Crash Course

Crash Course: Japanese Tea Ceremony (Part 1)

Welcome to tea week! No, there’s no official pronouncement anywhere that makes this week the one to celebrate all things chado (the way of tea) related, but a quick glance through some of my old pictures the other night reminded me of one of my favorite experiences of the past three years – leading the tea ceremony tour for fellow Americans living in Okinawa. On my first tour, I couldn’t have told you a thing about tea, or the detailed ceremony that accompanies its presentation here in Japan. Now? Bear with me, I’ve got enough for three posts and hopefully I’ll be able to present chado in a way that won’t bore you to tears!

Any good tea ceremony starts in a garden – a roji (meaning “dewy path) if you want to get real specific. The garden of our tea ceremony master here in Naha was cramped in the back alley amidst high rises and a hospital but it still held all of the requesite features of even the most zen-like roji.

An urban “roji”

When we’d arrive for our tea ceremony, we’d pass through the outer garden and come to the little hut set aside specifically for the waiting visitor. It is here that Unten-Sensei, our tea master, would greet us. She’d help us remove our shoes and we put on geta, wooden sandals often found on kimono-clad women. Carefully, we’d clop our way under the chumon, or inner gate, and across the purposefully laid flagstones.

The garden was as quiet as possible in a city environment but was devoid of flowers, a tenet of all tea gardens. Nothing should upstage the beauty of the flower arrangement the tea master has carefully prepared in the tea house, so no colorful blooms are to be seen outside.

Along the path, we’d pause at the tsukubai, a collection of stones and a water basin, where we’d bend down (humbling ourselves) to rinse our hands and mouths in a ritual of purification.

The ‘tsukubai’ or hand-washing station

We clip-clop the last few feet to the nijiri-guchi, the low square opening that will lead us into the tea house. Bending down, we humble ourselves again and awkwardly remove our sandals. If we were samurai, we would remove our swords as well, since everyone is equal in the tea house. (Or perhaps the tea ceremony masters of old just had a good sense of self-preservation.) Crawling through the opening, we emerge at last in the tea house …

The ‘nijiri-guchi’, or entrance, to the teahouse

… and that’s where we’ll pick up in the next entry. :)

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