Tea master Kobori Enshu

Kobori Enshu was the renaissance man of 17th century Japan. Living through some of the most tumultuous times in Japanese history, his talents and taste were to shape Japanese culture for the early part of the Tokugawa era.

Kirei Sabi

Enshu’s style was known as kirei sabi, variously translated as lustrous refinement, refined patina, or graceful simplicity. This added an element of taste, refinement and elegance to Sen no Rikyu’s starting point of pure, unadorned wabi sabi and his teacher, Furuta Oribe’s, preference for the rough, asymmetrical, and unbalanced.

Influenced by the Heian period, Enshu tried to balance the austere, rough subjectivity of wabi sabi with the elegance, light and taste of Japanese court culture from 600 years before. He did this by placing more value on the light and graceful, while still holding on to the elements of imperfection and roughness. His genius is managing the tension between the two and creating a more sophisticated aesthetics.

This excerpt from Tea in Japan: Essays on the History of Chanoyu illustrates his philosophy:

“For example, a bowl […] was called a warped Korean piece (“Kōrai hizumi). But this warped bowl was definitely not the roughly twisted, radically deformed ceramic ware we found in Furuta Oribe’s Chanoya. Rather it was “warped” in the sense of an emphasis given to the beauty of its flowing line achieved by gracefully bending the bowl’s thinly constructed rim. Enshu’s “warped” was clearly distinguished from Oribe’s “warped” by the sense of kirei.”

Influence

His taste had a profound effect on the tea ceremony: how it is performed, the ceramics and utensils used, the prominence of calligraphy, and the design of the tea house itself. As with Oribe’s style, Enshu’s style was more adapted to the samurai class (rather than the merchant class) and he became the most important tea master of the time, teaching the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu, the way of tea. But he is just as famous for his influence on garden design and architectureboth in his personal capacity and in his role as sakuji bugyô, in charge of overseeing design, construction and maintenance of buildings and sites for the Tokugawa shogunate. He was also well known for his expertise in all the important Japanese arts of his day: poetry (waka), calligraphy, noh drama and ikebana.

Raikyu-ji, Okoyama, Credit: Robert Ketchell

Legacy

Kobori Enshu was the last of the great tea masters and his influence permeated all levels of Japanese culture. Confusingly, two tea schools are still named after him because of the vagaries of the iemoto system: Enshu-ryu and Kobori Enshu Ryu. There is also the Kadou Enshu ikebana school bearing his name.

But it is his philosophy of kirei sabi which opened up a new style in Japanese aesthetics while staying true to Sen no Rikyu’s teaching which will be his legacy to Japanese culture.

Takatori Kirei Sabi Fruit Bowl
He particularly valued pieces from the Takatori kiln, and after this explanation of kirei sabi you can see why. The refined shape, glossy glaze, and rustic colouration combine to give a lovely balance of form and function.