Japan is a place unlike any other, with cultural traditions fiercely protected across millennia. You can learn about the legacy of the samurai and their battles with the ninja clans, the skilful geisha and their performative art, or the rituals of the tea ceremony.
In Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, some of the old ways have been meticulously preserved. We visited WAK Japan, a women’s cooperative with local experts who can guide you through the process. There is so much more to a tea ceremony than just drinking tea.
On arrival, we removed our shoes. Had it had been the 16th century, our samurai swords would be left at the door. Putting on thick wooden slippers, we shuffled upstairs past shōjis screens. Our guide, Aska, wore a silvery kimono embroidered with the muted colours of autumn.
On the tatami floor, lay the polished ceramic drinking bowls. We knelt down, and with everyone at the same level, we were told that we were equals. Tea ceremonies were used as a leveler in society – no matter who you were in the outside world, everyone was treated the same when they came together for tea. No power or money could create a hierarchy here. Hand stitched on a cloth were the words Wa kei sei jaku meaning ‘Peace, harmony, purity, respect.’
There was something so simple and tranquil about that space, the light muffled by the paper screens and the room silent, except for our host whose movements were slow and measured. Aska tapped the ceramic lid of the tea pot with her long wooden scoop, as if waking it from a slumber.
Everything was gently submerged in cold water, then meticulously wiped with a small, folded red napkin. Aska spoke little as she prepared the tea. Instead, we listened to water being dropped, the clink of the ceramics, the hollow sound of bamboo.
With a small wooden whisk, she frothed up the green tea until the bubbles turned white. The maca leaves had been covered in silver to protect them from the sun, and as a result, the taste was less bitter than that of regular green tea. Tea was introduced to Japan in the 9th Century, when priests returned from China. Kyoto was the first place to grow its own tea in Japan. The hot sun and temperate climate was ideal for tea plants to flourish, and it is now famous for its matcha and gyukuro tea.
Before drinking the tea, it is customary to bow low to your host to show your gratitude. The bowls are placed in between guests with the design facing them at first, and this is the kao (face) side. You must say, “Osakini” to the person next to you, to show etiquette and to request permission to drink before them, then wait for them to nod.
At this point, you should turn the design on the bowl away from you in modesty so that the kao of the bowl is facing towards the host. The next step is to thank the host and tea growers before raising the bowl to your lips, with your left hand nestled under the right. You then spin the bowl twice clockwise and then sip – the standard rate is to finish your drink in three and a half sips. Only the last mouthful should be an audible slurp to show your appreciation.
Replacing the bowl back down in front of you, you can now turn it anti clockwise so that the design is facing you once again. The kao of the bowl is specifically chosen for the occasion, and you can enjoy trying to glean its meaning. Remember to thank your host for the tea.
There is a saying in Japanese – Ichigo Ichie, which means ‘savour every encounter.’ As Brits, we are particularly fond of a brew, but this tea ceremony was strangely calming. Emerging from the room afterwards, we felt like we’d enjoyed a soothing spa session.
To see a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in action, watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wQVxj_0Mdo.
WAK Japan is a business that celebrates the historic roles of women, and provides many opportunities for cultural exchange. They are committed to preserving Japanese culture and offer courses in calligraphy, dancing, flower arrangement and Japanese paper craft. See their website for more details: http://wakjapan.com/