Global Japan Tea & tatami mats: two key elements of Japanese culture

As Tokyo prepares to host the 2020 Olympic Games. Global Japan takes a closer look at the new Olympic sport of karate and the centuries-old ritual of serving tea, through the eyes of foreigners who live the Japanese way of life.

The population of Japan is approximately 126.5 million. That alone makes Japan a densely populated nation. But the population is unevenly distributed: about nine out of 10 people live in an area classified as urban. Roughly a quarter of the population (about 36 million) lives within the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area, which encompasses the cities of Tokyo, Kawasaki and Yokohama, plus the commuter towns stretching deep into the suburbs; it’s the most heavily populated metropolitan area in the world. Another nearly 20 million live in the Kyoto–Osaka–Kōbe conurbation (often called Keihanshin). Japan has 13 cities in which the population exceeds one million.

The Tea Ceremony
Chanoyu (literally ‘water for tea’) is usually translated as ‘tea ceremony’, but it’s more like performance art, with each element – from the gestures of the host to the feel of the tea bowl in your hand – carefully designed to articulate an aesthetic experience. It’s had a profound and lasting influence on the arts in Japan, one that has percolated through all the divergent arts wrapped up in it: architecture, landscape design, ikebana (flower arranging), ceramics and calligraphy.
The culture of drinking matcha (powdered green tea) entered Japan along with Zen Buddhism in the 12th century. Like everything else in monastic life – the sweeping of the temple grounds and the tending of the garden, for example – the preparation of tea was approached as a kind of working meditation. The practice was later taken up by the ruling class, and in the 16th century the famous tea master Sen no Rikkyū (1522–1591) is credited with laying down the foundations of wabi-sabi – and with raising tea to an art form.
Wabi roughly means ‘rustic’ and connotes the loneliness of the wilderness, while sabi can be interpreted as ‘weathered’, ‘waning’ or ‘altered with age’. Together the two words signify an object’s natural imperfections, arising in its inception, and the acquired beauty that comes with the patina of time. Ceramics selected for tea ceremonies were often dented, misshapen or rough in texture, with drips of glaze running down the edges – and all the more prized for it. The most famous styles associated with the tea ceremony are rakushigaraki and bizen.