Experience: Tea Ceremony Experience En (Kyoto)

You’d think by now that I’d be tired of tea ceremonies. With the numerous tea ceremony tours I led in Okinawa for American service members and families and the few that I’ve tried here on mainland myself, that’s an awful lot of matcha to swill. They’ve all been worthwhile, in some way or another, but I keep trying to track down that “perfect” tea ceremony experience for visitors. I’ve got to say, “En” comes pretty close.

I’d actually recommended Tea Ceremony Experience En to a few clients back in the summertime, before I had the chance to try it out myself. While the reviews were great, I always like to check things out for myself so on my weekend in Kyoto back in August, I booked an afternoon ceremony. (Which is a good idea. They are getting VERY popular and reservations are highly recommended, especially if your schedule isn’t flexible.)

En is run out of a restored machiya (townhouse) tucked down a narrow alley just north of the road to Chion-in temple. It shares the space with Ikebana Cadeau and there’s a signboard at the end of the street to help point the way.

A sign points the way down the alley to Tea Ceremony Experience En
A sign points the way down the alley to Tea Ceremony Experience En

Atsuko, our host, wasted no time in getting started once the group (about 8 of us) was assembled. She began by telling us, in her practically flawless English, a little bit about the history of the tea ceremony and its importance in Japanese culture. Atsuko just happens to be a descendant of the famed tea master Sen-no-Rikyu. The others at the ceremony may not have batted an eye but from my travels around Japan and my extracurricular reading, I knew him to be the guy who basically had the most profound and lasting impression on the tea ceremony and how it is practiced. Taking tea from one of his descendants ranked way up there in my book! (CORRECTION 10/26 – Atsuko just emailed to inform me that she is, sadly, NOT a descendant of Sen-no-Rikyu. I’m not quite sure exactly how I misheard but let’s chalk it up to my occasional inability to listen and take notes at the same time. 🙂 Sorry, Atsuko-san! That would have been a cool family connection, though!)

After her explanations, Atsuko performed a short tea ceremony for us. Her motions were incredibly graceful and I don’t think a sound could be heard (beyond slight shuffling as we all adjusted our knees) during the ten minutes she was demonstrating how to make tea. Afterward, we discussed the different utensils used for the ceremony and she told me the interesting fact about naming them according to the season or an event, which I hadn’t known.

Atsuko-san performs the tea ceremony (sorry the pic is so dark!)
Atsuko-san performs the tea ceremony (sorry the pic is so dark!)

I would have been content with the demonstration but once Atsuko was finished, we were ALL given our own tea bowls and shown how to properly whisk a bowl of matcha (green tea) until frothy. I always love a hands-on component to my experiences and while I had the chance to try my hand at tea whisking up in Tokyo for a brief few minutes, Atsuko’s clear and concise instructions helped me understand the process quite a bit more. Apparently, it’s all in the wrist. 🙂 Our bitter tea (because really, I won’t lie – matcha IS quite a strong drink) was accompanied by a seasonal wagashi, the perfect mid-afternoon snack to keep me going until dinner.

As tea ceremonies go, this one had everything going for it – the ideal amount of time, a friendly and extremely knowledgeable instructor who could effectively communicate with her guests and the chance to try one’s own hand at making tea the traditional way. If you’re in Kyoto, don’t miss out.

You can find more information at En’s website.

***For full disclosure, I was offered the chance to partake in the tea ceremony for free. (A really sweet gesture, and kind of exciting – my first ever “freebie” as a travel professional!). I would have written En up in this blog regardless, and my review here is in no way influenced by their generosity. I truly believe this is an experience worth both your time and money.***

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