Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) is undoubtedly the most renowned tea master in Japanese history. Born in Sakai near the end of Japan’s warring era, he performed tea ceremonies for powerful feudal lords Nobunaga Oda and Hideyoshi Toyotomi, and was the latter’s confidant.
Sen no Rikyu collaborated with Hideyoshi in the construction of the Golden Tea Room inside Osaka Castle and hosted formal tea gatherings for Hideyoshi during dignitaries’ visits. Consisting of gold ceilings, walls, and pillars, the tea room – the size of three tatami mats – was quite portable; in 1586, it was dismantled, transported, and re-assembled at the Imperial Palace when Hideyoshi served tea to the emperor. The current display of this splendid tea room at the castle is a replica; the original was destroyed, along with the entire castle, during the Summer War in 1615.
Famous for their rustic quality and simplicity, the tea rooms Sen no Rikyu designed and used in his later years were even smaller, consisting of only two tatami mats. In Japanese historical dramas, Sen no Rikyu’s character would invite samurai to tea, insisting, however, that they leave their swords outside before entering the tea room through a tiny entrance; the dramas always depicted not only tea sipping, but also political discussions and deal-making. Perhaps it was at these tea gatherings where Sen no Rikyu’s conflicts with Hideyoshi first occurred; he should have stayed a tea purist. At the age of seventy, Sen no Rikyu was ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment) by Hideyoshi, although the reason remains a mystery.
I enjoyed seeing the figure above at UCLA’s Fowler Museum’s Steeped in History: The Art of Tea exhibit. It is a most exquisite illustration of chanoyu and Sen no Rikyu.
Photo of the figure from the Fowler Museum’s Steeped in History: The Art of Tea exhibit is from the exhibit catalog.