Friday, April 19, 2013

The strange fate of the Hiragumo kettle

One of the more dramatic episodes in chanoyu lore concerns the case of sengoku-era daimyo Matsunaga Hisahide (松永 久秀1510?-1577). Hisahide served as a retainer to the Miyoshi clan from the 1540s until the mid 1560s, when he had consolidated his own power sufficiently to become a regional ruler in his own right. In 1568, national unifier Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) attacked Hisahide, who was compelled to surrender to the hegemon even though he retained control of his own home domain near the present-day city of Nara.

In 1577, he split with Nobunaga, resulting in the latter man's siege against Hisahide's stronghold in Shigisan castle. Realizing that defeat was imminent, Hisahide resolved that Nobunaga would not have the satisfaction of claiming any of Hisahide's famous tea utensils as a part of the spoils. Nobunaga had for some time been engaged in his so-called "utensil hunt" (meibutsu-gari), obtaining prized tea objects from defeated foes and cowed allies alike, so Hisahide's fears were probably well-founded.

Among the many famous utensils (meibutsu) in Hisahide's possession was an iron tea kettle called "Hiragumo" or "Flat Spider"[平蜘蛛] so named for the flat spider design on the kettle's surface, an embellishment that was said to appear to crawl when the kettle was full of boiling water. The shape would have been something like this.

In a fit of rage, Hisahide is said to have ascended the castle tower with this coveted item and thrown it from the ramparts, smashing the priceless piece beyond all hope of repair, and then sealing his fate through self-immolation. This moment has captured the imaginations of both early modern woodblock print artists such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi (see above,1797-1862), as well as contemporary manga artists who are producing comic-book versions of the lives of famous premodern tea figures.

Depiction of the fate of Matsunaga and Hiragumo from Nishizaki Taisei and Kudo Kazuya 's Rikyu Shichitetsu series, in which the kettle is strapped to an overwrought Hisahide's chest (below right).

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A daimyo reveals the artist within

     Cognizant of the cultural capital that accrued from such endeavors, many of Japan's warrior-rulers engaged in artistic activities. It has been noted that chanoyu (tea practice) appealed to elite warriors for this practical reason, among others that may have been more personally motivated. And while tea men from every social class traditionally carved bamboo teascoops both for their own use and, occasionally, to present as gifts to others, it's still quite unusual to see high-ranking warriors turn their hands to more arduous crafts. 

    That is what makes this exquisite lacquerware picnic set so special, since it was created by the powerful daimyo and well-known tea man Hosokawa Sansai (1563-1645). The eggplant motif for the sake flask is a auspicious one, as the Japanese word for eggplant, nasu, makes a phonetic allusion to a homophone verb which means "to succeed". I had the pleasure of examining this piece up close in 2009 at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum's "Lords of the Samurai" exhibit. The sake flask is accompanied by a food container (at bottom) and an ingenious sake cup made from the eggplant's "leaf".  Its execution shows that Sansai was not a casual artist. Lacquerwork is a painstaking process, requiring time-consuming processes of applying, curing, polishing, and reapplying the lacquer -- itself a very tricky medium. It's not clear to me if this piece would have ever made an appearance in a tearoom -- it's more suited to elegant outings in the countryside -- but it offers mute testament to how important artistic endeavor was to leading Tokugawa statesmen. 

A larger view of the photo can be seen at this link
An interesting article on auspicious motifs in Japanese textiles may also interest some readers.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Matsudaira Fumai's Song-dynasty Chinese treasure

This calligraphic scroll written by Song-dynasty Chinese Zen monk Yuanwu Keqin (1063-1135, known in Japan as Engo Kokugon 圜悟克勤) is a good example of the sorts of karamono object collected by early modern tea practitioners.

This piece was in the collection of warrior tea aficionado Matsudaira Fumai. Fumai’s writings about the scroll leave no doubt that he considered this piece among the most valuable of his many treasures. It is chief among the many items inventoried in his treatise Family Utensils of the Country of the Clouds (Unshū meibutsuki). After designating the Yuanwu scroll as a “particularly famous item”, Fumai instructs his successors that “even after I die [such items] should be carefully looked after and treated just as they were when I was alive. Indeed, this concern should be transmitted from generation to generation … These things are world famous articles and treasures of Japan.”

Matsudaira Fumai (also known as Harusato, 1751-1818)

 Copyright Melinda Landeck, 2013.

For more on Fumai in English, see Kumakura Isao, "“Matsudaira Fumai : The Creation of a New World of Chanoyu"," Chanoyu Quarterly 25(1980).

Zen and tea share one flavor: 茶禅一味

There is a saying in the tea world which I've heard attributed to tea master Ii Naosuke. Anyway, whatever the provenance, the saying is "Cha zen ichi mi" "茶禅一味": Tea and Zen are one flavor". (I've also heard the alternate version, "Zen cha ichimi" which foregrounds Zen. I suppose the version depends on the speaker!) There can be no question that the impact of Zen Buddhism on tea practice is central to the development of the art. While I think that it's important to recognize that chanoyu (tea practice) also has a strong presence as a secular practice, it seems pointless to discredit the connection between Zen and tea across the board. Zen is an aniconic religion, so it's not surprising that little in the way of Zen iconography makes it way onto tea utensils, but today I came across a rare example where it does! If Zen has a symbol, it very well be the enso (Zen circle). Zen priests often write the enso as an expression of their personal enlightenment. It's much more difficult than it looks to create a perfect circle with brush and ink. Believe me, I've tried! Anyway, while doing some research on 18th-century daimyo chajin (warlord tea man) Matsudaira Fumai today, I came across this beautiful iron tea kettle (kama) with an enso design, currently in the possession of Daitokuji temple in Kyoto. A perfect meeting of Zen aesthics and tea practice, is it not? Image of the enso kama is from Daimyo Chajin Matsudaira Fumai ten. NHK Promotion, 2001.

Introduction to my blog

Welcome to my research blog. I'm a Ph.D. candidate in premodern Japanese history at the University of Kansas, where I'm currently at work on a dissertation which concerns early modern tea practice in Japan. This blog is designed to be a public outlet for sharing some of them more compelling glimpses into the world of early modern tea practitioners that are being uncovered by my ongoing research in the field. I imagine this content may be of interest to tea practitioners, fellow historians and all Japanophiles. Comments and questions are welcome! Let's share a (virtual) bowl of tea together! View Melinda Landeck's profile on LinkedIn