Under the shade of pink cherry blossoms in a Japanese garden hundreds of years ago, the hosts of tea gatherings poured steaming water from iron kettles into tea bowls containing powdered green tea, creating a frothy drink with an elegant flavor. The cherry blossoms may be absent in wintry New Haven, but the Yale University Art Gallery plans to recreate the Japanese tea experience with its new exhibition.
“Tea Culture of Japan: Chanoyu Past and Present,” opening today at the gallery, is an exhibition of 116 tea objects that explores the significance of Japanese tea culture and how it evolved from the ninth century to the present. The objects on display include ceramic tea bowls, iron tea kettles, bamboo tea scoops and sake cups as well as Zen-inspired calligraphic scrolls, all from the private collection of Peggy and Richard Danziger.
The Danzigers approached the University three years ago and proposed to loan the objects so that they could be used for research and teaching purposes, according to show’s curator. A series of courses on Japanese culture with emphasis on the role of tea have been offered in the History of Art Department since fall of 2005. The exhibition at the Art Gallery is the culmination of research efforts initiated by the Danziger loan.
The organization of the exhibition traces the progression of tea culture throughout history: The first section shows tea drinking practices among Japanese warriors prior to the sixteenth century rise of the wabi aesthetic — a simple, austere yet elegant practice influenced by Zen thought. The second section is devoted to wabi, while a third section explores tea culture in the twenty-first century and its international character.
Sadako Ohki, the associate curator of Japanese Art at the gallery and the curator of the exhibition, said the Japanese had imported matcha — a fermented green tea made by grinding fresh tea leaves into a fine powder — from China. Japan slowly developed an independent culture called chanoyu, which literally means “hot water for tea,” that flourished long after China forgot about this tea, he added.
“The Japanese were inspired by the Chinese, but they then elevated tea culture and developed an etiquette and interest around tea which the Chinese never really had,” Ohki said.
She explained that matcha is prepared differently than picked tea leaves: Boiling water is poured directly over the powdered green tea and then stirred with bamboo whisks to create a drink that is thicker and foamier than picked tea.
Though Zen Buddhist monks often drank tea to keep them awake during their meditations, Ohki said tea culture did not have religious roots. In fact, she cautioned against the use of the words “tea ceremony” because of its religious connotation.
Today, the wabi aesthetic has worldwide appeal. Takeshi Watanabe GRD ’05, who did his doctorate in Japanese literature and art history, said this appeal comes from the allure of simple things.
“Wabi represents an impoverished beauty, which we can relate to because we don’t like flashiness anymore,” Watanabe said.
He added that the Japanese tea culture has opened up to the influence of globalization, exemplified by the newest trend for commissioning Japanese tea bowls and kettles from Tiffany & Co. and Wedgwood, two design companies that sell similar items.
While matcha is still not widely available for sale in the United States, Whole Foods does offer a sweetened and flavored variety of matcha. Adding flavor to tea is not a Japanese practice, he said.
Cathy Wei, the owner of JoJo’s Coffee & Tea on Chapel Street, where they import tea directly from farmers in China and Japan, emphasized the rising interest in green tea in America.
“Asians have been drinking green tea for hundreds of years because it is cleansing and good for your body,” Wei said. “Americans have finally started to recognize it as a healthier alternative to coffee with a subtle yet distinct aroma.”
The exhibition will offer a tea demonstration by Sen So-oku, the 15th-generation heir to the Mushanokoji Senke tea lineage, who will prepare and serve matcha to viewers at the gallery on April 18.
The exhibition will be on display until April 26.