Sunday, 9 August 2015

Japanese Tea Ceremony

Pic of Japanese frothy Japanese green tea, matcha tea powder and tea whisk

The Japanese Galleries at the British Museum in London are sponsored by the Mitsubishi Group. In one corner sits a small Japanese tea house. I witnessed a Japanese ceremony there on 7th August.

Urasenke Foundation
Three students from the Urasenke Foundation kindly demonstrated and explained all the Japanese tea ceremony's details. There was so much interest that there were not enough seats available for everyone. We were happy to sit and listen on the floor. We all learnt that there is so much more to the ceremony than the drinking of tea. Humility is an especially important part of the process.

Our presenter kindly explained that the Japanese word "Chado" is formed of two parts. "Cha" means "tea"; "do" means "way" or "path". The Chado ceremony thus comes to mean "the way of tea".

Two guests were invited to the tea ceremony. One was one of the Urasenke Foundation's students to show the way; the other was invited to follow her from the gathered audience.

The two guests had to remove their shoes before entering the tea house. The British Museum's Japanese tea house is a typical 16th century design, although it is not a life-size version.

Guests have to crawl through a small entrance to enter the tea house. The entrance is just 72cms in height. The need to crawl into the tea house is supposed to remind guests to be humble and show humility towards everyone inside. No matter how powerful you are, you are still expected to show an attitude of humility towards your host and other guests. Even a great Samurai warrior would have been expected to remove his weapons on entry and crawl inside.

Once inside, the two guests looked at the various items used in the tea preparation. They were offered a sweet tea first, before any other tea.

Chinese Medicinal Origin
Our presenter explained that tea came to Japan from China. It was originally taken as a medicine. As a result, you speak of 1 or 2 "doses" of tea in Japanese rather than "cups" of tea.

Meditation and Purity
The tea ceremony involves a period of meditation. All the host's actions were measured, calm and respectful in preparing the tea for her guests. She took great care in cleaning all the various tea items - bowls, tea whisk, spoon, etc. She used the procedure laid down by the Tea Master and his successors in the 16th century. Chado has its roots in the "clarification" process from the Shinto religion. Before entering a Shinto temple, it is important to wash your hands and mouth. It is a time to be pure in both mind and soul.

Matcha Production Process
Our presenter explained that the tea used in the ceremony is a powdered green tea called "matcha". Tea production starts in May. Only the best leaves are picked when they are still just buds. They are steamed, dried and left in a dark place for 6 months. Then, they are ground into a fine powder. No machinery is used. The grinding is carried out with a stone by hand.

This process develops and adds depth to the tea's flavour. As the tea is powdered, no part is lost. The tea has a clear, clean colour. It keeps all its vitamins as it has never been exposed to the sun. It is also reputed to have anti-ageing properties.

Bowl turning
The guests bow to thank their host for the tea and show their appreciation before drinking. It is very important to pass the tea bowl with the front facing forwards. We saw how the tea bowl was turned in drinking, as passed between host and guest and returned after drinking by the guests to the host.

The front of the tea bowl usually bears a pattern. In passing the bowl with the front facing forwards, the host shows the best part to the guest. The guest drinks from the side. After drinking, the guest turns the front of the bowl back to face them to see the best part again. Then, the bowl is turned to face the host as it is returned.

Our presenter likened this procedure to how we would return a book to someone. We return it facing right way for them to read the words on the cover.

Mindful Atmosphere
If you are ever invited into a tea house in Japan, you are expected to be humble. You should not wear any jewellery at all. No watches either. You should put any jewellery or watches away in a pocket out of sight. You should be mindful of your five senses and enjoy the beauty of nature. You should not wear any strong perfume or aftershave as this would destroy the atmosphere.

It was not permitted to film the tea ceremony or take photos during the presentation. Chado is not a religion, yet it contains elements of both Buddhism and Shintoism.

At the end of Chado, the hostess cleaned all the utensils and bowls. She put them all back as they were at the beginning of the ceremony.

Our presenter answered various questions from the fascinated audience at the end. She described how the tea's taste might appear bitter at first, before a fuller flavour comes through as with coffee.

She was particularly respectful and attentive in answering the questions of children at the front. She explained that the tea looked like a frothy green version of cappuccino.

How much closer the world seems in the 21st century.  A familiar Italian beverage can help British children, (and other nationalities), understand Japanese tea. 

The Japanese tea ceremony provided some welcome calm within the British Museum heaving with summer holiday visitors from all over the world. Although not mentioned, a time of humble reflection was a fitting way to start a weekend commemorating the Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bombs of 70 years ago.

Many thanks to the Urasenke Foundation.

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