The Wonderful World of Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremonies

During my first semester at Kyoto University, I was living in an international dorm in Obaku, near Uji, which is a good one-hour away from the main city of Kyoto. As such, I spent the majority of my time learning how to live abroad in Japan, meaning I spent hours trying to set up my Japanese phone bill, read forms in Japanese that may have been extremely important, and studying Japanese, so that I could improve my 日常会話 or daily conversations. Plus, I was literally two-hours away from the center of Kyoto, so I had nothing better to do than study and travel! =)

After doing a month-long internship in Tokyo at a Japanese startup called PhoneAppli, I spent a few weeks back home in Silicon Valley, before I moved to my new apartment right next to the gorgeous 鴨川 Kamogawa River, Kyoto University, and the center of Kyoto — Gion.

Due to my superb location, I’ve been taking advantage of every opportunity available to me such as visiting Taipei for Christmas with Mariko Fukui, attending yoga classes entirely in Japanese, running along the river, attending entrepreneur related events, visiting my aunts and uncle in Osaka, and literally saying “yes” to almost every opportunity that came my way. After all, I am here to learn — about Japanese female entrepreneurs, economics & business, the Japanese language, the culture, traditions, and history!

And I want to make the most of my 3.5 years here and spend my time wisely.

This past semester, I have been fortunate enough to attend three separate, traditional tea ceremony events. At my very first tea event, I spent roughly four hours with an 80-year-old Japanese tea ceremony teacher, who used to work with my uncle. With two other foreign friends, we were introduced to the world of traditional Japanese tea, and treated to a number of delightful 和菓子 or deserts, and 抹茶 or matcha tea. Each bowl and sweet was carefully chosen to properly represent the winter season.

Not only did she teach us how to enter the room to in an appropriate and respectful manner, but she also taught us specific Japanese phrases to show respect to the other guests and host. Before we drank even one sip of tea, we were taught to respectfully apologize to the guest on our left for drinking before they were served, bow in respect to the person on our right, and of course, thank the host for brewing such a delectable tea for us. And then, or やっと, we were able to drink our delicious tea.

By attending this four-hour experience, I realized how vast, intricate, and complex the tea ceremony was, and how little I knew. For example, the traditional tea ceremony stems from a mixture of Zen, Taoism, and even Buddhism. And every little detail of the entire tea experience was accounted for with such extreme care, but from the perspective of the guest, it seemed serene and simplistic, as if very little thought was put into the entire experience.

During my second experience at Kyoto University’s Villa Seifuso, I learned about a piece of history that I could scarcely believe. Nowadays, the vast majority of people who teach and serve tea are women. Even in traditional companies, the female employees tend to serve tea for guests. However, in the Edo period, the entire tea ceremony from beginning to end was an experience only afforded to men. Thus, they were both the guests and host. Imagine Japanese men serving tea…for me, it’s practically impossible. Nevertheless, men learned the intricate, meticulous way of serving tea as a host.

Even more surprising, the Edo period tea ceremony was often accompanied by food, and conducted in almost complete silence. Apparently, the men would gather for roughly four hours to eat delicious food and drink 抹茶, take short breaks to admire the garden, and then go back to eating and drinking…but without any conversation. Although it’s hard to imagine a time where there was no banter, I enjoyed learning such a flabbergasting fact. It’d be extremely difficult for anyone to partake in a 4-hour ceremony, let alone a silent one. But many people do attend 3-day, 10-day, and even month-long silent retreats.

As the tea ceremony is based on Zen principles of being in the moment, it makes sense that the entire experience would be conducted in silent meditation, and the tearoom itself, would be simple and relaxing. As such, everything within the tea ceremony encouraged quiet reflection and enjoying the moment.

At my third experience participating in a traditional, Japanese tea ceremony, or 茶道, I visited the Nakamura Tokichi Honten store in Uji — a place that has been run by the owner and his family for over 160 years, over the course of seven generations. Here, we had the opportunity to make matcha powder with a traditional tool that required significant concentration and stamina, as it literally took hours to make a few grams of matcha.

Back in the day, people would spend over eight hours a day, using this manual tool to create high-quality and fine, matcha powder. The current owner, Shogo Nakamura, taught us that the tealeaves are only picked once a year in Uji to acquire the highest-quality tea. And the tea is graded based on its aroma or fragrance, appearance, and flavor.

After receiving a tour of the grounds, we were fortunate to learn more about the history of Uji tea and future expansion plans. As Mr. Nakamura is planning to launch a store in the Ginza district of Tokyo, and in cities such as Paris, London, and New York, he emphasized the importance of sharing the culture, traditions, and history of Japanese tea. In essence, he wants to promote the historical traditions of Japanese tea to maintain and promulgate the allure of it. In this way, those who choose to partake in learning more about Japanese tea, will be basked in an unique experience, while sipping on delicious tea.

Although extremely difficult to describe in words, the traditional Japanese tea ceremony is enveloped in tradition, history, and culture. Even though I attended three separate events and read The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzō, I am not even close to fully understanding 茶道, or the tea ceremony. Recognizing how little I know was the most important lesson I learned, besides all of the interesting facts and figures. As such, I plan to continue signing up for every Japanese tea ceremony experience I can, and enlisting others to join me. Plus, I truly love drinking 抹茶 and have begun whisking it for myself, as part of my morning ritual.