Zen: the silent art of tea

“Do you want to wear a kimono?”

“Yes,” I replied, bowing quickly, “arigatou gozaimashita!”

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Kimono-clad

Tomo’s mother gracefully ushered me into one of the beautiful rooms within their traditional Japanese home, fitted with iconic tatami-clad floors and rice paper sliding doors.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. A few days ago, I had taken a bus to a distant neighborhood of Kyoto, navigating my way with lots of stumbles and broken google translate communication. Ever since arriving in Japan I have felt somewhat like a clumsy child, drifting through the sea of this culture, occasionally finding myself hopelessly lost in translation.

Sometimes, I’d be left feeling somewhat lonely and feeling out of place, but I’d find pretty often these moods to be punctuated with gifts like this one. I had met Tomo getting off the bus. I thought I had been doing well so far, finding the correct bus (after 4 tries, but I reasoned that I wasn’t limited by time at the moment, my optimism kicking in) and finding my way to the correct place understanding 0% of the kanji written to guide me.

I guess I must have looked a lot more lost than I actually felt, because Tomo took pity on me and offered to help me find my way. On our way he told me that his mother practiced the art of traditional Japanese tea ceremony and invited me to come to their home.

The ritual Japanese tea ceremony is an elegant performance of preparing and presenting matcha (powdered green tea). Elaborate ceremonies can go on for hours, my new friends explained.

Wagashi (Japanese sweets) are served before the tea to counteract any bitterness. The tea utensils (tea container, tea scoop, and tea bowl) are ceremoniously cleaned and hot water is whisked into the matcha powder. The more froth there is in the tea bowl, I learned, the greater the tea master’s skill.

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Wagashi (Japanese sweet) delicately reflecting the beauty of spring

Tomo’s mother, Machiko, explained that the beauty of the ritual comes from its silence and simplicity. Tomo, his sister Akari, and I sat in seiza position (sitting on bent knees), as Machiko served us beautiful wagashi resembling unopened cherry blossoms.

Machiko thoughtfully and gracefully went through a series of choreographed movements as she folded a small red cloth she’d use to clean the tea elements.

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The tea master

Each step had its own meaning and significance. Using a bamboo ladle to scoop the boiled water from the iron teapot submerged in the floor, she would pour only half of the contents into the bowl of tea, carefully emptying the rest back into the pot from a height just enough to make a loud splashing sound.

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Traditional Japanese tea wares

My new friends explained many similar intricacies to me, and I was finally given the honor of preparing a cup of tea for the hostess herself (the family reassuring me that if Akari’s 6 year old boy could do it, then so could I). Encouraged, I tried my best to follow Machiko’s graceful example.

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I can’t imagine a lovelier sight

There was no question that the atmosphere of the ceremony, its prescribed and orderly steps, and the simple aesthetic appeal of it all elevated this ritual to a form of art. Even when exiting and entering the room, Machiko would first kneel, open the sliding door, get up once more, kneel once again, close the door, and only then proceed.

The family explained that these seemingly superfluous movements created space, creating stillness. They were the antidote to rushing through life, blowing by beauty without noticing it. The minute steps of the ritual and their prescribed order served as a meditation. One could not go through the procedure mindlessly without making many mistakes.

The Japanese tea ceremony captured the essence of a Zen mindset: simplicity, clarity, and purity. Perhaps we could all add a few extra steps to our day and practice tea meditation.

As much as the ceremony itself, I’ll always remember the incredibly selfless kindness this family showed to me by inviting me to their home and sharing a treasured piece of Japanese culture with me. It through moments like this that Japan continues to grow on me, quietly showing me the hidden gems of its beautiful culture.

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