paintings, and flowers integral to the ceremony. This shoin-kasari, or drawing room ornamentation, was intended to "bring a spiritual dimension of solemn beauty into the tea-room."1 The glorious tea gatherings of the grand pavilions would give way to the more personal gatherings held in the tea rooms of the samurai and merchants.

   Students of No-ami were eager to refine the concept of the more intimate tea gatherings. This would occur during the golden age of artistic development in Japan. The most significant developments of Cha-no-yu during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were not documented until the seventeenth century.2 As often happens, history was documented to favor the popular proclivity. It is almost certain that many of the recognized tea masters were greatly influenced by some of the more obscure aesthetics and artists of the time.

   The late fifteenth century also marked the most devastating of the feudal struggles, known as the Onin War (1467-1477), which left Kyoto in ruin. The overall impact on Japan's economic and social structure was overwhelming. Preoccupation with materialism eroded, and a new appreciation of "quiet taste" (wabi) emerged. The concept of wabi influenced every art form. Elaborate displays of Chinese artifacts were considered gauche. The stark beauty of a simple rock garden or the unadorned splendor of a single flower would symbolize the new era of artistic expression.

   Wabi embraces the imperfect and finds beauty in the ordinary. Incorporated into the tea ceremony, this concept freed Cha-no-yu of its focus on ornamentation. Rather than provide a means of displaying rare collections of artifacts, the new objective was to create a spirit of tranquility and to share tea in harmony with a metaphysical universe. The tea utensils used in the new ceremony were prized for their austere simplicity. A simple scroll of calligraphy or an ink drawing replaced elaborate displays. "No longer was tea taste simply a matter of acquiring expensive foreign artifacts; inventiveness (sajui) and tasteful combinations (toriawase) of utensils now took preference among connoisseurs."3

   There were several tea masters who had a major influence on the development of this new ceremony. One of the most famous was Murata Shuko (1423-1502), who studied under No-ami and his grandson, So-ami. Shuko (sometimes spelled Juko) was a likeable but oblivious lad who seemed to be looking for his purpose in life when he discovered tea in his early thirties. Under the tutelage of No-ami and So-ami, Shuko became a master of the new soan cha, or "thatched hut tea."

   Some texts would contend that Shuko actually created the concept of soan cha. It is more likely that soan cha was simply gaining popularity at the time of his introduction to tea. The wabi aesthetic can be traced back to the twelfth century,4 and its influence was widely spread before the time of Shuko. There is little doubt, however, that Shuko was instrumental in championing soan cha among ordinary citizens as well as the nobility.

   Sometimes called wabi cha, soan cha actually employs another important concept called sabi, which literally translates to "rust." Sabi is an appreciation of the beauty of the worn or aged. Combined, wabi and sabi recognize the transient nature of the material world. The wabi-sabi ethic rejects materialism and the obsession with "obvious" beauty. It extols virtues of plainness and the resplendence of the gracefully aged.

   The focus of soan cha is the relationship between host and guest. The handling of the utensils, the postures, the prescribed dialogue, and the ambience of the tea room are intended to facilitate the host-guest exchange and the contemplative spirit. The participants actually become part of an aesthetic art form.

   The tea master who brought soan cha to its ultimate form was Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). It was not the external form for which Rikyu is lionized. Rather he is considered the deity of Teaism, a term best explained by the phrase chazen ichimi ("Tea and Zen are one"). Teaism was to become the great educator of the masses. The average citizen would be exposed to the refinement, good taste, and serenity of the tea masters through the simple practice of Cha-no-yu.

   We will continue this series with a brief overview of Rikyu's contribution to Cha-no-yu.

1Hammitzsch, Horst Zen in the Art of the Tea Ceremony. Translated by Peter Lemesurier. Wiltshire, England: Element Books, Ltd., 1979. p. 35.
2Plutschow, H. E. Historical Chanoyu. Tokyo: The Japan Times, Ltd., 1986. p.71.
3Sen, Soshitsu Chanoyu; The Urasenke Tradition of Tea. Translated by Alfred Birnbaum. New York and Tokyo: John Weatherhill, Inc., 1988. p.14.
4Ibid, p. 22.
 Related Information:
   This current newsletter's homepage
   Part I: Tea Comes to Japan
   Part II: Tea and the Samurai
   Part III: Tea Becomes a Way
   Part V: The Perfection of Cha-no-yu
   Show me more topics

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