The Book of Tea – Kakuzo Okakura

From the second series of Penguin Books little black classics this charming book was first published in 1906 and seems to have been in print for most of the time since with a succession of publishers bringing out editions over the years all over the world, this edition was published in 2016. Kakuzo Okakura was born in Yokohama in 1862 and lived his whole life in Japan although travelled extensively promoting Japanese arts and working to preserve traditional techniques at home. Unusually for a Japanese writer of the time he mainly wrote in English and this, his most famous work outside of Japan, is no exception thus helping to spread his insights into Japanese life and arts to a wider audience. This short (109 pages) book is ostensibly about tea but it is in reality so much more.

The opening chapter pulls no punches in his description of the misunderstandings between East and West and his conclusion that both sides see themselves as the height of enlightenment and the other as little better than barbarians

The beginning of the twentieth century would have been spared the spectacle of sanguinary warfare if Russia had condescended to know Japan better. What dire consequences to humanity lie in the contemptuous ignoring of Eastern problems? European imperialism, which does not disdain to raise the absurd cry of the Yellow Peril, fails to realise that Asia may also awaken to the cruel sense of the White Disaster.

Japan was unknown to the West until the sixteenth century and was therefore influenced by its neighbours, specifically China, where it got tea from originally, and its own cultural norms surrounding Taoism and Zen. Early in the seventeenth century and for two and a half centuries after that during the Edo period Japan had cut itself off from the rest of the world and only regained a place amongst other countries when forced to open up by the United States navy in 1854. This enforced isolationist policy meant that Japan had developed very differently from the West especially in aesthetic traditions and the importance of tea and the ceremonial around drinking it is one of these art forms unique to Japan and which goes back millennia. Okakura refers to Teaism which he sees as developing from Taoism but wrapped in the sacred nature of the tea ceremony and more specifically the tea house where the ceremony takes place. The dimensions and layout of the tea house is vitally important as is the simplicity of its construction and decoration. The separate entrance for the guests and the tea master leading to a room where the only decoration is in the tokonoma, an alcove where items can be displayed, and the choice of decoration is normally minimalist to western eyes, maybe a single flowering branch or a finely produced scroll or hanging. The idea of a matching tea service as seen in the west is anathema to the Japanese ceremony where if the kettle is round the jug for the water will be angular, contrast is important.

Okakura also gives a history of the three ways tea has been prepared, two of which had fallen out of fashion by the time the west discovered tea so we only have the third method using the steeping of leaves as our means of producing tea. Initially back in the fourth of fifth centuries there was a sort of pressed cake of powdered tea

the method of drinking tea at this stage was primitive in the extreme. The leaves were steamed, crushed in a mortar, made into a cake, and boiled together with rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, spices, milk, and sometimes with onions! The custom obtains at the present day among the Tibetans and various Mongolian tribes, who make a curious syrup of these ingredients.

Later on we have Luwuh in the middle of the eighth century who first wrote down and formalised the making of tea and this is the second method using finely powdered tea which was whisked with a bamboo whisk and Okakura extracts from ‘The Chaking’ his three volume book on tea

In the fifth chapter Luwuh describes the method of making tea. He eliminates all ingredients except salt. He dwells also on the much discussed question of the choice of water and the degree of boiling it. According to him, the mountain spring is the best, the river water and the spring water come next in the order of excellence. There are three stages of boiling: the first boil is when the little bubbles like the eye of fishes swim on the surface; the second boil is when the bubbles are like crystal beads rolling in a fountain; the third boil is when the billows surge wildly in the kettle. The Cake-tea is roasted before the fire until it becomes soft like a baby’s arm and is shredded into powder between pieces of fine paper. Salt is put in the first boil, the tea in the second. At the third boil, a dipperful of cold water is poured into the kettle to settle the tea and revive the “youth of the water.” Then the beverage was poured into cups and drunk. O nectar!

There is also a chapter on flowers in Okakura’s little book which given the significance of the decoration in the tokonoma and also in the garden approach to the tea house is not surprising however he turns it into almost a diatribe against the cruelty of people to flowers by picking them and watching them die in their homes. The book finishes with a chapter on tea masters of which the greatest of all is Sen no Rikyū (Rikiu in the book) from the sixteenth century who refined the tea ceremony and the tea room to how it is seen now and at the very end we have his final ever tea ceremony at the end of which he commits ritual suicide on the orders of his lord and master.

I’ve no idea what I expected from this book but it is much, much more than I could have thought. There is great insight into the Japanese traditions and the development over centuries of a culture so different to our own, it’s definitely worth seeking out.

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