Traditional Culture of Japan - Traditional crafts and culture

Tea ceremony and the tea scoop: a tea utensil that comes from a “tear”


Tea ceremony and the tea scoop: a tea utensil that comes from a “tear”

A hanging scroll and tea bowls are essential in performing a tea ceremony. The hanging scroll chosen for a tea ceremony expresses the purpose of the ceremony, and there are many valuable tea bowls.


At a tea ceremony you may drink koicha, a form of matcha tea with a relatively thick consistency.


The matcha powder used to make koicha is stored in a container called a “cha’ire.” It is one of the most expensive tea ceremony utensils and a very fine cha’ire can cost hundreds of millions of yen.


Another important tea ceremony utensil is the “chashaku” (tea scoop). The tea scoop is a bamboo spoon used to put matcha into the tea bowl. Each tea scoop has a unique inscription on it.


  The inscription on a tea scoop: Rikyū’s “tear”
Tea ceremony was introduced to Japan from China. In the beginning, a medicinal spoon made from ivory or other materials was used to scoop up matcha. However, tea ceremony utensils changed with the passing of time.


Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591) is recognized as the person who perfected the tea ceremony as it is performed today. Bamboo tea scoops have been used since Rikyū's time. No famous tea scoops from before Rikyū’s time are known.


The most famous tea scoop in Japan is the one which has the inscription “namida” (teardrop) on it. This scoop is famous because it features in an actual historical event.


Tea ceremony was very important among the samurai and it was also a form of entertainment for upper-class people. This is how Rikyū, the greatest master of tea ceremony in those times, obtained great influence. Rikyū had significant political influence because he was close to Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the daimyo who ruled Japan.


But Rikyū aroused Hideyoshi’s anger for some reason, and he was sentenced to death (by self-disembowelment). In 1591, Rikyū ws sent by boat under escort from Kyoto to Sakai (near Osaka).


Although Rikyū had many disciples, only two people saw him off from the wharf: Furuta Oribe and Hosokawa Sansai.


By seeing him off, these two men risked guilt by association, for Rikyū had been sentenced to death by the most powerful individual in Japan. They were the only ones prepared to take that risk.


By his own hand, Rikyū carved two tea scoops to express his gratitude to these two disciples. At his last tea ceremony, he used these two scoops and he gave one of them, inscribed with the word “namida” (teardrop), to Furuta Oribe, and the other, inscribed “yugami,” to Hosokawa Sansai.


After that, Oribe made a tube in which to store the “namida” scoop. This tube is painted with black lacquer and it has a rectangular window. When this tube is placed vertically, it looks like an ihai (Buddhist mortuary tablet) used for worshipping the enshrined soul of a deceased person.


It is said that Oribe placed the “namida” scoop into this tube and that he worshipped the tea scoop through the tube's window. “Yugami,” the other tea scoop, was unfortunately destroyed in a fire.


  Tea ceremony and the tea scoop: a tea utensil that comes from a “tear”
  ・The “namida” tea scoop carved by Rikyū, at the Tokugawa Art Museum


  The shape of the tea scoop
Thus, the tea scoop retains the history of the tea ceremony master. That famous historical story is inscribed on its tip. The inscription is there because of that history.


Generally speaking, the more regular and uniform the shape of a tool is, the more attractive it is considered to be. However, in various domains in Japan, including tea ceremony, it is considered that there is beauty in imperfection. This is why irregularly shaped bowls are commonly used, rather than regular, symmetrical ones.


The same can be said about tea scoops. They are made from bamboo, which typically has nodes. People generally avoid the nodes in making things out of bamboo, but in making tea scoops, the nodes are used to advantage, becoming a feature.


Typically, a tea scoop is around 17-18 cm in length, with a node in its center. Rather than avoiding nodes, an effort is made to make a feature of them. Of course, there are tea scoops with a node not located in the center, and this gives them a distinctive character.


Among the implements of tea ceremony, tea scoops occupy a significant place. There is the history of the “namida” tea scoop, and in present-day Japan as well, tea scoops remain an important element of tea ceremony.

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