Crash Course: Japanese Tea Ceremony (Part 2)

Let’s see. When last I left you, you all – in your unrestrained desire to know more about chado and all things tea – had followed me through the nijiri-guchi and into the tea house. (Hmmm. Sounds a bit too Lewis Carroll for my tastes. I never did think Alice made good decisions.)

But here we are, in the tea house nonetheless. Impressed?

The interior of the tea house

Me neither. But I blame my cluttered upbringing. Not to say that my youth was awash with meaningless artifacts, but a tea house is the picture of austerity. It doesn’t look lived in or homey, for that matter. Rather, it’s designed to remind you of the purpose of the ceremony – to clear your mind, to focus intently on the here and now and the beauty of the moment.

A tea house is traditionally covered in tatami mats and Unten-Sensei’s is no different. In a corner of the room is the tokonoma, a small alcove where the seasonal ikebana arrangement is displayed. In August when I went to my first tea ceremony, the vase here held a single sunflower. This past time, a sprig of some white-flowering Okinawan tree was visible. Behind the flower arrangement hangs the scroll, emblazoned with the four kanji so crucial to the tea ceremony – wa (harmony), kei (respect), sei (purity) and jaku (tranquility). A tea ceremony should achieve all of these principles.

The tokonoma

In summer, our tea ceremony is performed by Unten-sensei using a stand or table. She sits just under her papered window and uses a portable brazier to heat the water used in the ceremony. In the winter time, she sits on the floor and a small square of tatami is uncovered. A fire is stoked in this space and the heat then spreads out to the guests who are also seated on the tatami.

So what are we drinking? You have to ask? Tea, of course, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Stay tuned for installment three!

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