If you’ve heard of the Japanese tea ceremony, it’s likely because of one wildly badass devotee of tea: Sen no Rikyu. For a guy who was famous for tea, simplicity, and really living in the moment, he met a surprisingly violent end.
Let’s start with a big disclaimer: this article doesn’t even begin to touch on the finer points of the tea ceremony, the philosophy behind it, or the nuance of the tea. There is so much to learn, and from smarter, wiser people, so that’s left to you to explore. On with the show…
Sen no Rikyu (for our purposes we’ll just stick to Rikyu) was born in 1522 to a warehouse owner in what’s now the Osaka prefecture. When he was still young, he studied tea under a couple of different guys, got married to a nice lady known as Hoshin Myoju when he was 21, studied Zen Buddhism in Kyoto and then… we don’t really know. It’s probably fair to assume he was doing something.
War and Tea
It’s not until he’s almost 60 that we know what he’s up to again. He’d become the tea master for Oda Nobunaga, a daimyo (a feudal lord second only to the all powerful Shoguns) who came really freaking close to unifying Japan. He failed, though, and his death, whether it was murder or seppuku (ritual suicide) remains a mystery. Nobunaga is a legitimately fascinating character, but for heaven’s sake don’t Google him yet because we’ll probably cover him at some point.
So, our old friend Oda Nobunaga dies and his successor is overthrown by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who becomes the dominant daimyo of the time. He did what Nobunaga couldn’t and unified Japan, ending the epically named Warring States period (which lasted a long damn time: 1467-1603). He was not to be fucked with. Some highlights of his impressive, sometimes terrifying rule, include restricting weapons to samurais only, restoring and adding temples in Kyoto, and crucifying Christians. Oh, and retaining Rikyu.
Quick aside on the tea ceremony or Chanoyu in Japanese. It’s evolved greatly since its inception with some borrowing from a Chinese Buddhist monk’s book Cha Ching (Tea Classic in English) but the general idea is serving a powdered green tea, artfully prepared with choreographed movements all designed to enhance the guests’ enjoyment. Sweet foods, tailored to your guests and the season are served to cut the bitterness of the tea. The entire event is meant to make guests feel treasured and welcome.
During his time as tea master to Hideyoshi, Rikyu grew to be a trusted advisor and fully developed his spin on the tea ceremony. Before him, it had been a big fancy affair with fancy tea and fancy cups and fancy rooms full of fancy people. Well, he didn’t like that. Rikyu, strongly influenced by a former teacher, Takeno Jo-o, wanted to incorporate Wabi-sabi.
Quick aside on Wabi-sabi: in addition to being wildly fun to say, is the wildly beautiful Japanese concept of finding beauty in imperfect, transient things. “It is also two separate words, with related but different meanings. ‘Wabi’ is the kind of perfect beauty that is seemingly-paradoxically caused by just the right kind of imperfection, such as an asymmetry in a ceramic bowl which reflects the handmade craftsmanship, as opposed to another bowl which is perfect, but soul-less and machine-made. ‘Sabi’ is the kind of beauty that can come only with age, such as the patina on a very old bronze statue.”
Okay, so Rikyu is big on Wabi-sabi and with it, he created a new style called wabi-cha: Keep it simple and focus on making your guests comfortable. He designed much smaller rooms for the occasion, flooding them with natural light and a clear view of the garden beyond. According to the Kyoto Project, “One word to explain the spirit of the wabi-cha style is ‘ich-go-ich-e’ meaning ‘this occasion and this meeting may come only once in a lifetime, therefore it should be highly valued.’”
Death and Tea
Rikyu and the wabi-cha became widely celebrated and he grew to be considered the greatest of all the tea masters. Which makes his death that much more surprising. It’s still unclear exactly why Hideyoshi commanded Rikyu commit seppuku at 70, but, man, did Rikyu do it like a badass.
He invited people over for the last and best damn tea ceremony he’d ever performed. He gave each of his guests a piece of the equipment he used, but smashed the cup. He wrote a poem just before his death which he addressed to the dagger that would kill him:
Welcome to thee,
O sword of eternity!
And through Daruma alike
Thou hast cleft thy way.
Apparently, it took Hideyoshi about a year to simmer down: he seemed to express regret over Rikyu’s death as he admired a new building he’d commissioned based on Rikyu’s aesthetics.
But Rikyu is far from forgotten. His influence still pulses through Japanese culture and he’s honored every year by the three living branches of his family.
So, what does Tea Master Rikyu suggest you drink?
Tea. Specifically matcha, a type of powdery green tea used used in the tea ceremony.
Tea is technically named Camellia sinensis and grew along the Chinese-Indian border and for as long as humans have been looking for a pick-me-up, they’ve been chomping its leaves. Slowly, we realized steeping it in water was preferable.
It was originally brought to Japan from China by a buddhist monk in the 9th century but it’s really not until Eisai, a monk in the 12th century, began what might’ve been the first superfood craze; he spread the word about tea’s health benefits. Simultaneously, just outside Kyoto in Uji, farmers began growing what would become some of the best Japanese tea. Uji is perfectly and uniquely situated weather-wise (it literally never frosts there) to produce a really mild, fragrant, delicious green tea.
While matcha is powdered green tea, powdered green tea is not necessarily matcha. Japanese green tea destined to become matcha is partially grown under a canopy, which, due to reduced sunlight, forces the plant to make extra amounts of chlorophyll, making it vividly green. If the matcha isn’t in-your-face-green (it’ll seem more yellow-green), it means it’s either low quality, wasn’t shade grown, is old, or it might be harvested from the lowest parts of the stalk. Matcha is ground very slowly and very meticulously so as to avoid “burning” the green tea so that it retains its vibrancy. Matcha is also going to have a smoother, less astringent flavor.
Matcha is then broken down into two categories: culinary and ceremonial. If you’re channeling Rikyu, go ahead and spring for the ceremonial. As its name suggests, ceremonial is the highest grade: it’s made from the youngest leaves and deveined to create a smoothness in the drink form. Culinary is made from older leaves and is best used for cooking, smoothies, ice cream etc. and it will have a much sharper taste.
Mizuba Tea is a great option for getting excellent ceremonial-grade matcha directly from Japan. Their tea is grown in the Uji region which started producing tea in the 13th century, so it’s not insane to think perhaps Rikyu used some of its crop.
If you don’t have a place in town to attend a real live Japanese tea ceremony (absolutely go if you do. It’s something to witness), order yourself some ceremonial-grade matcha. Follow the easy steps Mizuba outlines, and toast to Rikyu. And all the incredible health benefits he’s causing you to enjoy.