Saturday, I fulfilled a long-awaited, death-defying pleasure—learning The Way of Tea (Chadō) at the Meijer Gardens’ Japanese Tea House in Grand Rapids, MI. Allow me to take you on the journey…
[Insert wavy time machine effect here.]
The day has a mugginess to it that only people of equatorial descent can appreciate. Occasional breezes cause drops in temperature that turn skin from sweaty to clammy in a soggy instant. The air practically vibrates with thermal shifts.
Ten or so participants mill around a bench at the matchiai—the waiting area outside the tea house. Fellow guests discuss the progress of the formation of the Japanese Garden—opened just last year—as well as the availability of tea houses in the surrounding area.*
The Meijer Gardens’ tea house is surrounded by lush greenery and the walkway leading to the building is paved with irregular stones. Discrete signs warn visitors to watch their step. A guide explains the unevenness of the path is intentional—so that you pay attention to where you walk in a thoughtful manner.** She also warns us to ‘bow low’ as we cross the threshold—both to humble ourselves in preparation and to prevent head injury in the taller guests.
Our hostess appears, a slender woman in a yellow kimono, beckoning us with a soft voice to follow her.
We duck under the low gate between the matchiai and the cha-shitsu—or tea house proper. Near the entrance, a wash basin gurgles. We are told it is intended for guests to purify and refresh themselves before entering—though we are asked to admire it from afar. We remove our shoes before slipping into the small building.
The tea house was built in Japan, disassembled, shipped here, and reassembled on site. It is modeled on Japanese specifications—with some allowances for Western comforts. The floor is not entirely made of tatami—and we are not required to scoot in on our knees as proper guests would expect to do. Once seated on square, silken cushions on benches along the wall, we meet our hostess, Yumiko Narita and her assistants: Tomoyo Koehler, who plays the role of ‘guest’ in the demonstration and Miyuki Muramoto, who afterward helps to serve the visitors.
Anita Savio, the Public Affairs Director from the Consulate General of Japan in Detroit, narrates for us throughout the chanoyu (tea service). She says that, typically, the exchange is presented in silence with rare scripted exchanges between the hostess and her primary guest.
Acceptable questions the guest may ask include the origin of the bowl that is central to the ceremony. The chawan at this service, we learn, comes from the Shiga Prefecture—which in Japan is the sister state to Michigan. The bowls and utensils were commissioned there specifically for this reason. Much admiring of the bowl is required before, during, and after the tea is presented and drunk. Additionally, the guest might comment on the weather…this would have been helpful in the hours to come…had we actually discussed this.
Names and steps for the tea service whip past in swift progression. I do my best to follow each detail, but at one point I decide it is easier—and more in keeping with the spirit—to witness rather than try to capture the experience in my cramped notes.
Anita Savio describes the honors of being a guest—approaching on one’s knees to kneel and offer respect to the scroll which has been chosen particularly for this occasion. Later, Miyuki copies the artistic Japanese swoops into my notes. She explains the sentiment “Ichi-go, Ichi-Ay means “One Time, One Meeting.” This seems like an appropriate statement for the rare pleasure of watching a centuries old art form. Or you could say:
“One only has the present moment—the future is not a promise.”
(How do you like that foreshadowing?)
We learn that the outside world rank does not signify—that all are equal inside the tea house. Thus it is very bad manners to wear jewelry or other signs of wealth. (I surreptitiously sneak my necklace into my bag upon hearing this.) No doubt we are breaking many rules but, as foreigners to the art, we are forgiven our ignorance.
A red silk cloth is used to purify already clean utensils. We learn that the scoop used for pouring the water is called a kagami—the same word the Japanese use for ‘mirror.’ The hostess holds the kagami up and looks into it before using it, as if to measure her soul for readiness for the ordeal ahead. (Although there may be poetic license in this interpretation—everywhere I have since looked online the scoop is called a hishaku—though there are various schools of chanoyu.)
About half-way through the ceremony, rain begins to fall. Each plink of water hitting the tile roof accompanies the delicacy of movement as first the bowl is tempered with hot water and the whisk is similarly primed to make it flexible.
I watch the graceful movements between the hostess and her guest—every bow, shuffle, gesture and placement of utensils marks appreciation for the craft and respect for all in attendance. The bowl for serving tea is rotated clockwise in several stages. It is like a ballet for a beverage. As you watch, you realize this is an act of love; for no other reason fully explains why anyone would devote this much time and effort to perfecting an ancient tradition.
We are given a round, pink sweet that is served before we drink. It is completely unforgivable to add sugar or honey to the tea, but the sweet—or wagashi—serves the function of balancing the bitter. Made of azuki bean paste, it is an unfamiliar taste though not entirely unpleasant and similar in texture to marzipan. It is beautifully shaped to mimic a ‘botan’ or peony flower.
Nature suffuses the tea service. There are special teas held at different times of the year. A garden surrounds the tea house where guests may take their repose before or sometimes during the services at a longer ceremony. It is carried into the space in the art of chabana—the flower arrangement that is crafted to complement this day. It is in the errant wind that blows through open windows.
After the ceremony, we visitors are given our own bowl with a unique design. Of note, the bowl is turned until the ‘best side’ faces the guest. Bows are exchanged and before the guest can taste the tea, the bowl must be admired. In the ceremony, there are multiple stages of sitting the bowl on the tatami and admiring it and asking questions of its heritage before the bowl could be returned—beautiful side facing out. Fortunately, as witnesses, we are not required to be so precise—a simple bow suffices both in receiving and returning the treasured tea bowl.***
As the tea ends we are free to ask questions.
We learn that both the hostess and first guest are wearing the kimono of married women—long sleeves are reserved for maidens for the length is better for flirting. The kimono has no buttons, zippers, or pockets. This raises the question ‘where do you put things?’
Tomoyo Koehler demonstrates the usefulness of sleeve folds where she stashes her fukusa—or silk napkin. For larger items, she shows us a rectangular fabric purse that she turns and slips into the drum-style obi she wears at her back. The greatest decoration can be found on the obi. Some ways of tying the material can be very elaborate in shapes like fans, bows, and butterflies.
The tea we attended is only the smallest portion of a full-length ceremony. A full-blown service might take four hours or longer and involve a first tea—a thicker Matcha tea—and a meal of sumptuous cuisine (Kaiseki-ryori) in bite-sized portions. We are offered the lighter, final tea. In truth, what we were given seems thick enough. I thought it looked a bit like blended wheat grass and tasted like an herbal remedy rather than the clear green tea I am familiar with.
We also learn that the fan that is brought by the guest is strictly ceremonial and is never opened. It represents the weapons that Samurai warriors would leave outside the tea house—eschewing violence in favor of humble accord with all guests. The small fan is presented on the tatami, the guest bows to the scroll and, once seated, the fan is placed behind the guest the entire time.
The chado—the art of tea—stems from a tradition brought back by a monk who visited China. At the time, tea was considered medicinal and served a holy function to help the monks stay awake during meditation. When the expensive habit was adopted by the aristocracy and then later was taken on by the Samurai class, the formality of tea preparation and service ascended to a cultural tradition which lasts to this day. It is an art which takes a lifetime to master.
“One must first study to be a guest before one can learn to serve.” Anita Savio.
There is no way to truly convey the gravity and generosity of these women in inviting us to this experience. Yes, we paid a fee to attend, but the intent when participating in the tea is that one is personally invited to a sacred space. And by the end of the chadoyu, you certainly feel honored.
My first epiphany of the day is—one can either experience or observe—you cannot do both.
My later epiphanies will blow you away. But that will have to wait for the next installment entitled “Tea with Tornados.”
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Apparently there are closet tea worshippers throughout Michigan: http://www.teamap.com/states/state_MI_Name.html
**Concentrating on not breaking your ankle is very Zen!
***In my next life, I want to be treated with at least half the respect those bowls were given.
(You read this far bonus!)
Note: all Japanese terms used here were stolen from reputable websites—my laughable approximations of what I heard deny I have any talent as a linguist.
Tea Terminology: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_tea_ceremony
More about the complex ceremony: http://japanese-tea-ceremony.net/