#2 – Attend a Japanese Tea Ceremony

I have wanted to visit Japan for probably 15 years.  I was fascinated by the culture, the history and the way they do things.  When I wrote The List, I knew I wanted to put a visit to Japan on there but I also knew it would be an expensive holiday and I wasn’t sure if I could afford it in the time I had.  So, I was clever.  I knew that I wanted to complete this in Japan, but I thought that if that didn’t actually come off, I could still achieve the challenge somewhere in London (or, as it turns out, Oxford).  Fortunately it was an unnecessary precaution.  I was able to realise my dream of visiting Japan.

I recently spent 16 days there during cherry blossom season, taking in the hurly burly craziness that is Tokyo, the world heritage listed temples and shrines of Nikko, attempting to see the elusive Mount Fuji at Hakkone, celebrating the Spring Festival in Takayama, acknowledging the beauty and tragedy of Hiroshima and the enjoying the traditional charm of Kyoto.  It was in Kyoto that I was able to attend a traditional tea ceremony.

Did you know the Japanese tea ceremony has its roots in Zen Buddhism, although it is a spiritual, rather than a religious, ceremony?  It is a fully mindful experience, where the tea master’s every action is deliberate, considered and thorough.  Nothing is rushed, everything is purposeful and elegant.  Traditionally, there are four pillars to the tea ceremony: Peace/Harmony, Respect, Purity and Tranquility.  Before starting the ceremony, the tea master takes the time to centre themselves and ensures the room is quiet and focused, everyone is fully present and not distracted by outside concerns.

The ceremony room is decorated with examples of other Japanese traditional arts such as ikebana (flower arranging) and calligraphy, and is laid out with all the required equipment.

Tea ceremony room

Tea ceremony room

This includes a traditional urn to heat the water, a ladle, tea bowls, bamboo whisk, wooden tea scoop and of course the tea itself.  The tea ceremony is always performed with green tea, not black, and specifically matcha is used.  This is a powdered green tea, so the tea is actually digested rather than infused.  For this reason it is considered a food.  Green tea has medicinal properties such as assisting the body to burn fat, so much so that the Japanese refer to having a ‘dose’ of tea rather than a cup of tea.  However, it’s also got very high caffeine levels so they are careful how much tea they take, and what time of day they drink it.

As with everything in Japan, both the host and the guests are seated on the floor.  Traditionally, the Japanese sit with their legs folded underneath them.  This is not at all comfortable for westerners!

The ceremony commences with the host cleaning and preparing the equipment to be used, using clean drawn hot water and a special cleaning cloth which is otherwise folded into the kimono.

Cleaning the equipment ready for the tea ceremony

Cleaning the equipment ready for the tea ceremony

Preparing the tea

Preparing the tea

Water is ladled from the urn into the tea bowl, the bowl is rinsed, the scoop is cleaned, the whisk cleaned and the water decanted.  This is all performed in an unhurried, purposeful, almost meditative manner.  Before the tea is made, the tea bowl is carefully considered and turned so that the most attractive face is towards the guest. (Tea bowls are handmade so they are never identical even if there is not an obvious decoration.)

The tea is scooped from the container into the bowl, hot water added and the tea whisked with the traditional bamboo whisk until it is frothy, like cappuccino.  The whisking motion is not circular, as you may expect, but goes back and forth from top to bottom across the bowl.  The water is never boiling, because green tea is very bitter and using boiling water would bring out the bitterness even more.  To combat the bitterness, each guest is given a traditional sweet to eat before drinking the tea.

Frothy green tea and traditional bamboo whisk

Frothy green tea and traditional bamboo whisk

Once the tea is prepared, the host bows and places the tea bowl on the floor in front of the first guest.  Before accepting the tea, the guest then bows to the next guest, to apologise for the fact that they are drinking tea before them (and therefore taking precedence) and then the guest turns the tea bowl so that the attractive face (the front) is facing outwards (because it would be impolite to simply enjoy this yourself and deprive the rest of the room of this view).  The tea is finally drunk, and it is considered polite to make a tiny, short slurping noise as you finish the bowl, to indicate enjoyment of the tea.

Presenting the tea to my roommate, Leanne

Presenting the tea to my roommate, Leanne

Me, drinking the tea

Me, drinking the tea

Once the tea has been drunk, the tea master starts again; cleaning the equipment, selecting a new tea bowl and preparing the tea for the next guest.  Sometimes tea ceremonies can last several hours because each guest is served in turn and each time the tea is prepared in an unhurried, deliberate way.  It is a ritual, almost a form of meditation.

Of course, there was much more to Japan that the tea ceremony.  The cherry blossom was stunning, the food tasty and different and the sights interesting.  I’d very much like to return one day to experience autumn, as they have many beautiful tree filled gardens and I think it would be a spectacular sight.  It has been amazing to travel in Japan, and to complete the 31st of my 40 before 40 at the same time.

Here are a selection of my favourite photos from my trip.

Cherry Blossom at the Hakkone Sculpture Park

Cherry Blossom at the Hakkone Sculpture Park

Sake Barrels at the Medji Shrine, Tokyo

Sake Barrels at the Medji Shrine, Tokyo

Ancient and modern in Tokyo - the Sjy Tree and Senso-ji temple

Ancient and modern in Tokyo – the Sky Tree and Senso-ji temple

Having a geisha makeover

Having a geisha makeover

The Golden Pavilion, Kyoto

The Golden Pavilion, Kyoto

Sunset at the Torii gate, Miyajima

Sunset at the Torii gate, Miyajima

Beautiful bento box lunch

Beautiful bento box lunch

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