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What is the tea ceremony in Japan? Does a foreigner have a chance to take part in a tea ceremony in Japan? I had the pleasure of taking part in such a ceremony at the tea pavilion in Himeji. See what it looked like. Learn how the tea utensils are called.
When I was going to Japan for the first time, I was convinced that it would be almost impossible to be granted the honor of attending a traditional tea ceremony if you don’t know the Japanese people. And by “Japanese people” I mean Japanese who have contact with traditional Japanese arts. I was not completely wrong. I still think that in order to take part in a very formal tea ceremony held in a prestigious tea pavilion and run by an outstanding tea master, you must actually have friends who will trust you enough to invite you to such a meeting. In general, this also involves the need to know the Japanese etiquette, including the tea etiquette. It is worth mentioning that many Japanese live their lives never taking part in a formal (or other) tea ceremony.
However, taking into account that Japan is increasingly opening to the world and revealing its unique culture, it is possible to watch official tea-making demonstrations. Actually, there are more and more occasions for a stranger (gaijin) or person unfamiliar with a tea etiquette, to take part in an informal tea ceremony. Of course the informal tea meetings are simplified ceremonies, often significantly shortened. And the guests are usually guided through them step by step. But even such a shortened ceremony is a very interesting experience. This is one of those experiences that let you understand how important to Japanese people is “the form”.
During one of my first travels across Japan, I participated in such a shortened informal tea ceremony, the so-called chakai. By “shortened” I mean meeting not lasting a few hours but about an hour. This ceremony took place in the Sōjuan tea pavilion in the Kōko-en garden. That garden is located next to the famous Japanese castle – the Himeji Castle in Himeji city, prefecture Hyogo. (This castle is also know as “White Egret Castle” or “White Heron Castle”.)
The Kōko-en garden is exceptionally beautiful. The walk through the garden really helped to calm down before the ceremony. (Especially after the visit in the castle in the company of crowds.) I remember walking with my fiancé through the ponds on flat stones, contemplating the beautiful views.
Sōjuan tea pavilion was extremely spacious. We were led to the room, where tea was served, by a corridor running partly around the building. The corridor was placed at the very outer walls in which the huge windows and shōji doors were set. The windows and doors were open due to the hot afternoon. We looked through them and once again we could enjoy the views of the Japanese garden.
Before the start of tea ceremony, we were instructed what to do. We learned where to sit on tatami mats, how to hold a ceramic cup in a hand, how to drink the tea and how to put the cup back.
The master of the tea ceremony was a man who conducted a conversation with the guests. It was a bit of small talk. He asked people where they came from and, if they were not Japanese, whether they liked Japan. The conversation was conducted in Japanese, but in difficult moments we spoke English.
The tea and Japanese traditional sweets (wagashi) were prepared and served by a woman. She was dressed in a beautiful, plain and modest kimono. One must know that during the tea ceremony women-hosts are wearing a special kind of kimono.
Now I know that it is common that during the informal tea meeting (chakai) only the first few cups of tea are prepared in front of the guests. (The shelf with tea utensils was in the corner, to the left of the tokonoma niche with a decorative calligraphy and floral composition of the chabana – literally “tea flowers”). Tea for other guests is prepared at the back, in so-called mizuya, and brought to guests from there. That was how the tea was served also in our case.
Although this tea ceremony took place a few years ago, I found a short video from that time. Listen, how I try to explain how to handle a cup of tea (I speak in Polish but there are subtitles given).
That time I did not have a lot of knowledge about the Japanese Way of Tea – sadō (sometimes called also chadō) My knowledge on this subject is still not great. I managed to find out a bit more by taking part in special workshop (the Urasenke Way of Tea) and reading some books and publications. (I recommend few books about sadō at the end of the article.) Anyway, I would like to explain the general Japanese tea ceremony course from the beginning to the very end. I would also like to recall some definitions and information about the tea and the utensils for its preparation. This basic knowledge will definitely help you to navigate the world of Japanese tea.
The course of the Japanese tea ceremony in general is as follows:
I tried to prepare the above description of the tea ceremony without using too many Japanese terms. However the Way of Tea is described in many words reserved only for this particular aspect of culture. I have already mentioned the spacial type of kaiseki meal and ikebana flower arrangements which in the case of a tea ceremony are respectively chaseki and chabana. (Both meal and flowers are prepared in a slightly different way.). I also used the word chakai in terms of informal tea meeting. I would like to add a few explanations and words. Let’s start with the basics – sadō …
I hope you enjoyed this article on the Way of Tea and my personal experiences with the tea ceremony in Japan. If you want to know more about sadō or you plan to attend the Japanese tea ceremony, it’s worth getting a little ready for it. Personally, I recommend reading one of the books listed below.
If you are interested in participating in the tea ceremony at the Sōjuan tea pavilion in Himeji, here are the contact information:
Chashitsu Sōjuan (茶室双樹庵)
68 Honmachi, Himeji-shi,
Hyōgo-ken 670-0012, Japan
Tel: +81 79-289-4121
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