Monday, 8 October 2012

The Gentle Art of Tea

While in Japan, Jules and I have made it our goal to explore as many of their fascinating cultural traditions as possible. One of which is the Japanese tea ceremony that had remained somewhat of a mystery to us both, although we were keen to learn more about what seemed to be the most humble of tasks. So while planning a visit to Kyoto, Jules had managed to organize a visit to a traditional teahouse where it was promised that many of the ancient rituals would be explained.

Upon entering the tiny traditional wooden house, we were warmly greeted by a very softly spoken lady dressed in traditional kimono. We removed our shoes, as is the norm and stepped up into the tatami room to take up our sitting positions side by side as we were asked to do. The lady sat opposite and began by initially explaining the importance of the correct seating position in relation to the host and the room in general. Clearly there were going to be many ‘rules’ that would need to be observed and we would need to listen carefully in order to respectfully observe each gesture and movement. She explained that the tea ceremony was not something the Japanese would have done in their own home, but rather an event that would occur in a designated room (chashitsu) of a small wooden building within a tranquil setting. Here, a small group of ‘guests’ would sit silently to observe the disciplined ritual of making a simple bowl of green tea called ‘matcha’. It seemed that the act was not so much about making tea but about achieving a total aesthetic, while searching for spiritual and emotional purification. This is certainly quite a complex concept for us westerners to grasp, particularly as our notion of tea drinking has always been more about the drinking, rather than the making.

Our gentle host began to point out the various implements involved in the ceremony, each significant in its own right. It appears that functionality was only a small part of their story; as they are imbued with much symbolic meaning that originate from their initial creation through to their actual use. Several of the pieces are created by hand from a single piece of bamboo, including the long ladle used for transporting the hot water from the pot to the bowl (Hishaku), the whisk used for mixing the tea and water (Chasen) and the tea scoop that deposits a small pinch of tea into the bowl (Chashaku). We were told that this particular implement is often provided with its own unique name, given to coincide with the seasons. Likewise, the much prized tea bowls are also often named by their owners and become much cherished items that are passed on from generation to generation. Another significant item is a small piece of linen or hemp cloth that is used to wipe the tea bowl and tea container. Through the ritual of folding and unfolding this cloth, our host delicately demonstrated its highly disciplined use as she prepared to begin the ceremony.

We began to discover that there was much more to the ceremony than purely drinking tea and the host might prepare for a 'tea party' by producing some sweet or savory delicacies for the guests, while at other times Saki (Japanese rice wine) may also be served. On this occasion we were offered a sample of a sugar coated jelly that was not dislike a western-style jelly confectionary. We then all sampled the tea to be served from a communal bowl that was passed along the line. We were told that the tea used in a tea ceremony is a much better grade than normally sold as green tea and as a result it had a stronger taste than usual and that was certainly the case. Therefore, only a small pinch of ‘Matcha’ would need to be scooped up with the ‘Chashaku’ in order to achieve a full flavor. In our bowls we each used our ‘Chasen’ to whisk the much desired froth of the tea, which our host claimed was an art in itself often taking many years to perfect. When finished, we were shown the correct way to drink our tea, which involving raising the bowl and turning it a quarter of a turn clockwise twice, in order to position the patterning on the bowl correctly. Having drunk from the bowl, it again had to be turned, but this time anti-clockwise before being returned to its original position some 16 centimeters in front of us on the matt…such details!

The ceremony had taken an hour, but we realized that we were only just beginning to scratch the surface of this precise and ancient art form. Our host told us that she had been continually studying the art of ‘the tea ceremony’ for over 10 ten years and that there was indeed still much to learn. Apparently ‘Tea Masters’ are held in particular high regard in Japan, as they hold strong traditional connections within the Buddhist faith. Despite the briefness of our encounter, we had been most impressed by the tranquility of the whole experience. What we had initially considered to be a very simple act, we were quick to recognise was a highly disciplined and multi faceted art form. Sitting in a silent room, listening to the gentle sound of hot water pouring into the ceramic bowl, the whisking of the tea and gentle sips from the bowl … at that moment, it all made sense! I’m not sure whether I can look at tea making in quite the same way ever again!

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