Yuhisai Koudoukan in Kyoto: What it means to practice sado (Japanese tea ceremony) in the 21th century
What is the beauty of sado?
The traditional Japanese tea ceremony (sado) is one of the few “interactive” arts that can engage participants as “performers.” That is made possible because sado is, in a sense, an installation art as well as a behavioral art that happens to use a social gathering as its setting. Just like installation art, which is meant to temporarily emerge at a specific site to alter the meaning of the space for a set duration, sado lets transient aesthetic collisions emerge on its stage – the chashitsu (tea room or tea hut) where a tea ceremony occurs that involves a host and guests.
Whereas installation artists often use high-visibility settings; they wrap islands with pink tarps or paint eye-popping murals on random streets to disrupt people’s ordinary perceptions. But a sado installation is performed in a quieter manner, and focuses on discovering beauty in the subtle relationships between nature and humans. A host may plant various clues, indications or implications – both tangible and intangible – surrounding the setting of the ceremony. These include the theme of the gathering (which needs to take into consideration the seasonality of the event day), artworks to be displayed, tools used to brew tea, food/drinks that are prepared and served, and last but not least, which guests should be invited to co-create a unique moment of art.
When the event starts and the guests start arriving, the “behavioral art” part kicks in. I am using the term “behavioral” because it’s not quite like performance art with fixed scripts/scenarios such as theater or dance, although they are comparable in their nature. The largest difference is that the artistic essence of sado emerges in a form of improvisation much like modern jazz. Each guest spontaneously “behaves” in reaction to the host’s artistic challenges, which will collectively create a coherent aesthetic flow. That’s the goal and beauty of a tea ceremony.
What regulates improvisation – which is often thought of as freestyle – are strict rules, even though that may sound contradictory? Rules function as solid foundations so that each artist can play freely but in harmony. Jazz has many rules – some of which are essentially mathematical – that govern which sounds are cool (including dissonant notes) and which are not. If you are in a jam session and play a wrong (uncool) note, you will damage the total coolness and upset your fellow musician! Jazz is that delicate. While you have ample freedom to play what you want, it is the prerequisite that you share the same level of aesthetic standards with other participants.
By the same token, sado has many strict protocols that regulate behavior, including how you walk, sit, and greet people, not to mention how you sip from the bowl of tea and eat desserts. Although it may feel as if sado micromanages what you can do to the point where you can no longer enjoy the gathering, the purpose of the protocols are the opposite of that. The goal of sado is to co-discover and co-appreciate the beauty brewed by the fusion of the surrounding environment, the host’s aesthetic narrative and the reaction of the participants. As a guest, you need to concentrate closely to what’s going on around you, and strict behavioral protocols help you become conscious and aware of even the most subtle elements.
Yuhisai Koudoukan, Kyoto
Yuhisai Koudoukan in Kyoto is one of the places where you can take part in a jazz improvisation-like tea ceremony, and experience unexpected collisions of nature and people, tradition and modernism, or different cultures from different regions/times. But it comes with a lot of effort. Kanako Hamasaki, the Chairwoman of Yuhisai Koudoukan says that traditional arts, including sado, are in a state of existential crisis today after having survived significant social changes over the last 500 years. “It’s hard to even maintain traditional buildings like this these days.” Minagawa Kien (1734-1807), a confucianist and an important figure in Kyoto during the mid-Edo period established the original Koudoukan as a private institution for co-learning. Despite its historic/cultural significance, Koudoukan was on the verge of demolition in 2009. Business analysis had determined that the ROI would be too low to make conservation profitable. It was not quite like the other prestigious Kyoto temples that boasted significant cultural heritages/artifacts. And yet, because it was constructed using traditional materials and methods, maintenance costs were high. So concerned individuals – a group of researchers and professionals – reacted to save it. They started by restoring the almost-abandoned buildings and gardens, and gradually expanded their organization so that they could eventually acquire the property though donation.
Maintaining the building is already a lot of work, but it takes additional efforts to keep sado events relevant and enjoyable for people today. Not only does sado require a well-formatted settings such as chashitsu with tokonoma, ro, and dogu, it also needs to address a fundamental question of “why do we need traditional arts in this super-modern society anyway?” as Hamasaki wrote in the book “Heisei no chakapon, Tankosha, 2017” which she co-authored with Sotatsu Ota. On one hand, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find traditional materials and/or skilled craftsmen to repair the building and artworks. Plus, the ro – an exposed fire pit (though it’s very small) in the middle of a regular room – often does not comply with current fire codes. Then there is a widening gap between how modern people live their lives today and how the traditional Japanese approached nature (a large part of traditional culture), art or relationships.