Participating in an ancient Japanese tradition, sipping from a $25,000 antique bowl and even finding a bit of a 1970s “Austin Powers” vibe.
All can be part of the experience at Gallery Okubo 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 more than 300 years old, with some of the older museum-quality pieces worth as much as $25,000.
The idea behind the gallery is that the visitor gets to feel the bowls and taste the drink as the Japanese masters of the tea ceremony would have wanted it – and at an affordable price. It’s art and history accessible to the masses.
Of course, if you break out in a cold sweat thinking about what would happen if you drop an 18th century, $25,000 bowl, there are some modern alternatives available.
Entering the gallery on a quiet side street, visitors are greeted with displays of various cups, bowls and plates on a tiny first floor. Okubo’s daughter, Atsuko, then emerges from an adjoining room to greet visitors and escort them up a tight flight of stairs to a second-floor tatami room, the traditional setting for the tea ceremony.
Accommodation has been made for Western visitors in that there are regular chairs set up in a sunken floor, so visitors need not sit with legs crossed on the floor as is Japanese tradition – and which can be extremely painful if you’re not used to it.
In a small room off to the side, tea bowls are set on a four-shelf stand. These are your choices, Atsuko explains in English, then highlights some interesting details about each bowl, such as age, origin and the tea master who endorsed them.
Making these antique bowls accessible to the public was Atsuko’s idea.
As an antiques dealer, her father had collected many, but sales were slow at the gallery and most of the bowls sat hidden away, their boxes gathering dust and providing no joy to anyone. Atsuko thought employing them in the tea ceremony would make the family business stand out from the dozens of other tea ceremonies available to visitors to Japan.
But her father curated the bowls, and he’s excited to add details about them. There’s a dark, wide one from Belgium that was designed for other purposes, but a tea master has deemed it suitable 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 movie comic superspy Austin Powers drinking from it.
That’s exactly what makes it special, Mitusuro Okubo says – it melds the ancient and modern. And even though it’s only around 50 years old, it’s still valued at around $15,000.
Okubo shows another bowl that’s around 200 years old. To the untrained observer, it seems to have several imperfections; it’s not symmetrical and there are discolorations.
“Imperfection is human,” Okubo says, and that’s what gives this bowl its one-of-a-kind value of thousands of dollars.
He shows another, current day bowl. It’s beautiful, but perfect. It’s worth about $100.
“Perfect is for robots. This bowl is a robot,” he says.
And robots are replaceable so if the visitor is scared of dropping a $25,000 bowl, this one is available. Also suitable for kids, Atsuko adds, so that they can share the experience with their parents, who won’t be worried about a multi-thousand dollar disaster.
Today’s visitors make their choices – a 300-year-old bowl and the 1970s bowl. Atsuko, clad in a kimono, begins the ceremony.
Kneeling at a right angle to the guests, she methodically and deliberately prepares the tea.
Using a wooden ladle at the end of a long stick to get the hot water from a pot, she puts it in a mixing bowl and blends the tea in with a whisk. The only sounds are the water directed by her movements and birds singing outside.
After visitors are served a sweet cake of jelly and bean paste shaped to look like a hydrangea flower, the tea is transferred to the visitor’s bowl of choice and served frothy hot.
Following the prescribed ritual, the visitors pick up their pricey bowls, one hand at the side, one supporting underneath.
The taste is superb and all encompassing, so much so that the fact there is tens of thousands of dollars of ceramics in their hands is forgotten.
This is 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 and colored pictures of the bowls each visitor used, and the sweet dessert they had, along with explanations of their origin and importance.
Amazingly, drawing only from memory, Okubo has exactly matched the design of geometric figures on the 1970s bowl. It is art on a very personal level.
It has been a fulfilling 90 minutes or so, but glancing back at those shelves of tens of thousands of dollars of bowls, one can’t help but note that this is earthquake country, and often when quakes hit, there are pictures of shattered bowls and plates that were shaken from their posts.
“This is the first place I come when there’s an earthquake,” Atsuko says.
If you go
Gallery Okubo is open Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The address is 6-2-40 Yanaka, Taito-ku, Tokyo, about a 15-minute walk from the Nippori train station, which sits on several major rail lines.
Cost for the tea ceremony is 2,200 yen ($16) per person, and reservations are suggested.
English website: http://gallery-okubo.tokyo/english_information/
Top image: Green tea served in a 300-year-old antique bowl. Credit: Brad Lendon/CNN