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“The Tea Ceremony is nothing more than boiling water, steeping tea, and drinking it”.
Thus spoke the great patriarch of all that is tea, 16th-Century tea master, Sen-no-Rikyu, and his word is both lore and law. Rikyu, and his adherents over the centuries, believe that a tea ceremony, unlike the aforementioned avant-garde Beyoncé-inspired version, must be infused with wakeiseijaku – harmony, respect, quiet and solitude. It is thus something that requires considerable planning and carefully execution, not least amidst the daily grind of 21st Century life.
So how does it work? A full-on tea ceremony, or chaji, may go something like this:
The guests, usually clad in kimono, assemble in a waiting room and select a member to act as the main guest. They then proceed to the garden and to the stone trough from which they ladle water to hand to mouth to purify themselves of worldly concerns. They enter the teahouse, admire the calligraphy work in the tokonoma recess, and greet the host who presents light kaiseki dishes.
A wagashi sweet is prepared to offset the bitterness of the thick, green matcha that is to follow. Guests retire to the garden or the waiting room, and then re-enter the tea-room, stopping to admire the ikebana flower arrangement that has replaced the hanging scroll in the tokonoma.
The thick koicha first brew is passed in a single bowl from the host to a guest, who savors the strong bitter taste that slowly overcomes the sweetness of the wagashi, before wiping the bowl and passing it on. Talk is purely of the tea – is it from Uji or Shizuoka or elsewhere? What is its poetic name?
The host then rebuilds the coals in the brazier, and prepares the thinner usucha, the second brew from the same tea leaves, which he whips to a delicately frothy consistency with the chasen bamboo tea whisk, and passes to each person. There’s more talk of the utensils, the lacquer of the container, perhaps – “It’s fine example, Wajima-nuri, from Ishikawa prefecture” – and remarks on the fine-crafted curve of the tea scoop. Cultured conversation reigns. Eventually the guests depart, and the outside world seeps in. The chaji is over.
Tea is certainly not for everyone, nor indeed for everyman. It could be argued that the tea ceremony has never shrugged off its 16th century role of, as Tsuji Shizuo plainly puts it, ‘basic cultural training for the upper class’. Some argue there’s a whiff of elitism about tea. It is also big business. The masters of the three tea ceremony schools, Urasenke, Omotesenke and Mushanokojisenke, are celebrities, forever seen dashing for their limos to avoid the snooping lenses of the Japanese tabloid press. There seems to be no shortage of alleged peccadilloes or scandals.
Yet the popularity of cha-no-yu shows no sign of abating, with devotees in all four corners of the world. In Kyoto, cha-no-yu’s spiritual and historical heartland, the tea houses and chaji are full. One sometimes wonders just how many of the ojosan (well-brought-up young ladies) are adhering to Sen-no-Rikyu’s dictum of simplicity, and how many are relishing the prospect of adding another skill to the CV one proffers to a potential marriage candidate – the tsuri-sho, the ‘fishing list’.