Okay, I admit, I’m cheating a bit, because I’m cross-posting these book reviews from my personal blog. I thought they might have wider appeal, because I certainly enjoyed them. In any case, the topic of Japanese tea ceremony came up quite concretely this past weekend, when I had to act as the commentator for a demonstration. You can read about that experience and see some pictures in my original post. Strangely, I had actually recently read two books on tea ceremony, one non-fiction and one historical fiction.
The first one was given to me by a teacher I worked with in Japan, but I didn’t pick it up again and read it all the way through until this January. The Book of Tea, by Kakuzo Okakura, was originally written in 1906. Interestingly, it was originally written in English while Okakura was living in Boston, specifically as an effort to help Westerners understand Japanese culture. This remains an interesting perspective for such a book today, but it was pretty much unheard of in that time. Okakura’s writing is excellent and clear, and while he doesn’t delve too incredibly deeply into the history and philosophy of tea, nor really describe all the aspects of the tea ceremony itself, he does provide an overview to whet the appetite. Instead, he spends most of his time trying to give his unfamiliar readers the beginnings of an understanding of the cultural aspects of tea ceremony, including the architecture of the tea house and the particular style of ikebana flower arranging used to decorate the tokonoma.
The second book I read I found incidentally in the bookstore the day before I went to see the first demonstration. The Teahouse Fire, by Ellis Avery, is a fictional story set at the turn of the Meiji Era in the city that would soon become known as Kyoto. The narrator, Aurelia, is a young girl at the beginning of the book, recently orphaned and sent to Japan with her missionary uncle as a servant. On their first night in Miyako (Kyoto), the mission house catches fire. Aurelia runs away, and eventually falls asleep in a small building in someone’s back yard. It turns out to be the tea house of one of Kyoto’s preeminent tea families, the Shins. Aurelia is found by the daughter of the house, who convinces her father to take Aurelia in as a maid. (Strangely, because no foreigners were technically allowed in Miyako at this point in history, and because Aurelia had pale skin, black hair, and dark eyes, everyone assumes that she is actually Japanese, but somewhat stupid, because she doesn’t speak properly.)
In this manner, Aurelia grows up with an inside view into the life of a tea family at a very precarious point in their history. The new emperor is determined to make Japan more modern, so he cuts nearly all funding for the traditional arts that had previously relied on imperial and noble patronage. From the author’s essay about the writing of the book, I now know that the other heroine of the book, Aurelia’s mistress, Yukako Shin, was a real historical figure, who did indeed rescue the art of tea from fading into obscurity by convincing the new emperor’s ministers to include tea ceremony lessons in girls’ newly mandated education. (And this is how I knew how to answer the audience question at the end about why tea used to only be practiced by men, but is now almost always practiced by women. There’s also a lot of incidental knowledge to be picked up about the different parts of the tea ceremony itself.) Besides the desire to follow Aurelia and Yukako’s story, I was fascinated to read something set in this part of Meiji society. So much of what I knew of previously was from the perspective of Westerners wishing to take advantage of the opening of Japan, or more related to military and political implications of the societal changes (ex: The Last Samurai, etc.) Having Aurelia narrate allows the reader to see events from the perspective of a person with an outsider’s understanding of what’s going on, but with an insider’s privileged point of view.
Obviously, I recommend both.
-posted by Dana