‘Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion of aestheticism – Teaism. Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.’

So begins Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea, written originally to be read in the salon of Isabella Stewart Gardner, the American collector, patron of the arts, and philanthropic socialite. And he might as well have stopped at this paragraph, for it beautifully and succinctly encapsulates how the history of Chado or Chanoyu, the ‘Way of Tea’, bridges the two extremes of intimate pleasantries and holistic philosophy. In it Okakura tugs on the threads of wabi-cha and wabi-sabi, the ways of thinking about tea and life popularised by the ceremonial master Sen no Rikyu who, in the late 1500s, transformed its emphasis from symmetry to the asymmetric, from displays of supremacy to equanimity, expense and opulence to evanescence, effete decadence to rusticism, the perfect to imperfection, giving us the tea ceremony we know today.

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Rikyu died months before the first of two major Japanese invasions of Korea in 1592, his death not unrelated to the war that would follow. His status in the latter half of his life had come from his close relationship with the warlord Oda Nobunaga and his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. This was a time of civil war and intense, protracted, factional in-fighting after the fall of the Shogun at Nobunaga’s hand. Noble courts were jealous, treacherous places. As he looked to solidify his hold among the warring clans, Hideyoshi began weeding out the disloyal from his entourage, and it was not long before Rikyu was betrayed by opportunists. He was suspected of a plot to poison his leader with a bowl of ceremonial green matcha tea, and for his alleged crime condemned to death by suicide.

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The history of the tea ceremony – like our own history of tea – is, as Okakura outlines, one of blood and violence as well as peace and introspection. The Korean rice bowls that had inspired Rikyu, the Korean potters who had made them, and the kiln technologies they developed to fire them, were all spoils of Japanese raiding. The renaissance in Japanese ceramics of the 16th century, the emergence of its dominant kilns, and the developments in the tea ceremony that followed them were all products of martial law; and in the 250-year isolation Japan imposed on itself after the war, the ceremony was adapted as a vital diplomatic tool integral to the workings of political negotiation.

‘A religion of aestheticism…a cult’. Like so much of Japanese ‘high’ culture, the tea ceremony remains intensely, perplexingly, ritualised. Okakura continues: ‘The Philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the oridinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe. It represents the true spirit of Eastern democracy by making all its votaries aristocrats in taste’.

In an age of ferocious unrest, the tea ceremony was the great political leveller. Rikyu brought the ceremony out of palatial abodes and into tiny, rustic, straw-hut sukiya spaces. The tea ceremony today continues to draw on his proposal for humility: guests enter the neutral space of a ceremony through a lowered doorway, stooping as they pass through. ‘Though you wipe your hands and brush off the dust and dirt from your vessels,’ Rikyu liked to say, ‘what is the use of it all if the heart remains impure?’ His moral dynamic provided precisely the tonic the feudal world of Japan required, in which every mundane detail of daily life was codified by strict notions of class.

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The tea ceremony predates the Romanticism of Europe, but both aesthetic worlds grapple with the same problems of the individual within their community. In both our countries, where conformity, tradition, and conservatism have tended to win out, the place and the importance of the individual within society has long provided a source of tension. Expectation is key to Japanese culture and community, where the collective is invariably more important than the individual: things and people have expected functions and roles, nowhere moreso than in the spheres of ceramic production and the ceremonial arts. This has borne out in Japan’s attitude towards its ceramicists, who are talked of in lineages and referred to by geographies. After the great internal wars of Rikyu’s lifetime cast potters across the country and precipitated the evolution of major kiln sites, so too came the expectation of a certain kind of ware to emerge from a certain place. The anxiety of individuality within tradition, identity within heritage, is one potters still grapple with today. Ken Matsuzaki, whose pots illustrate this article, is rare among Japanese potters to have shed the influence of his celebrity Mashiko forebears and to produce work more commonly expected elsewhere in the country. For this very reason, he enjoys the straightforwardness of European and American collectors of ceramics, who ask not what geographic genre this is – Mashiko ware? Seto ware? Shino style? – but understand it to have emanated from an artist working free and distinct of imitation, drawing on traditions long since dispersed and revived.

These conflicts are reflected not just in the people of the tea ceremony, between host, guest, and the group at large, but also the pots themselves. Toriawase, an expression that means to choose with extreme care and consideration the various objects for the ceremony, places on the host the demand of selecting pots by different artists, of particular flavours, and bringing them together into a thematic unity.

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What is the tea ceremony? In short, it is the mutual sharing of tea by a group at the invitation of their host, within a specially devised setting. At its heart, it is an extremely simple and sparse procedure, rooted firmly within a traditional context. That framework has become a double-edged sword; for though simplicity and grace are the strived for qualities, to conform to the strictures of a tradition of such age and such slow, gradual evolution requires extreme prescription. The tea we Westerners would not recognise – a fine, viridian green powder, not whole leaves boiled or stewed. Every implement and its use, from bamboo ladle, whisk and spoon, every movement, every moment, is laboured with care – some might even say ‘policed’. Its delight derives from the slowly shifting atmosphere this induces in the proceedings, wherein expectations are at once anticipated, met, and, in the most skilful of ceremonies, sometimes silently subverted. It is essentially a performance; one in which the audience are active participants, placing on the host the unusual pressure of both accommodating those cultural expectations and pleasing diverse and individual tastes.

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Like any performance, it implicates the performer as part of the art: ‘In Religion the Future is behind us,’ writes Okakura, ‘in Art, the Present is eternal. The tea master held that real appreciation of art is only possible to those who make of it a living influence. Thus they sought to regulate their daily life by the high standard of refinement which obtained in the tea room…for until one has made himself beautiful he has no right to approach beauty. Thus the tea master strove to be something more than the artist – art itself. It was the Zen of aestheticism.’

In the ceremony, we have not just human but ceramic performers; and if the host is held to scrutiny for their arrangement of the day’s proceedings, the ceramics are arguably examined with even greater critique. Were the ceremony a kabuki play, of the kind developed almost concurrently with the tea ceremony of old, the tea bowl and the caddy from which macha is served are our romantic protagonists, their fates entwined – in our Hollywood terminology, our best and supporting actors. Vital ‘bit parts’ are given over to the mizusashi, the water container which keeps the iron brazier, in which hot water is prepared and ladled into bowls, topped up, and the flower vase arranged beneath a hanging kakemono, a scroll painting which sets the theme for the day’s ceremony.

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With ritual come rules, and in the tea ceremony there are many. Among the least understood by outsiders, and the least strictly defined by practitioners, are those guiding the making of the central teabowl, the chawan, for use in the ceremony. Certain unwritten laws are practical in nature: the size of a chawan must match the size and shape of the hand – generally wider than it is tall, and claspable between two palms. The mikomi, the interior surface of the bowl, ought to be smooth enough that there is no threat of the delicate bamboo whisk used to froth the tea snapping on the bowl, and the koshi, the ‘corner’ between the inner wall and floor, should be open enough that no unmixed powder will dreg in the bottom of the bowl. Lips must be smooth enough to drink from and to wipe clean with a cloth, and the koudai, the foot – arguably the most important facet of a teabowl for connoisseurs – able to accommodate fingers and thumbs for the lifting, turning, and placing of the bowl in the ceremony.

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Other aspects are less obviously regulated: in a good teabowl one would expect to find a chadamari, a round depression in the bottom of the bowl where the tea will naturally pool. And a teabowl is generally thought to have a front ‘face’, an area of the pot of particular visual or textural interest which indicates the direction the bowl is to be presented to its guests that they might enjoy it at its best angle. But a caveat: as in all areas of the tea ceremony, all areas of ceramics, and indeed all areas of Japanese culture and philosophy, restriction invites paradox, contradiction, and exception. Tea ceremony of the kind taught in Japan’s tea schools takes many years to master. Chawan that defy easy use in the ceremony are not ‘bad’ by default: more often they represent to a prospective host the ultimate challenge of taming the spectacular, sculptural explorations of a refined artistic voice within a setting that eschews showiness, individuality, and overexpression.

In the 1990s, Japan’s national broadcaster NHK commissioned a series on Japanese culture fronted by the writer Shuichi Kato. Like Okakura, he was a polyglot academic, deeply versed not only in his own country’s past but in international cultures too. And in one memorable episode on the significance of the chawan in Japanese history, he described the keshiki – the ‘landscape’ of a teabowl’s surface – of an old and historically beloved chawan. Here Kato cuts to the heart of how something as strict, as rigidly traditional, as prescriptive as tea ceremony can still find space for an intensely personal interaction – and to the importance of the work makers like Matsuzaki produce in shaping our ever changing understanding of the world of beauty.

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‘As I hold this bowl in my hands and gaze at it for a while, I’m struck by the complexity of its surface, texture and colour. If I turn it around slowly, I can see an endlessly changing movement. There will be a smooth passage for a while, and then a slight hesitation, and perhaps later a daring leap. An endless series of changes.

‘This teabowl embraces all the characteristics of the psychological passage of human nature. We can feel with our senses that it is a summary of all the emotional ups and downs we experience with the passing of time. And as I reflect over my life, I somehow feel that everything, all the things I have experienced over my many years, is represented in this teabowl. To me, this is a visible symbol of my own universe.

‘This is by no means a simplified version of beauty. The teabowl stands for all the complex developments of life, yet everything is concentrated within a very small vessel. From the perspective of traditional European ideas of beauty, the teabowl must look not just different, but in fact like anti-art. But take the trouble to delve a little deeper, and so widen the boundaries of art, and you will find it comes within the borders for the simple reason that the teabowl is beautiful. A concept of beauty that cannot include the teabowl is not permanent: it is only by including the teabowl that you give any meaning to the history of art. Without it, you have something desperately incomplete.’