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Luzon jars in Japanese tea ceremony

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Looking Back

Luzon jars in Japanese tea ceremony

/ 05:05 AM October 18, 2017

Japan and Japanese traditions are literally “foreign” to foreigners who find the externals rather quaint and curious. I remember my mother spending hours watching sumo wrestling on cable TV only to ask me one day: “What is the object of the game?” I couldn’t answer the question because sumo was not my cup of tea.

Having first experienced the tea ceremony when I was nine, I have never outgrown my love for the small delicately shaped and colored sweets that allow one to ingest the thick bitter green tea, but I have learned to appreciate the slow gentle movements that accompany chado or the way of tea. In January 2008, I had the privilege to observe how Dr. Genshitsu Sen, 15th grand tea master in the line of the Urasenke family and tradition, prepared tea in Malacañang Palace for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. There was something about the way small pieces of cloth were set on the table and used to wipe the inside of the tea bowl, the reverent way the tea was poured into the bowl and how the bowl was presented and withdrawn after drinking by moving the bowl clockwise reminded me of the way a Catholic priest would treat a chalice with wine before, during, and after consecration.

I asked Dr. Sen why some movements in the tea ceremony are similar to Catholic ritual. The Japanese in attendance gasped politely. It was an impertinent question indeed, but Dr. Sen smiled and said: “You are right about that, because some of the great tea masters in history were Christian. One of them was Takayama Ukon who was exiled to Manila for his beliefs in 1614.” I used to think Takayama was a Japanese restaurant until I connected the name with a statue that once stood on an island in front of the old Paco train station, of a man now one step away from canonization.

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Dr. Sen then threw me another bit of information that day. He said that in his home in Kyoto, he had a rusonstubo or “Luzon jar,” one of many highly-prized antique jars that were imported into Japan in the 16th century from the island of Luzon, then known to the Japanese as “Ruson.” These jars were highly prized by tea masters not just for their ability to maintain the freshness of tea leaves but also for their rustic charm. Since that chance meeting, I have tracked down references to Luzon jars in early Jesuit and Franciscan accounts of Japan, European accounts of the period from the Italian Francesco Carletti — who visited the Philippines from 1596-1597 — and Antonio de Morga who published “Events of the Philippine Islands” in Mexico in 1609. Both relate, with amazement, how these crude jars, acquired cheaply in Luzon, commanded high prices in Japan.

In 1594, the Franciscan saint Pedro Bautista wrote a report to Gomes Perez Dasmariñas, Spanish governor-general of the Philippines, who had sent him as an envoy to Hideyoshi’s court, requesting that rusontsubo be sourced and sent to Japan as gifts for Hideyoshi and his ministers who valued these very much. So important had rusontsubo become that Hideyoshi tried to monopolize the trade in them, thus rusonstbo played a part in the diplomacy of early Philippine-Japan relations.

Rusontsubo once formed an integral part of tea practice but are hardly brought out today, with the notable exception of the annual delivery of tea from Uji to the Sen family in Kyoto where the ritual opening and sealing of the rusontsubo is a reminder of a time when these jars were brought out in parade, adorned with silk cords and covers, given names, and whose appearances were recorded in tea annals as tangible symbols of status, wealth, culture and power.

When friends ask why Japan seems to be my “happy place,” I explain that most historical research on Philippine-Japan relations is focused on the 20th century from World War II to the postwar reconstruction of both countries, leaving an open field in the 17th and 18th centuries that have to be worked on by younger Filipino historians. Luzon jars have fascinated me for many years because I come across these from time to time in Manila antique shops. The professional interest in these jars goes beyond the tea ceremony because their stories form a picture of Japan in the time of Hideyoshi and suggest the importance of Manila as a trading port. There is growing literature on the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade (1565-1815), now seen as the beginnings of globalization.

Comments are welcome t aocampo@ateneo.edu

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TAGS: “rusontsubo”, Amberth R. Ocampo, Genshitsu Sen, Japanese tea ceremony, Looking Back, Luzon jars, Takayama Ukon
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