The Tea Ceremonialist: Kyoto's Toru Ota

An expert on tea ceremony and wagashi gives us his insight into the storied Japanese traditions.

Toru Ota, the fourth-generation owner of Kyoto’s Oimatsu confectionery (suppliers of wagashi to the imperial family), is pushing the boundaries of the tea ceremony (he hosted one at the 2015 Venice Biennale), in part through his modern wagashi designs. In addition to being a tea master—Tadao Ando and Issey Miyake are fans—he’s a painter, poet, scholar, and even trained as an engineer. Here, the Renaissance man details his intricate process.

How vital is wagashi in a tea ceremony?

Each ceremony has a main theme expressed by an artistic scroll [depicting birds, flowers, landscapes] hung in the tearoom alcove. Wagashi must take cues from the scroll.

But you’ve made wagashi shaped like soccer balls in Germany.

It’s important to preserve the base of tradition while making wagashi relevant to the times and the guests. Recently in Japan, I incorporated the image of chidori, a bird whose name, A Thousand Birds, is auspicious in our culture, into an M. C. Escher–inspired wagashi. My creations are so specific that I have never made the same sweet twice. It’s that kind of art for me.

How do you prepare for tea ceremonies in other countries?

I investigate the culture. If I’m asked to perform in Paris, I study opera and read Parisian novels. Then I try to express something from those arts in my sweets.

In your ceremonies you seem to integrate an element of play alongside your deep preparation.

I have a lot of fun with it all. One time I incorporated my science training. I wore a lab coat and used lab equipment to make wagashi in petri dishes. 

Ota’s confections can be tried at Oimatsu, Kitano Kamishichiken, Kamigyo-ku; 81-75/463-3050; oimatu.co.jp.

For more on wagashi, see our article Not Too Sweet »