Tea Ceremony Master, Guest Share a ‘Once-in-a-lifetime’ Experience

Yomiuri Shimbun
Sen So-oku, left, teaches Yomiuri Shimbun reporter Rio Itami how to enjoy the tea ceremony, in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

Sado, or the Japanese tea ceremony, is a cultural activity that involves preparing and presenting a bowl of matcha tea using disciplined procedures. The ceremony, which has evolved over several hundred years while maintaining underlying traditions and styles, is enjoyed by people all over the world.

In March, I met with tea ceremony master Sen So-oku for the first time at a training facility in Tokyo. Being vaguely aware that the tea ceremony is strict and rigid with many rules, I was a little nervous.

As instructed, I knelt seiza-style on the floor in front of the fusuma sliding doors, pushed them open and entered the room. An ink-brushed hanging scroll in the alcove read, “Shunpu shunsui ichiji ni kitaru” (Spring wind and spring water come all at once).

Brightly colored camellia and peach branches in a vase sat alongside the calligraphy. After some time, a sweet food was placed in front of me: delicious-looking sakura mochi, wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf.

Sen later explained that hanging scrolls, flowers and sweets represent the host’s thoughts and feelings, and can be thought of as an “alter ego.”

I was aware of being in a space designed around different aspects of the four seasons and detached from the fast pace of daily life. I was offered the chance to think about the changing seasons that one experiences in the moment — a deeply elegant notion.

Just then, Sen entered the room bearing tea utensils. He sat down, bowed silently and began the procedure — known as “temae” — to make tea.

The process includes purifying the natsume (tea powder container) with a fukusa silk cloth and putting hot water into the tea bowl to warm it.

Yomiuri Shimbun photos
Left: Natsume (tea powder container), left, and chashaku (tea scoop)
Right: A spring-themed hanging scroll, left, and camellia and peach branches are seen together

Sounds, too, are a pleasant factor in the quiet tea room. A soft hiss emanated from the kettle, while the chasen bamboo whisk made rhythmical sounds.

Sen requested that I remove my wristwatch. These days, we often hear about the importance of time management. However, things are totally different in the tea room. I was offered a seat and I took my time to concentrate on what was occurring in front of me. I felt my worldly thoughts clearing and my senses sharpening.

After the tea was prepared, I pulled the tea bowl toward me and saw that the usucha (thin tea) was forming nicely with small bubbles.

“Otemae chodai shimasu,” I said to the host, which means “Thank you for the tea.” I picked up the tea bowl, placed it on my left palm, then turned it about 90 degrees clockwise with my right hand. Sen explained that there are no rules governing the number of turns it takes to move the cup through 90 degrees. Rather, it is an act by the guest to express humility by avoiding the front of the cup.

I bowed lightly to express my gratitude and started to drink. Guests are expected to elegantly slurp the last sip to let the host know that they have finished drinking. It is a kind of nonverbal communication.

Another attraction of tea gatherings is expressing admiration for the tea utensils painstakingly selected by the host for the occasion. When admiring the tea bowl and the natsume, I moved my body closer to them, rather than moving them toward me.

“It’s not sensible to ask about the tea bowl before drinking the tea,” Sen said. “Preconceptions and knowledge are something of an obstacle. It’s important to see, touch, drink and feel. You can get the answers to any questions you may have at the end of the ceremony. This is how one enjoys the tea ceremony.”

Nowadays, we can immediately get any question answered via the internet. But I also realized it is important to think for oneself — a basic action that I have tended to neglect.

“The natsume looks so old,” I said intuitively. Sen nodded and said: “It was made in the Edo period. The gold color was bright at first but is now a little dull with age. The surface pattern depicts plum branches. The design is known as ‘yari-ume’ (spear plum) because the branches look like upward-facing spears. It seems to me that the natsume heralds the arrival of spring.”

Each tea event, including the choice of interior decoration, is referred to as “ichi go ichi e,” meaning a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.” This concept is an important teaching of the tea ceremony. The same elements will never again be brought together. It occurred to me that our daily lives could be enriched if we regard every day as special and precious.

“The host and the guest communicate through a bowl of tea,” Sen said. “This is the real thrill of the tea ceremony.”

Remaining aware that every meeting is a once-in-a-lifetime happening, the host treats the guest with sincere kindness and the guest, after much training, can fully appreciate the host’s hospitality. In Japanese, this is referred to as “jikishin no majiwari,” meaning an honest and sincere exchange of feelings.

I have now come to realize that the depth of the tea ceremony is one of the reasons it attracts so many people.