Bowled Over

With its distinctive milky-white glaze accommodating unglazed patches, the stoneware made in Hagi in western Japan has long been favored for teabowls in the tea ceremony. 

Though the form of expression may have changed, since time immemorial a certain character type has found seductive beyond words the mindset that if you land into wealth you might as well flaunt the stuff. Thus, in fourteenth-century Japan, the social equivalent of fondly surveying the dial of one’s spectacularly expensive Patek Philippe timepiece or throatily over-revving the Lamborghini in downtown traffic was to throw grand tea parties. Though ostensibly based on the austere tea ceremony, these flamboyant gatherings took on the scale of huge banquets, in which nobles found amusement in contests to identify the origins of different kinds of tea and taking bets on which variety of prepared tea would be first to lose its foam. The feudal lord hosting such an event would naturally have gone to pains to ensure that his honored guests were pointedly aware of its central utensils—the teabowls that had cost him an absolute fortune.

While the tea ceremony is hardly a daily event for most Japanese today, teabowls (chawan) certainly are commonplace. Chawan is the name given to ceramic bowls used for serving rice and for serving tea. The bowls themselves differ according to the function, with those for rice being typically made of thin porcelain and in a standard shape, while those for drinking the powdered tea of the tea ceremony are normally large, thick stoneware. Originally, chawan were used exclusively for drinking tea, and it was only into Edo times (1603–1867) that the practice grew of using the implements for rice.

Tea is such a familiar aspect of Japanese life, but it is not as old as one might suppose. The beverage was quite a rarity until 1191, when a monk named Eisai returned from China, bringing with him both tea seeds and the fervent desire to promote Zen. The links with that form of Buddhism continued, and in the fifteenth century the monk Ikkyu, one of the dominant figures in Zen, declared that the tea ceremony produced greater enlightenment than hours of meditation.

In its classic form, the tea ceremony takes place in a small, simple teahouse, which the guests enter by crawling through a small door. Once inside, the guests go through various ritualized acts, such as admiring the hanging scroll in the alcove and inspecting the kettle and brazier that will be used to prepare the tea, and, freed from the cares of the world, in so doing achieve a unique state of serenity. The beverage itself is prepared by the host, who adds a small amount of hot water to the tea in a single bowl. The teabowl is the most important object in the ceremony and is handled with utmost reverence, being raised to the lips with both hands. Each guest drinks from this bowl before wiping the rim and passing it on to the next person.

For long after the Japanese discovered the remarkable virtues of Camellia sinensis, bowls and other tea utensils for the most part came from China. But the fourteenth-century monk Murata Shuko despised the ostentation of the ornate tea parties to which the samurai class had become so attached. Shuko was keen to take the tea ceremony back to its Zen roots, and he made a point of using rough, often unglazed Japanese teabowls rather than the finer porcelain Chinese ware.

Shuko was a major influence on the greatest tea master of them all, Sen no Rikyu (1522–1591), who transformed the tea ceremony into the form practiced today. Rikyu’s aesthetic sense embraced unaffectedness and finding beauty in the imperfect and unadorned. He preferred the use of simple objects close at hand and emphasized the ordinary, everyday aspect of the tea ceremony. Once a guest asked Rikyu to let him in on the real secret of tea. “Suggest coolness in summer and warmth in winter. Set the charcoal so that the water will boil. Arrange the flowers as if they were still in the field,” responded the tea master. Unimpressed, the guest declared that anybody could do that. To this, Rikyu replied, “Then I will become your student, and you will be my teacher.”

David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.

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