Who wrote the Book of Tea?

A quick introduction for those who were wondering why we sell Okakura Kakuzo's book of tea in our online shop.

Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existance.

I had discovered a cult I could get behind. I had discovered it on page one of a rant published in 1906 for the edification of a small group of artists and academics by the new Curator of Oriental Art of Boston Museum.

It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.

The writer was Okakura Kakuzo, recently arrived from Japan by way of India, China and Europe.

Japan was changing; the Meiji Reformation was well underway. This was the grand opening of the country to the world, an end to 250 years of self-imposed seclusion during which any foreigner setting foot in Japan and anyone leaving Japan without permission was put to death. The time of shoguns and samurai was at an end, replaced by industrialisation and militarism as the country rushed to catch up with the rest of the world.

In the late Nineteenth Century Kakuzo was at ground zero of this clash between traditional Japanese values and the increasingly powerful influence of the West. A cultural figure and man about town, vocal, respected and controversial, he founded the Japan Art Institute and became the first Dean of the Tokyo Fine Art College. He defended traditional Japanese art against the imported oil painting techniques, but more important to him still was the defence of Japanese culture and Asian culture in general as something superior to that of the West. As he writes at the beginning of an earlier work, The Ideals of the East with Special Reference to the Art of Japan:

The Himalayas divide, only to accentuate, two mighty civilisations, the Chinese with its communism of Confucius, and the Indian with its individualism of the Vedas. But not even the snowy barriers can interrupt for one moment that broad expanse of love for the Ultimate and Universal, which is the common thought-inheritance of every Asiatic race, enabling them to produce all the great religions of the world, and distinguishing them from those maritime peoples of the Mediterranean and the Baltic, who love to dwell on the Particular, and to search out the means, not the end, of life.

He wrote other works in English in a similar vein - see also The Awakening of Japan - but they are equally pompous and rather drier.

With The Book of Tea , however, he struck a chord. It turned out that tea, a substance respected equally by Japan and England, is both the perfect metaphor for Eastern philosophy and a relatable way in which to tell an impatient Western audience of its strengths. Just read the chapter listing: The Cup of Humanity; The Schools of Tea; Taoism and Zenism; The Tea-room; Art Appreciation; Flowers; Tea-masters. There is no clear division between tea and tao, tea masters and philosophers.

Nowhere is this more clear than right at the end of the book, where the Last Tea of Rikiu is described. He is condemned to death by his own hand, and conducts a final tea ceremony with his nearest and dearest. Tea is at the heart of the story which at the same time is eerily similar to the suicide of Socrates.

All I'd really known about Taoism before was through my reading around Genghis Khan and an inspired little book called The Tao of Pooh. And before I'd read The Book of Tea I hadn't really paused to consider the role of tea in our lives beyond musing how spot-on the stereotype of the tea-obsessed Englishman is.

Tea is important, a moment of beauty and even perfection in the middle of an imperfect day. As such, we should be taking it more seriously, and Okakura Kakuzo shows us how. I would recommend this book to anyone.