Art and Tradition: JETs Practicing Japanese Culture — Tea Ceremony

Sado: The Japanese Way of Tea

This is the second in a series of articles exploring Fukushima JETs who practice traditional Japanese arts as a hobby.

Felicity performing sumi demae, the laying out of the charcoal for the fire that heats the hot water. There is also a type of incense placed inside.
Felicity performing sumi demae, the laying out of the charcoal for the fire that heats the hot water. There is also a type of incense placed inside.

Tea ceremony is one of those unique traditions that is iconic of Japanese culture. To master tea ceremony, you must also learn several other disciplines, including how to wear a kimono, ikebana flower arranging, and much more! Like the belt system of martial arts, there are different levels of tea ceremony mastery, and it can take years and years of study and practice in between taking each certification. Also like martial arts, there are many different schools, and practices can vary hugely between them. All in all, this makes tea ceremony one of the most difficult of the traditional Japanese arts to master.

Third-year Aizu Misato JET Judy Pan began studying tea ceremony two years ago. She had this to say about what made her get started doing tea ceremony: “The first bowl of macha I had in Hongo. My tea teachers run the local Japanese tea sweet shop in town. I wandered into their shop on a sunny afternoon and had my first bowl of macha that I actually liked. They were really nice and patiently answered all the questions I had about tea. When I asked about where I could learn tea ceremony, they offered to teach me and I have been learning ever since.”

Although seemingly complicated, there are in fact rules for each stage of the tea ceremony. Felicity Kerkham, a second-year JET in Iwaki, has been studying tea ceremony for over a year. “I love the discipline, following strict steps in order to perform it beautifully!”

For both Felicity and Judy, tea ceremony can be very relaxing. Judy says, “I enjoy the atmosphere of tea ceremony. It is very calming and empties my mind of idle thoughts.” Felicity enjoys learning about wabi and sabi – the appreciation of beauty in simple things and quiet. “Experiencing this is extremely calming.”

Judy performing tea ceremony at a festival in Hongo, Aizu Misato. Hongo in particular is famous for pottery and tea.

In addition to Japanese ways of thinking like wabi and sabi, tea ceremony can also teach about Japanese hospitality for the guest, or omotenashi. “For example in summer, we use green leaves to cover our water pitcher and pour water in a way to mimic the sound of water trickling from a stream. The point is we are trying to cool the guest down with those gestures, even though they are about to drink a hot bowl of tea,” Judy says.

Of course practicing tea ceremony is not without its difficulties. For Felicity, the most difficult part is sitting in seiza, the traditional Japanese way of sitting while kneeling. Many Japanese learn to sit this way from childhood, as it takes practice to not have your feet fall asleep or in fact hurt yourself. “If you haven’t done this a lot since you were young, it’s going to be hard!” Judy agrees, “Holding the proper posture for while making the tea can be pretty difficult at times too; sitting in seiza for a long time is strenuous.”

Judy says the most difficult part for her is the Japanese vocabulary. “Remembering the names of the items/tools we use while making the tea, as well as the names of the flowers as they change with the season.” Even for native speakers, this specialized vocabulary can be difficult to remember!

A sweet shaped like a flower with anko red bean paste inside. They are traditionally served during tea ceremony, with the shape and design of the sweet varying between season.

While practicing tea ceremony can be difficult at times, it can be very rewarding as well! “I love the tea and sweets and the lovely ladies I do it with!” says Felicity. She has this advice to share to JETs who are interested in getting started: “Ask around! Some high schools have tea ceremony clubs where you can learn the basics. Some cities and towns have tea shops that sell the tea and equipment so they would know about classes and upcoming events where you can try it. For me it was a case of a distant connection (another ALT friend was invited by an office worker at her school whose older sister does it!) so just talking to people might mean ‘oh yeah my sister’s husband’s cousin does it,’ which could get you an in.”

Similarly, Judy had this to say, “Ask your schools if they know anybody who does tea ceremony in the area, chances are they will be able to recommend someone to you. You can then ask the teachers to give you some trial lessons just try out how tea ceremony is done before you decide to commit to it. If you are interested in learning, it may be good to start with a friend because the learning becomes more interactive and engaging when there are two of you. There are also lessons just on the proper way to drink tea; and you may be able to see how tea is prepared during those lessons as well.”

Douzo goyukkuri meshiagatte kudasai! Please take your time and enjoy your tea!