On Thursday, I went for my very first Tea Ceremony. =DDD (The title says Chado (or in Japanese, it means the Way of Tea), the First Round.)

That statement warrants multiple huge smiley mouths because it’s something that I’ve wanted to do for the longest time. Looking back, while there were certain things that I’d expected based on what I’d read about before, the entire experience was simply beyond anything I could have imagined.

I’d been Googling Tea Ceremony lessons on and off back in Singapore but somehow couldn’t seem to find any schools or lessons anywhere. It seemed that at one of the universities there was a 茶道 Club of sorts but membership seemed limited to existing University students and I never heard back from them after sending in an enquiry. What incredible luck then, that there would be a 茶道 School in Berlin that actually replied my emails written in English to inform me of upcoming sessions. What I ended up going for was 朝茶事 (Asa Chaji or Morning Tea), a form of Tea Ceremony done early in the morning during the hot summer months of the year, organised by the Urasenke Tankokai Association Berlin Association. Of course, I didn’t know that about the Tea Ceremony at the time. I suppose I wanted to go in with as little preconceptions as possible, so all I knew was that this was going to be a special Tea Ceremony that would start at 1100 and end “max 1800”. Yeah. My eyebrows definitely were raised at that point because could it really be a 7 hour long tea ceremony? I’d heard that formal tea ceremonies with tons of guests could literally last hours and hours because everyone would be made their own bowl of tea/would need to wait for each other to finish. But 7 hours… So brimming with slight trepidation and slightly more excitement, I headed off to the site of the Tea Ceremony, which would be held in an East Asian Museum that was part of a campus according to Googlemaps.

Any bit of nervousness that I had was immediately put at ease by the friendly smile and self-introduction by V. With gentle eyes behind thin rimmed glasses, the bright green highlights in her braided hair were one of the first things I’d noticed. Like so many other Germans, she spoke pretty much impeccable English. She was the one who introduced me to the others there. N Sensei, one of the instructors, was elegantly clad in a classic lilac kimono and immediately she told the security guard my name (amazing how she probably memorised the list of attendees and figured out my identity from the fact that I’m not German. ;p). M and C, both Germans, were friendly and though they said they had been coming for lessons for awhile, one of the first things they mentioned was that they were still very much beginners and had a lot to learn still. Though I got the feeling that for sure, everyone was at a different level in their 茶道, there was also an immediate sense of camaraderie, in that everyone was on this journey together. N walked in next, a petite Japanese lady, dressed in an adorable colorful polka-dotted jumpsuit. Lastly, in strolled S-Sensei, our main instructor for the day. Presumably German, he looked almost like he had walked out of a new-age Western, Cowboy hat perched jauntily atop his head, dressed in a smart white shirt, well pressed pants, suitcase in one hand and a wooden basket of dainty flowers in the other.

The classroom was on the 4th floor of the Museum which was now closed to the public. According to C, it was in the process of moving out to another premises, possibly the Humboldt Hall nearer the city center. Walking past the empty shelves of past exhibits in dim lighting, there was a distinctive chill in the cold air. It was a somewhat breathtaking sight then, seeing the space where we would be having our Tea Ceremony. Already lit, it was a replica of a classic Japanese Tea Room, all tatami mats and washi-papered sliding doors, complete with stone steps and a long bamboo pole barrier that separated it from the ‘garden’ outside. Shoes off of course, and the use of white socks had been instructed in the email send to me. There was a side room where we would put our belongings and were people changed into their 茶道 attire. M and C both had Yukata-style robes and obi. M told me his was actually his Kendo outfit and as a long standing Kendo practitioner, he had heard about 茶道 from friends there. V simply tied a pink obi belt around her waist. It covered her cardigan and dress, simply looking like an oversized belt. N too, took out a large black elastic belt with a clasp in the middle and wore it over her cardigan. Tucked inside either the overlapping space in the robe (called Futokoro) or their belts, were a few essential 茶道 accoutrements – a silk cloth called Fukusa, which could be used for cleaning the equipment, another patterned piece of fabric which one would use on the left palm to hold the hot bowl of tea in, a stack of folded white paper which would be used when eating snacks, a mini fan, small metal pick for cutting into sweets, and a little purse where the last two items could be stored in. All these were explained to me by C in soft, almost conspiratorial tones, who also shared that she had sewn her own Yukata robe because she hadn’t been able to find one that fit her well with enough Futokoro space. Middle aged, with brown-grey hair, I could tell she probably felt more comfortable in her native German but was trying her best to speak English to me. What really endeared her to me was her warm, almost bashful smile when I exclaimed “Fantastich!” (one of the few German words I know) at her pretty blue-green self-sewn Yukata robe. Her response was that she was mainly concerned if N-sensei thought it was good enough to use for 茶道. To me, it seemed a perfect fit for her, all the more special because it was handmade.

No one wore watches and there was no clock in sight. So I can only guess that it took around the first 15 to 20 minutes for the unofficial first part of the Tea Ceremony – the Clean-up. Apparently they only had lessons once a month so at the start, the main thing they had to do was clean up the place. I watched as V set up the washing area. Instead of water falling directly into a metal basin on the floor, there were bamboo poles placed side by side horizontally, just enough to cover the basin so that immediately it was transformed into a scene right out of a traditional Japanese house. The water flowed through the gaps in between the bamboo into the basin and that was where the washing of equipment would be done. She took out a large metal kettle and used a wooden ladle to wash it. Putting it inside kettle, she allowed the stream of water to hit the ladle first before it wet the inside of the kettle. Was that meant to dampen the sound of the water so it wouldn’t make such a racket hitting against the metal kettle? That was probably the case, she explained. But whether or not it was the real reason, it was something she had been taught at her 茶道 lessons in Japan last time. She had done a year of exchange in Japan in her university days, and had taken 茶道 lessons mostly once a week during that time. Usual lessons there would last for 3 hours, excluding preparation/clean-up time before and after. She spoke Japanese fluently (the sort of wonderful native accent that if I closed my eyes, I would almost think she was Japanese or had spent many years in Japan) and would speak to N-sensei in Japanese occasionally. (I couldn’t help but feel excited, thinking that she could definitely be someone I could practise my Japanese with and learn from.) After using a cloth to gently pat the kettle dry, she brought it out to rest on the kettle rest in the main room. I did manage to help a little bit… by boiling water in regular electric kettles. N went around with a tiny broom and hand-held vacuum, fastidiously vacuuming away at all the nooks and crannies. S-sensei set about shearing, tweaking and arranging the gentle blossoms he’d brought along into a bamboo vase. At the same time, N-sensei prepared the utensils, the matcha…and probably a ton of other behind the scenes work I didn’t manage to catch.

Apart from preparing the tea and the utensils, another important item was brought out and hung carefully in the Tokonoma or alcove in the room – the scroll. I’d read that the scroll was something that was always carefully chosen by the Sensei. It had to be seasonal and assumed the role of ‘setting the tone’ for the ceremony. This one had the word 滝 Taki, written on it, which meant waterfall. There was one stroke that the calligrapher had pulled with great vigour stretching from the top to almost all the way at the bottom of the scroll, visually representative of strong, cascading waters of a waterfall, explained N-sensei. As this was a summer ceremony, it was meant to induce the feeling of coolness, simply by looking at it.

The lesson began with us seated on the tatami, in typical Japanese seiza fashion (that crippling, pins-and-needles inducing uncomfortable way of sitting with your knees bent, buttocks on your ankles). Everyone gave the formal bow, hands on the floor in an inverted V, and the lesson formally began. S-sensei displayed a number of carefully selected items on the floor. The bulk of the explanations were in German but after the initial talk, Sensei kindly paused to allow V to translate for me. I didn’t mind so much,  really, not understanding the German. After all, I figured, might as well make use of the time to use my other senses to appreciate the occasion. (And I think I’ve gotten sort of my default semi-attentive, only slightly glazed-eyed listening to German as background music face down to pat.) What I could gather, was that everything that would be utilized for the Asa Chaji (Morning Tea Ceremony) was chosen with the idea of eliciting a sense of coolness for the guests in this hot summer season. The incense container or Kougou, was a light green porcelain pumpkin, chosen because S-Sensei knew of a haiku by Basho that talked about the coolness of the early morning dew settling on a pumpkin. All the other items – such as the tea bowl (Chawan), the small bowl for storing the green tea powder (Natsume), the water container (Mizusashi), were all chosen with the other in mind. If the Natsume had a beautiful golden design imprinted on its wooden lacquered surface, it was best paired with a plain wooden Mizusashi. Another printed piece would be too much and would clash. Everything was chosen for a reason, to act as a seasonal piece and or to complement each other. Everything made sense when looked upon as a whole.

The two younger ladies, N and V, took turns being the first hosts of the Tea Ceremony. There is probably some significance behind every step they took, every action performed, unbeknownst to me in my ignorant state of mind. But even though I couldn’t tell what it all meant, with my Beginner’s Mind, even I could see that everything was done deliberately and purposely. From the way N stepped out of the preparation room bearing the tray of items for tea, to the way she stepped and knelt down in front of the kettle (‘Always right foot when entering the room, and left foot when exiting back to the kitchen’, whispered C into my ear), to the position of the items on the tatami floor. Everything had a designated place. Nothing was left to chance. ‘Place the washing bowl to the left of your knee… Slow down the pace of your silk cloth folding…’ The two Sensei guided them as they performed their roles as hosts. It was interesting to see both Sensei comment to the students and to each other about the different steps. They each had certain ways of performing the ceremony and would suggest a variation of a move to the students sometimes. Sometimes S-Sensei would forget about a step, and N-Sensei would remind him or tell him about how she would have done it.

I could see why S-sensei would forget a step though. Because there were so many steps. It seemed highly elaborate at first glance. Simply taking out the silk cloth to fold was an intricate move, a tango of the hands and the cloth as it was inspected, pulled, stretched, stroked, caressed, then finally folded to be used to clean the Natsume. But though complex, it was evident that there was nothing excessive in the movements. To clean the Natsume, the folded cloth skimmed the lid from top left to right first, then bottom left to right, dividing the round lid into two halves. There was definite system for cleaning every item that was used to make the tea. Pared down through the centuries, it was the essence of minimalism in a beautiful ritualized art form. And yet while there was obvious grace and elegance to the moves performed by the host, I could sense that in the Tea Ceremony, this was done more for the sake of the Guest. It was a beautiful dance, practised by the host, performed for the guest, in an act of utmost respect. Instead of doing all those complicated moves and showing off for the sake of the host’s ego, it was about showing the guest how much effort has been put into the making of his or her Tea, for the guest’s sake.

The guest too, has a very specific way of showing gratitude to the host. It is a reciprocal part of the dance. I was guided of course, to do all the steps, but almost every move was made to show gratitude and respect towards the host. Taking the Chawan filled with tea, I had to make a point of looking at the bowl before drinking, to show appreciation. There was the customary deep bow before drinking the tea. After finishing it (with a loud slurp to show appreciation), then came the time to look at the bowl, turning it with my hands. There was even a part which involved the appreciation of the Natsume and the Chashaku (Tea Whisk). Each item was to be appreciated with tenderness in touch and gaze. You were supposed to ask questions pertaining to the origin of the items. This was part of the ‘conversation’ between host and guest. Of course, it seemed rather stilted and overly formal. With the use of polite Japanese and standard questions and answers. But the basis of the exchange was clearly a show of mutual respect. As the item is passed from the 1st guest to the 2nd guest, the movements are almost timed. When I pass the Chashaku to the 2nd guest, she puts the Natsume she was holding over on to the left, by the side of her knee. Our movements are supposed to be in sync. Everyone is looking around and being aware of each other. This is how the guests show respect to each other.

The second round of the Tea Ceremony was performed by N-Sensei. I loved watching her. There was such fluidity and grace in her movements. As the Sensei, there was no hesitation in her movements. No pausing for further instruction or clarification of movements. Even her inspection of all four edges of the Fukusa silk cloth was deliberate yet elegant. The room was absolutely silent as everyone watched. The silence broke finally when she lifted the wooden ladle filled with boiling water from the kettle and poured the water into the Chawan. It was beautiful gurgle, echoing through the room with crystal clarity. Her wrists moved in practised swirls as she mixed the matcha with the water. It was now N and V’s turn to be guests. Even S-Sensei had the chance to be the guest as well. In the course of the Tea Ceremony, even as someone looking in and not formally partaking as host or guest, I could still feel a form of sanctity of this ritual. What was precious was not so much the end-product of the tea that was served. From the moment the guest steps into the room and sees the scroll hanging in the Tokonoma and feels that brush of cool air within himself/herself, the ceremony begins. And each deliberate step taken by the host and shown with great flair in the preparation of the tea contributes to the overall experience of the tea by the guest. Therein lies the Ceremony of 茶道.

By the time two rounds of tea finished, it was sometime past 4pm. Thankfully it hadn’t lasted till 6pm because one thing we did not do, was eat any lunch! Seriously, I was surprised that no one said anything about taking a break to eat any food (because those teeny quaint biscuits and jelly that was the snack served during the ceremony do not count as proper food!) but with nary a 5 minutes break for water in between the two rounds, I was completely famished by the end of it. But what an experience it had been. Meeting new people, all bound by an interest in 茶道, and our now numb/pins and needled legs. Needless to say, I signed up to be a member of the association and as luck would have it, my first proper 茶道 lesson for Beginner’s level was the very next afternoon.

Left: The kettle on the portable heater (also known as Brazier). Next to it is the wooden Tana or utensil stand that was used in the second round of the ceremony. On top, the small Natsume, for storing the green tea powder. Below, the water container or Mizusashi. In the teeny little pouch inside which something else was stored…another container for green tea powder? I forget.

Right: Our pretty flower arrangement which took the place of the scroll in the Tokonoma alcove midway through. The flowers were arranged by S-Sensei in a bamboo vase. Apparently in Japan they would use the actual fresh bamboo which would be green. In Berlin of course, he had to make do…

So far the only book about 茶道 that I have read is this one called 日日是好日 or Nichi Nichi Kore Kou Jitsu (The Japanese title is: 日日是好日 「お茶」が教えてくれた15のしあわせ). Literally translated, it means Everyday is a Good Day. (Something to do with Zen Buddhism. A reminder that every day can be a good day or a bad day. All depends on our attitude.)  It’s about the author’s experiences in learning about the Tea Ceremony for over 25 years. It was such a fascinating read but I read it sometime last year that it’s high time I re-read it again. The only thing is, I’ve got the translated Mandarin version so while I was amazed that I could still understand everything despite my rusty Mandarin, what I would give for an English version. 😉 But if you’re interested and understand Mandarin or Japanese, I would recommend giving it a go!  

Here’s to a beautiful weekend~



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s