One of the highlights of my trip to Japan was being able to experience a formal tea ceremony. This—thanks to Maiko’s mom, and her friend Morinaga-san.
Morinaga –san invited us to her beautiful home, which happens to have a traditional tea room. Not all Japanese houses are blessed with a tea room and Morinaga-san said she felt lucky to have found this house years ago.
The first thing we saw was a wonderful Japanese garden in the front yard. Morinaga-san had decorated and designed the space herself.
After admiring the garden, we entered the front doors and walked into a foyer unlike any I had ever seen before. As is the Japanese way, we removed our shoes by the entrance and wore the slippers Morinaga-san had prepared for us.
Traditional Japanese Foyer
After giving us a tour of the house, Morinaga-san led us to the tea room.
Japanese tea room
Maiko translated as Morinaga-san introduced the various equipment used in traditional tea ceremonies.
Sitting above the custom tea stand is the natsume, which contains the macha or green tea to be used in the ceremony. Morinaga-san said that in the days of the samurai, no swords were allowed in the tea room, but the threat of shoguns or daimyos being assassinated via poisoning was still there. To make sure the tea wasn’t poisoned, the natsume was made with a lacquer that would change color if the tea was poisoned.
Other equipment include:
fukusa -orange cloth used to clean the tea devices
chasen – tea whisk, carved from a single piece of bamboo
chasaku – tea scoop, also carved from a single piece of bamboo
The red pot in the bottom of the stand contained water for refilling the kettle, should the guests wish for more tea.
There is a ceremony to each aspect of tea-serving and Morinaga-san said she studied the art on and off for about 8 years, before finally getting to the level she is at now.
Morinaga-san explained that there is a certain way of sitting during a tea ceremony. The host has to sit at a specific angle from the corner of the hot kettle area.
Morinaga-san preparing the tools for the tea ceremony
Morinaga-san placed plates of sweets before us and encouraged us to eat them before she served the tea. The sweets will coat our mouths with sugar, so as to dampen the bitterness of the ceremonial green tea.
The sweets served are often designed based on the season, so Morinaga-san served us sweets shaped in traditional fall/winter items–such as the orange maple-leaf and the white daikon.
sweets to go with the tea
Morinaga-san began by first cleaning the natsume (tea container), chasaku (tea spoon) and tea bowls with the fukusa or orange cloth. She warmed up the tea bowl with water from the kettle and placed a few scoops of green tea before adding hot water.
She then used the chasen (tea whisk) to mix the green tea and hot water. She explains that the front of the tea bowl should always be facing the guest.
decorative tea bowls
The guests are expected to make comments about the bowls, or compliment their designs as way to start conversations.
The best bowls are often reserved for the guest of honor. I was very touched and deeply honored that Morinaga-san used the best bowl for me.
In the olden days, Morinaga-san said that people often spewed haikus or tanka (short poems) while being served the tea.
The Tokonoma is also another source of conversation. The Tokonoma is an alcove where a scroll containing calligraphy or a piece of art is displayed, along with some flower arrangements and decor on the bottom.
Usually, guests will ask the host about the theme she chose for the alcove’s decoration.
Maiko and I posing with Morinaga-san in front of the Tokonoma
As the hostess, Morinaga-san wasn’t allowed to partake of the tea and the sweets, as her main job was to entertain her guests.
Morinaga-san asked all us if they wanted another cup –naturally I said yes. The tea wasn’t as bitter as I expected, and was in fact very flavorful.
After my second cup of tea, we finally stretched our legs (tired from sitting Japanese style) and took pictures.
Morinaga-san even let me wear her special tea ceremony vest so I could pose with it. She explained that in place of the kimono, she had to wear the tea vest, which was built with different pockets to place the cloth and sweets paper in.
Wearing the ceremonial tea vest
I’ll always be grateful to Maiko, her mom and Morinaga-san for giving me such a wonderful cultural experience.
It was a very beautiful ceremony and I feel very blessed to have been a part of it.
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