Thursday, December 19, 2013

Memories of Japan: The Tea Ceremony: Introduction

Green matcha and a sweet to balance
the bitter tea.
Today is Thursday, December 19, 2013.

Besides ikebana, another thing that I wanted to learn more about while in Japan, but never did, was the formal, traditional tea ceremony.  Fortunately, I was able to attend one or two while in Japan, but they simplified things for me, since I was a foreigner.  I realized while I was there that most Japanese don't even know that much about the ceremony.  It's something that must be studied – not just how to prepare and serve the tea, but how to be a guest at a tea ceremony.  There's a ritual for every part of the ceremony, including entering and leaving the room, the seating of guests, making and serving the tea, drinking the tea, and appreciating the tea, the bowl it is served in, the decorative flower arrangement and hanging scroll in the room, the garden outside the teahouse, and even the utensils used to make the tea.   Tea connoisseurs will tell you that you really have to study for about ten years before you know what you're doing. Most of us don't have time for that.  As well, the whole point of the tea ceremony is really about aesthetics, not just about drinking tea.

As with Japanese flower arranging, my best experiences happened in St. Paul, Minnesota, of all places.  The Como Conservatory, which is attached to Como Park and Como Zoo, includes a real Japanese garden, created by master gardeners from Japan, and a real teahouse, built by visiting Japanese carpenters. There is a Tea Society in St. Paul, and people really do spend time studying the tea ceremony.  The ceremonies are held each weekend in June, July and August, and they are so popular that you have to make reservations months in advance in order to attend.  The maximum number of guests who can fit into the teahouse in St. Paul is about eight, I think, and an average number of guests for a tea ceremony in Japan is five or six.  Many times a ceremony is done for only two or three – or even only one guest.

The host ritually prepares the tea
in front of her guests.
The tea ceremony is called Cha no Yu in Japanese, literally "hot water for tea," or Sadō, "the way of tea."  The word cha for tea comes from China, where tea was drunk hundreds of years before it was brought to Japan. A full tea ceremony includes a meal, but the vast, vast majority of people have only ever attended a ceremony at which tea and little sweets are served, and many have not had the experience of having tea in a special tearoom inside a freestanding teahouse.  In Japan, they often serve tea outdoors, where a lot of guests can be served at one time.  People sit on wooden benches on which a red cloth has been draped, and a lot of the rules for the guests are relaxed. Even students of the tea ceremony rarely get a chance to participate in the whole ceremony with a meal.  That usually happens once a year in January, when their teacher himself or herself performs the ceremony for all the students.  The teahouse in St. Paul allows for a formal ceremony, but the formal meal is not served.   

So what happens at a Japanese tea ceremony?  

Guests are invited to walk around the outer garden.  They chat quietly among themselves, or just enjoy the beauty of the garden.  The outer garden of a teahouse in Japan may be small, although the one in St. Paul is quite large.  Outer gardens typically contain ornamental trees, shrubs, and a water element such as a waterfall, pond or pool.  If there is no water element, there may be gravel that has been raked into a pattern to symbolize waves in the ocean.  The gardens are deliberately kept "woodsy" and natural looking to allow guests a smooth transition between the busy outer world and the tranquil natural world.  There are typically stone lanterns along the path, which are lit at night.

Outer Japanese garden at the Como Conservatory
in St. Paul, MN
When the hosts are ready to receive the guests, a bell is sounded and guests are invited to a stone water basin that has just been filled with fresh water.  The basin is low to the ground, so guests must kneel, crouch or bend down to use it.   At this basin, the guests take turns dipping a wooden ladle into the water, then taking a small sip of the water to ritually purify the mouth, and pouring the rest of the water on the hands, to purify them.   The guests are then invited to proceed through a small gate into the inner garden, which contains no flowers, but only ferns, mosses and shrubs.  There may be a bench where guests can sit and wait for the host to invite them into the teahouse.

The sliding door to the teahouse is only thirty-six inches high, and yes, you have to crawl in on your hands and knees.  This was a very important thing in Japan, because at first, only people in the highest levels of society could participate in a tea ceremony.  The fact that everyone had to enter on his or her knees was a powerful symbol of equality in a society rigidly based on social order.  Still, and the Japanese seem to see no dichotomy in this, guests are ranked in order, and they enter the tea house in that order.  I have read that guests can decide for themselves who will take the part of the chief guest, but at the Como tea house, the host simply told us which order she wanted us to sit in.  The last guest to enter is responsible for closing and latching the door.

Entrance to the teahouse
Guests sit along the sides of the room, on the floor.  Women in Japan sit on their legs, resting their hips on the back of their feet.  Most Americans are incapable of this, although I did get the hang of it  when I was young and lithe.  It was actually comfortable, once I got used to it.  No more, that's for sure.  I had to sit with my legs folded to one side, and even that was uncomfortable.  Men can at least sit tailor fashion, although in Japan they do sit on their legs, in a formal position.

There is a preparation room adjoining the main tea room, and tea is generally prepared and served by at least two people, a main host and an assistant.  The implements for making tea are brought from the preparation room and arranged  around the hearth where the water is being heated.  In a ceremony in Japan, the host will have even gone to the trouble of preparing his own charcoal for the fire!  There are at least thirteen implements used to make matcha, the kind of bitter tea used in the tea ceremony.  Each of these implements is costly, and considered to be an art object. 
A guest enters the teahouse.
Once everything is in place, the host ritually purifies each of the implements in front of the guests, then sets about putting matcha tea powder in a bowl and adding hot water, a little at a time and stirring to dissolve the tea powder into a thin paste, then adding more hot water and stirring it in to a froth with a bamboo whisk.   Each and every motion is ritualized, and each utensil is used in a precise order.  Guests may not know much about the exact preparation of tea, but it's amazing to watch someone perform something like this, knowing that they have spent months, or more likely years, learning how to do it properly. 

The host passes the tea bowl to the main guest, who bows before accepting it. The tea bowl will have a design on one side, or at least one "interesting" side to it.  That side is presented facing the guest. The guest raises the bowl and looks at the design, then rotates the bowl slowly with his right hand while holding the bowl in the left hand.  The guest will drink only three sips, then wipe the rim of the bowl before passing it to the next guest.  

When everyone has tasted the tea, the host will make one more bowl of tea, this time a thinner tea to rinse the palate.  This thinner tea is served to every guest in his own bowl, and there will be some sweets offered to complement the bitter taste of the tea.  In Japan, guests are not offered a zabuton (cushion) to sit on until the weaker tea is served.   This second bowl of tea is served in a bowl that may be more decorative than the first bowl. 

Tea served outdoors to many guests at once
During the tea ceremony, the head guest leads the conversation with the host about the tea and utensils used for the ceremony.  They also talk about the flower arrangement and the hanging scroll in the ceremonial niche called a tokonoma.  When the tea is finished, the guests express admiration for the tea and the skill of the host, then they take their departure. 

Because the Japanese tea ceremony seems to have a big impact on Japanese culture, in general, I'm going to break this subject up into several parts over the next few days.  I'd like to talk a little more about teahouses, in particular, the tatami mats, the tokonoma, the hanging scrolls, and the special ikebana flower arrangements created just for tea ceremonies.  I want to talk a little about the history and philosophy behind the tea ceremony, because the philosophy behind the ceremony permeates all experiences in Japan. :-)

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