[Japan: ca. 1840-50].
Two large and fine paintings in hanging scroll format, depicting all the steps in the production of the finest Uji tea by the Kanbayashi family, to be sent to the Tokugawa shogun in Edo. These scrolls are of very great beauty and complexity and were surely painted by a master artist (see below).
The production and drinking of tea in Japan has a long and rich history, extending back to the Nara period (710-94), when tea was brought back by diplomatic missions from China. Emperor Saga was served tea in 815 and afterwards ordered the establishment of several tea plantations near the capital of Kyoto. It was soon discovered that Uji, a village located south of Kyoto, was the ideal location to produce excellent tea leaves due to its rich soil and high-quality water. It became Japan’s first major tea-producing region and has maintained its reputation for superior tea.
In the 15th century, the cultivation and production of tea in Uji underwent several transformations: the technique was introduced of covering young tea buds, shielding them from the sun, during the last weeks before plucking to improve their flavor (ooishita saibai); and the quality of the tea was steadily improved through careful processing.
Various shoguns, including Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1536-98) and Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616), supported the tea growers and processors in Uji. By the early 17th century, an annual procession to celebrate the Shogunate’s acquisition of its annual stocks of tea from Uji — Ochatsubo dochu, “Travelling of the Shogun’s Tea Jar” — was formalized as an official ritual event, akin to political theater, and thereby reinforcing Tokugawa authority. A delegation — Uji saichashi (“Uji tea-picking envoy”), including a “Tea Specialist” (sukiya gashira) and two subordinate “Tea Monks” (chabozu) — was sent with empty jars by the shogun each spring to observe the harvest and participate in the processing and selection of the tea leaves for the shogun. After many laborious steps of processing and selection (as we shall see), the tea leaves were placed in large jars. A few of these jars were sent as an offering to the Imperial Court (Chatsubo shinken) in Kyoto, and the remainder were carried to Edo Castle in the autumn. The round-trip procession was a highly elaborate and publicized event. When the envoys returned to Edo, the leaves were ground and made into powdered green tea for consumption at formal events at Edo Castle.
During the last part of the 16th century and early years of the 17th century, members of the Kanbayashi (or Kamibayashi) family found favor with several shoguns and eventually served as exclusive suppliers to the shoguns and the great daimyo (the company, established in 1558, still exists as Kanbayashi Shunsho honten and is affiliated with Coca-Cola). The family was given the honorific title of On cha todori (“president of the Uji tea industry”) and was also known as On mono chashi (or Omono chashi, “tea suppliers to the imperial family and shogun and leading nobility”). They were allowed to wear samurai clothing and carry swords.
Our scrolls beautifully depict all the steps of harvesting, processing, selecting, and packing the tea leaves for transportation to the shogun in Edo.
SCROLL ONE: This is composed of five different scenes. The first depicts two men erecting poles at the sides of a tea field, preparing to cover the tea bushes, shielding them with netting from the sun. Across the river, the second image shows a member of the Kanbayashi family (with sword at hip) discussing the current crop with an employee who has a ledger book in front of him. They are being served tea while another employee is showing the just-harvested leaves. Behind them, we see several women picking through the plucked leaves, searching for impurities.
The next scene is splendid: it shows many women harvesting the young tea leaves from the bushes, which have been covered by netting supported by poles. It is a “beehive” of activity, with about ten women working, assisted by young men carrying the leaves away in buckets. A woman in the background is taking a break and nursing her child. The fourth scene shows another member of the Kanbayshi family leading a group of workers to the fields. A senior assistant is carrying a flag with the Kanbayashi family symbol.
The final scene offers valuable information regarding the steps of processing. We see a large roofed building, and on the right side is the heating room where steam is produced to heat the harvested leaves. To the left is a room where the actual steaming of the leaves is taking place. The leaves are then spread out in bins and cooled by women using fans. Further to the left, we see men sifting to separate the smallest and finest leaves from stems and larger leaves. The final product is being weighed on a scale and placed into fine wooden boxes.
The “story” of this first scroll, with five scenes, has been artfully constructed, starting at the bottom and weaving its way upwards. The brushwork is highly refined and detailed: the faces showing a wide range of expression, the leaves individually painted, and the coloring extremely subtle.
SCROLL TWO: This is also composed of five scenes. The first, at bottom, shows Kanbayashi employees further drying the leaves and placing them into large flat baskets, which are carried to the next room. On top of the basket is a piece of paper describing the quality of the leaves. Yet another sifting and inspection of leaves takes place. The next scene, upstairs, shows a group of women spreading the leaves over a large table and picking through the leaves by hand, again removing any impurities. These leaves are then passed to two inspectors for further review.
The third scene shows several women yet again examining the leaves and removing further impurities, this time with chopsticks. They turn and present the trays holding the leaves to a high-level Kanbayashi employee for approval. In turn, the trays are then presented to the representatives from the shogun, who are carrying swords and wearing masks and official attire. They use chopsticks to further cull undesirable leaves. In the background are large jars holding tea in a storage room.
The fourth scene is that of a tea ceremony room, where members of the Kanbayashi family and government officials are meeting and conducting a tasting.
The final scene, at the top of the scroll, shows a formal room with government officials, observed by other members of the delegation (presumably the “Tea Specialist” and the two “Tea Monks”) packing the tea in small envelopes and placing them in large jars. In the back is a beautiful garden.
We can attribute, with some confidence, these hanging picture scrolls to Kagaku Ozawa (fl. 1840-50), painter, draftsman, and poet in Kyoto. He was a follower of Kazan Yokoyama (1781-1837).
The two scrolls are in fine and fresh condition, preserved in a wooden box. The second scroll suffers from minor worming.
❧ Much of our description is based on the wonderful article by Prof. Taka Oshkiri, “The Shogun’s Tea Jar: Ritual, Material Culture, and Political Authority in Early Modern Japan” in The Historical Journal (Cambridge Univ. Press), 59 (2016), pp. 927-45.
Item ID: 6951