Today I’m going to write about Peter Paul Rubens, King James I and Britain’s favourite beverage. Along the way there’ll be a telescope, a daruma doll and some scones. What links all these things? An event I went to on Sunday called Two Cultures United by Tea, held at the Banqueting House in Whitehall to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the landing of the first English ship, the Clove, in Japan in 1613.
The daruma doll sat in the entrance with one of its eyes painted in and the other blank. Japanese tradition holds that if you make a wish and paint in one of the daruma’s blank eyes, it will be so keen for you to paint in the other it will help you get what you want. I wonder what this daruma is helping out with?
We sat under the magnificent painted ceiling commissioned by Charles 1 in honour of his father James I and painted by Rubens in 1634. The central oval depicts the apotheosis of the late King James, seen being carried up by Jove’s eagle, assisted by the figure of Justice. Female figures of Piety and Religion accompany his ascent amid a swirling cloud of cherubs. Above him awaits the triumphal crown, carried by the classical goddess Minerva (Wisdom) and a woman representing Victory.
The Clove carried one of the earliest known telescopes, sent by James I as a present to the Shogun. Since the first known working telescope was made in 1608, that was a pretty good present. That telescope has not survived but on display at the Banqueting House was a new telescope, specially commissioned in commemoration.
The focus of Sunday’s event was the Kencha tea ceremony, performed by Akira Matsura, a descendant of the Daimyo of Hirado, Matsura Hoin, who first welcomed John Sarin and the crew of the Clove to Japan.
Matsura Hoin allowed the English Settlers to establish a trading house, the English House, at Hirado, not far from Nagasaki. There is a stone memorial marking the place where it stood.
The Kencha ceremony is a special ceremony in which bowls of tea are offered to the spirits of dead people to honour their memory. On Sunday the tea was offered to King James 1 and to Matsura Hoin.
Tea was then served to everyone present, some two hundred people. The tea is powdered green tea, matcha, and you drink it with little sweets to counteract the bitter taste.
These sweets had been specially made with spices from Hirado.
After the ceremony there was music and readings about tea before everyone decamped to the undercroft to enjoy their tea the English way – with scones and jam.
Thanks to the Japan 400 committee, the Japan Society, and all the sponsors for arranging this event.