Spring is the most magical time to visit Japan: the iconic cherry blossoms, followed by vibrant irises and blooms of wisteria are an enchantment for travellers throughout the season. This year, Chanoyu, The Arts of the Tea Ceremony, a major exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum, makes it an even more rewarding time to visit.
It is widely known that the venerable tradition of drinking tea, so prevalent throughout Asia and the Middle East, took a particular form in Japan. Thought as quintessentially Japanese by foreigners, it is also considered by the Japanese themselves to be the utmost expression of their culture and heritage. Yet the Japanese tea ceremony remains an enigmatic custom. This new Tokyo show, the largest to focus on the arts of the tea ceremony in over 30 years, offers a unique panorama of this fascinating aspect of Japanese culture.
Celadon glazed tea bowl known as Bakohan, China, Longquan ware, 12th-13th century. Tokyo National Museum. Important Cultural Property
The new practice of drinking tea was brought to Japan from China in the late 12th century and gradually spread among members of high society. Tea aficionados collected all manners of imported Chinese objects for display and use during tea gatherings. The 16th century was pivotal for the development of the tea ceremony’s refined aesthetic, characterised by its closeness to nature and a rustic beauty that is only simple in appearance. Since then, different tea traditions have developed, demonstrating in turn creativity and an attachment to tradition, attesting to the vitality of the world of tea.
Tea bowl, Shino type, known as Unohanagaki, Mino ware, 16th-17th century. Mitsui Memorial Museum, Tokyo. National Treasure
On view are rare and precious tea bowls, exquisite paintings, sculptural flower vases and minute incense boxes that have accompanied the ritual of drinking tea throughout the centuries. A Kyoto teahouse with the poetic name of the Swallow’s hermitage has been entirely reconstructed in the museum, offering visitors an illustration of how the various implements are arranged inside the small but suggestive space of the tearoom. The show also highlights some of the main figures associated with the tea ceremony, among them artists, collectors, samurai and of course tea masters, some of whom were remarkable tastemakers. The world of tea encapsulates many aspects of Japanese culture, including connoisseurship and the history of collecting, and it is a point of intersection for the arts of ceramic, lacquerware, flower arrangement, painting, calligraphy and architecture.
Centuries old, the tea ceremony is still practiced today by hundreds of thousands of people in Japan. This exhibition tells its story in an illuminating way, which is accessible to all thanks to the information provided in English, a real bonus for foreign visitors.