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Eight hundred years ago, tea was rare in Japan. It arrived from China in simple, ceramic storage jars. Chinese ceramists churned these jars out with little care or attention; they stuffed tea leaves into them and shipped them off.
The jars were "the Chinese version of Tupperware," says Andrew Watsky, a professor of Japanese art history at Princeton.
But once the workaday storage jugs reached Japan, they became objects of aesthetic contemplation and, often, reverence. One of those jars — a big brown jug called Chigusa — is currently on display at Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., which specializes in Asian art and culture.
Today, the jugs provide fascinating windows into an ancient culture. In the 16th century, a tea ritual arose around them. In homes, separate areas were created for tea drinking.
"They had specially designed tea rooms," Watsky explains. "Usually very, very small, self-enclosed spaces."
No windows, a few tatami mats, and just enough space to hold the host and two or three guests. You sat there, sipped tea and focused on the few objects in the little room: the jug — wrapped by then in intricately tied pale blue silk cords, the mouth of the jar covered in Chinese brocade — plus a few bowls, whisks, other implements. The hot, whisked green tea tasted like spring and grassy lawns.
The process of drinking tea is also fundamentally a process in learning "how to look," Watsky says.
And who was involved in this careful 16th century inspection and contemplation? Not the hoi polloi; they were drinking roasted barley brews. Tea was a drink for the Japanese elite, like rich merchants and warriors who ruled the country. It was for powerful men who went beyond money and weapons, to become enlightened individuals. (Women wouldn't get involved with tea ceremonies until the late 19th century.)
"To be politically powerful at this time also meant that you had to show that you had some sort of cultural sophistication as well," Watsky says.
And so you sipped and examined, and appreciated the glaze of the jug those Chinese had just slapped onto their clay — how it moved across the surface, and created the occasional blob or blip. And you schmoozed about the beauty of it all. Tea, then, was far more than a drink.
"Tea becomes a place where these people of different social strata could get together and talk," Watsky says. They could "be together not to talk about war, not to talk about business, but to engage in their shared interest in this aesthetic pursuit."
And then some of them went home and wrote about it in their diaries — the date, the place, time of day, who was there, objects used, all described in great detail.
Toward the end of the 17th century Japan got tea pots, and little leaf-stuffed balls that were dunked in hot water. Tea-drinking became more widespread, and then along came teabags.
Today, the ancient rituals are still taught and observed by some. But today's Japanese are crazy for coffee, and a cult of coffee preparation has developed that's at least as complicated as the 16th century tea ceremonies.