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At a Japanese Tea Ceremony


A tea enthusiast’s fantasy came true for me recently - to participate in a Japanese tea ceremony, not just witness one.

The whole experience was incredible, starting with where it took place. The ‘teamaster’ lived just about 10 minutes walk from my home. Shino Fumino teaches Japanese at the University of Rochester and every last Friday of the month she teaches the Japanese tea ceremony. As I understand her classes run packed. Almost all of her students are Japanese living in the city, but for my friend Cody Kroll, a potter with a passion for Japanese teaware.

Thanks to Cody, I got an invite from Shino-san for a Friday. It was one of those rare occasions when one of students would be missing a class. I was excited because I had heard so much about these classes from Cody.

I was prepared when I saw the small rock coiled in twine outside the front pathway leading to the house. Cody had told me it meant you couldn’t use that path. As we headed down the driveway for the side-door, I reflected on how just that simple rock was enough to bring your awareness to the present moment. No large sign, or waving of hands from behind windows. Just an innocuous rock, perfectly in harmony with the natural world, to guide you. But you had to be observant.

As we entered the house, a small water fountain greeted us right at the door. It peacefully bubbled setting the mood. Shino-san welcomed us into the living room. She then beckoned me into the kitchen where she was sieving Matcha - powered Japanese green tea - before pouring them into small enamel containers.

As Shino-san explained to me what she was doing, I reached for my notebook. Faux pas. “Commit everything to the memory,” she said. Another nudge to be present in the moment. Then I had to take off my belt, wedding ring, turn off my phone and in accordance no camera was to be used. My shell was being peeled like that of an onion, one at a time.

Upstairs a small bedroom had been completely cleared and turned into a tea room. There were tatami mats on the floor, a scroll on the far wall, a flower vase next to it with a single sprig of Siberian Iris and in the corner on a faux charcoal stove water boiled with audible hiss - the wind in the pines. Tea implements including the tea bowl, also called chawan, the water jar or mizusashi, bamboo whisk and water ladle were kept by the stove on small ‘tea table”. There were five of us.

First the haiku on the scroll was read out. It was about spring, a time when rice is transplanted. In keeping with the colors of the season, the chawan had been appropriately chosen. It had a fresh green hue of spring. One of the students played the host and went through the precise movements of making the tea - the way the way her hands and the fingers moved, it reminded me of mudras of Indian classical dancing.

And then we as guests learnt the bows. The formal, semi-formal and formal (Shin, Gyo, So) bows. They were distinguished by how low you bowed and the position of the hands. All the bowing were done sitting on our haunches. I missed my yoga practice badly, as all the sitting on the floor killed my ankles.

The tea finally came with the bowl placed in front of you. I picked up the cup and turning it several times, as instructed, I took a sip while holding the bowl with both hands. At this point I want to note a few things about Japanese chawan. The aesthetics of the Japanese tea bowl is very radical. Unlike the perfect lines and symmetry of teaware from other parts of the world, the Japanese tea bowls used during Chanoyu have irregular lines and look almost "deformed" when first viewed. However, there is a whole philosophy of “wabi-sabi” behind this artistry. Simply put, nothing is ever finished, therefore nothing is ever perfect. A simple rustic nature informs the creations espousing this outlook.

Once you have had your sip from the bowl, you wipe the bowl’s lip with a paper napkin, turn it around several times and then place it in front of you. You then bow low and look at the bowl, take in its details with the thought that you may never see the same bowl again, at least not until next spring.

The tea itself was thick Matcha with a light green color. I was dreading the taste of it because of my past experiences with Matcha - it had been like drinking the juice of bitter gourd or neem leaves. However, when I took the sip of what was offered I was blown away by how good it tasted. I was asked to describe the taste. In my excitement I must have said something silly, because everyone in the room laughed. But I did not care. I was in Matcha heaven!

I passed the bowl along to the next guest.

There were two different Japanese “sweets” to break the taste of the tea. Both were made of rice  that had been stuffed with sweet things. One of them was wrapped in leaves. I do not recall their names now. And I was given a small piece of wood - a miniature chopstick but with a pointed end - with which to eat them. I struggled to use the implement but enjoyed the taste.
Not only did I have to struggle with not being able to take notes of something so elaborate, but etiquette demanded no questions to be asked. All questions had to be saved until the final stage of the ceremony.

The next round of tea served was usucha, or thin matcha. What I mean by thick or thin is the viscosity of the tea. One is more thicker than the other. The earlier tea of thick matcha was called koicha. Usucha was equally delicious.

Finally, it was time to admire the tea implements. We placed them in front of us and bowed low to admire them. Chasen, the bamboo spoon to scoop matcha, had come from a family industry that went back generations, informed Shino-san. Then we admired the small containers for matcha, natsume, and the silk pouches.

This was also time to ask questions, and this too had its proper way. You did not ask questions directly to the host, it had first to be communicated to the “head guest”. This was the most senior guest who would normally sit at the right end facing the host. Only he or she could ask questions directly to the host.

The whole ceremony moved me deeply. The rigorous and complex ritual reminded me of the monks back home in Indian monasteries doing their “pujas” (prayer rituals). That shouldn’t be a surprise when you think Japanese tea ceremony had its roots in Zen Buddhism, whose tap-root as it were, would go all the way to India. I felt a big circle had completed itself within me as I left Shino-san’s house. And I was filled with overflowing gratitude towards the Universe for offering me this opportunity. The way of tea is profound in its mystery.

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