Zen in a Teacup: The Way of Tea
Typically the Captain
prefers a beverage
a tad stronger than tea when he finds time to relax, but this
week he is doing just that. Join him as he discovers the "way
make your way on down the stone steps, past the trickling pond and small
garden hemmed in by cut logs. The tatami room is just
beyond the wooden entry gate up ahead. Watch your head as
you pass beneath. Now move inside and have a seat on the mat.
off that mobile phone, and while you're at it, your mind as
well. They're both of no use here.
This is a place of peace. Your mother's constant
nagging doesn't exist. As for that gruff office manager sucking
air through his teeth, he is in another world, a world you've
left behind. Just take it easy.
You've now completed the first step of sado,
or the way of tea.
This particular world is courtesy of Soshin
Terada, who teaches traditional Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu)
from her apartment in Tokyo's Meguro district.
Like the sumo dohjo, the teahouse is
a place of sanctity. It is where one of Japan's most revered
customs takes place.
In truth, the entryway to Terada's teahouse
is not quite as grand as initially implied. The garden is
plastic and the stones are rubber mats. The gate is merely
an enhanced door jam. But the beauty of the tea experience
is not in the fineness of the trappings; it lies in capturing
a special feeling at a particular time.
"This time today will never come back,"
says the 72-year old Terada. "This moment is precious.
It is not the same as anytime yesterday, and will not be repeated
tomorrow. You have to relax and enjoy the tea at this moment.
That is the mind of the tea."
a tad pretentious? Perhaps. But the movements and orchestration
of preparation and drinking during chanoyu combine to form
a tradition that has been played out for centuries. And even
today, with the privacy of folks' lives being squeezed by
and work demands alike, experiencing the way of tea still
fills a prominent place in the hearts and - more importantly
- minds of Japanese, if even for just a moment.
A mere cup of joe at the corner diner this
is not. Each movement in the preparation has been rehearsed
thousands of times over the roughly ten years it takes to
become a teacher of the craft.
From the seiza position (in which the feet are tucked underneath and behind), the hostess works between the kettle and
wood table with the precision of a draftsman and fluidity
of a ballerina.
The entire process is utilitarian in nature.
Everything has a function or purpose - the wood whisks, the
thin scoops, the adjustments to the water temperature, the
mixing, everything. The relative location of the kettle, table,
and even the flower vase in the corner are all set by careful
measurement down to the centimeter.
This attention to detail and effort on the
part of the hostess is part of the pleasure. "[Enjoyment]
involves appreciation of the teahouse, the utensils, a quiet
atmosphere, and gratitude for the host's warm hospitality,"
says Yumiko, 35, a secretary, who started participating in
tea ceremony at the age of ten at the urging of her mother,
an instructor herself.
the two largest chanoyu styles in Japan, omotesenke
and urasenke, the tea starts in a finely ground form,
or matcha. After the hostess scoops a few spoonfuls of matcha into a ceramic teacup, a wood ladle is used to add water from the kettle.
This is slightly different from other forms of tea drinking in that the tea itself is actually consumed, as opposed to remaining at the bottom of the kettle or inside a tea bag. It is said that because of this distinction, a definitive flavor can be achieved.
The water plays a vital role in the flavor as well. "The best-tasting tea is drawn from the
best water," explains Terada, adorned in a yellow kimono
with blue obi (belt), as she lifts the lid on the black
water kettle nestled within the floor in the center of the
room. She says that using pure water with an appropriate mineral
content is as important to tea as it is to sake or wine.
She then vigorously whisks the concoction with a chasen inside the teacup, or matcha chawan, in the same way
a chef will beat egg. When a white foam forms on its
surface, it is ready.
Guests, seated in the same catcher-blocking-the-plate
position, are fanned out opposite the hostess. WIth a decorative
piece of sweet omogashi (cake) placed before them already
eaten, it is now time for the piece d' resistance -
the drinking of the tea itself.
After retrieving a teacup and performing a few appropriate bows,
each guest will hold the cup with both hands so that the painted
image is facing the drinker. At this moment, Terada encourages
a peek at the pattern of the floating foam bunched up against
the sides of the cup. "You can see the bubbles, but the
clear areas resemble islands floating in the ocean in shapes
that will never be repeated," she explains. "This
particular tea is unique; it can only be enjoyed this one
time. This is part of the command of tea."
drinking is an aesthetic all its own. With the palm as a pivot
point, the teacup is rotated clockwise a quarter turn. Then
it is turned once more so that the image faces the hostess
- a small sign of respect for her hospitality. Now it's down
The experience is a form of therapy. Terada
relates: "Sometimes a 40-year old lady will call me.
Overwhelmed by stress at work, she'll just want to come over
for a break. People are attracted to the old-style feeling
of the experience; it is healing."
The stringent codes of conduct seen within the ceremony have not always been the case. Buddhist monks studying in China first brought powdered green tea to Japan in the eighth century. In these days, the tea had various meditation and medicinal uses before centuries later being adopted by the upper classes and the shoguns for times of celebration and entertainment.
Sen no Rikyu, a Monk born into a wealthy trading family, completely revolutionized green tea in the sixteenth century. After being appointed as tea master to shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a great unifier of Japan during a time of intense civil strife, he worked to develop an egalitarian image for the tea ceremony. This began with the implementation of a strict set of rules. As a result, he stripped the teahouse of all excesses, added defined codes of behavior, and emphasized the Zen principles of finding internal worth within oneself. The results of his work are the same principles and values that the tea schools teach today.
Terada insists that for introspection on the part of her guests to take place it is important that her teahouse reflect the spirit of the season. In spring, a guest may be found holding a teacup featuring a picture of rabbits frolicking in a meadow with a painted scroll hanging on her back wall reading: "One flower blooms, spring is coming." The text of a scroll suitable for summer might describe the shrill cry from a golden pheasant in a tall tree as "resonating through a quiet, cool summer dawn." This feeling will be complemented perhaps by teacups adorned with images of flowing rivers and mountain scenes. Such attention to the yearly changes in the natural world combine to contribute to "the mind of the hosting," she says.
Terada, she feels lucky to be involved in such a rewarding job.
Her 32 years as an instructor have allowed her to see women's
roles within society change. She notes that when she began
teaching - during Japan's period of great economic growth
- most of her students were hobby-seeking housewives with
grown children. Today she teaches primarily young, single
women and even a few men in her weekday classes.
The image of tea itself has undergone a transformation as well. Bottled teas produced from a variety of leaves are available by the dozens. Fueled by media reports on the health benefits commonly found in green tea, the yearly consumption of all bottled tea products doubled during the latter half of the previous decade. Additionally, green tea-flavored ice cream and lattes are now standard fare in many fashionable coffee shops.
To view the tea ceremony as a bit of an anachronism in contemporary Japan, however, doesn't take much deep thinking. The hardly Zen-like elements that make up most of modern life, such as ringing
mobile phones and convenience stores on nearly every street corner, can make it difficult to form a link between the meditating monks of 400 years ago and a significant relevance for the tea ceremony today.
But balance is the key to making the connection. After all, there can be time for everything these days, even Zen. Yumiko, the tea-ceremony student, explains, "The important thing is to savor the richness of your own spirit. It is totally different from having a coffee at Starbucks. Though I do like Starbucks' cappuccino."
Note: Tomoko Nakayama contributed to this
report from the Chiba Bureau.