Participate in an ancient Japanese tradition, sip on a $25,000 antique bowl, and even find a bit of the “Austin Powers” vibe of the 1970s.
All can be part of the experience at Okubo Gallery in Tokyo’s Yanaka district, where antiques dealer Mitsuru Okubo and his family offer the traditional Japanese tea ceremony experience with a twist — a choice of bowls ranging from new to over 300 years old, with some of the oldest museum-quality pieces worth up to $25,000.
The idea behind the gallery is that the visitor can smell the bowls and taste the drink as Japanese tea ceremony masters would have wanted – and at an affordable price. It is art and history accessible to the greatest number.
Of course, if you’re in a cold sweat thinking about what would happen if you dropped a $25,000 18th century bowl, there are modern alternatives.
Entering the gallery from a quiet street, visitors are greeted by displays of various cups, bowls and plates on the tiny first floor. Okubo’s daughter, Atsuko, then emerges from an adjacent room to greet visitors and escort them up a narrow staircase to a tatami room on the second floor, the traditional setting for the tea ceremony.
The accommodation has been made for Western visitors in that there are regular chairs set up in a sunken floor, so visitors do not need to sit cross-legged on the floor like the wants the Japanese tradition – and that can be extremely painful if you’re not used to it.
In a small room to the side, tea bowls sit on a four-shelf rack. It’s your choices, Atsuko explains in English, then highlights a few interesting details about each bowl, such as age, origin, and the tea master who approved them.
Making these ancient bowls accessible to the public was Atsuko’s idea.
As an antique dealer his father had collected many, but sales were slow at the gallery and most of the bowls were hidden away, their boxes gathering dust and pleasing no one. Atsuko believed that employing them in the tea ceremony would set the family business apart from the dozens of other tea ceremonies available to visitors to Japan.
But her dad organized the bowls, and he’s happy to add details about them. There’s a dark, wide one from Belgium that was made for other purposes, but a tea master deemed it appropriate for the ceremony.
Or a light colored bowl with brightly colored circles, squares and triangles on it. It looks like it was made in the 1970s, and you can imagine Austin Powers, the comic book super spy, drinking from it.
That’s exactly what makes it special, says Mitusuro Okubo – it merges the old with the new. And even though it’s only around 50 years old, it’s still valued at around $15,000.
Okubo shows another bowl that is around 200 years old. To the untrained observer, it appears to have several imperfections; it’s not symmetrical and there are discolorations.
“Imperfection is human,” Okubo says, and it’s what gives this bowl its unique value of thousands of dollars.
It shows another bowl of today. It’s beautiful, but perfect. It is worth around $100.
“Perfect for robots. This bowl is a robot,” he says.
And the robots are replaceable, so if the visitor is afraid to drop a $25,000 bowl, this one is available. Also suitable for children, adds Atsuko, so they can share the experience with their parents, who won’t worry about a multi-thousand dollar disaster.
Today’s visitors make their choice: a 300-year-old bowl and the bowl from the 1970s. Atsuko, dressed in a kimono, begins the ceremony.
Kneeling perpendicular to the guests, she methodically and conscientiously prepares the tea.
Using a wooden ladle on the end of a long stick to get hot water from a saucepan, she puts it in a mixing bowl and stirs the tea with a whisk. The only sounds are the water directed by her movements and the chirping of the birds outside.
After serving visitors a sweet cake of jelly and bean paste in the shape of a hydrangea flower, the tea is transferred to the bowl of one’s choice and served hot and frothy.
Following the prescribed ritual, visitors pick up their precious bowls, one hand on the side, the other below.
The taste is superb and encompassing, so much so that the fact that there are tens of thousands of dollars worth of ceramics in their hands is forgotten.
It’s experiencing the best of Japan.
As Atsuko carefully puts away her supplies and the bowls, her father comes up the stairs bearing gifts for the guests – hand-drawn, colored pictures of the bowls used by each visitor, and the sweet dessert they had, as well as explanations of their origin. and significance.
Amazingly, drawing only from memory, Okubo matched the design of the bowl’s geometric figures from the 1970s exactly. It’s art on a very personal level.
It was about 90 fulfilling minutes, but looking at those shelves of tens of thousands of dollars worth of bowls, one can’t help but notice that this is earthquake country, and often when earthquakes strike, there are pictures of broken bowls and plates that have been shaken from their posts.
“It’s the first place I come to when there’s an earthquake,” Atsuko said.
If you are going to
Okubo Gallery is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The address is 6-2-40 Yanaka, Taito-ku, Tokyo, about a 15-minute walk from Nippori Station, which is on several major rail lines.
The cost of the tea ceremony is 2,200 yen ($16) per person and reservations are suggested.
Website in English: http://gallery-okubo.tokyo/english_information/
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