Continued from Tuesdays with Norwood: In Japan – Part 1

As nearly as I can judge, the Japanese tea ceremonies have undergone at least three distinct stages in the seven hundred or so years of their existence. The first was a medico-religious stage. It appears that Eisai was summoned to the bedside of the youthful and reprobate shogun of the day to administer last rites. Finding that the shogun was merely–and I use the word respectfully–suffering from a terrible hangover, the priest endeavored to sober him up and save him from the wine cup by making him take tea and, in the manner of propagandists everywhere, he accompanied his prescription with a tract. Eisai’s work owes much to Lu and Song writers but contains original ideas on how tea promotes longevity and spiritual harmony, serving as a sort of divinely mixed snake oil and holy water. (As we shall see, the health claims he made for tea have been largely confirmed by today’s science.) The ceremonial he prescribed, however, was religious, and a tinge of Buddhist ritual has adhered to the tea ceremony ever since.

It took little over a century from the time of Eisai and Myo-e for tea drinking to reach a second stage, that of luxury. Well before 1330, the Japanese nobility had devised the tea tournament on the model of another of their rarified pleasures, incense comparing. They continued to hang Buddhist scroll paintings in their tearooms and to make offerings before them, to be sure, but that was the extent of religious observances; The guests, lolling about the spacious tea-drinking pavilion on leopard and tiger skins, were invited to admire their host’s rich silks and brocades, gold and silver vessels, jewelry and inlaid armor and weapons. All these were “Chinese things” and treasured as such, for Japan still languished beneath the cultural shadow of her giant neighbor, whose fashions she aped in all things and whose fine arts her nobility admired to the exclusion of all things domestic.

An excerpt from New Tea Lover’s Treasury, by James Norwood Pratt

To be continued in Tuesdays With Norwood: In Japan – Part 3