Tea Party

Last night, I went to a tea party. At least, that’s how the participants referred to it in English. Actually, I went to an extremely formal tea ceremony.

The name of the type of ceremony is “Akatsuki no Chaji”, which means “Dawn Tea Ceremony”. The name is descriptively accurate; dawn is an important part of the ceremony. When I say I went last night, I really mean the night part.

I was invited to the ceremony because one of my students has done quite a bit of research on the way of tea, and knew the head of a relatively small tea school. His school is part of the Sekishu tradition, which was a form of tea ceremony practised by samurai in the Edo period. Unlike the larger Sen schools, Sekishu schools allowed students to found their own schools when they reached a high enough level of ability, so these days there are quite a lot of Sekishu schools (at least compared to Sen schools, of which there are three). I don’t know the details, because it happened while I wasn’t there, but she mentioned me to him, and, as a result, I was invited to today’s Dawn Tea Ceremony.

The first thing I had to do was rent a man’s kimono, with the hakama trousers and an over-jacket. There wasn’t a lot of choice in my size, but there was something appropriate. The second thing I had to do was learn to put it on. Fortunately, this is easier than putting on a woman’s kimono, so Yuriko was able to teach me on Friday, and, after practising on Saturday, I was able to put it on by myself.

It was very important that I be able to put it on myself, because the tea ceremony started at 3am, so I was putting it on in a hotel at about 2am, ready to meet the other guests and take taxis to the tea house. I had to get up at 1am this morning, so forgive me if my English is a little less limpid than normal.

In any case, I managed to get myself to the hotel lobby, in a correctly-worn kimono, by 2:30am, and I think that may have been the part of the event I was most worried about. I travelled to the tea house with my student, who was able to give me a bit of last-minute advice. This was welcome, because while I do know a bit about the tea ceremony, this was the first time I had ever been to one, and I had no idea what to do.

The tea house was in a park-like setting, among paddy fields out in the suburbs of Tokyo, so we arrived in complete darkness. A paper lantern had been left at the entrance to mark it, and the path was lined with candles. We followed these up to the tea house, where we first gathered in a waiting room, and signed our names in the guest book. There were six of us; four men and two women. All of us were wearing kimono, which made me very glad that I had made the effort. I, at least, felt as thought I fitted in; I don’t know what they thought. Any tea ceremony has a principal guest, and today’s was a teacher of tea ceremony from the Oribe tradition, another samurai tradition, and one with links to the Sekishu tradition. (I don’t know the details, however.) The principal guest’s job is to talk to the host on behalf of the other guests, as well as make some formal responses. He also served as the person I watched to find out what I was supposed to do, on the grounds that he would certainly know.

After we had signed the book and had a drink (of amazake, which is a kind of sake, so I only tasted it), the ceremony proper started. At the entrance to the garden around the tea house there was a small waiting shelter, and we sat there for a few moments, before someone came out of the tea hut to welcome us in, carrying a candle. In the garden there was a stone water stoop, were we all washed our hands, one at a time.

The entrance to a tea house is very small, a crawl-door, so even Japanese people have to crouch to get through. Inside, the room is quite small, with tatami mats, and a pit in the floor for a charcoal fire, on which the water for the tea is boiled. The only lighting was from candles and an oil lamp, so it was a little dark, but extremely atmospheric. A piece of calligraphy was hanging in the alcove, chosen for the occasion.

There were three people directly involved in the ceremony. First, there was the head of the school. He is in his eighties now, so he was supervising and explaining things to us. Second, there was the man who actually made the tea. He was a former student of the head of the school, I think. It was never made clear, but I got the impression that he had “graduated”, or whatever the expression is, but was still associated with his former teacher, as is often the way of things in Japan. The third person was another member of the school, and she was helping with fetching and carrying. Obviously, all of them were also wearing kimono.

I did notice something interesting about the kimono. There are three grades of formal kimono. The most formal has the wearer’s house crest repeated five times; on each sleeve, on each breast, and on the back. The next has three (the breast crests are deleted), and the least formal has only one (on the back). The man performing the ceremony had five crests, the head of the school three, and the guests who knew what they were doing, one. I didn’t have any, at least partly because I had to rent the kimono.

The first part of the ceremony was the “before tea”. The tea was made, in front of us, following the formal ritual of the school. From what I could see, this is a careful formalisation of the actions you would normally use to make tea. Things were wiped, cups rinsed, and the tea whisked. But everything was done just so. Here was where I started to notice my lack of background; it was obvious that much of what he did was significant, but not obvious if anything wasn’t.

At least, that was the case until the next bit, where the charcoal in the hearth was changed. The live coals were put in a bowl, and passed round for us to warm our hands, while new ones were put in. The school head told us that, in the Sekishu tradition, there are no rules for the pattern of the charcoal. It is, however, part of the ritual, as is looking at the pattern of the charcoal. Incense is added to the charcoal, and then the water pot, filled with cold water, is placed on it. There is a second “tea” part of the ceremony later, but the water for it is brought to the boil during the ceremony.

Once the incense had been added, the incense jar was passed around, so that we could all have a look at it. This is, apparently, a standard and important part of the tea ceremony. Even, no, especially when the incense jar is over four hundred years old and was owned by the founder of the whole Sekishu tradition. I was almost afraid to touch it, but it would have been impolite not to, and, in any case, when am I going to get that sort of chance again? I might be able to see similar things in a museum, but I won’t be able to pick them up. The same process was repeated for other utensils, later in the ceremony, and while some were the same age, others were much more recent, including one that the school head had decorated himself. (The principal guest guessed that correctly, and asked if that meant he could keep it. Alas not.)

After the water was put on to boil, it was time for dinner. There was a whole kaiseki meal, with many small dishes, and I had to keep an eye on the other guests, particularly the principal guest, to make sure I ate it correctly. The atmosphere was much more relaxed at this point, and I think that this was also an important part of the ceremony, when the guests and host have a chance to talk properly.

One of the other guests teaches tea ceremony at a girls’ high school, and she wanted to take a photograph at the end of the meal. This was because most people who practise the tea ceremony these days are women, and, naturally, everyone doing it at the high school is female, so she wanted to show them a picture of men attending a formal tea ceremony. Having a foreign man there as well might have been a bit of a bonus. I hope it proves to be a useful teaching aid.

After the meal, we all left the tea house for a while, as a sort of intermission. For some reason, the crawl entrance was stuck shut, so we had to go out of a different door, which made things a little easier. By this time, the sky was beginning to brighten, with the first signs of dawn.

I was very glad to get outside for bit. Strictly speaking, you should sit in seiza at a tea ceremony, the formal kneeling posture, with your feet flat on the floor and your weight resting on your heels. I practise this fairly often, and I can do half an hour without any trouble, but a three hour meal proved to be a bit too much for me, and they were good enough to bring a stool. It was a relief to see that, although I had the least endurance by a fair margin, some of the other guests were also having problems before the meal ended. By the end of the whole ceremony the only guests who had been able to stay in seiza for essentially the whole time were the two who teach tea ceremony. I guess they get lots of practice.

After enjoying the dawn, a gong summoned us back to the hut, and we washed our hands again before going in.

The decoration in the alcove had been changed to a winter flower arrangement, very austere, as is standard for the tea ceremony, and we took our places again. This part was much more ceremonial, and we were served thick tea, two kinds of Japanese sweets, and thin tea. The thick tea is really thick, more like a soup than what you would normally think of as tea, and thus quite bitter. The thin tea is the same flavour, but a more tea-like consistency. By this point, I really couldn’t stay in seiza for very long, so I just tried to do it while I was actually being served or drinking tea, but even so my calves kept cramping. I really need more practice if I’m going to be able to do it properly.

We left the tea house in full daylight, somewhat over four hours after the ceremony started.

This is, I believe, about as formal and full ceremony as tea ceremonies get; it is common to omit the meal, for example. It seems that the dawn ceremonies are particularly rare, not least because the people performing the ceremony have to stay up all night, as there are preparations that need to be done before the guests arrive. As a first experience of the tea ceremony, therefore, it was somewhat overwhelming. I’m absolutely sure that I don’t understand everything that was going on, but equally sure that there were things there to be understood. I fear, however, that deeper knowledge of the tea ceremony will fall victim to lack of time; while I’d love to know more about it, I have other things to study first.

I am really grateful to have been given this opportunity. Actual experience is really a very important part of understanding a culture, and the tea ceremony is an important part of Japanese culture. I think my friends are spoiling me.

Posted in Japan.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for the detailed description of such a special experience. Did you not attend the small tea ceremony at the Japanese matsui at New Kall with Keiko and me? I struggled with sitting there and it was only about 20 minutes (I practice when sitting in yoga class for meditation). I went to two equally brief ones in Japan as a tourist too (with Keiko in Tokyo and alone in Nara), so I can imagine a bit of what it was like for you. I hope we get to see a photo of you dressed up soon! Surely Yuriko took one?

  2. Sheila,

    I did go to the one at New Hall (当時), but that doesn’t count. It’s a demonstration, not a tea ceremony, really. I do seem to remember them showing us valuable utensils, though.

    There’s no way I would have been able to cope with sitting that long when I arrived in Japan; the training has been useful.

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