Working as I do in an office job (administration REPRESENT), tea is one of those things I like to keep an eye on. On Thursday I discovered the name of the greatest tea maker in history while visiting the British Museum – one Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591). He’s responsible for pretty much every aspect of every tea ceremony in the modern world – what Shakespeare was to Jacobean drama, Rikyū was to tea.
Rikyū was born in the Osaka prefecture of Japan. I’m not making that up, even though “Osaka” is the default Japanese place name that people use when they think Tokyo’s too obvious. I’ve forgotten what my point was going to be.
He studied teamaking and Zen, probably both at the same time (according to sources).
His death came when his master, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ordered that he commit ceremonial suicide for reasons that are still not entirely clear. Personally, I think they fell out over the “milk before tea/tea before milk” debate.
Anyway, to see a tea house as recommended by Mr Rikyū, I suggest visiting the often-neglected Japanese galleries at the British Museum. One of the things that bugs me about that museum is the fact that people tend to come for the mummies and ignore the rest, despite there being some fascinating galleries that don’t contain any dead people at all.
On the subject of the debate over tea first/milk first, I can throw some light on the matter. People will argue that tea first scalds the milk, or that milk first ruins the milk/tea ratio. The argument actually arose originally from a rather different source. See, I have folks from Staffordshire, so I know a little bit about pottery (it’s coded into my genes, that is totally how genetics works, ask Richard Dawkins if you don’t believe me). The deal was that, back in the day, bone china was a luxury. If you weren’t so wealthy, you’d drink your tea from an earthenware mug. The thing about low-quality earthenware back then was that it couldn’t take the shock of boiling water and would crack (which would seem to be a fairly major design flaw). Therefore you’d put the milk in first to soften the blow. Expensive bone china, however, could take the boiling water and beg for more. Therefore, snobby types would take advantage of this by putting the tea in first, to prove that they could afford the real deal. And now you know.
George Orwell had something to say about tea: http://www.booksatoz.com/witsend/tea/orwell.htm