Foundation Stones of Cha-do Continued: 12 Artistic Accomplishments of the Court Noble

This Article speaks of the Artistic Foundations that have been practiced by the nobility of the Japanese Imperial Court through out history. People from the beginnings of Cha-do to the present day have been well aware of these principles. They find their mark in the culture and traditions of Japan from ancient times, and blossomed in earlier cultures such as China, Korea, and other Asian countries.

Those who practice Cha no Yu see expressions of these artistic pursuits and principles everywhere. Those who are steeped in the practice find themselves acquiring knowledge and appreciation of them. Those students just starting out would be wise to memorize these principles and incorporate them into their own practice.

Aristocrats, and later common people found it very necessary to be competent if not talented in the following expressions of Japanese tradition.

1. The art of calligraphy. Writing with a beautiful hand is considered the highest art form. Japanese as well as Chinese and other Asian cultures place great importance on the beauty of the brush and ink. There are countless examples of how important this practice is. The Tale of Genji has many examples of how a person’s character and spirit are judged on how they form the strokes of script. It is seen as a direct avenue to a person’s soul and heart. Here in the west, we used hand writing analysis to determine various psychological states of the person who writes their name. In Japan, convicts have been given lighter sentences if the judge saw the beauty of their writing skills. Even today, people are secretly evaluated on how they handle the brush. Pieces of calligraphy find pride of place as the central pivot point in the artistic alcove- tokonoma with in the Tea room. We bow to it when we reverently approach it. This is the only object that is bowed to in the gathering. This art form finds some of its greatest expression in the Heian court; the golden age.

2. Incense appreciation and application. This substance finds its roots deep in the history of many cultures. In China, Korea, and Japan, the way of incense was very important; and considered an essential part of any and all rituals. Sandalwood was highly prized for its mellow and alluring smell. Incense was used to dispel evil spirits, purify the soul, and enliven the mind. Herbs, resins, and different woods such as Aloes wood were mixed and blended to perfume clothing and mark the person as being special and courteous. The ‘Ranjatai’ Aloes wood log is owned by the Emperor and is considered the rarest and most beautifully scented wood in Japan. Only three small blocks were ever taken from it. Each block was carefully splintered into tiny slivers to be ‘warmed’ (not burnt) in order to release its fragrance at very special occasions. It is beyond price. An entire practice (‘Kodo’or wayof Incense) has been developed with its own venerable utensils, methods and traditions. When entering the Tea room, one is greeted with the fragrance of fine incense. The formal laying of charcoal (Sumi-temae) in front of the guests is quite a treat for those involved. The incense box- ‘kogo’ is a treasured item that has a history of its own.

3. Poetry. I cannot stress enough how important Poetry is to the delicate tastes of Asian culture in general, and Japanese culture in specific. From Tanka to Haiku, and all other forms known, poetry is extremely essential to understand, memorize, and practice. The Manyoshu collection, the Nihonshu compendium, and other collections of verse have been so deeply intertwined into the life of the court noble and the common person, that you might be considered little more than an animal if poetry was unfamiliar to you. The creation myths, and the oldest writings in the history of Japan are presented in poetic form. Seasonal expressions, turns of phrases taken from ancient manuals of poetry, emotional layers, and delicate taste all find their way to glory when written down by a talented hand on the surface of exquisitely tinted and colored paper. In Cha do, the poet finds outlet in the creation of an invitation, the selection of a shikishi card that alludes to the season, or the gathering in which the guests write poems on cards to read aloud during the event. Poetry infiltrates every aspect of artistic life that is a hallmark of being a member of ‘the good people’.

4. Flower Arrangement– From the National Cherry Blossom, to the fire of the Japanese Maple in Autumn; flowers are one of the oldest and most venerable art forms of Japan. Flowers have been used for offerings in Buddhist temples flanking the main statue with soaring Lotus blossoms, and constructed in formal arrangements such a ‘Rikka’ and ‘Shoka’ styles. The term Ikebana is the name for flower arrangement, and the Ikenobo school is the oldest. Centered in court life, flowers were stately offerings to the Gods, and sprigs of seasonal flowers always accompanied letters delivered to lovers or friends by a pretty youth dressed in court attire. Contests were held during the Heian period to see who possessed the most beautiful Irises, and the family crests of nobles were mostly plant and flower based designs. The greatest example of the love for flowers is seen in the ‘Chrysanthemum Throne’ itself. A simple flower arrangement is found in the tea room which may accompany the scroll or stand on its own when thick tea is served. There is a a bit of wisdom that says if you have enough money to buy two loaves of bread, buy one loaf and a pot of chrysanthemums. You should feed your belly and feed your soul. The Japanese know this very well.

5. Dancing and Singing–The court noble would be nothing if they did not know the arts of court dances and the singing of odes. The oldest myth that describes the beginnings of Japan, court life and the formation of Japan has to do with the Sun Goddess Amaterasu- Omi kami. After her brother was being obnoxious, and destructive, She stubbornly hid herself away in a great cave. This was quite distressful to the other Gods who planned to lure her out, by placing a mirror on a Sasaki tree in front of the cave, hanging the great jewel from another branch, and dancing with music and song. Her curiosity got the best of her and she sneaked out to see what was happening. Before she could retreat back into the cave, a sacred rope with prayers was strung across the entrance to bar her from taking light from the world again. The stately dances of shrine maidens, the piercing tones of flutes drum, and bells have been part of Shinto rituals since before written records were made. Since the Emperor is the highest Shinto priest, and to be a member of his/her court is the highest honor, it is befitting that all who are members should be able to dance in the courtly style, play some sort of instrument, or sing the Odes of poetry that entice the Gods out of their sanctuaries to receive their offerings. Song and dance is mandatory at any festival. Practiced by high born and commoner alike, it is a must to know something of this art. The educated Geisha with her fan, the formal Noh actor with his mask, the court dance at a poetry contest, or the Kabuki actor in high drama; all are dancing and singing. In the world of Tea, the movements in the tea room by host and guest are so prescribed that it is a dance of stately locomotion. When a student is playing ‘tea games’ called ‘Shichijishiki’, the movements are a type of dance as each participant moves up and down in the room to perform different procedures. It is very elegant and a joy to watch!

6. Fashion–Being appropriately dressed for any occasion is mandatory for any court noble and person of taste. Color matching in fabric, fashion, and paper (letter/poetry) could make or break a career at court. There is an excerpt from Heian period writings that tells of a lady in waiting that became the subject of light embarrassment when she reached out in front of the impeccably dressed Emperor to fix a stray tassel on a screen only to find his majesty and other courtiers staring at her. Women of that time wore many layers of closely shaded tastefully colorful kimonos using subtle gradations of hue. One of her kimonos was one shade off. It was a very small, hardly noticeable mistake but she became the subject of many jokes after this slight mishap. If one makes a mistake in fashion, try to error on the side of elegance. It is easier to forgive wearing a tuxedo at a beach party, than it is to forgive wearing beach clothes to the Oscars. In the world of Tea women’s kimonos are of a single quiet color. The only extravagance is to be found on her Obi sash. Men should wear somber darker tones. Some guests go so far as to inquire about the fabrics used by the host so that they will not inadvertently wear the same design. Fabric choice can also be important in the bags that enclose certain tea utensils. The guest will ask about them and the host has to know the name of the fabric, its history, who sewed it, and how it fits into the general assemblage of the event.

7. Garden Design– The Japanese have fostered a love of nature so deeply that it is hard to imagine Japanese traditional culture without it. Gardens; be it carefully tended acres of hill and pond meant for strolling, moon viewing or boating, austere stretches of dry gravel with a few moss covered stones, or ‘Tsubo’ courtyard gardens with a single water basin and a tree with a few bushes, even aged bonsai happily growing in their pots; all are expressions of the garden art form started by courtiers over a thousand years ago. Manuals written by them on how to establish a proper garden are still extant, and studied by today’s garden designers. From the Shinto practice of clearing an area around a sacred space, tree, or stone- as can be seen at Ise grand shrine, to the estate gardens created by nobles that later became Buddhist Temple monasteries, each manifestation bring the church outside. Nature is made sacred and abbreviated through careful observation and study. Saiho ji is one such garden. There are many others to choose from. What better place to gain poetic inspiration than from wandering through a seasonal paradise?

8. Japanese tea Ceremony–This artistic expression came into vogue in a later period but the drinking of Tea is documented to be far older. All of the previously mentioned courtly pursuits found a stage to be show cased through they way of tea. Various members of the Imperial family and court members have studied this way and found it very satisfying. It is now synonymous with all things Japan. The studying of its history, subsidiary arts, and creative outlets are endless.

9.Sumi-e Ink Painting– Sister to the art of calligraphy- is Sumi-e ink painting, and the use of color wash. The same strokes used in writing are equally used in creating a landscape, a vine of Morning Glory, a cluster of fruits, or stalks of pampas grass. Adopted from older Chinese models, the Japanese explored the concept of ‘Ma’ (space). The space enfolding the subject was just as important as the subject itself. Gradations of black, gray wash, light ash, or egg shell hue would give vigor and dimension to a work. The emotive cloud of mist which might separate scenes, or add mystery was a very familiar trope. Vestiges of this uniquely Japanese design element can be seen on the bronze surfaces of ‘Dotaku Bell’ forms from the Yayoi period. Natural beauty is abundant in Japan and found iconic expression through ink and brush. Plum, Cherry, Bamboo, Maple, and Pine became constant themes that were associated with virtues such as strength, purity, longevity, and transience. Any noble would be able to create an instant work of art with the slightest touch of his brush.

10.Geomancy—The art of harmonizing individuals with their environment was well established in China and during the Asuka and Nara periods it took deep roots in a country that was already highly aware of sacred spaces, energy flow, and spirit dwellings. The invisible forces that bind humanity and the universe together was known as ‘Chi’. This was of great interest and most priests and nobles adheard to its wisdom. Certain directions were considered unlucky to travel on certain days; and courtiers followed strict protocols concerning all manner of geomancic formulas. Jennifer Anderson Sensei has written a wonderful book that has a section which covers how cha no yu relates to the ‘Bagua’ and its eight directions. There is even a procedure for making Tea that utilizes the classic five elements of Chinese Taoism. The trigram for water is drawn in a freshly sculpted ash arrangement in the portable brazier before the embers are placed in order to balance said elements.

11.Education—The nobility of the Imperial court were people of letters. The constantly studied everything from poetry, to the workings of the economy. They had to be up to date on a variety of subjects in order to hold their own during any conversation. Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Shinto, and other types of religious thought were mandatory subjects. Mathematics, metaphysics, political science, military arts, martial arts, history, and art history, were avidly studied. Court rituals, dance, etiquette, and good manners were essential for every noble person. One might call them life long learners. To constantly better ones self was the goal.

Sugawara Michizane

12. Being Content—This is not a physical art to be studied; it is an art of the soul and mind. Above all a person of learning and nobility can control their desires for this and that. Being aware of what one actually has; realizing that all is transitory and fleeting, and being grateful for the present moment is a life long practice. Easy to say- difficult to do and to be- especially in today’s world of instant gratification, entertainment and distraction. The flower blooms, releases its fragrance, and wilts. The petals wither and fall. All of it is beautiful- all the more because it changes and dies. There is a famous stone basin once used by Sen no Rikyu that is carved in the form of coin. Four characters are chiseled into it; “to learn to be content” (Ware Tada Taru wo Shiru). It is located at Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto japan.


If I discover more essential accomplishments of the noble arts of Japan, I will edit this list and include them as well. This list should give the gentle reader enough to think about and study as we all strive to become members of ‘the good people’.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestmailby feather
Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply