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Soshin Kimura: On Mitate

Blurring the line between performing arts and the art of living


NOV 15, 2022 | ISSUE 8

Soshin Kimura ©KITCHEN MINORU, Hoshinkai
On Mitate by Alicia Jungwirth

You could say the Japanese tea ceremony is a sophisticated game of hospitality, or esprit, that can be enjoyed via sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. The serendipity of Mitate in  a tea ceremony is not just a question of formality—it is a question of making an effort to be creative. Mitate presents an occasion for enjoying yourself alongside companions, or once-in-a-lifetime encounters, in any place and with any person you meet. Regardless of how casual the style is, it is important to be able to entertain and be entertained, and to bring yourself closer to the various utensils, tools, and objects used in the tea ceremony. In doing so, you create space to form all sorts of relationships.

According to Soshin Kimura, “If you come to a real tea ceremony, you will see that it is not just performing arts. It’s about shortening the distance between utensils and people.” He is a Japanese Tea Grand Master, but he insists there is no single word in English to describe his profession. The same is true for “tea ceremony”—also known as Sado and Cha-no-yu. This is simply because it does not exist in other countries the way it exists in Japan. The culture of tea for the Japanese cannot be described by the term “tea ceremony.” It is more than merely drinking tea; it is closely linked to an aesthetic, and to aestheticism. It is the very philosophy that underpins Japanese daily life and hospitality. On the other hand, it has elements of both the performing arts and L'Art de Vivre (the art of living).

In addition to presiding over the Urasenke and Hoshinkai schools, Soshin Kimura has written books on Cha-no-yu, appeared in magazines, on television, and supervised the construction of a new tea room in Salone del Mobile a Milano. He doesn’t believe that a tea ceremony necessarily has to be conducted on a tatami mat. However, just because it’s conducted at a table, for example, doesn’t mean it’s okay to be casual. In his conversation with smART Magazine, he recommends finding an opportunity to experience the real and authentic tea ceremony through architecture, gardens, flowers, hanging scrolls, utensils, space, atmosphere, temperature and humidity, the scent of incense, the subtlety of sounds, serenity and tension, confectionary, provisions, green tea, tea cups, brief conversations, and hospitality.

sM | How do you understand and translate the concept of Mitate?

SK — “The word Mitate originally comes from Japanese Waka poetry. Wabi is one of the ideas that inspired the act of Mitate in Cha-no-yu. Wabi is a sensibility and philosophy that underpins not only Cha-no-yu, but also the Japanese people to this day. Wabi-Sabi is more than just a love of asymmetry and imperfection. Sabi is not just tranquility or quietness. The word Wabi is derived from the word Wabu, which was used in Japanese poetry. Initially, the word had a negative connotation, expressing feelings of sadness or loneliness. However, with the development of Cha-no-yu, Wabu was transformed into Wabi, an aesthetic with a more powerful and positive value. The two terms Wabi and Sabi are often used to describe Cha-no-yu. For example, I myself would explain the difference between the two in the following way. Sabi can mean tranquility, but in simpler terms it can also mean rustiness. It means “to deteriorate,” “to decay,” or “to rust.” If we think of iron as decaying and rusting, it is deteriorating and we should usually feel sad. However, we should not take it as a negative thing, but rather as a metamorphosis of beauty that has come to have a different beauty from its original state. Wabi is the dynamic action of the mind, the sense of beauty, and Sabi is the beauty of the new metamorphosed form. To reevaluate this new form, and contemplate its unique exquisiteness: that’s what Mitate is all about.”

“We can combine various utensils and compose a tea ceremony with Mitate. Authentic Japanese tea ceremony utensils are usually hard to get when you’re overseas though. The most important thing is not necessarily to follow rules and etiquette, or to be bound by them, but to find a different role and beauty in the things around us, and to use them to our own sensitivity. For example, when Sen no Rikyu used a gourd—which was originally a water bottle—as a flower container, he saw the beauty lurking in the simplicity of everyday objects and used them as tea utensils.” Other examples of the current Mitate are like a napkin ring that can be used as a lid rest, or a café au lait bowl that can be used as a matcha tea bowl.

“The key is the intimacy between an object and a person. We hold the utensils with both hands and sip from them, so we appreciate the original texture of the objects and the materials they are made of. Moreover, in Japan, each person has his or her own tableware, such as a personal rice bowl, chopsticks, and teacup. It is rare in European tableware that each person has their own cutlery and crockery, and that a person inherits what his or her grandparents or parents used, and continues to use it with care even if it is damaged or chipped.” This is similar to the way in which cracked, chipped, or broken Japanese tea bowls are often repaired with Kintsugi (golden joinery) and continue to be used with care, with close proximity to an individual’s presence or memory.

“A real tea ceremony is not just performing arts. It’s about shortening the distance among objects, tools, utensils, and people. It’s not only about objects and people, but also about the huge amount of archives that have been left behind. Through that, we have a dialogue with the deceased, people who have passed away, and our ancestors. That’s one aspect of Cha-no-yu. On top of that, we should enjoy it together. And that’s the interesting part of a tea ceremony. It’s the joy and pleasure of sharing with others at a place where customers come in contact with things made hundreds of years ago, and things made in distant foreign countries. Whether it is something made in France, Japan, Italy, or China, 100 or 300 years ago, or something made yesterday, the joy of a tea ceremony is to share it with someone who is right in front of you and to simultaneously feel the presence of someone in the past.”