The spirit of serenity, which Zen Buddhism seeks to cultivate, is a key aspect of Japan’s tea ceremony as it is of traditional Japanese art. In his iconic The Book of Tea, art critic Okakura Kakuzo drew a connection between the world of art and the world of tea :

“The tea-masters held that real appreciation of art is only possible to those who make of it a living influence. Thus they sought to regulate their daily life by the high standard of refinement which obtained in the tea-room. In all circumstances serenity of mind should be maintained, and conversation should be conducted as never to mar the harmony of the surroundings.”

Serenity of mind — what a precious thing to have amid the chaos of modern-day life. I hope that art as represented by the following woodblock prints by Japanese masters would serve as one path towards this goal. The brief annotations are mine.

After the Rain in Akashi-cho, 1933
Hasui Kawase (1883–1957)
Courtesy of the National Diet Library (via Wikimedia Commons)

Kawase accentuates the tranquil atmosphere of the harbour by placing a solitary dog on the wharf. It is looking across the silent blue water as if in contemplation. In the distance are the silhouettes of houses and other buildings. The faint glow from their windows and the smoke billowing from a chimney are the only perceptible signs of human activity.

Lake Suwa in Shinano Province, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, c. 1830–1831
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849)
Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

In this Hokusai piece, the stillness of the lake is emphasised by the absence of colour. The water is all white as far as the eye can see — no ripples even where the small fishing boat is. At the centre is a rock on which stands a shrine and two trees, which subtly conveys the idea of harmony with nature and with the spiritual world.

Long Bridge of Seta, Edo period (1615–1868)
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858)
Courtesy of The Metropolian Museum of Art

Depicted in this panoramic landscape is the historic Kara-hashi Bridge which spans the Seta River that flows out of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake. Except for some white streaks that suggest ripples, the waters are calm. It is a windless day as indicated by the perpendicular white sails of the fishing boats.

Kawase Hasui Print Collection II, 1933
Hasui Kawase (1883–1957)
Courtesy of the National Diet Library (via Wikimedia Commons)

Kawase used shades of blue and greenish grey to create a charming and sombre seascape. The water seems almost as still as the rocks. The high horizon line is demarcated by billowing clouds to highlight even more the tranquil sea.

Kawaguchi, 1857
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858)
Courtesy of The Metropolian Museum of Art

Hiroshige’s splendid woodblock print shows a parade of fishing boats on a winding river. But the waters are calm and have the colour of a beautiful clear sky. There is a sense of order and harmony between man and nature.

Uraga Harbor, c. 1837
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858)
Courtesy of The Metropolian Museum of Art

Framed by snow-covered mountains and a white sky, the speckled sea looks frozen in time in this Hiroshige seascape. The houses on the shore are huddled together as though they were trying to keep warm in the depth of winter..

Hikaru umi (Shining sea), 1926
Hiroshi Yoshida (1876–1950)
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, USA

Serenity and beauty are wedded in Yoshida’s woodblock print as they are in the Japanese tea ceremony. The two sailing boats in the foreground are like two devotees praying before a shrine.

~ Barista Uno

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