The renowned Japanese tea ceremony master, Sen no Rikyū (千利休, 1522 – 1591), also known simply as Rikyū, is celebrated by tea schools on several different days, including today. Rikyū is considered the historical figure with the most profound influence on chanoyu, the Japanese “Way of Tea”, particularly the tradition of wabi-cha. He was also the first to emphasize several key aspects of the ceremony, including rustic simplicity, directness of approach and honesty of self. Originating from the Sengoku period and the Azuchi–Momoyama period, these aspects of the tea ceremony persist.
There are three iemoto (sōke), or “head houses”, of the Japanese Way of Tea, that are directly descended from Rikyū: the Omotesenke, Urasenke, and Mushakōjisenke, all three of which are dedicated to passing forward the teachings of their mutual family founder, Rikyū.
Rikyū was born in Sakai, present-day Osaka prefecture. His father was a warehouse owner named Tanaka Yohei (田中与兵衛), who later in life also used the family name Sen, and his mother was Gesshin Myōchin (月岑妙珎). His childhood name was Yoshiro. As a young man, Rikyū studied tea under a townsman (chōnin) of Sakai named Kitamuki Dōchin (1504–62), and at the age of 19, through Dōchin’s introduction, he began to study tea under Takeno Jōō, who is also associated with the development of the wabi aesthetic in tea ceremony. He is believed to have received the Buddhist name Sōeki (宗易) from the Rinzai Zen priest Dairin Sōtō (1480–1568) of Nanshūji temple in Sakai.He married a woman known as Hōshin Myōju around when he was twenty-one. Rikyū also underwent Zen training at Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto. Not much is known about his middle years.
In 1579, at the age of 58, Rikyū became a tea master for Oda Nobunaga and, following Nobunaga’s death in 1582, he was a tea master for Toyotomi Hideyoshi. His relationship with Hideyoshi quickly deepened, and he entered Hideyoshi’s circle of confidants, effectively becoming the most influential figure in the world of chanoyu. In 1585, in order that he could help at a tea gathering that would be given by Hideyoshi for Emperor Ōgimachi and held at the Imperial Palace, the emperor bestowed upon him the Buddhist lay name and title “Rikyū Koji” (利休居士). Another major chanoyu event of Hideyoshi’s that Rikyū played a central role in was the Kitano Ōchanoyu, the grand tea gathering held by Hideyoshi at the Kitano Tenman-gū in 1587.
It was during his later years that Rikyū began to use very tiny, rustic tea rooms referred as sōan (lit., “grass hermitage”), such as the two-tatami mat tea room named Taian, which can be seen today at Myōkian temple in Yamazaki, a suburb of Kyoto, and which is credited to his design. This tea room has been designated as a National Treasure. He also developed many implements for tea ceremony, including flower containers, tea scoops, and lid rests made of bamboo, and also used everyday objects for tea ceremony, often in novel ways.
Classic raku teabowls were developed through his collaboration with a tile-maker named Raku Chōjirō. Rikyū had a preference for simple, rustic items made in Japan, rather than the expensive Chinese-made items that were fashionable at the time. Though not the inventor of the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in the very simple, Rikyū is among those most responsible for popularizing it, developing it, and incorporating it into tea ceremony. He created a new form of tea ceremony using very simple instruments and surroundings. This and his other beliefs and teachings came to be known as sōan-cha (the grass-thatched hermitage style of chanoyu), or more generally, wabi-cha. Typical sayings:
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?
Though many people drink tea,
if you do not know the Way of Tea,
tea will drink you up.
The Way of Tea is naught but this:
first you boil water,
then you make the tea and drink it.
The general philosophy of chanoyu that his descendants and followers carried on became known as the Senke-ryū (千家流, “school of the house of Sen”).Two of his primary disciples were Nanbō Sōkei (南坊宗啓; dates unknown), a somewhat legendary Zen priest, and Yamanoue Sōji (1544–90), a townsman of Sakai. Nanbō is credited as the original author of the Nanpō roku (南方録), a record of Rikyū’s teachings. Yamanoue’s chronicle, the Yamanoue Sōji ki (山上宗二記), gives commentary about Rikyū’s teachings and the state of chanoyu at the time of its writing.
Rikyū had a number of children, including a son known in history as Sen Dōan, and daughter known as Okame. This daughter became the wife of Rikyū’s second wife’s son by a previous marriage, known in history as Sen Shōan. Due to many complex circumstances, Sen Shōan, rather than Rikyū’s legitimate heir, Dōan, became the person counted as the 2nd generation in the Sen-family’s tradition of chanoyu (“san-Senke” school).
Although Rikyū had been one of Hideyoshi’s closest confidants, because of crucial differences of opinion and other reasons which remain uncertain, Hideyoshi ordered him to commit ritual suicide. While Hideyoshi’s reason may never be known for certain, it is known that Rikyū committed seppuku at his residence within Hideyoshi’s Jurakudai villa in Kyoto in 1591 on the 28th day of the 2nd month (of the traditional Japanese lunar calendar; or April 21 when calculated according to the modern Gregorian calendar), at the age of seventy.
According to Okakura Kakuzo in The Book of Tea, Rikyū’s last act was to hold an exquisite tea ceremony. After serving all his guests, he presented each piece of the tea equipment for their inspection, along with an exquisite kakemono, which Okakura described as “a wonderful writing by an ancient monk dealing with the evanescence of all things.” Rikyū presented each of his guests with a piece of the equipment as a souvenir, with the exception of the bowl, which he shattered, uttering “Never again shall this cup, polluted by the lips of misfortune, be used by a man.” As the guests departed, one remained to serve as witness to Rikyū’s death. Rikyū’s last words, which he wrote down as a death poem, were in verse, addressed to the dagger with which he took his own life:
Welcome to thee,
O sword of eternity!
And through Daruma alike
Thou hast cleft thy way.
When Hideyoshi was building his lavish residence at Fushimi the following year, he remarked that he wished its construction and decoration to be pleasing to Rikyū. He was known for his temper, and is said to have expressed regret at his treatment of Rikyū.
Rikyū’s grave is located at Jukōin temple in the Daitoku-ji compound in Kyoto; his posthumous Buddhist name is Fushin’an Rikyū Sōeki Koji.
Memorials for Rikyū are observed annually by many schools of Japanese tea ceremony. The Omotesenke school’s annual memorial takes place at the family’s headquarters each year on March 27, and the Urasenke school’s takes place at its own family’s headquarters each year on March 28. The three Sen families (Omotesenke, Urasenke, Mushakōjisenke) take turns holding a memorial service on the 28th of every month, at their mutual family temple, the subsidiary temple Jukōin at Daitoku-ji temple.
To celebrate Rikyū you could go several ways. One would be to use matcha in a recipe. It’s become a very trendy item in the West because it has antioxidant properties. This site’s not bad:
Another tack would be to make a traditional tea ceremony dish. The tea ceremony can be just about serving tea, or it can involve an elaborate (yet simple) meal. The essence of the meal is that it must delight the eye and palate.
Each guest is served a meal, called chakaiseki, served on a tray with fresh cedar chopsticks. The meal consists of three courses (or items). The dishes are served with cooked white rice in a ceramic bowl and miso soup which is served in covered lacquer bowls with raw fish, plain or pickled, or pickled vegetables in a ceramic dish.
The first course/dish is called hashiarai (rinsing the chopsticks): nimono (foods simmered in broth) in separate covered lacquer dishes and yakimono (grilled foods) are served in individual portions on ceramic plates. The palate is then cleared with kosuimono, a simple clear broth served in covered lacquer bowls.
The next course derives its name from the Shinto reverence of nature. It is called hassun which is also the name for the simple wooden tray that is used to serve this course. This course consists of uminomono and yamanomono (seafood and mountain food respectively) which signify the abundance of the sea and land. The position of server is considered a higher position and, to insure equality of all in the tea room, each acts as host if only momentarily.
Konomono (fragrant things) are served in small ceramic bowls, and browned rice is served in salted water in a lacquer pitcher, representing the last of the rice. Each guest cleans the utensils they have used with soft paper which they bring. An omogashi (principal sweet) is served to conclude the meal. The host then invites his guests to retire to the garden or waiting room while he prepares for tea.
I have given some basic Japanese recipes on this site in the past – miso soup, tofu, noodles, etc. If you search for “dashi” you will easily find them. As with Chinese cooking, it’s very difficult to replicate authentic Japanese cooking at home. Even the Japanese do not do it (except for some simple home-cooked items). Restaurant chefs have developed particular skills over decades, and there is no way to rival them. If you’re curious, go to Japan.