An Old Tea Seller

Almost everyone that has not lived in a cave or under a rock has heard about and maybe even seen a glimpse on that box with moving pictures that there is something like a Japanese Tea Ceremony. A lot of people know that it has something to do with putting some powder into a bowl and stirring it very hard like an egg. However there are people, like all those teatra.ders, who know that this description does not do the ceremony any justice and some know, again of course all those teatra.ders, that there are actually several kinds of Japanese tea ceremonies. Some of which don’t use tea powder and not all lead to muscle pains.

In the beginning of Japanese tea tea was brought to Japan from China by travellers several times, but it did not really caught on. So after a generation or so the young plantations where abandoned and tea was forgotten again. It was not till Eisai brought tea to Japan together with Zen Buddhism that Japanese tea really go started. From then on there developed basically two categories of tea drinking habits. There was the meditation drink of the Buddhist monks and the competition drinking of the warrior class. As a reaction on this there was a new ceremony developed by tea masters and completed in the 16th century by Rikyu, after whom his children and grandchildren developed several schools based on variations of his work.

The book Tea Ceremony front

Iguchi, Kaisen, “Tea Ceremony”, 1975.

Tea ceremony

About this type of ceremony tells the small book “Tea Ceremony” by Kaisen Iguchi. I found this small book in the search results on the website of a second hand bookshop. It was first published in 1975 and my copy is from 1983, already the ninth edition of the book. It ends with a short overview of the history of tea in Japan. It starts with a detailed description of tea rooms and utensils. In the middle is a detailed description of a version of the tea ceremony. Written as a manual to start performing this ceremony on your own. Unfortunately it does not tell what the differences are with the other schools and to which school this version belongs. The text is filled with details and written compactly. There are a lot of pictures, clearly in the style of the seventies. And the book has a loose plastic cover to protect it while you are waiting in the waiting arbour in the rain.

A nice compact little book that gives a good summary about this kind of ceremony and the manual kind of description gives you the opportunity to start experimenting on your own. Of course not as detailed and information filled as a lot of other books about this subject that are out there or even on my shelf. But then again those don’t fit in your breast pocket.

The book Tea Ceremony page 46-47

A page in the book

The other kind of Tea Ceremony

A lesser know type of tea ceremony is Senchado. This type of ceremony was developed in the 18th century partly as a reaction on the too formal ceremony of Rikyu & co and partly due to the influence of Chinese immigrants and the introduction of loose leaf tea into Japan.

In the 18th century Kyoto was no longer the capital city of Japan, but it was one of the largest cities of the world. While in the new capital Edo the way of life was strict without much room for individual development, life in Kyoto was more loose and Kyoto was blooming with cultural development. One of the key figures in this period is Baisao.

Baisao (1675-1763)

Baisao became a monk at eleven in an Obaku temple and after a life of priesthood he left at the age of 49 to live a wandering life in the Kyoto area. After 10 years of wandering he settled in Kyoto and became a tea seller. Now in that age in Japan tea selling belonged to the lowest of lowest of trades (think about that Teatra.ders). Regularly he put his teaware on a pole and walked to places where either a lot of people came or just places of beauty to set up his teashop. These people came there either on their daily routine or because they played tourist. Unfortunately we do not know much about the teas he sold.

Trained as a Buddhist monk he did not need much, but still there were periods when he had to beg friends for food. Thanks to his profound knowledge of Chinese literature and his Zen training he became an example for many and not just an ordinary tea seller. He became a central figure and a Zen teacher among the literati in Kyoto.

Too old to walk with his pole of teaware and set up his teashop wherever he wanted he burned his travel teaware at the age of 80 and sold tea from his home. After another couple of years as Zen teacher and poet he died at the age of 88.

The book Baisao

“The Old Tea Seller: Life and zen poetry in 18th century Kyoto”

The book

The book “The old tea seller: Life and zen poetry in 18th century Kyoto” tells about the life and work of Baisao. The first part of the book is a biography. It starts with a short overview and then tells the story again in much more detail with poems and letters by Baisao and the people around him.

The second part contains a translation of published verse and prose and some more. With notes for some of the background we don’t have.

Though the chronology in the first part is sometimes confusing it was still a very nice read with many moments that made me think. (and now we know what to think of tea sellers and how they can correct that ;))

I will finish with the last known inscription made by Baisao (page 104):

Going far away to China
to seek the sacred shoots
Old Eisai brought them back
sowed them in our land.
Uji tea has a taste infused
with Nature’s own essence
a pity folks only prattle
about its color and sent.


  • Iguchi, Kaisen, “Tea Ceremony”, 1975. Color book series #31. (ISBN 4-586-54031-1, Amazon, Worldcat)
  • Baisao, Wadell, Norman, “The Old Tea Seller: Life and zen poetry in 18th century Kyoto”, 2008. (ISBN 978-1-58243-482-7, Amazon, Worldcat)

Yes, my stories about Hamburg en Stockholm will come. For now drink some good tea and find a Zen-mode to wait patiently till they come.

5 thoughts on “An Old Tea Seller

  1. Xavier

    It seems I have new books to find and read. 😀

  2. Jackie

    Lovely post Bram, I’ve been so busy I nearly missed it but I saw that @xavier tweeted it out. I’m envious that you have these lovely tea books in your home. I wonder if @gingkoseto @jopj @lazyliteratus @amyoh know of these books? It’s nice to see how interested in tea culture you are, your posts are a pleasure to read. And yes, I’ll be patient about the HH & Stockholm posts 😉

  3. lazyliteratus

    Fascinating as always, Bram. One classy blog you operate.

  4. Daniel@ Let's Drink Tea

    This was really interesting. I actually had a chance to attend a tea ceremony when I was living in Japan and it was naturally a great experience. I even read up on the history since I wanted to be informed, but I have to admit, I’ve never heard of this other ceremony.

    1. bram Post author

      Sometimes the Sencha ceremony is just like normal tea drinking, but there is also a more ceremony style. There are also different types of tea-rooms. Those for the Matcha type en those for the Sencha-type. An important difference between both is the place of the fireplace for heating the water. That is the presence of it.

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