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5. 4. 2022

Japanese Beauty: Tea Ceremony with Sooku Sen

Interview with the 15th heir to the headmaster of Mushakouji-senke Tea Ceremony, Sooku Sen.

– All senses of beauty lead to GS-

The Japanese beauty appreciated throughout the world


“What is Japanese beauty?” we asked Sooku Sen.

Interview with the 15th heir to the headmaster of Mushakouji-senke, Sooku Sen.

In chano-yu (tea ceremony), you will find abundant sources of “beauty, that has been long appreciated by the Japanese,” in many of its qualities such as the arrangement, utensils, manners, and spirituality.

We wonder how this beauty was nurtured, embraced and passed on to the present by the Japanese. Mr. Sooku Sen, the 15th heir to the headmaster of Mushakouji-senke, speaks about the very source of the Japanese sense of beauty.

The simple and modern sense of Japanese beauty, transformed by Sen no Rikyu, the pioneer of modernism.



Japanese beauty has many ways to be perceived. One of them is the beauty in chano-yu (tea ceremony), still thriving today after 400 years, when it was established by Sen no Rikyu, the founder of Mushakouji-senke, of which I am the 15th heir to the headmaster. You could say that it forms part of the foundation of the Japanese sense of beauty, which has been passed down to the present.


In the Muromachi era (1336 – 1573), the tea ceremony was a hub for people to communicate with one another while having tea, but there was another important message to be delivered. In fact, it had become an arena to marvel at the utensils used in tea ceremonies. In those days, owning a priceless masterpiece, or so-called collection pieces such as tea bowls and caddies, were a prerequisite for a tea master. Moreover, it was essential that the utensils boasted a significant history of having previously been owned by the family of Shogun Ashikaga or the emperor of the Song dynasty in China, not to mention a strong feature that could match that lineage.


On the other hand, Rikyu believed that “in chano-yu, the main focus is for people to interact with each other. Therefore, one should not be too focused on the utensils, as that was not how it was meant to be.” Therefore, he worked to create utensils for tea ceremonies by deconstructing the chano-yu that was so focused on its utensils.


One of them is the Raku tea bowl by Chojiro the first, of the renowned Raku family, which Rikyu had him make by assigning detailed directions. It looks organic like a block of soil and has a serene shape that sits modestly in your palm. He created a form with which he thought represented his idea of absolute beauty, while serving to highlight the space it sits in, without it being too hung up as an individual piece. Even with other utensils such as pots and water pitchers, he chose not to use the masterpieces recognized before his time but preferred the ones he had craftspeople make for him with their high technical skills at the time. That was a complete mind renaissance for chano-yu itself.


I feel that the utensils created by Rikyu, in this manner, are extremely simple and modern as we look at it now. One day, I would like to display a Raku tea bowl by a sculpture of Giacometti as to embrace the aesthetics of Contemporary Art. I feel that you may be able to witness something they have in common. In this way, Rikyu was a pioneer modernist who revolutionized the Japanese idea of beauty. Although Marcel Duchamp is recognized as the father of Contemporary Art and as the person who flipped the value of art around, Rikyu was already doing the same thing 300 years ago.


Through exhilarating emptiness, we can feel the emotion of the creator and the passage of time


In Western Art, before modern times, there were mainly things that were redundantly explained, where the viewer was simply overwhelmed.  Therein, we can probably see the strong influence of the religious background, with Christianity as a monotheist religion. On the other hand, Japan has a culture that respects blank spaces and the lingering sense of time. In other words, beauty does not live only in the things that are visible. Even a blank space is not just plain white, but the artist’s thought and the reflection of the long path of ups and downs he/she has taken.


Also, in the blank space, there is the virtue of enjoying the passing of time that continues to flow. In Japan, we do not only appreciate what is perfectly made, but we also admire and approve of things as they are, including the changes with the passing of time.


For example, bamboo is one of the most symbolic materials that represent the beauty of chano-yu. Bamboo is a plant that gives out an impressively lush green crispness, full of life and grows straight up, but in the tea ceremony room, we use not only green bamboo, but also white bamboo, soot colored bamboo, black bamboo, and even withered bamboo.  For formal occasions such as New Year’s Day, we use the freshly cut green bamboo. On the other hand, in the seasons when we put away the portable stove that had been used to boil water for the ceremony since early summer in October, or when we open the winter hearth in November, we bring in the dry bamboo, which Rikyu had cut himself 400 years ago, to lay out on the tokono-ma alcove and decorate flowers within it. The contrast between the fresh flower and the dried bamboo is considered a form of beauty.


It is not about romanticizing the past or an act of reminiscing, but an expression of the spirit, to positively accept the reality moment by moment. I believe this sensation to be extremely Japanese. It can also be interpreted as a certain flexibility, a sensitiveness and richness in its sensibility.


The source of Japanese beauty is the beauty in nature, which is gentle and inviting.


If I were to be asked the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Japanese beauty, I would say “nature” as my answer.  It is because I feel that the ways of the Japanese sentiment and the ideal state of Japanese beauty all lead back to nature’s beauty.


In places such as Europe, nature is sometimes considered more as a threat which could be seen as a conflict that may work against you. However, in Japan, where the land is limited, and the mountains and the sea press right up close to where people live, so there is less distance between people and nature. Of course, there are times when we may be struck by severe disasters, but overall, the temperate climate and humidity provide for its rich bounty. In other words, nature in Japan is gentle.


Therefore, the Japanese people worship and appease nature as a god rather than antagonizing it and chose to live the way of mutual coexistence. I feel that it has nurtured a Japanese way of thinking, to positively accept the reality of nature that is constantly changing, as it is. And I believe that the source of Japanese beauty is in how everyone visualizes the beauty of nature and its presence, as well as the human activity that has been built so close to nature, and shared it through cultures such as paintings, sculpture and chano-yu.


For example, there is the waterfall of Nachi in Wakayama Prefecture. When you see the bold and beautiful splendor of the waterfall cascading from the mountain above, you will be in awe without any explanation, and feel the urge to pray by putting your palms together. The national treasure Nachi-no-taki-zu (a drawing of the Nachi waterfall) in Nezu Museum is wonderful in how it sincerely reproduces the landscape as an object of worship in the Kamakura era. Although it is merely depicting how the waterfall of Nachi cascades off the mountain, with the golden moon looming high, it gives out an unbelievable intensity as if an unsheathed sword is raised straight up. I personally cannot help but feel the presence of God there.


As Japanese beauty is gentle like nature itself, it has the capacity, with a sense of compassion for others, hence leaving a blank space without explaining everything on its own. In other words, not just by being complete as an object, there is some space for the receiving end to be part of it. With watches, try to think about how the person wears it on certain occasions or how it goes with a certain outfit or how it’s going to be coordinated and how it is going to be used. It is considered complete with all those aspects in mind. But in the end, it is the user who paints the eye of the dragon as the finishing touch.


Sooku Sen

In 2003 he accepted the role as 15th headmaster of Mushakouji-senke and succeeded the name “Sooku” as heir to the headmaster. He finished his Master’s degree at Keio University, Graduate Studies Program (in the History of Medieval Japanese Paintings). From 2008 to 2009 he gained the experience of working out of New York as a Japan Cultural Envoy. Since 2008, he was part of the International Cultural Exchange Project for Jishoji Temple (Ginkakuji or The Silver Pavilion) in Kyoto. He is active inside and outside of Japan to deepen his investigation and practice on chano-yu culture. In 2013, he received the Kyoto Prefectural Cultural Award Encouragement Award. He is the author of the books including “Tea – Seeking the Missing Link to Rikyu” (Shinchosha) and “What if Rikyu invited you for tea?  Learning the paradox of hospitality from Chanoyu” (Kadokawa Shoten) . Not only in tea ceremony utensils, he also well studied in Antique and Contemporary Art. He acts as part time lecturer at Meiji Gakuin University (Japanese Art History).



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