お茶 o-cha—tea

Yuko and I were invited to experience the tea ceremony. My colleague Meg-san accompanied us to my company’s social club, where the tea ceremony club meet weekly for training and practice.

“Tea ceremony” is an inadequate description: 茶道 sadou is literally “the way of tea”. On the one hand, every aspect of the ceremony is highly formalised and prescribed, each action laden with symbolism that takes a lifetime to master, and so I had to be instructed in minute detail what I should do and say at each moment. On the other hand, as with any human activity, each individual tea ceremony event is a unique and passing experience, to be tasted and cherished fully. So, like other Japanese arts, the way of tea combines a Confucian ritual formality and a Zen wabi aesthetic.

On entering the room, each guest first looks at and appreciates the calligraphic scroll and the flower arrangement. My appreciation of the scroll was sadly limited by the fact that I couldn’t read it at all.

Then one moves in a prescribed path to the furo, which is the pot used for heating water for tea, and appreciates the furo, the glowing charcoal, and the furosaki (the wooden panelling around the furo). There is a lot of bowing during the tea ceremony.

 

Once each guest has entered and appreciated the scroll and the furo, we all sit seiza and we are served sweets. The sweets are very beautiful, each one designed like a little fruit. They are very sweet, to counteract the bitterness of the green tea.

 Our hostesses prepared and served tea for each person, one at a time. The tea is prepared and served in pottery bowls, each unique and in a different style. The process of taking the tea is complex. Certain words had to be said to the hostess and the company, and to the guests on my left, while bowing at the appropriate moments.

The cup is lifted in a certain way and rotated in a certain direction (to avoid drinking from the “front”). First you inhale and enjoy the scent of the tea, then drink it.

The tea was delicious, with a creamy texture from having been whisked in the bowl. There were two or three mouthfuls in the bowl, and I was encouraged to slurp the last mouthful to taste it all.

After drinking, I wiped the rim of the bowl and rotated it again, looking at and appreciating the form and design. The idea is to admire it in the knowledge that you may never see that bowl again. Then you place the bowl on the ground in front of you and admire it further, before passing it back across the black boundary that symbolically divides “your” area from the communal area of the room. More bows are exchanged at each stage.

During all this time, the other guests are awaiting their turn.

Normally, there would not be a lot of talking during the tea ceremony; there would be periods of silence to allow the guests to relax and appreciate the experience and their surroundings. But because of my lack of knowledge, I needed constant instruction.

After I had taken my tea, Yuko had her turn:

and then Meg-san:

Finally I was offered another cup, and gratefully accepted. But of course I didn’t remember all the procedure and had to have it explained to me all over again.

The tea ceremony can last for an hour, or for several hours. In this case, my colleague Meg-san requested that it be kept to one hour, out of concern for my ability to sit seiza for a long period. I actually didn’t think this would be a problem, but after about 40 minutes, I realised to my alarm that I had no sensation in my feet; they were completely dead. This was not an immediate problem, but I feared that when it was time to stand up, I would almost certainly fall over.

I tried to shift my weight discreetly to relieve the pressure on my feet. Somehow this did result in my toppling over to one side, noisily and dramatically. As everyone expressed their concern and I assured them that I was fine, I cursed my western clumsiness.

At the end of the ceremony, utensils are passed to the guests to admire. We were shown the cha-ire (tea container) and cha-shaku (wooden tea scoop). The utensils should be handled very respectfully, as they may be very old or valuable. Yuko explained to me that a fine example of a carved cha-shaku could be worth up to €100,000.

Before leaving the room, there is another opportunity to admire the scroll and the furo, and then one slides out of the room on one’s knees.

 

This city, Sakai, is the hometown of the man who invented the tea ceremony, Sen-no-Rikyu.

If you visit Sakai, you can see the site of his house, where he lived in the 16th century. The house is gone, but you can still see the well from which he drew water for tea.

I learned recently the manner of his death: having served as tea master for many years to both Oda Nobunaga and then Toyotomi Hideyoshi, he was ordered by Hideyoshi to commit suicide.

 

The Japanese and the Irish occupy first and second place in the world rankings of tea drinkers. The most popular blend in Ireland is Irish breakfast tea, made with African and Indian black tea; a full, strong flavour designed to be drunk with milk, and unavailable outside Ireland. It is almost a cliché that Irish people abroad miss their tea from home, and the image of a homesick Irish emigrant enjoying a cup of Barry’s or Lyons’ Gold Blend, while reading a letter from a loved one back home, is a staple of Irish tea advertising.

We never thought for a minute that we would be like that. Japan is the land of tea, after all. With the astonishing wealth of tea available here, how hard could it be to live without our familiar Irish tea? How wrong we were! When it came to making a nice pot of tea to relax with, no other tea was quite “right”. Nice as they were, they each tasted somehow watery, insipid and ultimately unsatisfying. Eventually we had to cave in and have a box of Barry’s Gold Blend sent from home. And when we made that first pot, it tasted so good!

Note on the word of the day:

茶 cha means tea. Of course it means tea in English too – many people in Britain and Ireland say “a cup of cha“. Japanese people usually add the honorific prefix o- and say o-cha. Western-style red or black tea is called 紅茶 koucha—red tea.

The name of the tea ceremony is 茶道 sadou, where 道 dou is the character for “road” or “way”, familiar from judo, aikido, kendo, bushido (the way of the samurai) and so on. 花道 kadou is the study of flower arranging (the way of flowers), also known as ikebana.

A word I heard numerous times during the ceremony was 拝見 haiken. Haiken is a humble polite verb meaning “to look”, but I’ve translated it freely above as “to admire”, “to appreciate” and so on, because I felt that was implied. The first character of haiken is 排 meaning “worship”.

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5 thoughts on “お茶 o-cha—tea

  1. Sitting in seiza is hard! When I went to Japan, my group once had to sit in seiza in a temple. Though we only sat like that for a half-hour, many kids complained of soreness hours afterward.
    茶道 looks fascinating, though. I didn’t get the chance to participate in an actual ceremony while in Japan, though we did get to make the sweets (和菓子, I believe?) and participate in an incense ceremony (香道). There are so many rules to remember– it’s tough!

    1. You know so much about Japan, it’s amazing! I never even heard of the incense ceremony 香道. I remember enjoying your very entertaining post about ikebana. Of course, as visitors we don’t really have to remember all the rules. Studying it properly would be a different matter entirely. Even our hostess, who had presumably been studying for years, had to be corrected for placing the utensils in the wrong order.

      I thought of you today because we were at a festival parade and there was a large group of Vietnamese people in beautiful colourful traditional clothes. I have a lot of photos so I’ll post about it during the next few days.

      1. Awesome! Even though I’m Vietnamese, the only traditional clothes I ever get to see are the really old-fashioned ones my family bought years ago. I’m looking forward to it!

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