…Bellies full we were taken to perhaps the most special part of the trip- the Tea Ceremony at Urasenke.
Now there will be no pictures in this post as pictures were not allowed but I’ll try to describe the experience, as surreal as it was and I I’ll leave it up to your imagination to fill in the blanks.
One of the two oldest tea houses in Japan, this is the same tea house that hosts the sheikhs and has recently opened in Emirates Palace. They visit the UAE to train students here and even host students in Japan. As such it was a great honour to be there.
We were greeted at the door with such grace and formality that I felt seriously disrespectfully under-dressed. We were asked to remove our shoes at the entrance, slipped on some slippery slippers and entered a veritable paradise of a garden. It was not the size of the garden, rather the attention to detail that made it so beautiful.Despite the absence of a colourful palette of blooming flowers to catch your eye, each stone, each shrub and tree seemed to have been carefully selected and positioned to create something so aesthetically perfect. You’d be forgiven if you forgot what you really came there for.
We were asked to make our way across the garden, carefully treading on the stones to ensure we didn’t inadvertently kill the bright green moss that had so carefully been grown. We reached a small tea room- a room so small and so dark with an entrance through which you would need to crawl to get in. Yet every single one of these aspects of the tea house was an intentional design feature- the close walls and the darkness to ensure complete focus by eliminating unnecessary distractions and the narrow door just big enough for an unarmed man to crawl through yet not big enough for a man with a katana at their side. We peered through the door into the dark room which in any other place would have seemed like isolation, but is it really isolation where you are left alone with your thoughts?
A short space away was the waiting area where guests would be seated before being welcomed by the house master who would come out to greet them. Surrounded by all that beauty, I think I could have waited there for hours. We were led to the main house, at the entrance of which there is a water fountain on the left and a tree a hundred if not more years old further to the right. The house smelled deliciously of wood and we were finally seated in a large room with tatami mats where we were greeted by the tea master. The whole experience had such an air of formality that we sat almost instinctively on our knees, hand on knees and awed into silence.
The tea master started by giving us an explanation of the seating arrangement where we learnt that the person seated closest to the tea master is considered the guest of honour with levels of importance decreasing the farther you got from him. We were first served the okashi, a Japanese sweet made of red bean paste, though looking at the beautiful yellow flower in the plate you’d never have be able to tell. The okashi was served with a wooden knife/fork for lack of a better word. The okashi was slightly big and so delicious that I began to wonder if they would take it away before I could finish it, if they had to serve tea. Luckily someone else had the same concern and asked the tea master what the proper etiquette was. Normally okashi is eaten before the tea, the dish placed outside the black border of the tatami mat to be taken before the tea is served, but since we were there to learn he said the rules wouldn’t apply so we could go ahead and eat as slowly as we liked. He also realized that by this time a lot of people were beginning to squirm, not being used to sitting on their knees like that, and he laughed and asked us to sit comfortably saying it took years of practice to be able to sit for so long.
At ease, our dishes cleared away after much bowing, the tea master for the ceremony came and began to make the tea, first rinsing the utensils in hot water and whisking at the bowl in which the tea would be served. What I loved was the absolute level of precision of his movements, everything a calculated move with a specific purpose. Even the cloth that is used to wipe the bowl after washing has an exact way of being folded. Once the tea was ready, the lovely kimono clad lady served the tea with a bow (still seated both hands placed in front on the floor and head bowed low) starting with the guest of honour. The tea was received with both hands from the tatami mat on which it was placed, rotated twice and then sipped, not gulped as the tea master hilariously demonstrated. Once finished, the cup is rotated back to its original position, the lip wiped clean, the ceramic admired and the cup then placed back on the tatami mat, outside the black border for clearing. The tea was by far the best green tea I’ve ever had, which just goes to show that when made right, everything tastes great but it takes great skill to make it right.
The tea master took the opportunity after tea to answer our many questions:
- We learnt that it takes about 30 years of training to become a tea master and even then you’ve not fully “levelled-up”.
- Tea ceremonies, he told us, are not usually accompanied by other activities like cards or games which is a normal part of the Arab tradition. Tea ceremonies, rather, are considered a way of bringing people together for important occasions- marriages, funerals and even when someone is ill as a way of making them feel better.
- He also explained some of the other intricacies of the tea ceremony that we did not experience that day, such as the tea being served in two rounds. This is normally done as a means of discerning whether the guest genuinely enjoyed the tea or not.
- Even when hosting a tea ceremony for the emperor, the emperor is expected to bow to the tea master, despite the difference in their ranks.
- We learnt that the ideal temperature of tea when served is about 85C and that a tea master, through his experience, knows just by looking at the way the water is boiling how hot the water is and is able to add cold water in just the right quantities to achieve the perfect temperature.
- The tea ceremony is not just about the tea, but also about selecting the right calligraphic scroll to best represent the occasion, and the most meaningful flower arrangement.
At the close of the ceremony, we were escorted outside and the tea master told us that they would be visiting the UAE in November in case we’d like to meet again. ^^ It had been such a surreal experience, a break from the busy world outside, a step into serenity and mindfulness that we miss in our everyday lives. If there was one thing I took away from the experience, it was that everyone needs some time in that dark tea room to remind themselves about what’s important in life, to focus on what really matters and to look for answers in themselves not losing themselves in material distractions.
We stepped out, humbled, from the tea house and onto the street, ready to walk into another world… the Shibuya Scramble.
Stay Tuned for Day 6 Part 3