Dec 31, 2022

CULTURELearn About Wabi and Sabi, and the Basics of Tea Ceremony

The unique atmosphere of Japanese tea ceremony is often referred to as the world of wabi-sabi. This ancient ritual represents a quiet and clear world, or a state of tranquility. How did this concept, which includes characteristics like asymmetry, roughness and simplicity, come to represent the unique aesthetic sensibility we know today?

Dec 31, 2022

What do “wabi” and “sabi” mean?

Originally, the word wabi can be derived from the verb wabu (meaning to feel discouraged, to feel distressed, to be depressed, etc.). Sabi is also derived from the verb sabu, which elicits an idea of sadness, or fading away. Thus, while wabi can include hardship or vexation, sabi is a state of waning vitality. 

Both of these express negative emotions. However, given the fact that hardship ultimately leads to growth and reflection, these powerful words have been regarded from many different angles. In the Japanese aesthetic and philosophical tradition, they have transmigrated to express beauty in the world of tea ceremony and literary arts such as haiku. Wabi -sabi is used to express a wide variety of Japanese aesthetic and cultural perception, as well as a sense of tranquility, simplicity and lightness in literary terms.

Wabi-Sabi’s influence on kaiseki cuisine

Kaiseki cuisine (cha kaiseki in the tea ceremony world) originally consisted of dishes served before tea at a formal tea function (chaji). The manners surrounding kaiseki are very detailed, but the main premise is that the host is expected to create a hospitable environment for their guests, in every way possible. 

In order for the host to express the key philosophy of the tea ceremony, dishes founded in wabi-sabi are prepared with three key themes in mind: using seasonal ingredients, allowing their natural flavor to shine, and endeavoring to provide the highest form of hospitality. 

Using these themes, the host serves rice, soup, three side dishes and pickles. However, in most modern restaurants today, diners can increase the number of dishes, change the order, or arrange them as they like.

How do wabi and sabi play into tea ceremony?

Among the aristocrats and samurai of the Muromachi era, tea ceremony was a way of appreciating works of art by collecting luxurious tea utensils from China. Towards the end of the Muromachi era, Juko Murata and Joo Takeno created a new type of tea ceremony using simple and quiet utensils, known as wabicha

Through some of his written works, Murata Juko insists that wabicha should be enjoyed precisely because of its lack of beauty. Gone were the extravagant bouquets of flowers in the center of the room – simple ikebana flower arrangements became commonplace. Teaware using rustic colors found in nature were also employed, but the biggest difference is that the teaware wasn’t perfectly sculpted and symmetrical like the Chinese imports. Instead, it was often rough and intentionally imperfect. 

Today’s tea ceremony is known as the Rikyu style, which is based on Murata’s ideology. Further, Enshu Kobori, a military commander and skilled tea ceremony officiator, coined the concept kirei sabi (lit. “beautiful sabi”) in the early Edo period.

Japanese aesthetics can be complicated, and they often have ancient origins. However, for an aspiring connoisseur of Japanese cuisine, understanding the painstaking detail and even poetic nature of Japanese culinary preparation will take your experience – whether Michelin-starred kaiseki, or even rustic simple fare – to the next level.