The intricacies of the Japanese tea ceremony called chanoyu have been passed down in families for centuries. In a meditative experience of the ritual in Tokyo, our contributor discovers its surprising effects. By Misbaah Mansuri
As someone who is easily distracted, I was a non-believer when it came to meditation. It just seemed impossible. I’d sit down to meditate but couldn’t achieve that “blank page.” That was until I found myself surrendering to a collaborative mindfulness yoga and tea ceremony in Tokyo. It fascinated me that the country’s cultural legacy endures in the metropolis that is home to so much modern energy.
Conducted by tea master Machiko Soshin Hoshina’s company, Charen Tranquilitea, the experience is a great example of embracing tradition in a modern setting. Born in the family of a daimyo (one of the Japanese feudal lords who were vassals of the shogun from the 12th century to the 19th century), who observed the tea ceremony for generations, Hoshina’s passion for the ritual was ignited early in her life. She moved to Australia as an exchange student in her teenage years, but when she eventually returned to Tokyo, Hoshina entered the Urasenke school of Japanese tea ceremony. She’s been a practitioner for over 30 years now. “It still feels like I am just starting out,” she smiles.
The custom of drinking tea is said to have come to Japan from China more than a thousand years ago. Aristocrats enjoyed drinking tea but had to wait until the Muromachi era (1336-1573) for the beverage to be appreciated with a social and ceremonial attitude. Zen monks too played an important role in bringing tea utensils and seeds to Japan. Tea was consumed as medicine to shake off their drowsiness during long periods of meditation.
Then the eighth-generation Ashikaga Shogunate, who was a great patron of culture and constructed the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavillion) in Kyoto, held a salon for warriors, artists, monks, and others. Tea would be served to them while they penned poems or appreciated art pieces such as tea bowls. “A simple wabi-sabi taste was established in the 16th century. A great tea master, Sen Rikyu, embodied variations of Japanese art into a tea room. He set a bowl of tea as a highlight of the gathering so that Zen spirituality emerges in rituals,” Hoshina tells me.
Chado, or the ‘Way of Tea’, has been passed down through generations for 500 years. “There are several words and phrases that contain ‘cha’ (tea) in Japanese, which explains how close tea is to our daily life,” she says.
Back when the tea tradition was perfected, Japan was in a period of war and samurai warriors appreciated the ceremony as a way to enlighten their lives. A formal tea gathering consists of two major parts (yin and yang) and takes about four hours. Most visitors experience a simpler version of it known as chakai. Hoshina’s approach is slightly different—it adds a modern interpretation to the ritual with a detailed explanation in English and a touch of yoga.
Through the course of my experience, I realise that etiquette is at the heart of a tea ceremony. There are four important spirits in chado: wa (harmony), kei (respect), sei (purity), and jaku (tranquillity). You must follow etiquette that pertains to these spirits. For example, show your respect by bowing, turn the tea bowl before and after drinking tea, and wear clean white socks when entering a tea room. “Don’t think it’s too serious. Enjoy mindfully what you experience while you are hosted in a traditional tea room,” Hoshina says as I approach the ritual with some trepidation.
Before entering the tea room, I purify my hands in a stone basin installed in a garden that signifies Zen. To me, it serves as a boundary between the outside world of mundane affairs and the inner, sacred realm of the tea room. When it’s time to enter, each person bows as a sign of respect and humility. Then it’s time for sumi-demae, the procedure of laying charcoal to light the fire, which is used to boil the water for tea-making. I’m told that a special type of charcoal, made from oak, called kikuzumi is used.
A stunning contrast of colours flickers in the flames and the burning incense purifies the room and uplifts my spirits as I meditate to the sounds and aromas around me. Amid the gurgling of the simmering water that surrounds the tea house and the gloriously engulfing smell of green matcha, I begin to wonder if this is Mother Earth herself heralding a time for change. Everything happening at the moment seems focused on profound transformation. “Your mindful participation in this ceremony will enrich this encounter, ichi-go-ichi-e (once-in-a-lifetime occasion),” the tea master’s voice vibrates with incredible wisdom and sensitivity.
In the four-hour-long tea ceremonies, guests are served a well-balanced meal of one soup and three dishes, plus rice and pickles, along with sake. Since mine is a 90-minute version, I am offered an omagashi, a moist, sweet bean confection that is a far cry from the crumbly biscuits most people associate with tea. Colourful and dainty, they are akin to miniature pieces of art and pair seamlessly with the slightly bitter matcha.
The tea master then emphasises the spiritual aspect of the tea ceremony. “To prepare and savour tea is the perfect way to feel mindfulness, as has been practised by the people of Japan for centuries to shed worldly attachments and feel complete relaxation. The old saying ‘cha-zen-ichi-mi’ literally means tea and Zen are equal.”
The ceremony utilises utensils inherited from Hoshina’s ancestors. As I hold the rustic chawan (bowl) and kama (pot for heating water) in my hands, I can feel the effort and spirit of the craftsmen who made the equipment centuries ago. The tea itself is full of surprising nuance. Its pronounced umami flavour is an indicator of high-quality matcha, and its lingering sweetness helps to balance out the other strong flavour notes. Smooth, rich, and buttery, with a full body and lingering aftertaste, it puts me into a trance of sorts.
Tea-sharing is another highlight of the ceremony and creates a sense of oneness called ichiza konryu. The activity compels you to slow down and focus on the overall experience. While it is easy to find a tea class in every Japanese town, a good mentoring relationship between teacher and student is considered imperative in the training to become a tea master. “It is not only about acquiring skills to make a good bowl of tea, but it is [also] a moral path for spiritual and aesthetic discipline to live a good life. This is why the tea ceremony is called the Way of Tea,” remarks Hoshina.
When I ask her to suggest the best place to buy matcha, she suggests depachika—basement-level shops at department stores—over fancy shops, as they house dozens of variations of matcha and allow you to select by taste.
The final touch of the ceremony is the higashi confection, which is an intricately designed pastel-coloured dry sweet. The crumbly goodie is made of the highest-quality Japanese fine-grain sugar, known as wasanbon, and hand-pressed into moulds traditionally carved from wood. This treat is accompanied by usucha (thin tea), the last bowl of nourishment for my soul. The entire ceremony is a ritual of restoration, executed gently.
As the world goes through a challenging and tragic time today, I look back at my experience of that tea ceremony in Tokyo. It emphasises the importance of finding inner peace when the future seems so uncertain. The ritual opened my eyes to the virtues of awakening oneself by doing simple things and finding happiness in them. Nowadays, we look to attain wellness in so many varied ways. But the answer could be as simple as serving and savouring tea with mindfulness and a sense of spirituality.
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Charen Tranquilitea’s collaborative yoga and tea ceremony cost YEN 15,000 (INR 10,120) per person.