Though globalization has brought many of Japan’s traditions beyond the shores of this once-isolated island nation, not all of them have proven to have the same international appeal. Sado or Chado (literally “way of tea” or just “tea ceremony”) is something that has, unlike Japanese martial arts and anime for instance, yet to catch on in the Western world. While I had a passing familiarity with this this art and understood its deep relationship with Japanese culture, I never gave it much serious consideration as it sounded far too complicated for a simple Westerner like me.
My experience for Japanese tea ceremony
But as fate would have it, my close friend happens to be a student of the school for Japanese tea ceremony. I couldn’t let such an opportunity for such an experience pass me by, so I requested that he arrange for me to be an observer during one of his lessons.
After venturing into the suburbs of Osaka, I was introduced to his teacher, who runs her school out of her private residence. I quickly learned that she is a woman who very much embodies the virtue of not only hospitality, but modesty as well. Teaching Japanese tea ceremony is not done so much out of a desire for her personal gain than it is to preserve its traditions and help bestow its benefits on her students. Nevertheless, she was extraordinarily welcoming of an outsider wishing to observe her class and even offered me an assortment of Japanese sweets as we settled into the tiny Chashitsu (Tea ceremony room).
How can we deal with Tea Ceremony?
As the lesson began and I watched the scene before me, I don’t think I had ever felt like as much of a cultural outsider as I did in all my travels. I had heard before that every body movement in Chado (Tea ceremony) has significance, but I did not realize that this was meant to be literal. I watched in fascination as my friend made careful movements under his teacher’s guidance in preparing the tea and finally offering it to me. I picked up the bowl, turned it to the right three times as I was instructed and gulped it down in three sips.
Next, it was my turn. Wait, what? I wasn’t told about this; I had only come to be an observer. Still, I’m not so rude as to risk offending my very generous host. Feeling incredibly self-conscious, I approached the tea set in the choreographed manor and sat down. I should note that traditionally, all participants of the ceremony are expected to sit in seiza (kneeling) position, but our teacher was merciful enough to let me sit comfortably cross-legged. Doing my best to follow along with her Japanese, I poured the hot water into my cup, scooped a couple of teaspoons of matcha powder, and then whisked them together, all while being sure to place the tools in their exact correct locations. I then returned the favour and offered my results to my friend. They seemed pleased with my performance, but I would hardly expect them to make me feel even more embarrassed.
I was still eager to learn more about this perplexing topic, so I requested to ask her a few questions to help me better understand the ceremony. Wasting no time, I asked the most obvious one: why learn it? With much enthusiasm, she went into a detailed exposition as I struggled to keep up with my notes. But from what I gathered, there is a strong philosophical component which emphasizes self-improvement and strengthening the mind. As a martial artist, I can see how regularly performing incredibly precise movements with impeccable posture in a highly disciplined manor can build a person’s character.
She went on to explain that there are different schools (ryuha) of Chado with hers belonging to the Omotesenke. Much like martial arts, these schools were passed through famial lineages. There was considerable debate in the past regarding who laid claim to the title of the “true” tea ceremony founder, but that point has been put aside in favour of mutual respect among all schools. I imagine that to a novice like me, the differences would seem quite inconsequential.
Japanese tea ceremony proved to be an unexpectedly challenging experience for me, and I advise others not underestimate it as well. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this vastly complex tradition that takes years to perfect and there is so much more to learn. It may be difficult to find authentic schools that cater to non-Japanese, but if ever you get a chance I highly recommend seizing it. As a foreigner, if mastering the art of the tea ceremony won’t gain you the respect and admiration of your Japanese peers, nothing will.