Sen no Rikyu - The Tea Master of Japan

The act of serving tea is done in most Asian countries and dates back many centuries ago. As such, the actual inventor of tea may be a bit hard to trace.

However, when it comes to the Japanese tea ceremony, which doubles as a form of art, there is a particular person that can be credited for refining its now distinct fundamentals, style, and practices – Sen no Rikyu.

About Sen no Rikyu – Early Life, Later Years, and Death

By Mikkabie (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Sen no Rikyu, usually referred to as just Rikyu, was born in Sakai, Osaka during the year 1522. His contributions to chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, has made him a highly significant figure in Japanese history.

According to records, Sen no Rikyu’s father, known as Tanaka Yohei before he changed his last name to Sen, lived as a wealthy warehouse owner and was married to Tomomi Tayuki. Sen no Rikyu was often referred to as Yoshiro, a nickname often used for the eldest son of a Japanese family, when he was a child.

Being situated between the Osaka Bay and the Yamato River, the area of Sakai served as one of Japan’s primary locations for foreign and inland trading. At the time, it was considered to be among the country’s richest cities.

Ikyuu Sojun, a popular Zen Buddhist priest, loved the city’s energy and lived there for the majority of his life. He was known for being a great poet, and one of the founding fathers of the ancient Japanese tea ceremony. As such, Sakai was regarded as the main center for chanoyu.

It makes sense, then, why Sen no Rikyu became interested in Japanese tea at an early age. He first studied it under the guidance of Kitamuki Dochin, a Sakai Townsman, during his youth.

By the age of nineteen, he was introduced to Takeno Joo by Kitamuki Dochin and became even more interested in the dynamics of Japanese tea ceremonies. Around the same time, Sen no Rikyu met and fell in love with a woman named Hoshin Myoju, who he married about two years later at the age of twenty-one.

From this point on up to his late fifties, not a lot of reliable information can be found regarding how he lived his life during his supposed peak years.

Existing documents only trace back to the accomplishments he did from the age of fifty-eight and onwards. These articles discuss how Sen no Rikyu was regarded as the master of Japanese tea by Oda Nobunaga during the year 1579. After Oda Nobunaga’s death three years later, Sen no Rikyu then served as Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s tea master.

He did not have a hard time building a strong relationship with Toyotomi Hideyoshi and was soon able to be a part of his inner circle. His inclusion in Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s group of confidants also serves as his defining moment as an incredibly influential person in the world of traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.

In fact, he was granted the title Rikyu Koji by the emperor for him to fully establish his role as a tea master and separate himself from other practitioners. This distinction was needed in order for Toyotomi Hideyoshi to bring Sen no Rikyu to an important gathering with Emperor Ogimachi at the Imperial Palace.

All in all, Sen no Rikyu lived as a poet, writer, and renowned tea master of his time. He had students of his own, of which the two most popular were Nanbo Sokei and Yamanoue Soji.

A year before the Odawara Siege in 1590, Yamanoue Soji was tortured and killed by the order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The reason behind this incident remains unknown up to this day and is considered to be a great mystery given the role of Sen no Rikyu as Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s confidant. The majority of