Looking at the last couple of posts, it does seem like all I’ve been doing is go for tea lessons eh? 😉 Well, that’s not quite the case, because there’s definitely some time lag between the classes and these posts because lots of other stuff happens in the meantime. But I have decided to make it a point to document my experiences with every 茶道 encounter while I’m in Berlin, for my own reflection next time when I look back on my days here. These days it feels like so many things can be happening and if I don’t force myself to sit down and reflect, whatever happens in my life will be nothing more than fleeting moments, fuzzy memories when I recollect. The hope is that by taking the time out to sit down and think back on something I felt was significant, I’ll be able to truly appreciate it in its entirety rather than let it slip by as just another day to day happening.
But Tea Day at Roji Gardens was definitely a highlight of September for me (along with many other highlights actually, but those will come later!). Organised by T-Sensei and his friend G, who I had not met before, I wasn’t really sure what to expect except for the fact that there would be a tea ceremony held at Roji Japanisches Garden, located in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg, which would require an hour or so train ride from Berlin to a train station nearby. T-Sensei would be able to pick students from the train station but we would have to find our way there. Initially I had still been in two minds about going but after looking at the photos of the garden, I was overcome by such curiosity about how an actual Tea Ceremony would be like in a Japanese Garden that I simply couldn’t resist. Thankfully, T and her boyfriend were also going as guests and they kindly invited me to travel with them on the train. The ceremony was slated to start at 11 am and because the drive from the station to the Garden was about 20 minutes, we decided to take the train to arrive at around 9.40am so that there would be adequate time to prepare for the ceremony. Needless to say, getting up in order to make it for an 8am train at Friedrichstrasse that morning was not the easiest thing for me (where’s that teary-eyed-with-laughter emoticon that is fast becoming my favourite to use) but boy, was it worth it in the end.
It was on the whole, an absolutely beautiful experience. It was my first time participating in a formal tea ceremony at a Tea House in a Japanese Garden, and while I have no idea what the ‘gold standard’ for formal tea ceremonies is like in Japan, I’d say that to a beginner like me, it definitely satisfied the expectations I had in my mind.
To begin with, Roji Gardens is simply incredible – a showcase of different Japanese Garden styles on the private property of G and her husband, both Garden Designers specialising in Japanese Gardens. G was a friend of T-Sensei and would sometimes go for tea lessons at the museum though not so frequently as she was always busy working on her Gardens, which was open to the public. They have been working on the Gardens since 1988. From an empty plot of land with a single, rather dilapidated barn house, they transformed it over the years to their home and the surrounding Gardens. Initially, G told me, they bought the land because they loved the countryside and had been craving a move away from crowded Berlin. But what amazes me is that right from the start, they already had the vision of their Japanese Gardens and went on to create it over the span of close to 30 years. Such persistence and patience inspires me so. ❤
As we were brought to the Tea House, G gave us a little tour of the other sections of the Gardens and there were all the main types that one would come across in Japan. There was the dry garden featuring gravel raked beautifully to resemble waves of water. We passed by an area where there were countless Bonsai on shelves and G gave an exasperated smile, explaining that those were the projects of her husband who would spend hours tending to his Bonsai plants. Yet another shelf was covered with large rocks, some cut into half, which they would use for decoration or as part of orders from customers. It was around 10am and the sun was soft through the morning clouds, creating almost a shimmer through leaves of the trees and wild flowers that we passed. T, her boyfriend P and I were like excited children on a field trip, Oohing and Aaahing at almost new bend that we rounded, because there was so much beauty in the nature that they had curated and created.
Before we could enter the Tea House for the formal tea ceremony, we passed by a small garden with stepping stones leading to the Tea House which N-Sensei (the VIP guest for the day!) explained to us, was called Roji (露地 or “dewy ground”). Traditionally, one would walk along these stepping stones in order to enter the Tea House. Before that, we could sit outside at the bench while waiting. Right before entering, we had to rinse our hands and mouths at a small basin of fresh water. (Thankfully, N-Sensei went first so both P and I, as the absolute beginners to 茶道, could copy her movements. Even then, I realised that copying can be super tricky when there are so many steps.)
Looking at the outside of the Tea House, I almost felt as if I could have been in a corner of a garden somewhere in Kyoto. It was a small, rustic, wooden cottage, with the tiniest entrance which you could only enter by kneeling down and sliding in. The tiny entrance is traditional of Tea Houses because it’s meant to be an equaliser from the start of the ceremony. Everyone (regardless if you were a samurai/person of nobility/commoner) entering the Tea House had to stoop or kneel to enter, as a sign of humility and acknowledgement that in the Tea House, everyone was equal. Exactly how I would imagine it to be like in Japan. G and her husband had conceptualised and built the Tea House entirely from scratch by themselves with help from architect/builder friends. She mentioned that they had tried their best to gather and use only natural materials, utilising traditional building methods that they had researched over the years. While certain things such as lighting, plumbing and electricity were a work in progress as the Tea House was quite far away from their main house, it was otherwise perfectly functional as a Tea House for small garden having a path leading to the tea room.
The conversation was, for a large part, held in German but every once in awhile, they would thankfully, speak in English and explain things to me. From what I could gather, it was the first time that G was trying out this sort of formal, full scale tea ceremony at her Tea House. It started off with a home-made ‘Kaiseki’ style lunch. Though not quite multi-course in the traditional Kaiseki style, it was a beautiful lunch of rice, miso soup and three dishes all prepared in G’s kitchen.
Steamed pumpkin grown in her gardens, cold tofu with shavings of ginger and steeped in light soy sauce (one of my favourite Japanese side dishes!) and picked vegetables went together perfectly for a light, yet satisfying meal. More than anything, I was just relieved that we would be having a bite to eat since these tea ceremonies go on forever (as you might have realised from the previous sessions at the museum ;p). There was also an etiquette to eating this meal, as I learned from N-Sensei who sat on my right hand side as the 1st Guest. It seemed as if we could only lift up one dish at a time with our left hand while using the chopsticks with the right hand. No such thing as taking bits of different dishes and putting in on rice to eat as a combined dish (which I would have loved to do). And when you wanted to switch to another dish, you first had to put down the dish in hand back onto the tray, put your chopsticks down on the left side of the lacquered tray, take the new dish, and then only take the chopsticks with your right hand once again. Or something to that extent. In the end, I could only copy N-Sensei so far, but it was fun learning of the existence of such chopsticks/meal-time etiquette. At at the end when everyone finished eating, we had to line up our chopsticks on the right side of the tray and with a ‘one, two, three’, push the chopsticks back onto the tray in unison to signal to the hosts that we were done with our meal. Who would have imagined that there would be such rules to eating in a Tea House. But then when you think about about the entire concept of the tea ceremony and all the nitty gritty proceedings, there’s no surprise there.
Dessert was an incredibly delicious assortment of Mochi and Dorayaki. This was such a treat. For someone who hasn’t had a taste of good Mochi in months, I really wished I could have just savoured them with more time. But there is only so much time given to eating dessert in the ceremony, so I had to wolf it down so that we could proceed on to the next part of the ceremony.
Basically for the actual Tea part of the ceremony, both the Koicha (thick matcha tea) and Usucha (thin matcha tea) ceremonies would be performed. T-Sensei did the honours and it was so interesting seeing him as the student for the first time. N-Sensei, as the most knowledgeable tea Sensei in the room, was his instructor, giving him guidance to a highly complex tea ceremony that involved the use of charcoal to keep the water for the tea hot. Carrying out a tea ceremony with charcoal is incredibly different from the usual ceremony which uses the electric brazier. The equipment used is different. In order to transfer the coal to the brazier, there are special chopsticks that need to be used. In order to clean the brazier, T-Sensei had to use a special feather and clean it with all sorts of insanely complicated brush strokes. For the transfer of the ash under the charcoal, there is a special ash scoop. And all sorts of special movements in the ceremony that I had never seen before. It was fascinating.
Though as a guest of the tea ceremony, there is considerably less to do compared to the host, it’s still something I find incredibly tiring. Paying attention for an extended period of time watching the host make the tea… trying to observe N-Sensei’s movements as the 1st guest in her handling of the Chawan (tea bowl) and the accessories used such as the Kobukusa (patterned thick fabric) used when drinking from the Koicha bowl…and of course, doing my best to sit in order to preserve the sensation in my legs… For the most part, we sat in absolute silence, and the sounds of nature from the outside (wild dogs howling in the distance) and inside the tea room (the gentle hiss of steam that emerged snakelike and amorphous, as a ladle of cooler water was poured into the tea kettle to cool the boiling water) were amplified. Along with the passing of time, light through the Shoji windows threw shadows of all shapes and sizes into the small cozy confines of the Tea Room where the 6 of us sat, partaking in this ceremony. 7 of us, actually, including T-Sensei’s little sausage dog, who follows him everywhere he goes. It was quite a sight, watching T-Sensei make tea with his adoring dog L, resting its tiny head on his thigh. Or ensconced in a corner of the room watching, occasionally moving around the tea equipment or the guests. When the sliding door to the host area opened, in would pad little L, before his master. And when T-Sensei left the host area, L would go along with him to the Mizuya. (We joked that they were like the dog and the chef in the popular youtube cooking channel, Cooking With Dog. Except this would be called, Tea With Dog.)
(In between the Koicha and Usucha, were these absolutely delicious rice cracker biscuits that I so would like to get if I could find out where T-Sensei procured them from. Paired beautifully with tart, fresh berries from the tree outside the Tea House.)
At the end of the 4 hour long tea ceremony, I was utterly zonked out. But I couldn’t help but feel that it was wonderful to have been a part of such a special gathering that day. The initial scroll that hung in the Tokonoma was my favourite 一期一会 (Ichigo, Ichie), ever a great reminder for members present to cherish this once in a lifetime gathering. In between the Koicha and Usucha, there was a short break where we gathered outside to rest while they made some changes to the decorations inside. When we returned, there were flowers hung up in the alcove instead.
Another part of the tea ceremony that was special was T-Sensei’s choice of equipment for the ceremony. He had chosen items from G’s collection of tea equipment based on what he thought would be suitable for the ceremony from an aesthetic point of view. Turns out that there were great stories behind the pieces that were chosen. For example, the incense container, had been made by G’s husband from a piece of wood. It was compact, polished and the two pieces of lid and box fit together so perfectly one had to look awhile before it was obvious where the lid was. And one of the Natsume (matcha powder containers) that T-Sensei had selected was the very first Natsume that G had bought when she had travelled to Japan some 20 years ago. At that time she hadn’t been learning about Tea Ceremony. She had only thought that it was a lovely container so she bought it, not realising that so many years later she would be using it for a tea ceremony with us, that very day in her own Tea House. Isn’t it amazing, how things in life work that way?
Looking back, the one thing that truly inspired me was how G and her husband had worked steadily for so many years to realise their dream of having a Japanese style Garden in their backyard that they could share with others. And even now, when it can definitely be considered a full fledged, functional garden for the public to enjoy, she still says that there is so much more work that needs to be done… that she wants to do. To think that halfway across the world from Japan, there are garden (and tea) enthusiasts making their own Japanese style sanctuary in the German countryside. I love the thought that there are so many people really, who share the same sort of fondness for Japanese aesthetics and culture, and they just so happen to be here in Germany where I’m passing through for the time being.
When I asked T-Sensei what his favourite part of the tea ceremony was, he paused for a while before saying that instead of any particular part of the performance of the ceremony, his favourite part was planning and thinking about how he could make the tea ceremony suit the current season. The selection of the equipment, discussing with G the type of food she could prepare to reflect the season (using the pumpkins in her garden for example), everything that would make the ceremony ‘the most special for right now’.
Somehow he always says the things that have the deepest meaning for me. I think he really lives and breathes the philosophy of Tea. What a treat to be learning from him. 😉