Teavana, Honest, and Tazo step aside. Chigusa is here. The Smithsonian’s Sackler Galley’s new exhibit Chigusa and the Art of Tea may be small, but you’ll learn far more than you would on a Snapple lid.
At first, I was confused, because I didn’t realize Chigusa was a single tea storage jar. How could one jar enchant so many people? The answer is in the same way it did, and still does, the Japanese. It’s aesthetic and practical qualities are equally and incredibly important, which is what the exhibit centers on. It aims to show you not only the art of tea from the 16th century, but also, the way these people valued something we would consider so small. The fact that the tea jars were named is only one example of this; this is where Chigusa comes from. Chigusa is the jar’s name and a beautiful word that was often used in Japanese poetry and literature. The tea men thought the name was appropriate for the jar, demonstrating its importance.
To be honest, Chigusa isn’t any sort of eye candy. But as one of the curators stated, “Nothing is beautiful until we say it is,” and that is exactly what the Japanese did; Chigusa’s practical use gave it beauty. Besides Chigusa, other Chinese, Korean, and Japanese tea utensils and bowls are featured throughout the exhibit, along with short films of modern tea men performing tea rituals. You also can’t miss the beautiful Chinese calligraphy from the journal entries men would write about Chigusa and other jars. And we all know if you’re writing about it in your diary, it’s a big deal.
I sampled a brand of ancient Japanese green tea called DoMatcha. It tasted like an earthier version of the tea I drink at dim sum restaurants. I learned that green tea is basically nature’s way of solving all problems, and tea is the second most popular beverage in the world next to water (surprising, I know).
I’m not suggesting you run out to this exhibit immediately, but if you’re in the area, it’s worth a look around. Afterwards, you might appreciate the little things more than usual. You won’t place a piece of pizza in a jar, marvel at the jar, and then enjoy it, but you may start considering tea and its benefits. It must be pretty special if they’re making such a fuss over it…
Chigusa and the Art of Tea opens this Saturday and runs through July 27th at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery. All images courtesy of the Smithsonian’s Freer/Sackler Gallery.