TOKYO Teshigoto

Green Tea and Traditional Crafts Savoring the True Beauty of Tokyo


The COVID-19 pandemic has dragged on in Tokyo, showing no signs of ending in the near future and leaving many of us feeling gloomy and pessimistic from day to day. During the state of emergency periods declared by the government and self-enforced restrictions on daily activities, it’s important for us to remain mentally and emotionally stable while ensuring that our lives still feel meaningful and fulfilling.

Over the long course of history, humankind has faced natural disasters, wars, plagues and other difficult situations, but people have still made an effort to keep on living their lives through such trying times. This pursuit of stable, meaningful living amid adversity has led to an accumulation of human wisdom and experience and the emergence of new techniques and culture, and through subsequent generations these have been further refined and developed—at times being simplified, resulting in beauty through defined form—so that the cultural traditions continue to spread and prosper. These varied types of beauty, rooted in tradition and found amidst the mundane of the daily routine, enrich our day to day. By feeling and experiencing this beauty that many of us have forgotten about completely, perhaps we can foster a better future for ourselves, no matter the challenges of our current times.

Harmony in Daily Life

The tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy and other such traditions are well-known facets of Japanese culture. The Japanese tea ceremony in particular involves the pursuit of greater beauty in all aspects daily life, as it has ties to the three essentials of food, clothing and shelter. Implements and vessels used in the Japanese tea ceremony—works of traditional craft and art that are referred to as “tools” for the ceremony—are inseparable elements of the overall tradition. Moreover, the tea ceremony serves as center stage for these handicraft traditions because it brings out the true elegance and appeal of the crafted pieces like nothing else.

The kind reception and hospitality of the host, their behavior and way of thinking, and the works of traditional craft used as tools for the ceremony can all serve as means to enrich our daily lives. That, in fact, is the role of the host in regard to the guests of the tea gathering. TOKYO Teshigoto participated in a tea ceremony in search of beauty within the traditional crafts and traditions of the Enshu-ryu school of Japanese tea ceremony, which has deep roots going all the way back to the Edo Period (1603–1868).

Enshu-ryu’s Roots in the Edo Period

Today, the head household of the Enshu-ryu school of Japanese tea ceremony is located in Tokyo’s Kagurazaka neighborhood. The progenitor of this samurai-household tea ceremony school, Kobori Enshu, was a feudal domain lord from the Azuchi-Momoyama Period up through the early Edo Period (late 16th to early 17th century). Enshu pursued the principles of wabi-sabi—an aesthetic centering on the transience and imperfection of life and our world—disseminated by the great tea master Sen no Rikyu who sought to eliminate all extraneous elements in the tea ceremony, as well as the novel aesthetics known as heugemono from Furuta Oribe and his followers. At the same time, Enshu worked to transform the tea ceremony into something that could be more widely enjoyed by making it more elegant, bright and enriched, fostering an elegant beauty through harmony known as kirei-sabi.

Sosho Kobori, a member of the school’s head family line, was kind enough to host our ceremony. We felt privileged to experience firsthand the elegance of her work, which is guided by an aesthetic sense cultivated through experience from a very young age with the school’s traditions of beauty.

Preparation of the Tools

Starting from the initial planning stages of our tea gathering, our host Miss Kobori was already thinking about everything, right down to the tiniest details, to ensure the best possible experience. These included the underlying theme of the gathering, seasonal considerations, participating members, the tea ceremony space, and how she would welcome us. With these things in mind, she began the process of selecting implements and decorative items for the gathering, which in Japanese is known as odogu-date (lit. “preparation of tools”).

Items to be used included teacups, the tea caddy, the tea scoop, a pot, a portable stove and its accompanying folding screen, the water pitcher, a hanging scroll, the various tableware implements, decorative folded paper, confection skewers, wrapping cloths for ceremony utensils, and of course the kimono that she would wear as host. She also needed to prepare the room itself, rearranging the decorative alcove, tatami mats and other elements to match the mood of the season. The list of handmade preparations to be taken goes on and on, and Kobori’s mastery of these traditions and skills are nothing short of true artistry. The tea ceremony host is called upon to use their own aesthetic sensibilities to select each of these, which truly puts to the test their experience and skills.

Sen no Rikyu wrote a particularly famous waka poem about the handling of tea ceremony implements, which is included in his Rikyu Hyakushu (“One Hundred Poems by Rikyu”) compilation written for purposes of teaching tea ceremony practices. One line of this poem states, “All actions for moving weighty things should be light and nimble, and all light things should be moved with a weighted feel,” which means that heavy items such as the water pitcher or metal pot should be moved with a composed, nimble grace that masks their weight rather than being hefted up forcefully, and that small and light implements such as the tea scoop should be treated with reverence and dignity rather than waved and flipped about casually.

Another line of poetry in the compilation states, “Even in the simple things, one should dedicate the greatest possible care, including the selection of tools to keep on hand.” In short, this means taking great care in the selection of one’s tools as well as their handling. The phrase “God is in the details” is often used in reference to the beauty of traditional crafts and the many small, intricate techniques they entail. Dedicated care and attention are perhaps the most important factors when attempting to achieve something beautiful.

Kagurazaka, Tokyo: A Quiet Place Away from the Bustle of the City

The Day of the Tea Ceremony

It hadn’t rained that morning as we had feared it would, and at times we even found ourselves bathed in bright sunlight. The head household of Enshu-ryu is located in the quiet Kagurazaka neighborhood. Although the house appears imposing at first glance, its entrance gate has a warm and welcoming feel, and the path leading from it to the front door had been splashed with water in advance to create a cooling effect from the cobblestone. We had already stepped into the world of the tea ceremony.

Combining the Traditional and the Modern

After proceeding down a small side path carpeted in moss, we arrived at a waiting area with modern-style seat cushions. Inside the spacious entrance area, a tender fragrance wafted up from incense burning atop a tin plate, filling the space with a cleansed and welcoming air. Brushes in the shapes of birds—plovers, to be precise—with contemporary-style color designs, placed off to one side and used for dusting the space, complemented the overall look and feel of the room.

Macaron-shaped seat cushions(I.S.U. house Kamiyanagi

CHIDORI brush (Uno Hake Brush Manufacturing Co., Ltd.)

Upon entering the building, we spotted a tin flower holder designed to resemble bamboo, placed inside of a katomado bell-shaped alcove directly in front of us. The bamboo appeared to grow straight upward, and this simple ornamentation fit in so naturally with the room that one might think it had always been a part of it. As guests at the tea ceremony, we were asked to make preparations before starting by turning off our smartphones and also removing any watches, jewelry and so forth to prevent damage to the tea ware and ornamentations. Taking a deep breath, we awaited the ceremony’s commencement.

Flower holder(Suzuko

Kimekomi Tray(Kakinuma Ningyo)

The chairs and tables were modern in appearance, but what immediately caught our eye was the wall hanging with its gold-powder accents: its gentle yet rich black washi traditional paper combined with an elegantly shimmering line of gold dust perfectly expressed the kirei-sabi aesthetic which is so central to Enshu-ryu. The silver flower vase in the center of the room brought the overall appearance of the modern-design room together nicely. We first cleansed our mouths with a simple beverage known as kosen. As host, Kobori explained, “Today’s kosen was made by pouring hot water over salt-cured apple flowers. You can eat the apple flowers as well.”

Wall hanging(Yushima-Art Limited Company

Small Hokusai-themed paper cup(Takahashi Kobo, Inc.

Flower vase(Mori Ginki Seisakusyo Co., Ltd.

Opening One’s Heart to Sensations

At last it was time to enter the tearoom, and before stepping inside we bowed once in front of the sliding partition. The proceedings began with viewing of the tools and crafted works that our host had prepared for this event. A hanging scroll in the room’s decorative alcove featured hand calligraphy by a member of the family, displaying the phrase senri dofu (“the world being in a state of widespread peace”). Also within the alcove, a seasonal flower was on display, as was a diffuser made from Japanese wisteria placed atop a lacquered tray on a stepped shelf. This modern-feeling arrangement made for an interesting overall look.

Rattan Diffuser(Kiuchi Touzai Kogyo)

The phrase senri dofu, examined in greater detail, means that the same wind blows no matter how far away you travel, so that peace in this place must by extension mean peace throughout the wider world. Kobori explained that they chose this phrase in the hope that we would convey the atmosphere and feel of this tea ceremony wide and far to as many people as possible, much like the blowing wind of peace. The novel influences of crafts and traditions spread far and wide, speaking to the hearts of those who are open to their beauty—I pondered to myself whether senri dofu could be interpreted in that way. Whatever it may mean, the importance lies in contemplating the thoroughgoing consideration and care of the host.
It was October, so a pot was placed atop a furo (brazier). In winter, the tearoom’s ro (sunken hearth) is opened and the pot placed inside, above the flames. Next to the simple iron pot, an artist’s tea caddy with lacquer inlays was placed atop a tiered tray, and below that a grass-pattern water pitcher made of silver that reminds one of autumn flowers. This arrangement exuded a modest, graceful beauty that didn’t overextend itself.

All of this trouble was taken for purposes of making a simple cup of tea, which expresses well the Japanese beauty aesthetic and customs of kind consideration and care. Through our time here, we were able to experience these invaluable things for ourselves. All of the customs and crafts we encountered trace their roots to typical daily habits and traditions, but the people who make use of them have elevated them to an artistic level of aesthetic beauty. Our experience reminded us of the great appeal and deep culture behind such customs.

The following are various handicrafts we encountered during the tea ceremony.

Hanging scroll( Takahashi Kobo

Small tin plates(Suzuko

Round tray(Atelier Tan

“Natsume” tea caddy(Mori Ginki Seisakusyo Co., Ltd.

Utensil wrapping cloths(Tomita Sen-kogei Co., Ltd.

Decorative cord for holding obi sash in place( Domyo