Learning about Japanese Tea Ceremony

tea ceremonyToward the end of last year, a friend of my ikebana teacher approached my girlfriend and me encouraging us to attend Japanese Tea Ceremony lessons.  Where I live, there seems to be many aging cultural teachers that have not been able to find new students.  This trend is due to many factors.  The teachers of that generation are not computer literate, do not market their classes and are not teaching to make money.  They are teaching for the love of culture and to carry on traditions.  They only charge a token for their classes and students come by word of mouth.

In a sense, my girlfriend and me, being Japanese, felt we should support these wonderful women and decided to give it a try.  Some call this Japanese “guilt” or “pressure”, but I don’t think that’s a correct interpretation.  It’s more like a sense of respect and appreciation for what they do.

As a child growing up in Japan, tea ceremony is not something that is accessible to all, so I had only one experience attending a Japanese tea ceremony.  It was with my girlfriend’s mother who took us to one of her lessons.  My memory is faint, but I remember that the tea was very bitter to my unaccustomed palette.

So, now close to forty years later, I am going to a tea ceremony class in Seattle.  You never know how these things happen!  It’s been several months now, and it’s amazing to know how little I really know about Japanese culture!  I thought Japanese Tea Ceremony was about the tea, but now I know that’s only a small part of whole picture.

Everything in tea ceremony has a “correct” way of doing things.  It begins from when you enter the tea room.  Every bow, every step, every motion is set – like a rule of manners – and there is a “right” and “wrong” way of doing things.  Being raised in a free society, I wondered if I would be bothered by all these “rules”.  But, actually, I have found the discipline a good change from what we are used to.  Having to concentrate in getting the order is also a source of meditation.

Being a complete beginner, I am fascinated on how tea ceremony to me is about art appreciation.  After the tea is served, each utensil, cup and canister is examined by the guests and the one serving the tea must know a little history of each piece, such as method of firing, how it was made, meaning of the design, artist name, type of lacquer, where and when it was made.  Therefore, when purchasing any tea utensils, it’s important to gather such information.  These questions are asked in very formal Japanese, and so without the knowledge of the language, it’s hard to fully appreciate the art.

These past few months have been an eye opener for me and it’s been fun to reconnect with a different side of Japanese culture.  What I found is that it’s not only the lesson itself, but the life stories of all these Japanese women, of how they ended up living in Seattle, and a glimpse of the history of the Japanese society in Seattle that keeps me going back for more.  It’s a combination of all of that.

As my feng shui master Dr. Hsu tells me, qi, or energy is exchanged by being with other people, living things and our whole environment.  It’s like air.  We don’t see it but qi is there.  So, the whole ritual, from the tatami room, to the tea equipment to the teacher’s kimono, all add to whole experience and ambiance.  It’s taking me a while to comprehend and learn all that is new, furthermore, the Japanese words that are used for tea ceremony are very formal, not everyday Japanese, which makes  it more difficult for me to remember.  It does take a lifetime to learn and I realize I am a slow student, but am grateful for my patient teacher and fellow students.  And I believe what Master Hsu says, we learn from just being there.

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