My husband Wayne gave me an unusual gift for Christmas just before the end of 2022—a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony at the Urasenke Foundation of Hawaii, a venerable non-profit organization dedicated to “promote peace and international goodwill through the propagation of the best of Japanese philosophy, tradition and teachings as found in the Way of Tea.” This auspicious event took place early in the New Year, as the world was celebrating the arrival of 2023, the Year of the Rabbit.
Those of you who have read our website carefully are already familiar with the Japanese Tea Ceremony, known as Chanoyu. If you need a refresher, you can review the sections in The Tea Book entitled “The Road Back to Civilization,” “A Brief History of Tea,” and “The Philosophy of Tea,” especially the section entitled “Humility.” These overviews will provide some context
for the historic significance of the Japanese Tea Ceremony and the Zen Buddhist philosophy on which it is based. Our January “Japanese New Year’s Tea” in the “World of Tea Parties” section of the Tea Book provides a contemporary view of the role of tea in Japanese New Year celebrations.
The role of the Urasenke Foundation, which has branches throughout the world, is to continue, through education and the practice of Chanoyu, the traditions established by their founder, Sen Rikyu, a major figure in Japanese cultural history. While the practice of gathering with friends to drink tea originated in China, Rikyu refined the Japanese style of sharing tea and raised it to the level of an art form. Rikyu was born in Sakai in 1522 and died in Kyoto in 1591 at the age of seventy. Influenced by Zen Buddhism, he developed a simple, rustic style of tea known as wabi-cha, or plain tea. Although the aesthetic elements of wabi-cha appear simple and ordinary, they embody a dignity and elegance that incorporate the principles of harmony, tranquility, cleanliness, and respect. This idea is similar to the Danish concept of Hygge, which I discussed in last month’s blog.
Working at the court of the powerful Shogun, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Rikyu established the guidelines for all aspects of the tea ceremony, including the design of the tea house, and the types of natural materials, such as bamboo, from which it is constructed, the landscaping of the tea garden in which the tea house is located, the decorations recommended for individual tea ceremonies, depending on the occasion and the season of the year, the utensils to be used for making tea, the types of tea bowls, their colors, shapes and the materials used to make them, and even appropriate clothing for guests and the movements of the Tea Master as he prepares the tea.
The Encyclopedia Britannica is not far off in describing Chanoyu as “An aesthetic way of welcoming guests, in which everything is done according to an established order.” Some tea lovers discern a certain irony in the fact that an art form intended to be simple, plain and even spontaneous, can embrace such rigidity. My experience at the Urusenke Foundation’s tea ceremony, at which Wayne and I were the only guests, was exactly the opposite. Though we were familiar from previous travel and study with the guidelines of Chanoyu, we are by no means Japanese tea masters, but we found our experience pleasant, welcoming relaxing and memorable. And we were impressed by the staff at the Honolulu Urusenke foundation, including our Sensei (respected teacher,) from Kyoto, who was also our Tea Master. He provided us with a thoughtful overview of the experience (through an interpreter who was also from Japan,) before we shared tea together.
This foundation, which hosted our lovely tea ceremony in the Honolulu branch, certainly has authenticity, as it represents the sixteenth generation of Tea Masters in a direct line from Sen Rikyu himself. The current Chairman of the Urusenke Foundation, Zabasai Genmoku Soshitsu, who was born in 1956, was ordained as a Buddhist priest in 2002 at the Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto, where Sen Rikyu’s remains are memorialized. President Zabasai also holds a professional post at the Kyoto University of Art and Design in the Department of Historical Heritage.
Our experience of Chanoyu at the Urasenke Foundation in Honolulu followed the parameters set down by Sen Rikyu in the 1500s perfectly, yet it felt like nothing more than a lovely morning visit to welcome the New Year with friends. The Foundation is located in a crowded section of Downtown Honolulu near the busy beaches of Waikiki and the Halekulani Hotel. There were even jackhammers pounding away making street repairs nearby as we serenely sipped our tea. But Rikyu’s vision of surrounding every teahouse with a garden helped us to tune out the world around us and focus only on the joy of sharing tea, the founding principle of Chanoyu. The clean and uncluttered quiet of the waiting room, with minimal furniture and decorated only by a single piece of calligraphy, set the tone. Upon our arrival, and punctuality, as a sign of respect, is expected at Chanoyu, Our Tea Master and our translator escorted us through the tea garden, on our slow and attentive journey to the small tea house. We noted that the stone steps of the garden path had been sprinkled with water, though it was not raining. Just before we arrived, the Tea Master had personally swept all debris from the garden and cleaned the pathway with water as a sign of respect and welcome. This element of Chanoyu is embedded in the ancient Shinto tradition of ritual purity that helps prevent the spread of disease and honors guests, as cleanliness requires personal effort on the part of the Host.
Japanese gardens, known as roji, are planted primarily with greenery with a minimum of profusely flowering plants. As the guests pass through the roji, they leave the loud and cluttered world behind and acclimate themselves to focusing on the subtle contrasts among various shades of green, the textures, shapes and absence of symmetry in the serene setting. At the end of the path, our Sensei stopped at the stone water bowl and bamboo dipper located just before the entrance to the tea house. Here both the Tea Master and the guests pour fresh water from the dipper over their hands and use some of the water to cleanse their mouths. Like blessing oneself with holy water before entering a church, this gesture symbolically prepares all the participants to enter the Tea Ceremony with minds, hearts, hands and even words that leave unclean thoughts behind.
Humility is a key element of Chanoyu as taught by Rikyu, and most tea houses have low doors that require all who enter to bend over in order to enter. This gesture is a sign not only of humility but also of equality, as within the tea house all are equal, the Tea Master and the guests, and if any of the participants are wealthier or of a higher social status than the others, these perceived disparities will be completely ignored during the Tea Ceremony. I thought it was interesting that the tea house entrance at the Urasenke Foundation in Honolulu achieved the principle of humility by requiring the guests to step up rather than bending down. The entrance was high enough for us to sit down on, facing the garden as we removed our shoes. But to enter, we needed to make a rather awkward leap, in my case requiring a little assistance. Depending on others for help is a universal sign of humility which is evident everywhere in the world of nature.
The tearoom was small, the floor covered by only about eight tatami mats, with no furniture. As in all Japanese style tearooms, there was a recessed charcoal brazier in the floor on which a large metal kettle rested. When we entered, our Sensei had already prepared the hot coals, filled the kettle with water, and steam was gently floating from the spout. On a small stand nearby there was a little sunrise colored cannister containing powdered green matcha. Three utensils, all handcrafted from bamboo, were unobtrusively placed near the kettle, a scoop for the tea, a whisk, and a water dipper. A ceramic container of fresh water, and another vessel for water that has been used to cleanse the tea bowls, were also arranged on the tatami mat. The Tea Master remained close to the kettle throughout most of the ceremony, and his movements resembled a choreographed dance, as he scooped the powdered green tea into the tea bowls, added steaming hot water from the kettle with the dipper, and whisked the mixture deftly until it became a fragrant, frothy elixir.
Throughout this elegant service we carried on quiet and polite conversation guided by the Tea Master. To help the guests focus only on topics that pertain to nature, the season of the year or the tea itself, every tearoom has a tokonoma, a small alcove in which the Tea Master has placed a small flower arrangement, a painting or piece of calligraphy, and perhaps some incense, all chosen to harmonize with the moment. For our tea ceremony, Sensei had selected a winter flower, a camellia bud, just starting to open, surrounded by it dark, glossy leaves. We were aware that the tea plant, whose botanical name is Camellia sinensis, is related to the flowering plant, Camellia japonica, which flourishes at this time of year in Japan. The unopened bud suggested new opportunities and growth in the New Year.
A small ceramic rabbit also sat on the tatami mat in the tokonoma. After we had finished drinking our first cup of tea, Sensei went to the tokonoma, and brought the little rabbit to us to observe. It turned out to be a two-piece incense container with the rabbit’s head as the lid. Inside was a small piece of incense with a clean, refreshing herbal scent.
A traditional Chanoyu ceremony includes two movements with an intermission, though ours was shortened to last only two hours rather than the usual four. However, both parts were included in our experience. In the first half of the tea ceremony, the Tea Master prepares “thin” tea called usucha from the powdered green tea, and the guests drink out of their own bowls while enjoying special little Japanese pastries called wagashi. Many of these elegant treats are made from glutinous rice called mochi and filled with sweetened bean paste. For our usucha, or thin tea, Sensei selected a pair of bowls from which Wayne and I drank our tea. In Japanese ceramics, a pair does not mean that the two cups match. Matching sets of China are not part of the Japanese aesthetic. The Zen-influenced artistic values emphasize asymmetrical design and even items that are old and perhaps chipped, reminders that nothing needs to be perfect, and old and well used objects have their own dignity.
Our tea bowls were both made of a glazed terra-cotta material, but my bowl had a golden glaze in the inside and was larger and shaped differently than Wayne’s. Wayne’s bowl had a silvery interior glaze. As we enjoyed our usucha, Sensei disappeared briefly to the preparation room, which is not visible to the guests, and returned with two freshly made wagashi-style Japanese pastries, tinted green like the newly emerging buds.
While we drank our refreshing green tea and enjoyed our sweets, we commented about the design and colors of our tea bowls. The custom of observing and admiring the utensils, bowls and other works of art in the tearoom is called haiken. Sensei encouraged us to hold the bowls, turn them over and appreciate their subtle beauty. We also practiced haiken in the second half of the tea ceremony when we drank “thick” tea, known as koicha, made from the same powdered matcha but with less hot water, and kneaded with the whisk to a thicker consistency. Koicha is traditionally served from a single bowl, but the Urasenka Foundation is willing to make adaptations to avoid the spread of covid. Wayne and I were happy to drink from the same bowl.
The black bowl that our Sensei chose for us was a perfect contrast to the dark green tea, but also a comparison, which is the spirit of Zen. As the great poet Matsuo Basho often revealed in his haiku, things that seem different may also be alike in some way. It is our job to see the similarities among all things. The Japanese Tea Ceremony and the Urasenke Foundation help us to discover this harmony.
If you feel drawn to the idea of creating a sense of elegant harmony in your own home or garden in the Japanese tradition, matcha, which is high quality powdered green tea, is readily available online or in shops selling tea. If the beautifully designed wagashi pastries, elegantly hand-crafted to resemble seasonal flowers, fruits and plants and intended to be served with tea intrigue you, they can be found at Minamoto Kitchoan, an upscale Japanese pastry shop with branches in New York, New Jersey, Hawaii and California. Minamoto Kitchoan’s website is a marvel of aesthetic elegance, and shipping is available online, including wagashi created for Valentine’s Day. Nothing could be more charming than treating your Valentine to a Japanese tea party with refreshing green tea and beautiful hand-made pastries, designed to reveal the secret of spring emerging from February’s chill.