Foodways

Japanese Tea Ritual Turned 15th Century 'Tupperware' Into Art

  • Hide caption
    This stoneware and iron glaze tea leaf storage jar called Chigusa was created in China, in the mid-13th to mid-14th century. Once the workaday storage jugs reached Japan, they became objects of aesthetic contemplation and reverence.
    Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art
  • Hide caption
    The mouth cover for Chigusa was tailored in Japan using Chinese silk from the 15th century. The cord for securing the mouth cover is from 1868–1912. The silk net bag is Japanese from the 16th century.
    Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art
  • Hide caption
    Record of viewing Chigusa, transcribed from a tea diary entry dated 1587.
    Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art
  • Hide caption
    A cast iron and bronze kettle for boiling water for tea, formerly owned by Insetsu, the first known owner of Chigusa. It dates back to the late 15th or early 16th century.
    Courtesy of The Tokugawa Art Museum, Nagoya
  • Hide caption
    Ciphers of past owners on the base of Chigusa.
    Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art
  • Hide caption
    This is a set of three nesting storage boxes for Chigusa. The outer storage box is the most recent, from the late 19th to early 20th century. The middle box, formerly the outer box, is from the 17th century, and is made of cedar stained with persimmon tannin. The inner storage box, from the same time period, is made of lacquered paulownia wood.
    Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art
  • Hide caption
    A tray for Chigusa's inner storage box, with ornamental cords and storage envelopes.
    Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art

1 of 7

View slideshow i

Eight hundred years ago, tea was rare in Japan. It arrived from China in simple, ceramic storage jars. Chinese ceramists churned these jars out with little care or attention; they stuffed tea leaves into them and shipped them off.

The jars were "the Chinese version of Tupperware," says Andrew Watsky, a professor of Japanese art history at Princeton.

But once the workaday storage jugs reached Japan, they became objects of aesthetic contemplation and, often, reverence. One of those jars — a big brown jug called Chigusa — is currently on display at Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., which specializes in Asian art and culture.

Today, the jugs provide fascinating windows into an ancient culture. In the 16th century, a tea ritual arose around them. In homes, separate areas were created for tea drinking.

These documents are associated with Chigusa, the tea leaf storage jar. Japanese men who participated in tea rituals often went home and wrote about it in their diaries — describing the date, the place, time of day, who was there and objects used.

These documents are associated with Chigusa, the tea leaf storage jar. Japanese men who participated in tea rituals often went home and wrote about it in their diaries — describing the date, the place, time of day, who was there and objects used. Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Freer Gallery of Art

"They had specially designed tea rooms," Watsky explains. "Usually very, very small, self-enclosed spaces."

No windows, a few tatami mats, and just enough space to hold the host and two or three guests. You sat there, sipped tea and focused on the few objects in the little room: the jug — wrapped by then in intricately tied pale blue silk cords, the mouth of the jar covered in Chinese brocade — plus a few bowls, whisks, other implements. The hot, whisked green tea tasted like spring and grassy lawns.

The process of drinking tea is also fundamentally a process in learning "how to look," Watsky says.

And who was involved in this careful 16th century inspection and contemplation? Not the hoi polloi; they were drinking roasted barley brews. Tea was a drink for the Japanese elite, like rich merchants and warriors who ruled the country. It was for powerful men who went beyond money and weapons, to become enlightened individuals. (Women wouldn't get involved with tea ceremonies until the late 19th century.)

"To be politically powerful at this time also meant that you had to show that you had some sort of cultural sophistication as well," Watsky says.

This Japanese jar with a design of mynah birds was made by Nonomura Ninsei in the 1670s. It is made of stoneware with colored and silver enamels over white glaze. i i

This Japanese jar with a design of mynah birds was made by Nonomura Ninsei in the 1670s. It is made of stoneware with colored and silver enamels over white glaze. Courtesy Asia Society and Museum, New York hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Asia Society and Museum, New York
This Japanese jar with a design of mynah birds was made by Nonomura Ninsei in the 1670s. It is made of stoneware with colored and silver enamels over white glaze.

This Japanese jar with a design of mynah birds was made by Nonomura Ninsei in the 1670s. It is made of stoneware with colored and silver enamels over white glaze.

Courtesy Asia Society and Museum, New York

And so you sipped and examined, and appreciated the glaze of the jug those Chinese had just slapped onto their clay — how it moved across the surface, and created the occasional blob or blip. And you schmoozed about the beauty of it all. Tea, then, was far more than a drink.

"Tea becomes a place where these people of different social strata could get together and talk," Watsky says. They could "be together not to talk about war, not to talk about business, but to engage in their shared interest in this aesthetic pursuit."

And then some of them went home and wrote about it in their diaries — the date, the place, time of day, who was there, objects used, all described in great detail.

Toward the end of the 17th century Japan got tea pots, and little leaf-stuffed balls that were dunked in hot water. Tea-drinking became more widespread, and then along came teabags.

Today, the ancient rituals are still taught and observed by some. But today's Japanese are crazy for coffee, and a cult of coffee preparation has developed that's at least as complicated as the 16th century tea ceremonies.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.