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Matcha: Wabi-Cha

Wabi-Sabi (侘寂)

Tea & Arts: Bowls, Scrolls, Flowers

There are many aspects to the Japanese tea ceremony. Much of the ceremony's significance comes from the arts that accompany the serving of bowls of tea. The tea bowls, the wall scrolls, and the flower arrangements all play important roles in the ceremony. Other arts also play roles in the tea ceremony as well including the architecture of the teahouse, the clothing worn, the food, the sweets, garden, the etiquette of the ceremony, and more. However, we are focusing on the bowls, scrolls, and flowers in this post.

Modern Bowl

The Japanese Tea Ceremony is more than a simple cup—or bowl—of tea. It embodies the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic. Wabi-sabi is difficult to translate literally. Teiji Itoj and Yukio Futagawa wrote in The Classic Tradition In Japanese Architecture: Modern Version of The Sukiya Style, "The word wabi ... does not lend itself readily to translation, for it can mean a number of things: loneliness, desolation, rustic simplicity, quiet taste, a gentle affection for antique, unostentatious, and rather melancholy refinement." And, the word "sabi" can be translated as "chill," "lean," or "withered." Sabi shares its pronunciation with the Japanese word meaning "to rust." When we put these two ideas together, we get an appreciation for the subtle beauty in rustic and withered things, like a wilted rose or a a worn-out pair of boots.

When we describe something as being "wabi-sabi" or having the quality of "wabi-sabi," we are appreciating the beauty in the imperfect. It is related to Zen Buddhist thought where life is said to be marked by the three marks of existence anicca (impermanence), dukkha ( In The Book of Tea (available for free on GoogleBooks) Kakuzō Okakura describes tea culture as "essentially the worship of Imperfection." Wabi-sabi may be considered the Eastern ideal of beauty, similar to how the Classical Greek ideal of beauty is the Western ideal.

Sen no Rikyu, tea master and Zen monk, is considered the father of the Japanese Way of Tea. Although Rikyu is not the one who introduced the concept of wabi-sabi, he is known for popularizing the idea. He lived in what is now known as the Osaka prefecture of Japan during the 1500s. It was from his teachings about tea that have led to the important aspects of the tea ceremony; those aspects are simplicity, directness and honesty. All three major tea schools, Omotesenke, Urasenke, and Mushakōjisenke, descend from his thoughts on tea as well as the method and practice of the tea ceremony. ( I have had honor to study in the way of the Urasenke school at the Japanese Cultural Center in Chicago under Omar Francis Sensei. They are going to be offering the course again in Fall 2019. Click here to view the event on Facebook.)

Tea Bowls

1. China, Fujian Province, Jianyang County, Southern Song dynasty, 1127-1279 Furnishings; Serviceware Jian ware, wheel-thrown stoneware with mottled black glaze Mr. and Mrs. Allan C. Balch Collection (M.51.2.1)

2. Hagi Ido teabowl, by Tamamura Shogetsu (1918-1986)

3. White rake tea bowl Fuji-san by Honami Kōetsu, Edo period, 17th century

4. Shino ware tea bowl, Momoyama period (1568–1600)

5. Black raku bowl used for thick tea, Azuchi-Momoyama period, 16th century

6. Modern tea bowl

Tea bowls are called chawan. Unlike Western teacups, tea bowls do not have handles. This is not because Japanese artisans did not have the technology to make cups with handles as some have said but rather because a tea bowl that can not be picked up is too hot to drink.

Mishima ware hakeme-type tea bowl with kintsugi gold lacquer, 16th century (Ethnological Museum of Berlin)

Tea bowls are asymmetrical and rustic. As the tea ceremony emerged during a time of war, the mismatched bowls symbolize though we have differences, we are one. Tea bowls comes in a variety of sizes and some are more rounded while others are more squared off. Deeper bowls are used in colder times of year as it takes longer for the tea to cool down. While more shallow bowls are used in hot months. In line with the wabi-sabi aesthetic bowls with irregularities are prized and often the imperfect side of the bowl is considered the front. Bowls with chipped edges or repaired cracks are treasured not thrown away.

Kintsugi or Kintsukuroi is an art of itself where cracks are filled and repaired with gold, silver, or platinum. In this way, the use of the object overtime is celebrated like a patina in bronze statue or distressed denim. In Kintsugi, the history of the object is celebrated.


Japanese Tea House at Anderson Gardens, Rockford, IL,

Another piece of art that is necessary to the tea ceremony is the scroll. The scroll is a vertical scroll where the width is shorter than the height of the scroll. It is called a Tatejiku. The scroll is purposely selected by the tea host to match the season and the atmosphere of the gathering. Many scrolls feature calligraphy while others will feature images. Examples of Zen phrases painted unto the scroll include "Walking beside the stream, one’s steps cease; the sound of flowing water"

(徐行踏断流水声 Omomuro ni yuite tōdansu ryūsui no koe); or the famous tea phrase "Harmony, respect, purity and tranquility (和敬清寂 wa kei sei jaku). The scroll is not merely something pretty to look at. It's a conversation piece for the ceremony while the host may discuss the scroll with the guest or serve as a meditation guide during the ritual.


Chabana arrangements lean in.

The tea flowers or chabana is a simple style of floral arranging used specifically for the tea ceremony. The founder of the tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyū, is said to have taught that chabana should provide the same effect effect and look that they would have in nature. Flowers are to be in season and natural. The flowers are placed in display containers are crafted from natural materials such as bamboo, metal, or ceramic, as well as bronze. Arrangements will often have a solitary bloom or in season ornamental grasses. According to the Chabana Exhibition, "The minimalist approach leads to refined lines and a profound spirituality, hidden in seemingly simple forms." Blossoms angle towards the participants in the tea ceremony, just as they angle towards the light In nature.

Wabi-Cha Lessons

From the Wabi-Sabi nature of tea or "Wabi-Cha" of the tea ceremony, we learn from the bowls, scrolls, and flowers as well as the tea itself. We learn to to lean into each other, to appreciate our differences, to see the beauty in imperfection, to contemplate the season and our place in time, and to accept what we have and where we are. It is a profound lesson in mindful living and a reminder that often our most meaningful life lessons are learned in quiet, simple moments. #beautyinthecommon 🍵


Further Reading

Zen Phrases Used at Tea Gatherings

Teapedia: Japanese Tea Ceremony

Chabana Exhibition


Janae Jean is a professional music instructor, composer, sound healer and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is passionate about tea and creating our own daily rituals. Visit for more about music lessons. Contact her via for questions about tea, ceremony, music composition, sound healing, writing, photography, or other relevant topics.



All ©2019, except tea bowl photos which are public domain sourced from


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