This is what I learned taking part in a Japanese tea ceremony

October 10, 2019 7:00:24 AM

This is what I learned taking part in a Japanese tea ceremony

Tokyo – all bright lights, skyscrapers and karaoke bars – is in the midst of hosting the Rugby World Cup (until November 2), but there’s a quieter, more gentle side to Japan’s capital too.

A country that is both enamoured with technology and the endlessly new, yet steeped in historical and cultural tradition, it’s quite possible to spend a morning in Tokyo at a tea ceremony and then hit a rugby match in the afternoon.

It’s what I did on a recent visit to the city, and while it is a bit of a clash in terms of energy (no cheering in tea houses, please), it makes for an interesting experience, and tea ceremonies are all about carving out a unique moment in time.

Here’s what I learned as a guest at a tea ceremony at Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo

Ella during the tea ceremony at Hotel Chinzansano (Ella Walker/PA)
Ella during the tea ceremony at Hotel Chinzanso (Ella Walker/PA)

You are asked to wear white socks
And to not show the bottom of your feet. Instead of raising a foot to take a step inside the tea house, you keep your feet in contact with the floor when moving, to feel “the joy in the soft swish of your feet across the tatami mat”.

You mustn’t step on the seams
The black fabric boundaries between the tatami mats would traditionally be embroidered with the house’s name; it is respectful to not step on them.

Sweet comes first, then bitterness
We are served a lotus shaped sweet, dusky purple in colour, made out of bean paste, to be eaten with a flat wooden utensil. The idea, we’re told, is you taste the sweetness of the confectionery, before sipping the bitter matcha tea.

There’s a system for drinking the matcha
The tea is heated over hot coals in front of us, and the first guest – which happens to be me – is expected to thank the tea master and their preparation of the matcha (this involves me awkwardly repeating Japanese phrases, which I horribly mangle with my Western vocal chords). Then I apologise to the person to my left, as they will receive their tea second. The tea itself is nothing like any typical green tea I’ve ever drunk before. Matcha is deep, bitter and throat-catching – you can just feel that it must be good for you.

There is precision and care in every movement
Even picking up the bowl of bitter green liquid is done beautifully and carefully, so the prettiest side of the bowl is turned towards you. You find you hold yourself differently too, straining to present even a modicum of the good posture displayed by our hosts, wishing you could stay on bent knees like they do without creaking in bone-deep pain.

The tea ceremony is a celebration of a single unique experience
The theme of our tea ceremony is ‘fresh early summer’, keeping in mind the ‘green reflections on the water’. We’re told that every tea ceremony is unique, specific to the people present, to the minutes in which it is happening. It cannot be reproduced – it is a moment, and then a memory.

The silence is quite incredible
Aside from the ritual interactions, silence rules. We listen to the world outside, the birds in the trees in the surrounding gardens, the mesmeric clink of tools and crockery being cleansed, the light bubble of hot coals cooling. It is soothing, reassuring and the reverence almost otherwordly.