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Sen no Rikyu, The Great Master of Japanese Tea Ceremony

Posted by Angelina Kurganska on

Though you wipe your hands and brush off the dust and dirt from the vessels, what is the use of all this fuss if the heart is still impure? 

— Sen no Rikyu


Sen no Rikyu (1522 – 1591) is known by everyone to have the most profound influence on chanoyu, the Japanese "Way of Tea". Also known as matcha tea ceremony. He lived during the Sengoku (Warring States) period and the Azuchi–Momoyama periods of Japan.


sen no rikyu


While many mistakenly see Sen No Rikyu as the father of tea, he was not the originator of tea ceremony in Japan. Tea ceremony was already practiced for at least a few hundred years prior. However, Sen no Rikyu is undeniably the originator of his own tea ceremony style, referred to as wabi cha, which is still practiced to this day.


There are three "head houses" of cha no yu directly descended from Sen no Rikyu: the Omotesenke, Urasenke, and Mushakojisenke. All three schools exist today and diligently pass on the original teaching of their family founder, Sen no Rikyu.


From early on Sen no Rikyu underwent zen training at Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto and studied under one of the most influential tea masters at the time — Takeno Jo. 


Rikyu was the first to emphasize certain vital aspects of the ceremony, like rustic simplicity, a straightforward approach, and honesty of self. He took his Zen teachings with him to restructure the world of tea which existed in Japan. 

ceremonial matcha

A Brief History Of Japan At The Time

The Sengoku period (1467 to 1615) saw Japan in constant war and uprising. While the Azuchi–Momoyama period (being part of the Sengoku period) oversaw Japanese society and transitioning from the Middle Ages to the early modern period. The art of the tea ceremony greatly flourished at this time. The country's most powerful shoguns spent time and money enjoying private ceremonies and collecting tea tools and bowls. 


Of course, Sen no Rikyu was no ordinary tea master. During the Sengoku period, tea wasn't something to be enjoyed by the commonfolk. Only high-ranking officials and Buddhist priests had the honor of enjoying the wonderful leaf soup. 


Sen No Rikyu, a tea master of significant clout, became the private tea master of Oda Nobunaga, the Oda Clan leader and one of the Sengoku period's leading figures. Following Oda's death, he became the tea master of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the great samurai and one of the most powerful men in Japan's history. Thanks to Rikyu's close relationship with Hideyoshi, he became the most influential figure in the world of chanoyu. 


Rikyu took to tiny grass-hut tea houses for his tea practices and kept promoting the wabi-sabi style of tea ceremony that he and his tea master started. 


Sen no Rikyu and the Japanese Tea Ceremony 

Prior to Sen no Rikyu, Japanese tea ceremony halls were vast and lavish. Important figures would come to show their status and strength.


With Rikyu's changed, tea houses became a mere 2 meters wide. Even high-ranking officials were supposed to enter in simple garments and leaving their swords at the entrance. They humbled themselves to the tea hut and matcha placed forth.  


You can see one of Sen no Rikyu's iconic tea huts at Myoki-an temple in Yamazaki, Kyoto. This tea room has been designated as a National Treasure. 


japanese tea house

Sen no Rikyu's Tea Hut at Myoki-an Temple in Yamazaki, Kyoto.


The central idea of Rikyu's new style of tea ceremony was to let guests feel as comfortable as possible, avoiding the use of strict rules and over-elaboration.


Sen No Rikyu is known for implementing many things into the tea ceremony, cha no yu, that are still honored and used to this day. For example, flower containers, tea scoops, and bamboo lid rests. He was also a practitioner of Ikebana — Japanese flower arrangement. 


Another thing Rikyu is credited for is raku teaware, which he created in collaboration with a ceramic tile maker, Raku Chojiro. Hence, the name. From his legacy, we can clearly see that he enjoyed simple every-day objects and objects that spoke of Japan or were made by local craftsmen. Before that, expensive imported Chinese pottery was used for tea ceremonies. After Sen No Rikyu's ceremonies, this tradition quickly changed. 


matcha tea bowl

Sen no Rikyu Style, Raku Chawan


Sen No Rikyu popularized wabi-sabi culture throughout Japan, preferring rustic and simple objects over lavish ones. His persona style of tea ceremony came to be known as wabi-cha. Read more.


The life of Sen No Rikyu, although following the principles of Zen teachings and wabi-sabi, shows us how closely tea ceremony was intertwined with politics. Especially at a time when Japan was in a state of constant unrest. 


Sen No Rikyu held his last tea ceremony on April 21st, 1591, and committed seppuku (ritual suicide) right after the ceremony, following Toyotomi Hideyoshi's order. He gave all the tea tools to his guests. Then, he smashed the chawan used for the tea ceremony. 


While Japan was in a state of uproar, with warring states, lavish gatherings, and greed, Sen no Rikyu could bring the attention back to simplicity and humbleness. 


Sen No Rikyu and Tea Media


        1. Rikyu (1989) — a film by Hiroshi Teshigahara. 
        2. Death of a Tea Master (also known as Sen no Rikyu: Honkakubo's Student Writings, 1989) — a film by Kei Kumai.
        3. Hyouge Mono — a manga and anime written and illustrated by Yoshihiro Yamada.
        4. Flower and Sword (2017) — a film by Tetsuo Shinohara.
        5. Rediscovering Rikyu and the Beginnings of the Japanese Tea Ceremony (2013) — a book by Herbert Plutschow


To see a full version of our list of tea literature and films, click here