Japanese Rituals and Tea

A dear friend commented on my essay on English tea, that this elaborate meal is very different from an Asian tea – leading me to consider my experience with traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. The first time I benefited from participation in this ancient ritual I was not quite thirteen years old. My mother and I were traveling from the U.S. to Vietnam by ocean liner, a zigzag course from San Francisco to Hawaii to Osaka to Manila to Hong Kong, where we were to land and meet my father for the last leg by plane to Saigon. My mother got bored with life on the ship and decided we should get off in Osaka, and spend a week in Japan before flying to Hong Kong.

Not one to enjoy noisy, busy cities, I found Tokyo interesting but overwhelming. In particular, an hour spent inside a large department store left me feeling frazzled, and as though I were picking people out of my hair and off my skin. Near to the store was a public garden and within the garden a large building which proved to be a cultural museum. Just at the time my mother and I arrived at the entrance to the museum, a young woman in a beautiful kimono announced that a tea ceremony would begin in five minutes. Joining the group that followed her, we walked into a spacious central room where we were invited to be seated on cushions on a tatami floor. In rows, facing an open area, we waited, some talking quietly until the hostess politely shushed everyone.

The walls and ceiling were carved wood, decorated sparingly with niches containing a vase, or a statue, or a calligraphy scroll. The impression was of richness but also a quiet simplicity. Despite being part of a relatively large group (we must have been thirty people) I felt as though a space had opened around me, allowing me to relax and expand. Perhaps it was the size of the room, or its dimensions that created the sense of airiness which I found so soothing.

The tea master entered silently, gliding to his place facing us, a low table and a brazier arranged so as to be within easy reach, yet artistically angled to present to us, his guests, a broken line reminiscent of waves breaking across the tatami sand. The master bowed to us, and we somewhat raggedly bowed back. That is, the Japanese in the group bowed gracefully and in unison – we few Westerners belatedly realizing what was expected, followed as best we were able.

The hostess knelt to the side of the tea master, again gracefully angled to enhance the pattern presented to us. She passed items to the master in perfect rhythm with his movements, and without any visible requests. I concluded that she knew the ritual as thoroughly as he did. Each gesture of each of their four hands was controlled, graceful, careful and complete – a dance of fingers wiping bowls, rotating the tea canister, positioning the kettle, showing off the items used to scoop the tea powder, to stir it, and finally rotating the bowl of tea to present its most beautiful face to the guest for whom it was intended. In turn, the hostess brought a bowl of tea to each of us, then returned the drained vessel to a row behind the master. When we had each had our few sips of thick, bitter, refreshingly energizing, green beverage, and all our bowls were lined up facing us, the hostess and master bowed to us and we – this time collectively, no laggards – bowed back.

The master rose and left the hall, and the hostess signaled for us to also stand. The Japanese rose gracefully while we Westerners found our own, often inelegant ways to our feet. We were escorted back to the entrance hall of the museum, and quietly invited to tour the rooms, which included ancient tea ceremony implements, and gorgeous kimono. I did my best to carry the silence, the stillness, the ritual formality and peace of the ceremony with me as I studied the displays. I still remember how tempted I was to scold the few Western visitors who burst into conversation near by, criticizing the tea as not being what they expected, barely drinkable, not something they would ever willingly have again.

Unlike with English teas, which I’ve enjoyed many times in many lands, I have only experienced that one fully formal Japanese tea ceremony. An acquaintance who married a Japanese, and lived many years in his family home, recently invited me to a tea ceremony that she arranged for a small group of friends at a lovely gallery in Albuquerque. The rituals of turning and admiring and wiping the bowls, of slow-moving hands doing a dance with the tea implements, were familiar despite the many long years since my visit to Japan. At the same time, I was aware of the difference between the formality of the museum ritual, and the “welcome to my home” informality of the ceremony in New Mexico. What they had in common was the creation, through gesture and tradition, of a sense of peace, harmony, stillness, contemplation.

I left the museum on that long ago day, better able to exist within the rush and burble of humanity surrounding me. The ceremony created within me a place of quiet and privacy to which I could retreat, and which I could to some extent then carry with me out into the rest of the day. I’ve learned in later years that other cultural customs also developed in Japan, to provide a sense of privacy to people who live in close proximity, in rooms divided only by paper. For example, the occupant of a room must acknowledge someone who enters before the latter may speak. If unacknowledged, the visitor knows to silently withdraw. Only if the reason for entering the room is of grave importance will the visitor remain, still and silent, until an acknowledgement is offered.

Living most of my life in a very different culture – one that seems to rush to fill any silence with words or music or some sort of noise – I’ve chosen to live in a rural location, in a small house with many large windows that minimize my separation from the trees, grasses, birds and wind surrounding me. Within this retreat I enjoy tea, sometimes green, often strong and black, which I drink from a hand crafted mug. I have my own rituals – the water must be boiling, the tea of good quality, the pot a pretty one. Neither English nor Japanese, nor the Russian of my father’s tea preference, but a blend of all three and a link to cultures and countries and lives I’ve been privileged to encounter.

In Full Glory

In Full Glory

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