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"Stepping outside to the edge of a small garden dotted by miniature boulders and trees with poofs of leaves on top of bowed branches, we squatted by a basin of crystal clear water carved out of a boulder.."
- Hsien-Hsien Lei

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The art of a Japanese tea ceremony
by Hsien-Hsien Lei, Nagoya, Japan
Oct 14, 1999

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Foamy, brilliant green murky tea has just been presented to me in an earthen, irregularly shaped cup the size of a small bowl. I am participating in the Japanese tea ceremony, a tradition first begun hundreds of years ago as a way to enjoy the healing properties of green tea. The Way of Tea quickly became linked to the attainment of Zen, thus elevating it to a higher spiritual level. Rikyu, a tea master in the 16th century, wrote, "Though many people drink tea, if you do not know the Way of Tea, tea will drink you up. "

Walking between willowy trees and upon large stones leading the way into one of the most renowned schools of tea ceremony in Japan, I was hoping that I would not make a complete fool of myself or worse, offend anyone in the tranquil ceremony to come. The school is held in the traditional Japanese home of the tea ceremony master (sensei). The front door of his home, as in most traditional homes, is a sliding wooden panel that I would have splintered had I tripped and crashed into it. So, moving with caution, I removed my shoes and entered the home, stepping on tatami mats made of tightly woven, sweet smelling straw.

In preparation for the tea ceremony, my Japanese-Brazilian friend, Miki, and I put on white socks simulating those that are worn with wooden sandals with thongs, traditional footwear worn with kimonos. Miki has been a pupil of the tea ceremony for a couple of years, ever since she married a native Japanese man and moved to Japan. We took out our handkerchiefs, folding fans, and thin tissue paper. To hold her materials, Miki used a beautiful cloth wallet embroidered with silver and gold metallic thread held together at the seams by a lattice of string; I held mine jumbled in my hand.

Stepping outside to the edge of a small garden dotted by miniature boulders and trees with poofs of leaves on top of bowed branches, we squatted by a basin of crystal clear water carved out of a boulder. A bamboo ladle with a handle as long as my forearm rested on top of the basin. Miki showed me how to use my right hand to ladle some water out of the basin, rinse the tips of my left and right fingers, ladle a fresh shot of water for rinsing the tips of my left fingers again, tip the ladle vertically to use the remaining water to rinse off the handle, and then finally, place the ladle back on top of the basin with the cup resting on its side. This exercise was just one example of the many small details involved in the tea ceremony.

Having purified ourselves, we were now ready to enter the sacred tea room. While kneeling, we first bowed then scooted into the room using our knuckles and not our legs. For distances of less than the length of one tatami mat, this method of scooting is used; for one or more lengths, walking is permitted. There were two other women in the room and one was already preparing the tea in the corner where the cast iron pot on top of the cast iron fire urn was placed. The sensei sat to her right, in front of the alcove where a scroll of calligraphy hung behind a vase in which a few stalks of small, simple (some may call weedy) flowers were placed. These items represented the gods' presence and thoughts.

While the tea was being prepared one portion at a time, we, the guests, readied ourselves to enjoy the dessert. A circular ceramic box washed with light blue and green glaze was passed amongst us. As it reached me, I removed the short dessert chopsticks from the top of the box and placed them on the tissue paper I had brought. Removing the lid, I reached into the box and brought out a plump rounded dessert about two inches in diameter. It was covered with finely shredded coconut flakes and topped by one half of a gingko nut the same color as pimentos.

Here comes the tea..

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