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The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura (thoughts)

August 3, 2011


What a delightful little book! Written in 1905, when Japanese culture was being swamped by West, Okakura describes ‘tea-ism,’ which is a way of practicing Zen Buddhist principles. The idea of wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in older, imperfect, simple objects particularly draws me (those who know more than me, forgive me the the gross oversimplification). I will always choose something old over something new: the sense of history, of ‘living’ just seems greater. So Okakura’s more general musings on Zen Buddhism and the Japanese aesthetic struck home with. And as an avid tea lover, I also enjoyed the brief sketch of tea’s history (and why it’s better than other drinks, hehe). Okakura just has a wonderful writing style, like an older professor in a slightly shabby cardigan sitting down to explain the real beauty of life to a young student. His contrast between the East and the West was interesting, and while he occasionally sounds a bit defensive (understandable, given in the period he was writing in), he seems to champion the best aspects of both cultures. This is a learned little book, although those looking for detailed, fact-based arguments or the kind of intellectual scaffolding common amongst philosophers might be frustrated. Okakura is more describing tea-ism than defending it, laying out its ideals and beauty for a reader completely new to the concept. As such a reader, I found myself utterly charmed. I plan to read his The Ideals of the East very soon. Highly recommended to any tea affiacandos, those interested in Japanese culture, readers who enjoy ‘popular philosophy’ books, those with a taste stunning essays of the creative nonfiction variety, or anyone looking for some inspiration to simplify their life.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2011 7:00 am

    This does sound fascinating! I think it might make a great gift for my sister.

  2. August 3, 2011 9:20 am

    I don’t think I’ve read anything even remotely touching on any of those things. I have a feeling that I would be utterly charmed as well. Can’t wait to find out. :)

  3. August 3, 2011 10:30 am

    This sounds wonderful! There is a public domain edition available that I just sent to my Kindle! Now, for the time to relax with a cup of tea and read it.

    • August 4, 2011 11:01 am

      Was it originally written in English? Or is it a public domain translation? If it was originally written in English, I’m totally getting a copy on to my Nook. :D

  4. August 3, 2011 12:02 pm

    Oooh, tea and popular philosophy, eh? Sounds delightful!

  5. August 3, 2011 4:22 pm

    Great review Eva I m looking for some different Japanese writers to try so will note this one down and always like to try something a bit older from somewhere ,all the best stu

    • August 4, 2011 11:02 am

      I agree: I find it great fun to read older nonfiction books!

  6. August 3, 2011 9:42 pm

    Sounds lovely! Have you read A History of the World in Six Glasses? It traces history (in broad sweeps) based on what people were drinking at the time, and how the drink and culture went together. One of the sections, of course, is on tea.

    • August 4, 2011 11:02 am

      I haven’t! I’ll pop it on my wishlist. :)

  7. August 3, 2011 10:03 pm

    I’ve seen this one from time to time…now I’ll have to try it! Thanks, Eva!

  8. August 3, 2011 10:43 pm

    Considering I have a nice hot cup of English Breakfast sitting next to me, I think I need to look at this one. :) Thanks for the review!

  9. August 4, 2011 12:42 pm

    I’m so glad you loved this, Eva! David (my partner, who adores this book) will be happy, and I will be spurred to pick it up more quickly. And re: your question to Stefanie, it was indeed originally written in English, which I tend to forget on a regular basis, haha.

  10. August 8, 2011 4:39 pm

    I know about this book but haven’t read it (I really should). There’s a depth to tea and the tea ceremony which I know of but haven’t really explored (my mother used to go for Japanese tea ceremony lessons as a child – it’s one of those things kids used to learn in place of ballet or music in Japan – as did some of my friends) so it’s something I’ve always been interested in. So glad you enjoyed it:)

  11. August 23, 2011 10:29 pm

    Eva – have you read Christopher Benfey’s The Great Wave? Benfey explains why The Book of Tea is in English, along with many other fascinating aspects of America;s interest in Japan and vice versa. Your kind of book, I do believe.

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