A master of tea’s art and science

by Setsuko Kamiya

Kunihiko Sokan Horinouchi, 59, is not just the 13th master of the tea house Horinouchi Choseian, one of the two subdivisions of the Omotesenke, a major school of traditional Japanese tea ceremony. As the head of one of the two families which, for generations, have been supporting the Omotesenke tradition and also supporting the school’s grand master, now the 14th Sen Sousa, Horinouchi (left) also takes it upon himself to emphasize that tea making is not just an art, but also a science.

Some may wonder what place science could ever have in chanoyu (the way of tea), that aesthetic and highly structured method of preparing green tea from powdered leaves in the company of guests.

According to Horinouchi, though, there’s no disjuncture at all.

“Many elements in our daily lives are subject to the laws of nature,” says Horinouchi, a science graduate of prestigious Kyoto University. “And because the procedure of making tea is founded on theories that stemmed naturally from the ordinary lives of the pioneers of the way of tea, there are many elements in chanoyu that are inevitably amenable to scientific explanations.”

In his book “Chanoyu no Kagaku Nyumon (Introduction to Science in the Way of Tea),” published by Tankosha Co. in September, Horinouchi explores the science inherent in the Omotesenke way of tea. While some researchers have previously made various scientific observations about different aspects of chanoyu, from the utensils used to the construction of tea rooms and gardens, for none less than a tea master to take a scientific approach is indeed rare.

Often referred to as chaji, a formal tea gathering comprises a simple kaiseki meal, followed by thick tea and then thin tea. Usually held with four people, including the host, a typical chaji lasts for about four hours, including an intermission after the meal while the host prepares for the tea servings that follow it.

Through his knowledge and experience of the tea-ceremony ritual, Horinouchi knows just when to make all the adjustments required of a host, from arranging and rearranging the charcoal in a certain way, to adding cold water to the kettle at a certain time and sensing the exact moment when the water in the kettle is at the correct temperature to serve the tea.

In his book, Horinouchi presents several rational explanations along with scientific data, measurements and graphs to show that chanoyu’s renowned minutiae are not merely formalities developed long ago to aesthetically fill the time. Instead, as his book shows, each step actually — scientifically — creates the optimum conditions for the optimum period to make the best tea possible during the four-hour proceedings.

Among the aspects of chanoyu that Horinouchi examined scientifically was the practice of the host or hostess adding moist ash when they arrange charcoal to make a fire to heat the kettle as the guests enter the tea room. This is done, it is generally considered, to literally damp down the lighter, drier ash placed under the charcoal and stop it from becoming airborne.

However, Horinouchi’s analysis leads him to believe that the practice also evolved because the dampness helps the charcoal to burn more strongly. This is because as the steam from the moist material soars rapidly upward, fresh and highly oxygenated air is drawn in from around the hearth. This, in turn, generates a stronger flame from the charcoal to boil the water in the iron kettle.

Horinouchi also draws out his hypothesis as to why a ladle of cold water is poured into the kettle upon making the thick tea for the guests — which isn’t, it seems, just to cool the hot water. In fact, he argues, it is actually a means of adding air and carbonates (both in dissolved form in the fresh water) to the boiling water in order to change the ion balance to that which best extracts the flavors of the tea — such as its amino acids — to yield the perfect brew.

However, with regard to “the perfect brew,” Horinouchi concedes that though advances in technology have made it possible for him to take the detailed measurements on which his theory is based, in the matter of taste there is still much that cannot be scientifically explained. This is all the more reason to respect his predecessors’ keen senses, he feels.

“Because our predecessors were closer to nature and were used to drinking fresh well water of a much better quality, for example, I think they had delicate tongues that enabled them to discern the perfect conditions for making the best-tasting tea,” he says. “Sadly, people today, who are used to tap water, don’t have that kind of ability anymore.”

Ultimately, Horinouchi says that by appreciating the basic principles of chanoyu scientifically, he aims to make people conscious of each step of the tea-ceremony procedure not just as empty ritual, but as something with precise, practical significance.

“Many people today, even some of those teaching chanoyu, tend to think that it’s simply about following proper procedures,” he laments. “But they need to consider more the reasons why things are done the way they are.”