Nov 082005

It’s finally happened! I finally have the internet in my apartment! Is this really okay? I feel like I’m cheating or something. It’s just too easy…I mean…all I have to do is walk across the room and I can get my e-mail in a second. No bundling up in warm clothes, no frostbitten fingers.

Here I come, productivity!

Those of you who’ve been reading my site for awhile now will recall the two traditional arts courses I took last semester: Shamisen, a traditional three-stringed Japanese instrument, and Wagashi, Japanese Confectionaries.

You might also recall this post on June 23rd, describing an incredible trip into the mountains north of Kyoto during which I experienced my first ever tea ceremony. If you haven’t read that post, I highly recommend it. Even six months later it still remains one of my most memorable days in Japan.

I enjoyed that day’s ceremony so much that this semester I decided to enroll in an entire class on Tea Ceremony. I know it probably sounds silly to most westerners to be taking a class in something like this; after all, how much could there possibly be to serving tea? Well, let me tell you…

From Wikipedia (modified):
“Sado, the Japanese tea ceremony is a traditional ritual influenced by Zen Buddhism where matcha (green tea) is ceremonially prepared and served to a small group of guests, often with a light meal or sweets. Since a tea practitioner must be familiar not only with the production of tea, but with kimono, calligraphy, flower arranging, ceramics, incense and a wide range of other traditional arts, the study of tea ceremony takes many years and often lasts a lifetime. Even to participate as a guest in a formal tea ceremony requires knowledge of the prescribed gestures and phrases expected of guests, the proper way to take tea and sweets, and general deportment in the tea room.”

I’ve now attended four sado classes, and I have to tell you that I’m already overwhelmed by how much there is to remember. As I mentioned in June’s post, every single action, every motion, every phrase must be perfectly refined. But it isn’t just how you hold the bowl or pick up and replace the chopsticks, it goes as far as the position on the tatami where you must sit and how you must carefully place your feet with each step you take across the room. The depth of the bow, the direction your fan faces when it lies on the floor in front of you, even the way your hankerchief is folded inside your kimono all play a role in the tea ceremony. And all of that effort…is just to act as the guest.

The host’s role is significantly more complex, something that we either learned very little about, or I understood very little of during June’s ceremony. The host has not only to behave perfectly during the ceremony itself, but to prepare everything flawlessly before the guests arrive. A wall scroll must be carefully selected to convey a certain meaning, a pot of flowers arranged in a way to reflect the intended mood of the evening, sweets selected to reflect the season. The bowl he serves the sweets in must be not only carefully chosen, but placed in front of the guest in a way that will reveal only the appropriate side: in the fall, a bowl with both maple leaves and cherry blossoms would be presented such that the guest could not see the cherry blossoms, a springtime flower.

I can’t pretend to be able to comprehend the depth of the tea ceremony, but I can say that this class has put a whole new perspective on June’s experience. I’m sure that it has a lot to do with the fact that my Japanese has vastly improved since then; while Ota Sensei carefully explained each and every motion to us, I was only able to get a general understanding of what he was saying. Now that we’re hearing the same vocabulary week after week, I’m picking up on a lot more of the intricacies of the ceremony.

Incidentally, I mentioned once that traditional arts classes at Ritsumeikan are taught not on campus by regular university professors, but in the homes or personal studios of nation-renowned masters. This semester during one of our preparations I happened to notice the label on a box of sweets that was to be used in the ceremony. You’ll never guess who had personally prepared the assortment. That’s right, it was Ota Sensei.

Nothing less than the best for a famous tea master with whom most Japanese wouldn’t even be able to arrange a lesson.**

  9 Responses to “The Art of Tea”

  1. HALLELUIAH for the internet indoors! That Japanese Tea Ceremony class sounds pretty cool. I drink green tea here almost everyday, but I am sure that it doesn’t even closely compare to how good it must be there. If you can, bring me some back =).

  2. LOL……ummmm….yeah

  3. Did the class get split up yet? Not to brag, but I got put into the advanced handkerchief folding class. *grabs lapels* Anyway, I had an incredible time in sado, and my advice to you is to SAVOR EVERY DROP of that tea. That is the best matcha you are ever likely to have, and you get to drink it for free, you lucky bastard.

  4. playing shamisen, preparing tea, making paper, baking confectionary, taking in cherry blossoms, being clever: you are becoming quite a geisha guy. just no makeup like those japanese dudes do.

  5. Justin,

    I’m kinda sick right now and drinking quite a bit of tea so reading your post got me all tingly inside, hahaha . It’s very wonderful to hear how in depth these courses are and how much you’re learning from them. Although, I’m sure there’s going to be a day like this coming up:

    Sensei: You must hold each leaf, and see life on every edge.
    Justin: Yes, Sensei.
    Sensei: Remember the scent, as it holds the secrets of nature.
    Justin: Um yes, Sensei.
    Sensei: Feel it’s power take you in as you touch the cup gently.
    Justin: yeah, Sensei.
    Sensei: For the wonders of Japan all come to–

    Give ’em a piece of your mind for me, buddy 🙂


  6. Will you get to visit any of Kyoto’s tea houses and tea gardens as part of your class? I always loved the architecture and gardens more than the actual tea ceremony…
    If you can get into the garden at omotesenke, count yourself as VERY lucky. It’s one of the most amazing places I have ever been.

    How long can you sit seiza, btw? My friend who is really into sado regularly does it for EIGHT hours. I can only manage about 30 minutes before I can’t take it anymore.

  7. Gameday: Ironic that you mentioned splitting up because it was just this week that he said “those of you who feel like you you can gracefully fold your hankerchiefs, please come to this side of the room. Those who feel like they need more practice, go to that side of the room.” Every single person went to the “need more practice” side, haha.

    Speaking of best matcha ever, did you ever ask how much that freakin tea costs?? Of course they use some of the highest quality stuff available – sold for the low, low price of 1万5千円 per can! WHAA! (Sorry soraida, I don’t think I’ll even be able to afford any of this for MYSELF after the class ends! haha. But in any case it’s totally different from any tea you’ve ever tasted it – most foreigners tend to not like it because it’s very, very bitter. For me…I can’t get enough.)

    Alanna: I can sit seiza for about 15 minutes before my legs and feet go numb. After that I can probably take it for another 15 mins or so until my head also goes numb and I pass out.

    Shahin: Haha no, it’s more like “No no, don’t drink the tea from that side of the cup! Hold it in your left hand and rotate it twice towards you with your right hand, then raise it slightly to express gratitude for the tea before drinking! NO! NO! NOT THAT MUCH GRATITUDE! Yes, OK. Now when you take the sweets make sure to first pick the chopsticks up with your right hand from above, then transfer them to your left hand so that you can rotate your right hand below the chopsticks and hold them properly to pick up the sweet, after which you can place it on your paper and fold up the top left corner of the paper for no reason whatsoever. NO! DON’T FOLD THE PAPER THAT MUCH! WHAT ARE YOU, A COMMON PEASANT??”

    Just kidding. The teacher’s actually awesome and really patient (although those really are some of the necesary steps, haha)

  8. I think I have less than perfect circulation myself (hereditary?). I wonder what I’d do if I had to sit like that?

  9. p.s. yep, i clicked some ads.

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