The Way of Tea
How my journey to learning about tea became my path to cultivating creativity, mindfulness and spirituality.
Eavesdropping over Sushi
Once in a while I would crave for sushi and there’s only once place I would go to in Johannesburg for my doze of authentic Japanese dining. There at the sushi bar, I overheard a couple chatting with the day’s sushi chef, a younger man—my usual favourite sushi master was not there. Apparently in two Saturdays there would be a Japanese Spring Festival. With a mouthful of salmon sashimi, I immediately searched about it and discovered that there is a Japanese Tea Ceremony Club in Johannesburg and they are having a demonstration. Ting! Ting! Ting! I found a way to get into the event and even dragged my husband and friends to join me.
On the day of the matsuri, though I missed a spot into the sold out demo tent, I watched wide-eyed from outside while telling myself that next year I would be doing that. Shameless as I was, I asked one of the members if I they allow a foreigner to join the club. Elated I was to find out that they do!
Join the Club
Flash forward a month later, I was invited to be a guest to their next meeting at the Japanese School library where they learn about making tea every second Wednesdays.
The guest does not only sit there waiting to be served tea, but has a role to play and etiquette to observe. You need proper tools and attire to enjoy the entire experience. The first thing required of me before attending was a fukusa, kaishi, kashi-yoji and a pair of white socks. I had none of these even the socks! The last time I wore white socks was when I was still wearing shiny black shoes and a crisp Catholic schoolgirl uniform. No worries, though, the club had spare utensils for guests and I settled for pale grey socks instead.
The library was quaint but brightly lit and the smell of dry grass from the tatami mats transported me to a ryokan in Takayama. First mistake was to step onto the carpet without removing my shoes! Surrounded by overly graphic children’s books and the kind ladies of the tea club, I mostly watched intently and tried very hard to understand the proceedings of the day’s lessons. Now, I do not speak Japanese and until I experienced the tea ceremony in Gion, Kyoto, I had no prior knowledge about the entire ritual. It was so intricate, precise, gentle, meditative and beautiful. One need not speak the language; one only need to absorb the moment.
I joined the club right there and then.
Previously I wrote about learning tea and adding Chado, the way of tea, into my tea making skills would be the highest form. Every meeting, we learn about only one thing like, the proper way of folding and unfolding the fukusa, a square cloth made of silk used for purifying the tools, or how to walk, sit and stand on the tatami, how to bow or handle the chawan, tea bowl. Every gesture a precise movement, every movement a meaning and even the way things are arranged and handled are not without reason.
More importantly, each person gets a bowl of tea and sweets prepared especially by the next person. We also prepared tea for the Japanese school children as a thank you for allowing the club to utilize their library. It’s a social activity only the Japanese know too well.
The tea ceremony is the highest art form the Japanese invented. It is a combination of all the other Japanese art forms, craftsmanship, social and spiritual principles practices: from landscaping, architecture, culinary arts, flower arrangement, calligraphy, painting, fashion, ceramics, lacquer art, Zen Buddhism including Japanese hospitality.
I was so inspired by tea and the tea ceremony that I even took every opportunity to paint it. It was my theme in my Make Art Tha Sells Home Decor class project as well as for this year’s 100-day project on Instagram. I also found another platform to showcase my tea illustrations via They Draw and Cook site. I was addicted to the drink and everything about it.
To bid farewell to one of our members, who is going back to Japan, the club organized a Chaji, a four-hour long formal tea ceremony that includes a Kaiseki meal, in honor of said member. It was the highlight so far of my tea journey. I need not go to Japan to experience this and so I was so grateful to be included and moreover to be assigned to make sashimi for the first time. In all honesty, I was nervous to even slice the fish. Thank you, YouTube for the lessons!
Experiencing Chaji also gave me a deeper sense of how much important the ritual is. You begin at the foyer, or a small room where you wait with the other guests and appreciate a calligraphy scroll with refreshments on the side, a cherry blossom tea.
Then you head into the garden, a simple, well-manicured all-green garden to cleanse yourself of worldly matters, which you also do by symbolically washing your hands and your mouth. You then enter the make-shift tea room one by one according to your position as a guest, as this was a private home of one of our teachers. You leave your shoes, crawl into the room laden with tatami mats and you wait for the Teishu, the hostess, to welcome you and begin the ceremony. We dine in between to prepare ours stomach for the tea. Food is seasonal, simple and thoughtful. My sashimi got a thumbs-up from everyone. It was autumn here.
Then we return into the tea room in the same manner to first taste the Koicha, or the thick tea, accompanied by a beautiful Wagashi, sweet tea cakes, that looked like a mound of maple leaves. This was followed by the Usucha, thin tea, or diluted tea, together with dry sweets.
The whole experience was beautiful, silent and spiritual, with the memories still as palpable as the warm Chawan in my hand.
One Year Later
This time around, I was the one sitting on the chair and making tea for other people. After a year of learning, I was allowed to do the Temae (the ritual of making tea). I was to become a Teishu, tea host, despite being unripe for the part and also in front of a camera.
For this year's spring matsuri I was also one of the tea hostesses. It was a freaking honor to be chosen to perform because first, they trusted me despite not mastering the whole ritual yet. So I picked up the pace of my education and practiced at home almost everyday with my makeshift utensils. I attended every lesson and even took my tea set to Germany to practice while I was on holiday.
On the day, I was battling with my nerves, because I didn’t want to make any discernible mistake. Is the panic attack also happening because I wanted to do this badly and it was such a dream? My teacher, while dressing me up with the Yukata, told me in a motherly tone that I was ready. She was right.
A month later, I was Teishu again for the Japanese school children and their teachers to show the club’s gratitude for another year of making tea in the school.
The Beauty of Impermanence
In Japan they have a term that describes the sentiments one feels about the fleeting beauty of a passing season, or the poignancy of departure as well as the gracefulness of brokenness and imperfection: Wabi-sabi.
Tea is in many ways wabi-sabi, as one must drink the precious elixir from the cup until the pot is empty and the tea leaves are spent. You appreciate the moment that will only last for a few sips and infusions and of course the time spent and conversations with your companion.
Tea in my cupboard will also run out and there is the guarantee that I will not find the same type of tea anywhere else. No tea is alike, so they say, and I agree. There is joy, however, in knowing that I have tasted one of the best teas out there and there’s excitement in finding the next good thing.
The Japanese tea club is also temporary, members who are expats like me will all leave including myself. I can only be grateful for the openness, friendship and most of all the experience and education I acquired from joining it.
Meanwhile, the learning, the tea-headedness and artworks will continue and always with a cup of warm or cold tea.