Week Fifteen: Afternoon Tea, Japan Style

Week fifteen, and I’d been looking forward to this particular new experience ever since booking my spot a couple of months ago. Today I was going to learn about the Japanese tea ceremony, via a one day course held by UBC. As part of the course, students would get to participate in a tea ceremony held in the Nitobe Gardens. I went with my colleagues, Jess and Serena, who joined me on last week’s culinary scavenger hunt.

The morning started with our teacher, Mandy sensei, telling us some of honorific suffixes used in Japanese culture, which get quite complicated, depending on your position, seniority, relationship, age, etc. She then went on to tell us about some of the history and rituals surrounding the tea ceremony. In particular we learned about Sen no Rikkyu, the grandfather of the tea ceremony. Sen no Rikkyu was born to a merchant family, but his passion was tea, and he was fundamental in developing the simple rustic style that still characterizes the ceremony today. He found a patron in the powerful samurai Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and became Hideyoshi’s tea master and confidante. Unfortunately it turns out that being close to to a bloodthirsty samurai has its drawbacks, and Sen no Rikkyu was eventually ordered to commit ritual suicide by Hideyoshi after somehow upsetting him. Given the somewhat similar fate of Socrates, I’m beginning to suspect that being an innovator in ancient times was more hassle than it’s worth.

After a short break, Mandy sensai taught us about some of different types of bowls used in the ceremony, depending on the time of year, the season, and holiday. For example, one of the bowls she presented to us was a bowl that is only used at New Year, because the stripes on it represent those on a spinning top. And spinning tops are gifts traditionally  given to Japanese children at New Year

IMG_1106The raku bowl is is considered the most wabi sabi (beauty in simplicity), and is used for entertaining important guests.

IMG_1110There is no concept of humanly constructed time in the tea room. Watches are removed, and participants of the ceremony are expected to be in the moment, and put concerns about time aside. Which all sounds very peaceful in theory. Indeed the tea ceremony was often used by warring factions when they were parleying, meaning that no swords were allowed in the tea house, and negotiators were granted safe passage during the ceremony. Much like ‘guest right’ in Game of Thrones.

Note to self: If invited to a tea ceremony hosted by this man, politely decline.

Note to self: if invited to a tea ceremony hosted by this man, politely decline.

Before we went to our tea ceremony, we had to practice kneeling and, more importantly, getting up gracefully from our kneeling position. You do this by sort of rolling back onto your heels and pushing up until you’re standing again. Mandy sensei did this in one fluid motion. The rest of us had varying degrees of success. Jess was the most nimble of our group, but Serena and I had a few wobbles, probably not helped by my outstretched arm knocking her off balance.

Practice time over, we headed across campus to the Nitobe Gardens. We’d been instructed to bring a pair of white socks to be worn whilst we were in the tea house, and I’d spent the better part of the morning before class scrambling to find the one and only pair or white sports socks that I own. Now it was time to put them on, and step out of my shoes backwards onto a raised wooden plank. The waiting area adjacent to tea room was itself further raised by a single step up from the plank. This small ritual was to ensure that I did not bring the outside into the tea room.

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Inside the tea house

The entrance to the tea room is purposely low, so that participants of the ceremony must humble themselves by bending or crawling in. Silently we filed in, stepping carefully on the tatami mats, and knelt in place. Once we’d all entered the room, our host appeared through a different door, and we bowed to her. We were invited to inspect the implements that would be used during the ceremony, and, after dutifully examining and passing along the items, it was time for tea to be served.

Although I’m sure the tea ceremony is a relaxing, almost sublime experience for those familiar with it, I found it somewhat nerve-wracking on my first attempt. My legs, unaccustomed as they were to kneeling for any length of time, ached. I was also very worried about making a mistake during this formal, highly ritualized procedure. Although I assumed myself a student, in the eyes of my host, I was the guest. And the mistakes of guests are politely ignored and glossed over by any credible host. Which meant that I had no idea whether I was doing things correctly. Naturally I overcompensated by bowing wholeheartedly at every opportunity, on the assumption that a show of deference would allay offence. I’m pretty sure this was supremely annoying to my host.

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Deferential but clueless

We were served ‘thin’ matcha tea. Thin tea is what is recommended over thick tea for newbies such as myself, but is still quite viscose, and not at all like the matcha lattes you can buy at certain trendy coffee shops. It has a strong pistachio green colour, and a slightly fishy odour, but is not unpleasant. After the tea we nibbled on our sweet (a plain biscuit with an emblem of a flower raised on it), and clumsily staggered to our feet, hindered somewhat by the lack of circulation in our legs. Unbalanced, my bottom crashed into the thin wall behind me on the upswing, causing it to quiver and reverberate unsettlingly. Our impeccable host continued to politely ignore me.

We spent the remaining hour touring the gorgeous Nitobe Gardens, designed by agriculturalist and philosopher, Dr. Inazo Nitobe, and considered to be one of the most authentic Japanese gardens in North America. I’ll leave you with some photos;

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Dr. Nitobe

VERDICT: Matcha tea is a bit of an acquired taste, and I didn’t find the tea ceremony as relaxing as I’d hoped, but nevertheless I enjoyed my day. Learning about some of the history of Japan and the customs of the tea ceremony was really interesting, and the Nitobe Gardens alone are well worth a visit if you’re in the area. Definite thumbs up from me!

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