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Cha no Yu - A Sense of Beauty

Japanese tea room


cha no kemuri yanagi to tomo ni soyogu nari

the tea smoke

and the willow

together trembling

I often think back to the tea ceremony I was so fortunate to be invited to at Gyokurinin, a small sub-temple in the larger Daitokuji complex in the northern mountains of Kyoto. Once a month people go to Gyokurinin to celebrate the founder of tea, Sen no Rikyu.

When it comes to the world of Tea, I am an absolute beginner, but it is wonderful to reflect on the beauty of the occasions I am so grateful to have been a small part of. I can’t pretend to write a blog about The Way of Tea, or Cha no Yu, with any authority. What I’m going to do is delve into three sources, because I have noticed that there is a wonderful theme emerging: the beauty of light and shadow.

The Book of Tea

I’m going to simply paraphrase and directly quote from The Book of Tea (1906) by Kakuzo Okakuro, because this was the single work that was recommended by my second source, the Japan House online lecture Windows on Tea by Urasenke Tea Master Kimura Sōkei. Kimura Sōkei speaks very eloquently about the thoughtful creation of light and shadow in the chashitsu, or tea room, and this directly echoes the enchanting phrasing of Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki, in his evocative essay, In Praise of Shadows (1933).

While I write up their quotes, I will be thinking of sitting in wonderful tea ceremony classes above a tea house in Kyoto, and how grateful I am to the generosity of Yukki and Mai and her sensei. I'll be remembering how Mai walked with me through the streets of Kyoto and showed me the entrance to the villa of Sen no Rikyu, and how exploring tea ware with Mai in shops and antique stores was a wonderful education too!

Treasure every encounter for it will never recur.


Let’s begin with the words of Kakuzo Okakura from The Book of Tea:

‘As early as the year 729 we read of the Emperor Shomu giving tea to one hundred monks at his palace in Nara. The leaves were probably imported by our ambassadors to the Tang Court and prepared in the way then in fashion. In 801 the monk Saicho brought back some seeds and planted them in Yeisan.

Many tea-gardens are heard of in the succeeding centuries, as well as the delight of the aristocracy and priesthood in the beverage. The Sung tea reached us in 1911 with the return of Yeisanji, who went there to study the southern Zen school. The new seeds which he carried home were successfully planted in three places, one of which, the Uji district near Kioto, bears still the name of producing the best tea in the world.

By the fifteenth century, under the patronage of the Shogun, Ashikaga-Yoshimasa, the tea-ceremony is fully constituted and made into an independent and secular performance. Since then, Teaism is fully established in Japan. The use of the steeped tea of the later China is comparatively recent among us, being only known since the middle of the seventeenth century. It has replaced the powdered tea in ordinary consumption, though the latter still continues to hold its place as the tea of teas.

Tea with us became more than an idealisation of the form of drinking; it is a religion of the art of life. The beverage grew to be an excuse for the worship of purity and refinement, a sacred function at which the host and guest joined to produce for that occasion the utmost beatitude of the mundane. The tea-room was an oasis in the dreary waste of existence where weary travellers could meet to drink from the common spring of art-appreciation. The ceremony was an improvised drama whose plot was woven about the tea, the flowers, the paintings. Not a colour to disturb the tone of the room, not a sound to mar the rhythm of things, not a gesture to intrude on the harmony, not a word to break the unity of the surroundings, all movements to be performed simply and naturally – such were the aims of the tea-ceremony. And strangely enough it was often successful. A subtle philosophy lay behind it all. Teaism was Taoism in disguise.’

ukiyoe of a tea house and cherry blossom

Tea and Zen

Kakuzo Okakura from The Book of Tea:

'All our great tea-masters were students of Zen and attempted to introduce the spirit of Zennism into the actualities of life. Thus the room, like the other equipments of the tea-ceremony, reflects many of the Zen doctrines.

The size of the orthodox tea-room, which is four mats and a half, or ten feet square, is determined by a passage in the Sutra of Vikramadytia. In that interesting work, Vikramadytia welcomes the Saint Majushiri and 84 thousand disciples of Buddha in a room of this size, - an allegory based on the theory of the non-existence of space to the truly enlightened.

Again the roji, the garden path which leads from the machiai [a portico in which the guests wait until they receive the summons to enter the tea-room] to the tea-room, signified the first stage of meditation, - the passage into self-illumination.

The roji was intended to break connection with the outside world, and to produce a fresh sensation conducive to the full enjoyment of aestheticism in the tea-room itself. One who has trodden this garden path cannot fail to remember how his spirit, as he walked in the twilight of evergreens over the regular irregularities of the stepping stones, beneath which lay dried pine needles, and passed beside the moss-covered granite lanterns, became uplifted above ordinary thoughts.

Great was the ingenuity displayed by the tea-masters. Some, like Rikiu, aimed at utter loneliness, and claimed the secret of making a roji as contained in the ancient ditty:

‘I look beyond;

Flowers are not,

Nor tinted leaves.

On the sea beach

A solitary cottage stands

In the waning light

Of an autumn eve.'

Taian tea house

Sen no Rikyu

In the Japan House online lecture Windows on Tea by Urasenke Tea Master Kimura Sōkei, we discover Taian, the oldest tea house in Japan verified to have been created by tea master Sen no Rikyu. Taian is a tea house with only two tatami mats (about 1.8 metres square). Within this space is the whole philosophy of Sen no Rikyu’s philosophy of tea.

Of particular interest to me is each window that has been cut into the wall, with lines of bamboo attached to the outside, and how these holes have been pasted over on the inside with translucent shoji paper.

Rikyu’s ‘window’ is not meant to look out from the tea room. The emphasis is on bringing the subtlety of light and shadow into the chashitsu, and appreciating it.

In a similarly mindful way, the walls of the chashitsu are plastered with soil in muted colours, as they create a contrast with the soft light from the shoji screens. The walls appear to absorb the reflection of light. These effects of light and shadow are carefully considered. This refined sense of beauty is to be shared with the guests. The host’s presence is also in harmony with the soft light and shadows that filter through these thoughtfully designed windows and reflect on the softly muted walls.

Tea ceremony ukiyoe

Japanese Tea Ceremony: the hostess greets her guests.

Kimura Sōkei says:

‘While the guests were waiting outside, the host left some of the utensils on display. They are going to be used when the host makes matcha for the guests. A matcha caddy and a water jar are presented there. In pale light, they look as though they belong there. Their presence is not at all dominant.

The guests appreciate the sound and steam of boiling water from the kama [kettle], the shadow of the window structures on the tatami mats, and soothing tranquility.

The door made of Japanese paper quietly slides open. This is an entrance that only the host can use. It is similar to the moment when the strings of a violin are drawn, and the first sound is made. The host brings a bowl and approaches the kama.

gate to sen no rikyu estate kyoto

No one knows exactly when, by whom, and how it was decided, but all the utensils are essential, and each of them is laid out in the most functional position by the host. The host pulls out a piece of purple cloth from the waist. Purple was considered a noble colour in ancient days. Then he gently stretches and loosens the cloth several times. Each time the cloth is moved, it gives the illusion that the light coming from the top of the chashitsu is absorbed into the cloth.

Next, the host picks up one of the objects in front of him to wrap and rub with the cloth. He repeats the motion one by one with the other items. Each utensil shines as the host touches it, as if it gained life.

It is said that, the movement of an excellent host should be natural and inconspicuous. Before the guests know it, koicha, thick tea, is made and presented to them. Guests receive the world created by their host, including the utensils, movement, space, and time with gratitude. It is a world based on the host’s sense of beauty, and the guests enjoy his offering.

tea ceremony ukiyoe

Tea Ceremony: Making Usucha

This is when cha no yu reaches a climax. After this, the intense atmosphere relaxes, and the host and guests together enjoy conversation in a very informal mood. This is when guests enjoy usucha, frothy matcha. This type of tea is more commonly known.

During this session, as a symbol of relaxation, the host brings out tobacco. In the past, people actually smoked in a chashitsu, but these days it has become a formality.

Using the analogy of a musician, the main performance has finished successfully, and he responds to the audience request for an encore with a relaxed feeling. The guests enjoy a bowl of usucha over relaxed conversation. This is the moment the guests reflect on the momentary world of beauty that the host created over thick tea (koicha), while the guests listened to the sound of boiling water from the kama, the shadow created by the light through the window, moves on the tatami mats. The impression of the chashitsu changes as the light changes.’

In Praise of Shadows book

In Praise of Shadows

I have read about this interesting appreciation of light and shadow before, in the essay by Junichiro Tanizaki called In Praise of Shadows. Tanizaki writes:

‘In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house. There are of course roofs on Western houses too, but they are less to keep off the wind and the dew; even from without it is apparent that they are built to create as few shadows as possible and to expose the interior to as much light as possible.

If the roof of a Japanese house is a parasol, the roof of a Western house is no more than a cap, with as small a visor as possible so as to allow the sunlight to penetrate directly beneath the eaves. The fact that we did not use glass, concrete, and bricks, for instance, made a low roof necessary to keep off the driving wind and rain.

A light room would no doubt have been more convenient for us, too, than a dark room. The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.

And so it has come that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows – heavy shadows against light shadows – it has nothing else.

Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving in them no more than ashen walls bereft of ornament. Their reaction is understandable, but it betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows.’

tokonoma and scroll

Tanizaki goes on to describe the Japanese room and the purpose of the scroll we see hanging in the tokonoma, just as we see it in the room where we have been invited to tea ceremony:

‘Of course the Japanese room does have its picture alcove, and in it a hanging scroll and a flower arrangement. But the scroll and the flowers serve not as ornament but rather to give depth to the shadows. We value a scroll above all for the way it blends with the walls of the alcove, and thus we consider the mounting quite as important as the calligraphy or the painting.’

And how can I paraphrase the words of Tanizaki when he writes so beautifully?

‘A Japanese room might be likened to an inkwash painting, the paper-panelled shoji being the expanse where the ink is the thinnest, and the alcove where it is darkest. Whenever I see the alcove of a tastefully built Japanese room, I marvel at our comprehension of the secrets of shadows, our sensitive use of shadow and light. An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into it forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.’

‘This was the genius of our ancestors, that by cutting off the light from this empty space they imparted to the world of shadows that formed there a quality of mystery and depth superior to that of any wall painting or ornament. We can imagine with little difficulty what extraordinary pains were taken with each invisible detail – the placement of the window in the shelving recess, the depth of the crossbeam, the height of the threshold. But for me the most exquisite touch is the pale white glow of the shoji in the study bay; I need only pause before it and I forget the passage of time.’

These words of Tanizaki very much echo the words of Urasenke Tea Master Kimura Sōkei in his online lecture with Japan House. So much of the capturing of beauty is about the interplay between shadow and light, or the capturing of a moment in sound such as the breezes in the leaves beyond the tea-room, or the bubbling of the water in the kettle. (I remember these sounds so clearly – they bring me back to the warmth of the brazier and the tatami and the warmth of the lovely people at a tea class on a cold January afternoon, and the sound of summer breezes rustling in the leaves at Gyokurinin.)

Do you have lovely memories of tea ceremony? Let us know, we would love to learn more 😊

We hope you have enjoyed our reading and learning about Cha no Yu, the Way of Tea.

If you've enjoyed this article, why not take a look at Tea and Hina Matsuri with Mai!

Thank you for reading and see you next time!

Cathy and Yukki


tea ceremony sweets

Tea ceremony sweets

tea ceremony room

Cathy is very happy to be at Urasenke tea class in Kyoto!

Please Note!

Urasenke Tea Master Kimura Sōkei is being invited back to Japan House London to do a second online talk highlighting the lesser known aspects of Tea Ceremony on March 30th March 2022, and the video will be available on their YouTube channel afterwards! You can book here! See you there :)

Sources and Further Reading

Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea, (Penguin Classics).

Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, (Vintage).

Tea Box Exhibition for the Future Catalogue.

Ido Masao, Shunjitsu,

Toshikata Mizuno, Japanese Tea Ceremony: Hostess Greeting her Guests, 1897, (

Toshikata Mizuno, Japanese Tea Ceremony: Making Usucha, 1897, (

Tokuriki Tomikichiro, Gate of Urasenke Tea Ceremony School -the Kabutomon gate to the historical Urasenke Konnichian estate in Kyoto (

株式会社清昌堂やました is the wonderful tea-ware shop that we went to off Teranouchi Dori, opposite urasenkekonnichian!


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