The Art of Japanese Tea Drinking

Chanoyu is rooted in Zen Buddhism ideals, actualized in Japan by Chinese in the thirteenth century. After the imperial court and shogun treated chanoyu with little aesthetic and major entertainment value, Sen no Rikyu re-informed the concept totally. He affirmed the national identity of Japan by removing religious Chinese components. Naturalism was to be the encompassing theme reflected in the aesthetics, utensils, and environment. This was broken down into notions of respect, purity, tranquility, and harmony. Also, beauty was to be sought through personal involvement. With this, he organized the procedure of having tea to the point that it resembled ritual using rules called sarei.

The tea drinking experience should be different from the everyday mundane world experience that precedes and follows it.


Inside Hassoan Tea House by Kobori Enshu, Edo Period. Source:

Art engagements operate on certain kinds of knowledge. For the product of an artist to cause any effect, it requires some depth of understanding from the participant. It requires a previous understanding of cultural aesthetics, opposed to European instantaneous appreciations of commonly pleasing images set by Western conventions of beauty. Other Japanese art forms are classed within the artistic field due to their connection with aesthetic sensibilities and ideals in nature. These sensibilities, aware, wabi, sabi, shibui, and suki, can be found in every aspect of chanoyu. They make up its artificial existence and are imperative to the execution of the ceremony.

Aware sets the tone for Heian poetry and painting. It majorly informed the sensibility of yugen, mystery, found in Japanese performance. Seami valued the infusion of aesthetic notions and ‘Noh theatre’ with yugen, “had the mark of supreme artistic achievement.” It is vital for a beholder to understand representations to fully benefit from an experience of an art form. In chanoyu, this is taken a step further. Knowing the associations with aesthetic sensibilities is mandatory in actually undergoing the way of tea.

Noh Theatre, Chikanobu Toyohara, 1838–1912, Scroll. Image source:

Wabi is the aesthetic sensibility of tranquil simplicity. Making and drinking tea itself is an extremely simple action. You boil the water and pour it, dissolve the tea and drink it. Wabi is also found in the physical elements of chanoyu, such as the construction of the tea room. The notion of the balance between beauty and shabbiness is evident in the use of natural colours and forms. Folkcraft materials describe refinement and elegant simplicity.

The Interior of Has Soseki House from 1628 has walls of clay and straw. By using these materials the attributed artist Kobori Enshu omitted decoration, contrivance, and showiness. Even today the clay walls are not painted. A simple environment is produced.

The chawan tea bowls from the Momoyama period engender the crystallization of simplicity comprising of slab pottery or slab ware with a black glaze. The folk craft materials still manage to channel the austere and the dark beauty wabi is also concerned with.

Example chawan black glazed tea bowl. Image source:

The Patina of Age is expressed with the sabi sensibility. It beholds a beauty that treasures the passage of time, valuing loneliness and desolation, as well as the aged and worn. The bizen ware and chawan tea bowls clearly exhibit sabi being handmade and showing the wear and tear of everyday use. These bowls come to be fukesabiru, aged and worn, and certainly lack in colour having often a black, brown, red or white glaze. These qualities are seen as beautiful, the aesthetic value enhanced by time. One lonely single blossom is set in the Hassoseki House. Made of bamboo, the blossom manifests the sabi sensibility by exhibiting the features of karabiru, dried out, and kareru, withered. The vase is made of bamboo, the blossom is the flowers in it

The sabi sensibility also features complementary elements. The temperature of the environment indoors is cool, hieru, when warm outdoors, or vice versa. The green foliage in the gardens excludes flowers as they are preferred inside the tea house. When the natural world is blooming, the blossoms inside are subject to karabiru and dried out. Much of this looks to the notion of the changing of seasons underpinning the sabi sensibility. Yosai authored Kissa yojoki, ‘Drink Tea and Prolong Life’ in 1211, explaining the tea can be used for curative purposes. The bitterness of matcha green tea is a mild stimulant, and an addendum to zen meditation, the ultimate compliment in Japanese art.

Gardens at Konchi-In Temple, Kyoto. Image source:

The shibui sensibility is best asserted in the discernable sounds during the tea ceremony. Elements of the austere, subdued, quiet and restrained are evident within this aspect. As performed in silence, jaku, tranquility, is evident. There are only three sounds to be heard. “The first is the clink of the lid on the Kettle. The second is the tap of the Tea-bowl on the mat. And the third is the clink of the Tea-spoon on the Tea-bowl.” If these sounds were colours, they would be monochromatic. It brings a greater aesthetic depth to the action. Also in the astringent flavors of the tea. Finding beauty within this simple facet allows the shibiu sensibility to make impact. Wa, harmony, underlies the concept of yen-yang, Heaven, and Earth. This is directly referenced with the fukusa, the cloth for wiping utensils, and the daisu, the shelf. Both items have a heaven side and an earthside. It is the total exclusion of showiness, gaudiness or vulgarity, and definite articulation of austerity.

The suki sensibility of subtle elegance is presented in two ways; architecture and action. Within the Hassoseki House, there lies chigaidana, a-symmetrical shelves. These shelves seem unusual within the geometrical setting. They provide an eccentricity, a vital component of suki, and touch on the notion of imbalance. In the entrance to E-an Teahouse, there is a clear grid structure in the foundations of the building. This regularity is contrasted with an asymmetrical structure holding the edifice up. Subtle and refined elegance is exemplified in the act of drinking tea. It possesses an artless quality in ‘carrying things out in a relaxed, easy manner.’ The naturalness comes from the participants being at ease with what they are doing. This can only come from performing an action of second nature. Chanoyu is a rule-bound practice, sarei. By following a set of highly refined conventions and performing them with total mastery, one can bring Japanese sensibility of suki into play.


Tea bowls are light to touch, handmade, and now are considered within the field of sculpture. The Kan-kobai or ‘Winter Blossoming Red Plum’ tea bowl is made of earthenware with a red glaze. Bizen ware elicits a simple artistic aesthetic in colour contrasts, as the red is to complement the green tea. The Tamamushi tea bowl, ‘Golden Beetle,’ is from the Edo period and has a black glaze. It is thinner at the base and opens out to be wider at the top. The Kogan water jar, ‘Ancient Shore,’ is valued for its cracks and imperfections in the glazing. Also prized is the naïve rustic decoration.

Nezumi is a grey-toned Shino ware vessel and Iga ware has large cracks with a rough texture. Kosetsu made the Fujisan tea bowl in the Momoyama period. It is considered the most exquisite raku ware of all time. It has a reddish body, covered in a white glaze, and has the effect of a two-colour landscape as the bottom half was charcoaled in the kiln, “a felicitous result unforeseen by the potter.” It suggests falling snow, the greatness of Mount Fuji and monumentality.

Being handmade in Japan, wamono, the tea bowls commonly appear unrefined and clumsy but are simple and unassuming. These pots have been easily accepted as art objects since the late twentieth century. The utensils possess a functional role, as most Japanese art forms do. In chanoyu, the tea is made in the bowl. It becomes a primary and vital aspect for the operation of chanoyu, the vehicle for drinking tea.

Utilizing art objects cannot alone constitute chanoyu as an art form itself. The act of engagement occupies many steps in sado. The utensils are admired after drinking the tea and there is discussion around the values associated with their elementary features. An emakimono picture scroll may hang within a tokonoma, alcove, or something floral occupies the space. The guests contemplate the objects as artworks, just as they are presented.

The iconographical value in these objects is clear, and the conversations focused on qualities of taste. Emakimono describe stories visually and are used as part of a contemplative journey. The flowers bring much symbolism into play, contrasting the blooming stage of foliage outdoors. They blossom, are dried, or are made of different materials. This looks to Japanese notions surrounding changes in season. There is a contrast between a single flower inside and the greenery outside.


The chashitsu tea room is considered an escape, like a zen garden. In the active urban life, it offers a small place of peace and tranquility. The arrangement of walls, windows, pillars, and floors have been compared to a “Mondrian-like purity.” But, the materials are very close to nature using the likes of clay, straw, wood, and bamboo for construction. An artlessness is evoked, yet there strikes a balance between humble mediums and a crisp aesthetic visual of line and texture. It is in this light the chashitsu can be viewed as a sculpture turned inside out.

Hassoan Tea House, Kobori Enshu, Edo Period. Image sourced from and adapted.

The chashitsu is only of any value when entered from the outside world. Without the appropriate preparation, “it is like the finale passage of a sonata played alone.” The guests walk through a carefully contrived garden, washing themselves of impurities at a water reception. They then follow the path to the small entrance where they must step up and into a new world of simplicity and tranquility. Christine Guth records this as a “refused access to the outside world by requiring visitors to discard their swords and climb through a tiny doorway,” essentially shedding their status. It is at this point everything the guests are immersed in should be logically different, following Rikyu’s ideals. Strong contrasts can be seen between the outdoors and the indoors, but remain complimentary as to enhance the effects of the experience.

It is of value to compare the contemporary Japanese art forms to evaluate chanoyu’s artistic status. In the Kano school, monochromatic ink paintings and Tohaku’s ‘Pine Trees’ screens, Rikyu’s interpretation of the tea ceremony is pictorially expressed. The mere fact his ideals translate pictorially strongly suggests the tea ceremony, as a whole, is an alternative format for translation of these ideals. This is applied on the same basis as the relationship between painting and sculpture, both considered equal art types with the ability to express similar ideals. More convincing is the ideology of nature as the essence of chanoyu coincides with the purpose of art, to render nature. The relationship is strengthened in knowing chanoyu is an extremely contrived, artificial phenomenon in every way, even in the human involvement. This same logic can be applied to the no theatre, and the zen gardens.

‘Women Preparing Tea Around the Fire-Holder,’ Katsushika Hokusai, 1816. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The combination of these observations is what why chanoyu is not only an art form but also one of the “last great expressions of traditional Japan” having great intrinsic significance. It expresses almost everything Japanese within an artistic format, one ceremony, and consciousness of cultural aesthetic sensibilities from both the artist and the participant. The Way of Tea is a Japanese art.

“Like the dance, the tea ceremony was a series of actions involving the use of works of art… it became a rigid cult of taste, as ritualistically and artificially dedicated to mystic splendor.”


Seoroku, Noma. The Arts of Japan, vol 2, Medieval to Modern. Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International, 1966, 2003 edn.

Lee, Sherman E. A History of Far Eastern Art, 4th ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988.

Fischer, Felice. The Arts of Hon’Ami Kōetsu, Japanese Renaissance Master. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009.

Stanley-Baker, Joan. Japanese Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988.

Paine, Robert Treat, and Soper, Alexander. The Art and Architecture of Japan. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 3rd edn.

Guth, Christine. Art of Edo Japan. (alt., Japanese Art of the Edo Period). London: Calman and King, 1996.

Seoroku Noma. The Arts of Japan, vol 1 Ancient and Medieval. Tokyo, New York, London: Kodansha International, 1966, 2003 edn.

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