No. 57  Enjoying Tea like a Sukisha (Tea Master)

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 Many Japanese think themselves too awkward for the tea ceremony: “I don’t know the etiquette,” they say, or “I can’t sit on my knees.” Simply enjoying the experience without preconceptions is most important, however. Foreign visitors to Japan are often eager to give it a try.
This time, we visit three art museums that evoke the atmosphere of the tea ceremony. Each was founded by a prominent industrialist renowned as a modern “sukisha” (tea master). “Sukisha” refers to prominent figures in financial and political circles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who loved the tea ceremony and passionately collected tea utensils.
“Motenashi” (hospitality)—the tea ceremony’s guiding spirit—still lives and breathes at each museum. Visiting one will acquaint you with the art of tea. And it might make the tea ceremony feel closer and more accessible.

Preparing tea

A Strike Breaks Out! Then later at the Tea Ceremony . . .

“Roji” tea garden and “tsukubai” stone washbasin (Hatakeyama Memorial Museum of Fine art)

Hatakeyama Memorial Museum of Fine Art displays pre-modern Eastern Asian art with a focus on tea utensils collected by Hatakeyama Issei (1881-1971; tea name: Sokuo) the founder of Ebara Corporation. Visitors to the museum—the only one in Tokyo where you can experience the tea ceremony anytime—can sit on tatami and drink maccha tea while admiring a hanging scroll and vase of flowers. The tea room, located in a corner of the gallery, has a “roji” tea garden and “tsukubai” stone washbasin (*1) before it.
Visible through the windows—a garden rich in seasonal color, like a scene on a hanging scroll. Some people like the garden so much, they “make a special visit to see it under snow.”

Fifteen years after Sokuo founded Ebara Corporation, a strike broke out. As the strike went on, he attended a tea ceremony held by the founder of Mitsui Bussan trading company, Masuda Takashi (1848-1938; tea name: Don’o), a man 30 years his senior. When they parted afterwards, Don’o gave him a word of advice, “Handle the strike the way you handle a tea ceremony.” In those days, “tea” was a means by which financial men shared their thoughts and fostered friendships, much as golf is today.
For Sokuo, likely, there was nothing more revitalizing to collect and admire hanging scrolls, flowers, tea bowls, and tea kettles.

Hatakeyama Issei  

The Maestro of Year’s-end Tea and “Motenashi”

Special gallery displaying tea utensils

Nezu Kaichiro Sr.

Nezu Art Museum was established by the so-called “Railway King,” Nezu Kaichiro Sr. (1860-1940; tea name: Seizan), the founder of Tobu Railway Co., Ltd. The museum, in Minami Aoyama, stands on the site of the Nezu family residence. Seizan, who loved ancient art since his youth, became a passionate collector whose daring, bold approach was almost legendary. Many of his collected pieces, such as Ogata Korin’s folding screen, “Irises,” were later designated as national treasures.
Over 50 when taking up “tea,” Seizan acquired the nickname, “Maestro of Year’s-end Tea.” This owed to his holding more than 10 Seibo (year’s-end) tea ceremonies at his residence to thank associates for their labor and express his hopes for the new year. Just before his death in January 1940, Seizan held a year-end Seibo tea ceremony with the assistance of friends.
In the broad museum garden with its pond are four tea rooms displaying vestiges of Seizan’s warm “motenashi.” Facing on the verdant garden is the “NEZUCAFÉ” for enjoying maccha tea with seasonal namagashi (fresh Japanese sweets).
The museum has a special gallery displaying tea utensils. Above its entry hangs a wood panel with the words “Seizan So” (“Seizan Manor”). Apart from the museum’s 7 annual special and thematic exhibitions, visitors can enjoy seasonal displays of tea utensils here. The exhibits are arranged according to the procedural flow of the tea ceremony (*2)—“machiai” (waiting room) tobacco trays, “kakejiku” (hanging scrolls), and a “chashitsu” (tea room). An attractive feature is the tea room exhibit on raised tatami mats, allowing the standing visitor to view the utensils at the proper, seated height.
Explanations are provided in English throughout the museum.

Using a Cheat Sheet to Prepare Tea

The Gotoh Museum seen from the courtyard. Photo by Shigeo Ogawa

Gotoh Keita holding the “Gray Shino Tea Bowl, called ‘Mine no Momiji’”

“When preparing tea, I kept a memo in my kimono to peak at whenever I forgot the procedure.” Such was an anecdote told by Gotoh Keita (1882-1959; tea name, Kokyoro), the founder of the Tokyu Group, about his use of an “anchoko” (cheat sheet). Kokyoro built the Gotoh Museum on the site of his residence but unfortunately passed away shortly before it opened to the public in 1960.
The Gotoh Museum—renowned for the National Treasure, “Illustrated Handscroll of ‘The Tale of Genji’”—hosts a special exhibition on the tea ceremony each year from December to February. “When viewing ceramic vessels, it’s more fun if you pick out their characteristics and imagine them filled with traditional ‘kaiseki’ cuisine,” Yuko Isazawa, the curator, told us.
The museum garden, occupying some 20,000 square meters along the slope of the Kokubunji cliff line, features two tea rooms, a stone pagoda, Buddhist statues, and views of Mt. Fuji on clear winter days. A garden stroll makes for a pleasant pause in art viewing. The tea room “Fujimi-tei” was modeled by Kokyoro after Don’o’s tea room, but Kokyoro’s legs were feeble at the time, so he conceived it as a tea room with chairs.
Kokyoro sets a splendid example for us today: if not knowing the tea etiquette, then investigate or ask someone. If unable to sit on our knees, then sit comfortably on a chair.
Even experienced tea enthusiasts get tense about tea etiquette, they say. But then, the tea ceremony is a special time for enjoying tea. Your pleasure is what will make your hosts happiest. The secret of tea is “ichigo-ichie”—spending a precious moment with friends as if it were a once-in-a-lifetime occasion.


(*1) A basin for purifying one’s hands before entering the tea room.
(*2) A full-course tea ceremony of charcoal temae・kaiseki cuisine→koicha (thick tea)→usucha (thin tea) lasts about four hours.

Updated: January 29, 2018

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