Around the World in Classics: The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

Our new series exploring unsung classics from around the world begins with a Japanese book as all-consuming and uncategorisable as its eponymous drink.   

Seb Emina
Around the World in Classics The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura Japan
Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

For those whose job or habit it is to arrange books into their proper categories, Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea poses a bit of a problem: on which shelf does it belong?

On the surface it is, as the title suggests, a book about tea, but to slot it into ‘food and drink’ won’t work, because it’s also at least as much about beauty, nature, religion, the relationship between East and West, the relationship between past and present, and how best to live one’s life. It is also very funny, so neither ‘philosophy’ nor ‘theology’ will do, but ‘humour’ isn’t the solution either, because Okakura is not here for laughs; rather, he uses his wit in the way of a statesman who knows a self-effacing manner is the best way of disarming a sceptical crowd. And then, so there is no doubting his underlying seriousness, The Book of Tea ends with a death.

A maverick librarian might argue for ‘history’, ‘art’, ‘Japan studies’, ‘interior design’ or ‘floristry’. A wise bookshop will have a copy in every section. Even ‘motoring’: cars are never mentioned (Okakura famously used to show up for work on a horse), but there is much in its ideas surrounding Zen that will be helpful to a learner driver.

Failing that, ‘classic literature’ will do.

Then again, perhaps ‘food and drink’ was fine after all, as Okakura is not one to pooh-pooh the importance of little things, least of all those we imbibe with ceremonial, daily regularity. When he addresses the history of tea as it rose to prominence in China, Japan and the rest of the world, we are in the presence of some of the finest food writing ever committed to print. This book is about the titular drink, it really is – but what is tea about? More than we might think, which is what makes so The Book of Tea is tricky to categorise.

'It is a book about tea, but it’s at least as much about how best to live one’s life'

Tea has been treated as medicine, poetry, commodity and much else besides. Like art, Okakura writes, tea has its classic, romantic and naturalistic schools. These take the form of three methods of preparation which, in historic order, are: boiled, whipped and steeped. The last of these styles dominates 21st century brewing, but the others are very much still in play. Matcha, the whipped tea used in the formal tea ceremony, is making inroads into western hot drink markets.

Having been educated at a Western-style school in Yokohama, Okakura was ideally placed to identify the common ground between societies who so often imagined that no common ground existed. Europeans and Americans may see the tea ceremony as an example of ‘the quaintness and childishness of the East’, he writes, but it works both ways: Japanese writers once said of Europeans that they had bushy tails hidden in their clothes.

The Book of Tea tells us that while the tea ceremony is integral to Japanese culture, the values it represents are – or could be – universal. It is what happens when you take an element of everyday life (in this case, a cuppa), and treat it as seriously as you treat the highest forms of art. He calls this philosophy Teaism, and Teaism applies to us all: the first chapter of The Book of Tea is called ‘The Cup of Humanity’.

It’s a short book, an extended essay of seven chapters. You could read one chapter a day for a week. You could drink a cup of tea with each chapter, and it will take around the same time to read the chapter as it does to drink the cup. There ought to be a Teaism section in the bookshop so we finally know where to find The Book of Tea – though Okakura would likely have argued that all books, ultimately, belong there.


Originally published in The Happy Reader, the print magazine from Penguin Classics.

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