Japan from the inside out

Tea party

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 10, 2011

TO outsiders, the Japanese tea ceremony can be a stiff and starchy affair that leaves some wondering why it’s been such a big deal for so long. To insiders, however, it integrates the appreciation of green tea (a fine beverage) with aspects of traditional architecture, gardening, ceramics, calligraphy, and religion. Its history is closely linked with that of Buddhism in Japan, particularly Zen.

The appreciation of tea was not always conducted in such an elegant atmosphere, however. For example, tea tournaments became popular among the aristocracy during the Muromachi period (1333 to 1568). The nominal objective of these contests was to distinguish which of the teas served was the “true tea”, i.e., that grown from seeds brought from China in the 12th century, and which were derived from newer strains. Extravagant prizes were awarded, more sake than tea was consumed, and the government banned them after they became an excuse for rowdiness.

The early master Sen no Rikyu founded his own school for the tea ceremony that branched off into three schools that survive to the present. He eventually became the tea guru for the warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, receiving extensive land holdings from the latter and officiating at tea ceremonies for both, as well as for the Emperor Ogimachi. Rikyu became too successful for his own good, however; he irritated Hideyoshi for reasons that remain unclear and was forced by him to commit suicide in 1591. (Among the theories: he had a life-size statue of himself built, he refused to give his daughter to Hideyoshi as a concubine, and he charged too much money for his tea utensils.)

While the tea ceremony has become more sedate in the intervening centuries, it is still possible to catch glimpses of the past funkiness. One example is the annual Ochamori ceremony at Saidai-ji, a Buddhist temple in Nara, held this year on the 9th.

Those who visit the temple for the ceremony drink the same matcha that is consumed at other tea ceremonies. Matcha is a finely-ground, powdered, high quality form of the tea that is shade-grown. On this day, however, it is drunk not from the small, individual tea cups esteemed for their artistic value, but motherbruisers that are 40 centimeters in diameter, weigh from five to 10 kilograms, and are passed around to five or six people. In fact, the cups are so large the drinker needs help from the people on either side to handle them. (That’s where the “O” in Ochamori comes from. It isn’t the honorific but the character that means “big”.) They sometimes wind up with matcha-covered faces, which is an unlikely spectacle at a conventional tea ceremony.

The Ochamori originated more than 750 years ago in the Kamakura era with Eison, a high priest of the Shingon sect. In those days, tea was still a luxury item. During the January convocation of the monthly meeting for Buddhist instruction, he first offered the tea to the divinity, and then made sure it was passed to the parishioners and townspeople, most of whom wouldn’t have been able to afford it. The story goes that everyone wanted to drink sake instead — this is Japan, after all — but religious precepts prohibited it.

Reported a 15-year-old high school girl who came over from Hyogo for the event this year:

“It’s the first time I’ve ever drunk from a teacup this big. It was heavy!”

And to see just how heavy it was, try this brief clip from an Ochamori of the past.

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