Traditional Culture of Japan - Traditional crafts and culture

The beginnings of tea ceremony: Eisai, Nōami, and Jukō


Tea ceremony originated in China. It is believed that Eisai (1141-1215) was the person who brought tea ceremony in Japan.


Eisai went in China to study Buddhism as a monk, and it is said that when he returned to Japan, he brought tea with him. Rather than being an item consumed for pleasure as it is today, tea was used for medicinal purposes at that time. However, once it began to be widely cultivated in Japan, it came to be consumed as a beverage.


Eisai is also known for bringing Zen Buddhism to Japan. The tradition of Zen meditation, in which one sits with a straight back, regulates one’s breathing, and looks into one’s soul, is also closely connected with Eisai.


  The beginnings of the lavish tea ceremony
In those times, Japan regarded China as a great nation with an advanced culture. Naturally, since tea was introduced to Japan from China, the influence of China on the cultural aspects of tea was substantial.


In the medieval Muromachi period (1336-1573), tōcha (tea-tasting contests) were popular. Tōcha was a pastime that involved identifying different types of tea. It originated in China and involved discerning whether the tea one tasted was authentic or not.


The authentic tea was one produced in a place in Kyoto's outskirts called Toga-no-o. There were prizes given as part of the game. Various magnificent items were wagered, such as gold dust and swords, and this pastime became a passion among upper-class people.


In those times, tea ceremony was very stylish. They used luxury utensils imported from China, such as porcelain bowls of uniform shape and a high quality finish. The ceremony was less about enjoying the tea than it was about showing off the accoutrements of tea making.


In those times, people spent huge amounts of money on tea utensils made in China. The tea ceremony became a place where people gathered to see something magnificent. The tea ceremony at that time did not have the concept of simplicity and frugality as it does today. The goal then was to collect valuable items and to hold extravagant tea parties.


  The tea ceremony created by Nōami and Jukō
Nōami (1397-1471) and Jukō (1423-1502) are two individuals known for their significant contributions to the tea ceremony in the early period. Nōami is famous for his ink paintings, but he is also known as an art connoisseur and as a master of tea ceremony.


Until that time, noble families had houses with large rooms such as living rooms or drawing rooms. These rooms were connected by corridors. This style is known by the technical term “shinden-zukuri.” It was not typical for these houses to have tatami mats on their floor, as tea ceremony rooms have.


Subsequently, large rooms were divided into a number of smaller rooms. It was very convenient because the doors separating the rooms could be removed when necessary to create a large space again. This kind of structure is called shoin-zukuri.




The shoin-zukuri style was established by Nōami. After that time, tatami mats were the main type of flooring used. In other words, the basic Japanese style of dwelling was developed in this period.


Nōami was performing an extravagant form of tea ceremony, but another figure, by the name of Jukō, was active in the development of the tea ceremony during the same period. In his studies of Buddhism, Jukō came to believe that tea ceremony should be linked to Buddhism.


In Buddhism, simplicity and frugality is valued, and Jukō wanted to introduce these values in tea ceremony. At that time, the notion of a tea ceremony was to decorate the room with expensive ceramics and utensils in a show of luxury and extravagance. Jukō proposed a style of tea ceremony that was entirely contrary to the prevailing idea.


We can say that Jukō was the one who started our modern tea ceremony concept of removing the superfluous and seeking art in simple shapes. This type of tea ceremony is called “wabi-cha.” Tea ceremony as we perform it today was created by Jukō.

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