Thankfully, my second encounter with 茶道 was the day after I’d participated in the Asa Chaji (Morning Tea Ceremony). After having seen two rounds of 茶道 being performed, at least I had a sense of what the entire ceremony was about. Talking to classmates at the second lesson, they often spoke about how they hadn’t practiced in a few months. As lessons with the Urasenke Association were once a month, I could completely understand how anyone could easily get rusty. The entire ceremony reminds me so much of a complex dance. And as with any form of performance art, it’s practice that builds up the requisite muscle memory for the performer. And this one has a gazillion steps even before the tea is made.

Today’s session was a smaller one, with N-Sensei leading the group. She was assisted by T-Sensei, a German who has been practising茶道 for a number of years and is actually qualified to teach but had been kind enough to offer to be the assistant teacher for the day. Thank goodness he was there because he was able to teach me in English. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the class was taught primarily in German by N-Sensei. Though she is Japanese, she speaks fluent German and probably has lived for many years in Germany. That said, a tiny part of me was secretly hoping she’d either teach in English or lapse into some Japanese which I could probably understand. But she is probably more comfortable in German than in English and most of the other students didn’t understand Japanese. So at the start, after we sat Seizan and gave our formal bow, she launched into a length explanation entirely in German. I could feel the enthusiasm in me sinking like a deflating balloon. So much interesting stuff that I couldn’t understand… In my mind I started worrying because even though I will definitely be taking up German lessons eventually, how many months would it take before I could get comfortable with understanding that sort of tea-related explanation? My mind started to wander a little with worry. Thankfully though, after the initial didactic part of the session, the small group was divided into two. G and S, both older Germans who had been learning for a while, would go through the tea ceremony with N-Sensei while T-Sensei took me and another student, A, to the back of the room to go through the basics.

Thank goodness for T-Sensei! 🙂 Like most of the other young Germans that I’ve met, his English was excellent. It’s amazing how bilingual they are. With a gray scarf circled casually but snugly around his neck, he emitted somewhat of an artist’s vibe. S-Sensei had explained to the class earlier about the concept of Shin, Gyo, So (真、行、草) and this time he translated it to me. It is a crucial idea that permeates through the whole of the Japanese culture. It represents a hierachy. Shin, being the most formal. Gyo, is the semi-formal level. So, the most casual. In 茶道, one of the most obvious examples of Shin, Gyo, So was evident in the methods of Bowing. Shin, was when we bowed the deepest, to show the greatest amount of respect, for example at the start of the Tea Ceremony. Gyo, was for something a little less serious, such as bowing before inspecting the Chawan or tea bowl. A So bow, was something more casual, such as a slight touch of the tips of the right hand to the floor while we are holding the Chawan with our left hand, when we want to express gratitude for a delicious bowl of Tea. Other manifestations would be in the levels of bowing on a day to day basis in Japanese culture, depending on the seniority of the person one is facing or even in the styles of Calligraphy writing (which the other student A told me a bit more about, as he is an avid Calligrapher!).

So with T-Sensei’s help, A and I went through the very basics. After practising the bowing, we went on to learn how to fold the all-important square silk cloth or Fukusa. It’s the cloth that is used to clean the tea making equipment though as T-Sensei explained, of course it is all a show for the guest because the equipment has already been cleaned beforehand. It is part of the performance. And the elaborate way of folding the cloth is a form of ‘cleansing’ it, somewhat spiritually. The Ladies’ Fukusa is bright red while Mens’ Fukusa is a deep violet. As it’s a square, there are 4 sides to the Fukusa, but one side is thinner, without the seam. That is the side we need to locate each time we need to fold the Fukusa. And it would be easy for him to tell whether we’d folded it correctly or not because he would reach over and feel if the ‘seamless’ side was facing the right direction or not.

Boy, was it a lesson in concentration! Many many steps, involving movements of the wrist and the fingers, not forgetting the position of the elbows which almost always had to be held in the ‘First Position’ ballet style. Raised, as if gently hugging a big tree trunk, by holding our elbows in that position, it allowed us to always remain elegant throughout the movements. It is so easy to let the body slip into a comfortable and sloppy position while focusing on your hand work though. After learning the basic method of folding to cleanse the Fukusa, we learnt how to use the cloth to clean the Chashaku (tea scoop) and the Natsume (tea container).

Time flew by and before we knew it 2 hours had passed. A managed to practise being the host of the Tea Ceremony while I was the guest but I didn’t mind not trying out the role of the host because I had no clue on the method of walking in/out of the room and so on, which would probably require another lesson. It’s amazing, thinking about how this is truly an art form. Thankfully, T-Sensei shared his experience with us, and advised that if we really wanted to improve, we should take lessons at least once a week. He had been taking one monthly lessons for 5 or 6 years and never really improving. Until one session he gathered up the courage to ask another Sensei whether he would offer him private lessons. To his surprise, that Sensei said, unless you are prepared to come for lessons at least 2 to 3 times a week, don’t even bother! Otherwise you will never improve. He said when he heard that, immediately he felt regretful at not having asked far earlier in his learning journey. T-Sensei also gives once weekly lessons at his place so with any luck… I sure hope I’ll be able to start lessons with him and that my second lesson will not be only one month away!

It’s truly amazing, the type of people one can meet at a Tea Ceremony class. The other classmate who learnt the folding with me was A, a true linguist who I was very happy to meet. From the start of the lesson, I knew he spoke some great Japanese because he occasionally spoke to N-Sensei in completely grammatically correct Japanese and with a smooth accent. Turns out, he also speaks Mandarin! Halfway through my struggling with the folding, out popped a ‘Jia You!’ (加油) (the equivalent of Come On! or Ganbatte!) from his mouth which totally surprised me. With a French father and German mother, not only is he completely fluent in those two languages, his English is of course, impeccable (no surprises there), AND he studied Mandarin while at University for about 2 years hence he speaks it with a really proper Beijing type accent. Throw in some Italian that he learnt randomly as well as Japanese which he had self-studied for a number of years and finally started taking some lessons last year… the count is 6 languages. 6!! I mean WOW. That is my aim one day. 😉 To be truly multilingual. His Mandarin sounded way more fluent than mine so perhaps with any luck, both my Mandarin and Japanese will improve over time if I have the chance to practise with him.

Throughout the class, S took some photos on her camera and she explained that N-Sensei liked that we had some photos to remember the occasion by. Because as the Japanese saying 一期一会 (Ichigo, Ichie) goes, our encounter is truly a once in a lifetime event. Literally translated to One Time, One Meeting, it’s a phrase that is often used in 茶道 to remind participants that the gathering on this day is precious. Even if the same people meet again, it will never be the exact same gathering. It’s definitely something that I felt especially when it was time to leave the session. With a hungry belly (hope it’s not going to be the trend though!) and walking to the station with A chatting about languages and Calligraphy and Japan, crossing over waterlogged parts of the street as a fine drizzle continued and chilly winds blew, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly thankful at this chance for the encounter today.

To the next 一期一会 (Ichigo, Ichie).



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