Tuesday, October 16, 2007

10/17/07 Tea Ceremony

A few of the other English speaking teachers and I have been attending a weekly Japanese class run by volunteers. One class a week doesn't provide huge results, but it does help me to direct my own private studies, and its nice to have a guaranteed Japanese speaking time set aside. At one point I mentioned how I enjoy the Japanese tea ceremony, and my teacher's eyes lit up. She has been practicing it to some extent with a small group.

Some days later she calls my phone and sets a time that I can see a tea ceremony in action. Now this is the fun part about making plans with the Japanese. Many times they are unable to explain the details of plans, or they just don't think that it is really necessary. When I agreed to meet at a nearby mall, I assumed that we would be going someplace in the vicinity, as I know this teacher also lives nearby. Wrong. So my teacher shows up decked out in full kimono to pick me up, and as I stand in my tee-shirt and jeans, I wonder why no one mentioned that this was going to be so formal. When we get in the car and start to drive, she mentions that this event will be held in a city called Tatebayashi in nearby Gunma prefecture(prefectures are the political equivalent to US states only much smaller, as Japan has almost 50 of them squeezed into its landmass). The drive wasn't extremely long, but I was quietly amused and wondered if there were any more little surprises in store.

As my teacher is learning how to perform all of this tea business, we arrived way earlier than the normal guests in order to take part in the preparations. I actually really enjoyed this. I have been to several tea ceremonies previously, but I hadn't seen the preliminary setup before, so that was very interesting.

Ok, now for some explanation: the Japanese tea ceremony is a very solid expression of Japanese culture. There is always a little space with some decorations for the room, a piece of calligraphy and a little flower arrangement. These two things alone are something you could study your whole life, and many people do. Then, many of the tea bowls and things are hand made pottery, which is another big time art.

Here is the centerpiece of the the room. A scroll with a saying written in fancy calligraphy, and a small flower arrangement.

Then comes the tea making ritual itself. I'm not sure what the gender roles are regarding this, but every time I have ever witnessed this it has been a woman doing the tea making. Now, you might be thinking to yourself, "that's just some sexist Japanese thing where the women have to do all the housework". If you were thinking that, then you are just plain wrong and should be really ashamed of yourself. We talked a bit about how only a couple hundred years ago, women weren't even allowed to take part in this presentation, and men about to go to war often performed it as possibly one of their last moments alive together. See, you were super wrong. Anyway, so whoever it is walks in with very deliberate little steps, sits down in front of the water pot, mixes the water with the tea with a whisk, puts it in front of the guests one by one and they drink it. To the first time observer, it might look that simple. The reality, though, is the insane amount of attention to detail. If you watch 10 of these ceremonies at different places, chances are there won't be a whole lot of difference at all in each. The folding of their napkins is very specific, where they set down the bowl is specific, and how they walk is apparently very important as well. I was dying to take a video or some pictures of it in progress, but I figured it would be inappropriate in the face of all the formality that was happening in the room. Oh well, too bad for you I guess.

Here is where the magic happens. The big pot has the hot water inside. The little lacquer container has the powdered tea, and the little pot on the bottom must be for the leftover water.

Here's everyone that was present. This must have been foreigner day, as there was one other American guy, and the out of place girl is from France.


  1. Anonymous9:03 AM

    hey John. i went to a tea ceremony today (Sunday) in Ashikaga. it was great except for the fact that i had to sit seiza for an hour. anyway, i knew tea ceremony was developed and refined by men (supposedly our hometown heroes the Ashikaga shoguns played a large role in that), but i didn't know women were specifically prohibited from doing it. that is interesting. thank you for writing about it in your blog. --babs

  2. This seems like it was very fun. I dont really agree with all the rules but I have always enjoyed the Japanese tea ceremony.