Why are so many people moved by the Japanese tea ceremony?

Matcha – this Japanese word has become well known internationally and most probably will be recognized by someone from anywhere in the world. The “tea” that is normally drunk in Japan is made by infusing tea leaves in hot water, but matcha is different. Matcha is made by grinding tea leaves with a millstone into a fi ne powder and then whisking the powder with hot water in a bowl. There are many varieties of tea in Japan but matcha is the only tea where the entirety of the tea leaf is imbibed. Matcha brings to mind images of people in kimono sitting in a formal scene in a quiet Japanese room, kneeling tidily in the proper seiza position… But matcha is really no more than the beverage itself and is actually very easy to make. Its beautiful green color refl ected in a large tea bowl makes it visually appealing; the velvety froth that slides softly down your throat makes it texturally stimulating. Matcha’s distinctive sweetness and scent has the ability to calm the drinker. This is what matcha is all about. One popular way to enjoy matcha in Kyoto is to enjoy it with your favorite wagashi (Japanese sweet) at tea time. Many Japanese confectionary shops have tea houses where high quality matcha is offered. It is a great way to enjoy both the fl avor of matcha and the atmosphere of Kyoto.

 

Matcha is the center of a Japanese tradition called “chanoyu (tea ceremony).” Chanoyu is the practice of preparing matcha for guests, which takes place in a special room for tea called a chashitsu. It is an otherworldly experience. In these rooms, guest and host are connected through one bowl of tea.

We have come to ŌBAI-IN at DAITOKU-JI Temple in Kyoto. DAITOKU-JI Temple is one of the larger Zen temples in Japan, and is famous for being very closely associated with chanoyu. ŌBAI-IN has a garden that was created by Sen no Rikyū, who perfected the tea style that is known today as chanoyu. It also features a tea room that was created by Takeno Jōō who was responsible for advancing the concept of wabicha (a rustic simple style of tea) before Rikyū. This makes it a very special place indeed for those well-versed in chanoyu. At ŌBAI-IN, where visitors are not normally allowed, we talked to two chanoyu enthusiasts over the sound of tea whisking.

Our host today is Randy Channell Soei. He is from Canada and has lived in Japan for over 30 years. He originally came to study martial arts but in order to become both a good warrior and a good scholar, he entered the world of chanoyu. He received the name of Soei from the house of Urasenke and is now qualifi ed as a professor in their tradition.

At a tea gathering, the host prepares the chashitsu taking his guests into consideration. The hanging scroll in the tokonoma (alcove) often refl ects the theme for that day. The scroll for today is “Buji nichinichi-kore-kojitsu,”and simply translated could mean ‘everyday is a good day if you are free of worldly desires’ Randy says. Under the scroll is a camellia, a fl ower that is currently in season. He has carefully selected not only today’s utensils, but also the water that will be used. The water today is from the NASHINOKI-JINJA Shrine, on the east side of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. It is famous for its exceptional water, and Randy, thinking about his guests, went to get the water himself.


“Everyone enjoys chanoyu in a different way. The host does his utmost to prepare various items for the guests of the day and puts his whole heart into whisking the tea. Guests should enjoy the space the way they want to enjoy it. One guest may feel it is tranquil and quiet, while another may think that the atmosphere is exciting, and that is fi ne.” The highlight of a tea gathering is the special connection that is shared by the guests.
But still, “to adapt to the atmosphere the way it is meant to be” sounds a bit diffi cult. Randy provided pointers on how to enjoy chanoyu. “What I enjoy is the beauty of the posture and movements. It is effective but artistic. Everything begins to carry meaning, and everything is coordinated in a minimum of movement. So how about observing how the host moves?” Randy suggests.

Today’s guest who was invited to Randy’s unique space is Kanako Suzuka. She grew up in a traditional Kyoto confectionary shop famous for its “Yatsuhashi.” She has enjoyed chanoyu ever since she was a little girl, when she attended tea gatherings together with her parents. Even now, she attends lessons in chanoyu when she has time in her busy work schedule. “Time spent together with tea is very important for me. By participating in chanoyu, I re-center myself, regain my serenity, and distance myself from the daily hustle and bustle. It is a time I cannot do without.”


The traditional Japanese sweet that Randy prepared for this charming guest is a soft-textured confectionary in the shape of a cherry blossom. While admiring this sweet, Kanako continues, “One of the keys to enjoying chanoyu is to be aware of your fi ve senses. See the beauty, enjoy the tastes, the aromas, textures, and the sounds …to feel all these with the fi ve senses makes one excited about what is going to happen next. Chanoyu is not a stiff ceremony. It is a chic way to experience the fi ve senses.”

There are many places in Kyoto where one can experience the tea ceremony. Hone all of your senses, tune in, and dive into the atmosphere. You will surely become a fan of chanoyu.


  • Randy Channell Soei
    A Japanese tea master and martial artist from Canada. He is a professor of the Urasenke tradition of tea and holds lessons in Kyoto and all over Japan. He also converted an over 100-year-old kyomachiya (Kyoto townhouse) and opened it as the café RAN HOTEI. He is currently kept busy with various activities including lecturing in his fi eld.

  • Kanako Suzuka
    Senior managing director of a long-established Japanese confectionary shop in Kyoto, “Shogoin Yatsuhashi Sohonten” founded in 1689. Kanako grew up going to Japanese tea gatherings and currently practices the tea ceremony, which is central to these events, several times a month. She also studied business administration in California for one year when she was a university student.

  • ŌBAI-IN, DAITOKU-JI Temple
    TEL: 075-492-4539
    ADDRESS: 83-1, Murasakino Daitokuji-cho, Kita-ku, Kyoto
    Not normally open to the public



The information is current as of February 2016.

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