Kakuzo Okakura’s classic 1906 long essay about the east, west, tea and everything in between is less about tea itself and more about the history and philosophy of the east, west and cultural differences as explored through the lens of tea.
His essay links the role of tea, or teaism, in Japanese aesthetic life. It was written by Okakura in English to be read by a western audience. He learned english as a boy and was known throughout his life for writing and explanation Japanese culture to early 20th C westerners. You can feel the cultural tension in his writing.
“Those who cannot feel the littleness of grea things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others. The average Westerner, in his sleek complacency, will se in the tea-ceremony but another instance of the thousand and one oddities which constitute the quaintness and childishness of the East to him. He was wont to regard Japan as barbarous while she indulged in the gentle arts of peace: he calls her civilised since she began to commit wholesale slaughter on Manchurian battlefields.”
- Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea, p.10-11
Sometimes his writing is pretty tongue-in-cheek. This is a guy who was known for his eccentric habits. His prolific writing and visibility in the pop culture of the time gave him a high statue in Japan. This stature was marred by the fact that he had an affair with his patron’s wife.
His patron was a man nammed Ruichi Kuki and the woman was named Hatsu. She was a former geisha whom Kuki asked Okakura to accompany from the US back to Japan when she was sickly. When the affair became public, Okakura had to resign from his position as Principal of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. Just some background for you.
Back to tea. Okakura gives a nice historical account of the bringing of tea to Japan for cultivation (near Kyoto) as well as a good nod to Sen no Rikyū who almost 500 years before had brought the way of tea to Japan, and made it a cultural necessity. His poetic description of Rikyū’s final tea ceremony and death and breathtaking. It sent chills down my back.
Okakura speaks at length about the art of tea and the ideals of tea masters. How to appreciate tea. How they select good tea. How the cultivation of a good tea practice becomes really a microcosm to examine the art of living.
I loved reading Okakaura’s explanations of how we fail to appreciate what is in front of us. He talks about people who refuse to live in the present because of nostalgia. This and other societal habits he addresses make me smile in a way because it reminds me that people have been dealing with the same shit since the 1900s. How many Facebook memes do you see today that say something akin to, “Live in the now.” That’s what Okakura was saying. A hundred years ago.
This is why reading is so important. The cure for whatever you’re dealing with now is out there now, written by some philosopher, ages ago. We’ve been fighting the same age-old battles since the dawn of humanity. We only fool ourselves into thinking they’re new.
I would recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the history of tea, the art of tea or the history of Japan. It was entertaining and educating. The essay itself is broken up into several chapters. You could read them out of order and still take away the same message. They do relate to each other but don’t require chronological progression to be understood. Sometimes he goes on rants, albeit, very nicely-phrased ones.
Occasionally while reading I pretended I was scrolling through the Tumblr of a well-read 1900s philosophy student obsessed with tea. I think that’s the best way to describe it.