Rikiyu's Morning Glory

By Diana Rosen

During the sixteenth century Japan's prosperity was at an all time high, a result of spectacular foreign trade. It made both seamen and traders wealthy and, in turn, elevated the local merchants, particularly in Sakai, to positions of both great wealth and great power, with influence in politics and custom of the day.

As in most cultures that achieve a high measure of wealth, the Japanese suddenly found themselves with the luxury of time to devote to art, music, and other cultural experiences. Among these experiences was the beginning of the tea ceremony, Sado or Chado.

Perhaps no single person was as instrumental in elevating the tea ceremony to an art form than Sen-no-Rikyu (1522-1591). One ceremony, a simple almost austere ceremony called wabi cha is still practiced today, usually in small rooms, just a few meters in size. It is kept simple and plain, with nothing to distract from the dedication to tea, a quality the Japanese of this era considered a "luxury" as a balance to the gold and silk richness of their homes.

Perhaps no more striking example of this sense of the "luxury of austerity" is the story of Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi's visit to the teahouse of Rikyu. Hideyoshi was astonished at the glorious color and sheer magnificence of the field of purple morning glories nearby. He remarked upon them, and brashly asked if Rikyu would provide a tea ceremony for him. Considering his importance and position, Rikyu could hardly refuse, and the two set a time for tea the next day.

The shogun arrived at exactly the appointed time and was aghast to find the field of glories completely razed. Shaken, he continued up the quiet stone walkway to Rikyu's tea room, poured water over his hands from the beautifully made ladle and bucket, and, bending his body downwards, entered through the lower portion of the two part doorway.

When he was inside the small, intimate tea room, warmed from the steam hissing from the kettle over the brazier, he saw Rikyu kneeling in front of the brazier, an exquisite tray on the mat to his side, holding his finest tea utensils and a small caddy of precious tea.

Looking at the alcove, the shogun immediately understood why the field had been razed. There, in a serenely plain vase was a single, perfect purple morning glory, the like of which the shogun had never seen.

If you make tea for an unexpected guest, your heart should be simple and everything restrained. Sen-no-Rikyu (1522-1591).