Sen no Rikyu: The Greatest Japanese Tea Master

Sen no Rikyu
By Anonymous Momoyama-period artist –, パブリック・ドメイン, Link

Sen no Rikyū (千利休), also written as Sen Rikyū, is best known for perfecting the Japanese tea ceremony.

Such was his importance, that he served as the tea master of two of Japan’s most famous feudal lords: Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

In Japanese, he is sometimes referred to as chasei (茶聖, tea saint).

The life of Sen no Rikyū

His childhood name was Tanaka Yoshirō (田中 与四郎). He was born in Sakai, Osaka prefecture, in 1522.

Rikyū’s father was Tanaka Yohyōe (田中 与兵衛), a renowned fish wholesaler. His mother was Gesshin Myōchin (月岑 妙珎).

He started learning the tea ceremony when he was seventeen, under Kitamuki Dōchin (北向 道陳).

Dōchin had a good relationship with the tea master Takeno Jōō, who lived close by.

He recommended Jōō to Rikyū, who would start classes with his new master when he was nineteen years old.

Jōō was an indirect pupil of Murata Jukō, the founder of the Japanese tea ceremony. Like Jukō, Jōō was a practitioner of the wabicha style of the tea ceremony.

Rikyū would take the wabi aesthetic even further. Not only in terms of tea utensils as had been done before, but also in the appearance of the tea room and the etiquette of the tea ceremony itself.


Some time after he started to learn tea under Jōō, Rikyū’s father died. His grandfather also died around that year.

On 1544, Matsuya Hisamasa (松屋久政) who was a tea master from Jukō’s school, invited Rikyū to hold a tea ceremony.

This is the first reliable written account about Rikyū performing his own tea ceremony for guests. He was 22 at the time.

He then had Zen training in Nanshū temple (南宗寺), also in Sakai. This would lead him to eventually study at Daitoku temple (大徳寺) in Kyoto.

Many great tea masters in Japanese history have studied at Daitoku temple, by the way.

On 1569 Sakai fell under control of the powerful feudal lord Oda Nobunaga (織田 信長 ). He employed Rikyū as his tea master, as well as Imai Sōkyū (今井 宗久) and Tsuda Sōgyū (津田 宗及).

Nobunaga was eager to have tea masters by his side because at the time the tea ceremony was not only a status symbol but a political tool.

Only his vassals were allowed to participate in the tea ceremony, it was the highest honor. In addition, Nobunaga would often reward the success of his generals with an expensive tea utensil.

It was during this time that treasured tea bowls would cost more than a castle, and some feudal lords preferred to be rewarded with teaware instead of land.

To expand on this point, let’s take a look at the story of the famous hiragumo tea kettle (平蜘蛛釜) that belonged to Matsunaga Hisahide (松永 久秀) the head of the Yamato Matsunaga clan.

On 1577 his castle was sieged so that he couldn’t escape. Hisahide received a message stating that if he submitted the hiragumo tea kettle, his life would be spared.

Not intending to let Nobunaga have his head, much less his precious tea kettle, Hisahide filled the tea kettle with gunpowder and blew himself up along with it.

Service to Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Nobunaga died in 1582. His succesor was Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣 秀吉).

Hideyoshi needed Rikyū by his side to show his authority, and Rikyū gained more influence as a result. It was a beneficial relationship for both of them.

Also, Hideyoshi was even more into the tea ceremony than Nobunaga was.

Rikyū became very close to Hideyoshi. He was one of the few who could directly speak to him.

Hideyoshi ordered Rikyū to build a tea room. Rikyū completed the Taian
(待庵) tea house six months later.

Taian still exists today, it’s a national treasure of Japan. The most striking feature is how small it is, an area of just two tatami mats.

Rikyū preferred these types of rustic tea rooms, as oppossed to the lavish golden tea room that Hideyoshi would build later on.

Rikyū also prefered Japanese tea ware, which was much cheaper then the Chinese tea ware at the time.

He designed many tea utensils himself such as tea spoons, tea bowls and even a flower vase.

For example, the famous Raku ware was developed by Rikyū and the potter Chōjiro (長次郎).

On 1585, Hideyoshi sent Rikyū to prepare tea for emperor Ōgimachi (正親町天皇) at the imperial palace. In return, the emperor gave him the name “Rikyū”.

Two years later, when Rikyū was 65, Hideyoshi organized the greatest tea ceremony in the history of Japan: The Grand Kitano Tea Ceremony (北野大茶湯).

Rikyū played an important role. There were close to one thousand guests.

The last days of Rikyū

The friendship between Rikyū and Hideyoshi started to deteriorate.

When Rikyū was 68, his favorite pupil Yamanoue Sōji (山上宗二) made a remark that infuriated Hideyoshi. The incident led to Sōji being decapitated after having his nose and ears sliced.

On 1591, Hideyoshi’s brother Toyotomi Hidenaga (豊臣 秀長) passed away. He was one of Rikyū’s main supporters.

Rikyū had many enemies, because they resented the closeness and influence that Rikyū had with Hideyoshi.

To make a long story short, it isn’t entirely clear why Hideyoshi was so upset with Rikyū, but he ordered him to commit suicide that same year.

Rikyū performed the tea ceremony one last time, and then took his own life. His severed head was exposed on a bridge.

After Rikyū’s death

Rikyū had two children with his wife Hōshin Myōju (宝心妙樹). His son was Sen Dōan (千道安) and his daughter was Okame (お亀).

Dōan established the Sakaisenke school of the tea ceremony. However, as he had no children, when he died the Sakaisenke school disappeared.

Rikyū’s second wife, Sōon (宗恩), had a child which was adopted into the family: Sen Shōan (千少庵).

Shōan started the Kyōsenke school.

He also married Rikyū’s daughter Okame, and had a child named Sen Sōtan

Sōtan, in turn, had four children: Sen Sōshitsu (千宗室), Sen Sōsa (千宗左), Sen Sōshu (千宗守), and Sen Sōsetsu (千宗拙).

The eldest son, Sōsetsu, didn’t have a good relationship with his father and ended up being disinherited.

As for the other three sons, they started the San Senke, which are the three main schools of the Japanese tea ceremony.

Sōsa inherited the main building (omoya in Japanese) of the state, so his school is named Omotesenke (表千家). It is the second largest school.

Sōshitsu inherited a house behind the main building. Ura means “rear” in Japanese, that’s why his school is named Urasenke (裏千家). It is the largest school.

Finally, Sōshu inherited a house on Mushanokōji street. His school is the Mushanokōjisenke (武者小路千家).

More than 400 years after his death, Rikyū’s legacy carries on.

Today, many people both inside and outside Japan practice the Japanese tea ceremony.

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