Our host entered, impeccably dressed in kimono, with a red fukusa tucked into her obi (waist sash).
Another graceful bow later, and she soon started preparing our cup of tea. First cleansing the tools with her fukusa, then putting two scoops of green tea powder into the cup, before adding hot water and briskly whisking the contents.
The mood was almost of reverence, and nothing was said throughout the process; it was all we could do to try and absorb every detail of what was unfolding before us.
After all, this was what our group of close to twenty had gathered at En for – an introduction to furo-demae (風炉点前), the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
Every movement with meaning
“Every part of the tea ceremony is deliberate. Every action has meaning”
said Minako san, our instructor, as she went on to demonstrate how she raised the scoop before bringing it down to take water.
First, she brought it dead centre of her body, then lifting it straight up, she regarded it intently before bringing it down.
It’s like looking into a mirror, we’re told. Only with a clear mind, can we make good tea, so it’s important to empty the mind and just focus on the task at hand.
More than just tea
Four characters spell the essence of a tea ceremony:
WA 和 – Harmony. Considered the ultimate ideal for humans. The tea ceremony reflects this as it is a shared experience between host and guest, and not a solitary experience.
KEI 敬– Respect. For ourselves and for others. In the tea room, everyone is the same rank; everyone treated the same. Utensils are paid a lot of respect, which is why the bowl is held with two hands and all utensils are treated slowly and carefully.
SEI 清– Purity. In this case, it means to treat everyone with a pure and open heart. This is reflected in the cleansing of the utensils, the preparation of tea, and even in the cleanliness of our attire.
JAKU 寂– Tranquillity. This is the point where you reach a degree of selflessness.
According to Minako san, these are the basic values tea practitioners reflect on when taking part in a tea ceremony. Certainly explains the serious mood earlier, and why the tea ceremony is such a big part of Japanese culture.
Sweet before bitter
Before you get your tea, you get a nice little sweet! It’s meant to take the edge off the tea and to balance out the bitterness. I don’t do sugar (health reasons) so I passed on that, but here’s a picture. It just adds another aesthetic aspect to the whole ceremony if you ask me.
Unfortunately, I was so busy whisking and trying to get the tea right that I neglected to take pictures (plus, you need two hands to hold the cup up, and rotate it so the rear face is facing you before you drink), but suffice to say, that was one refreshing (and meaningful) cup of tea!
If you’re in Kyoto and want to visit En, you can get directions from their website. The session is about 50 minutes long and costs 2000¥ per head, but they recommend emailing ahead to reserve a slot.
*Special thanks to Atsuko san for her assistance in clarifying the details above!