I was recently asked to explain the concept of wabi-sabi. Confident at first, I said, “simple, imperfect, and transient,” but I was stuck when pressed to elaborate. A country’s aesthetic ideal is such a broad topic – how does one explain it without rambling? Narrowing the scope and using visual aids is always helpful; The “Chanoyu – The Arts of Tea Ceremony, The Essence of Japan” exhibition showcases ceramic tea bowls used in Japanese tea ceremonies since the Muromachi Period. I gained a fresh perspective after seeing the exhibit – I saw when the wabi-sabi elements were incorporated into the pieces, learnt a little about the tea masters who spearheaded the Wabi-cha movement, and caught a glimpse of the historical context that may have motivated the changes.
Classical Japanese culture was influenced by China – prominent religious, political, and business leaders often travelled between the countries to strengthen diplomatic relations and to improve techniques in various crafts. Records show that the Japanese began drinking tea in the Heian period (794 – 1185) after a Buddhist monk returned from China with tea leaves. The practice was initially confined to the spiritual elites, but later spread to the aristocrat and samurai class during the Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333). Tea drinking was mainly practiced for its medicinal benefits until the late Kamakura and Muromachi Period (1333 – 1568), when it started to evolve into a cultural activity.
The rich and powerful would often gather to appreciate imported Chinese artworks (Karamono) and drink tea – the former was the main focus of the meetings. Such tea ceremonies, along with the utensils used for preparing and serving tea, are the foundations of what is now known as Chado or Chanoyu.
Pottery and porcelain tea bowls were regarded as the most important utensils of Chado. Since Japanese ceramics were still at an early stage of development and the wealthy had a penchant for Karamono, exquisite tea bowls imported from China were used in tea ceremonies. Tenmoku style tea bowls, or otherwise known as Jian ware, were revered for their beauty. The rarity of the glaze effects increased their allure; they were chance occurrences, formed only when the firing conditions and chemical constituents of the clay and wood ash glaze were just right. Yuteki and Yohen styles were regarded as the finest tenmoku tea bowls – four have been designated as National Treasures of Japan.
Tea ceremonies started to lose their exclusivity as more townsmen adopted the custom in the 15th century. Perhaps it was this supply-demand imbalance that spearheaded the Wabi-cha movement: a style of tea ceremony that values simplicity, both in aesthetics and rituals. Soon, locally made tea bowls (Wamono) with simple designs were used in place of the striking Karamono. The Ki Tenmoku tea bowls are examples of works that embody the early Wabi-cha aesthetic; they were first made by Murata Shuko (1423 – 1502), the founder of Wabi-cha. Takeno Jo’o (1502 – 1555), a prominent merchant of the Sengoku Period (1467 – 1603), followed Shuko’s teachings and created works that were consistent with the Wabi-cha aesthetic ideals. Haku Tenmoku, his most well-known piece, is the first white ash glazed ceramic in Japan; it was popular in Seto and Mino, undoubtedly influencing later Mino potters. Tea masters of this period also admired Korean works (Koraimono) for their rustic appearance.
Change was not restricted to tea bowls. Warlords and samurais of the Ashikaga Shogunate (1336 – 1573) preferred tea caddies with wide openings and broad shoulders as they portrayed strength, but with the fall of the shogun, the tea caddies adopted rounder and simpler forms, such as nasu (eggplant) and bunrin (apple) shapes. The Karamono scroll paintings that once adorned the alcoves of tea rooms were also replaced – calligraphy scrolls written by zen priests were considered more fitting.
Sen no Rikyu (1522 – 1590) succeeded Jo’o as Japan’s leading tea master, serving powerful feudal lords such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537 – 1598) and Oda Nobunaga (1534 – 1582) during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573 – 1600). Rikyu held Jo’o’s teachings close to heart, but also introduced changes to the practice: he reduced the size of tea rooms to two tatami mats, designed new utensils from locally sourced materials such as bamboo, encouraged extended use of the utensils, and revised procedures so the process could be performed gracefully and efficiently. Rikyu also wanted to bring minimalism and functionality to the tea bowls. While working for Hideyoshi, Rikyu met Chojiro Tanaka (1516 – 1592), a ridge tile maker, during the construction of Jurakudai Temple and asked him to make a tea bowl that embodied the essence of wabi-sabi aesthetic ideals. Tanaka made the ridge tile of tea bowls – it was simple, rustic, imperfect, yet very functional; the large size made tea preparation easier and the rounded cylindrical shape fitted perfectly in the palms of guests. Hideyoshi was so pleased with the originality of the design that he awarded Tanaka a seal that beared the character “Raku”. The family adopted the name and continues to make tea bowls to this day.
Wabi is the appreciation of simple and rustic aesthetics, whereas sabi is about accepting impermanence and seeing beauty in the old and used; together, they encourage a humble existence, fostering a closer connection to nature and oneself. Although the concept of wabi-sabi existed long before Rikyu, he has been credited with popularising it through Chanoyu. The tea ceremony has changed since Rikyu’s days, but still embodies the Wabi-cha philosophy; the three most prominent schools of today are Omotesenke, Urasenke, and Mushakojisenke, all of which trace their roots back to Sen no Rikyu.
*Feature image sourced from Wikipedia