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How my Japanese tea ceremony helped salvage my holiday

When I entered Shizu-kokoro, I felt instantly out of place in my casual shorts and tomboy t-shirt. My oily hair was piled carelessly on top of my head and my skin shone from layers of sunscreen and sweat.

My mind was in an even greater state of disarray. A week earlier, a boy had prematurely abandoned me on our planned romantic trip-for-two. Since then, I’d done my best to shake off all the feels, but a mental numbness permeated every experience.

I was determined to end the journey on a positive note. So it was serendipitous that on my last morning in Japan, I stumbled upon Shizu-kokoro, a tea ceremony school in Asakusa, Tokyo.

When I entered the old-fashioned building, the owner, Mika, approached me in a feminine kimono, her hair neatly pulled back into an elegant coiffure. She spoke perfect English in a gentle voice and obligingly held an impromptu tea ceremony for me.

Before we even moved upstairs to the tea room, Mika knelt beside an artificial fountain and purified her hands with the water. She encouraged me to follow suit.

As I knelt down, she warned me this wasn’t just about washing my hands. It was about cleansing the mind and creating a state of mindfulness. Every guest at a tea ceremony was expected to be an active participant. Basically, I couldn’t be mentally absent.

purification before japanese tea ceremony

Learning chado – The Way of Tea

On the surface, Japanese tea ceremonies, called chado or “the Way of Tea”, just look like a sacred ritual passed down through the centuries. Indeed, a basic form of the ceremony has been practised in Japan since the mid 1400s.

But they’re also a form of meditation. When you enter the tea room, you must leave your past woes and fears for the future outside. Hence the purification.

When tea ceremonies first became popular, they were particularly frequented by samurais, who retreated to the tea rooms to escape the stresses of their warrior lives.

And while we’re hardly samurais today, we’re still constantly overwhelmed by the chaos of daily life. We live forever in our heads, totally disconnected from our surroundings.

In Japan, tea ceremonies – or chado – continue to serve as a reminder to slow down and reconnect with the nature around us. And that was just what I needed.

A classic Japanese tea ceremony for tourists

My chado master, Mika, lead me upstairs to a small, traditional room. It was minimalist and unassuming, with almost unadorned walls and a floor covered in tatami mats.

tea room for japanese tea ceremony

In a recess in one wall, there was a simple scroll with Japanese characters that read: “Nichi nichi kore kou jitsu”. Simply: Every day is a good day.

On the floor to the left of the scroll was a delicate arrangement of seasonal flowers in a bamboo vase, while to the right was a pot of incense.

Everything from the room’s ornaments to the tea making instruments and the sweet treats I was given was deliberately chosen to reflect this season we were in – autumn – as a subtle reminder to reconnect with nature.

confectionery for japanese tea ceremony

To ensure I would be in the right frame of mind for the ceremony, Mika left me alone to meditate.

When she returned, Mika began the first ceremony, which comprised a highly choreographed set of movements to heat water, purify utensils and prepare the thick koicha tea.

Since each act represented a sacred spiritual discipline, I put aside the camera and focused wholly on her technique. Every movement was slow and measured, attention poured into every detail. We didn’t talk, but that only seemed to bring us closer.

When she pushed the tea bowl towards me, I bowed towards her in appreciation and sipped the tea. I tried to follow Mika’s lead by paying attention to the feel of the bowl in my hands and the texture and taste of the tea. It was bitter, but I had a gluggy confectionery called omogashi to help temper the tea’s taste.

In a pause in the ceremonies, Mika’s assistant Tomoko brought in two trays laden with chawan, or tea bowls, from various eras and styles. Some had patterns of nature on them while others were a single plain colour. Some were smooth, while others were rough. Mika had me pick out a chawan for Tomoko, for whom I was going to perform my own tea ceremony.

I felt a degree of anxiety as Tomoko brought in the yamamichi-bon (tea tray) and Mika began teaching me the names for the various utensils and the prescribed steps for completing the simple ceremony.

I tried to allay it as I watched Tomoko chose a bowl for me and perform the ceremony with gracious intention and dedication.

a japanese tea ceremony

When she served up the thin tea, usucha, I bowed and slurped the dregs of the tea to express my appreciation. I then examined the bowl she had picked out for me and told her what I loved about it – all important steps  designed to acknowledge two of the basic tenets of chado – harmony and respect.

Then it was my turn to perform. Loathing the attention, I was eager to begin and get the ceremony over with. But that flouted the basic concept of mindfulness that was central to the ceremony, so Mika subtly acknowledged my anxiety by encouraging me to take a few deep breaths.

Steadying my mind along with my hand, I began. First, gently wiping the utensils – the tea canister and bamboo scoop. Feeling and appreciating their shape. Then warming the chawan and bamboo whisk with hot water.

I scooped out two spoonfuls of matcha, letting the green powder drop into the bowl and hitting the scoop just the once on the side of the bowl. I felt the weight – light – of the bamboo whisk in my hand and the soreness in my arms as I beat the tea until it formed a pleasant, frothy surface.

I spun the bowl clockwise, twice, on my palm, placed it before Tomoko, and held my breath as she gulped it down. She praised my efforts – although to do anything less than that would have defied the principles of the ceremony.

When the ceremony was over, we arose quietly. I felt as if we’d performed an hour-long meditation and there was a tranquillity deep inside me. For the first time in a long time, my mind was at rest. I knew that if I could achieve a small two-hour block of peace in that moment, any unrest I felt, however deep-rooted it seemed then, would be temporary.

I had wanted to experience a tea ceremony to get to know an important Japanese cultural heritage. But it ended up serving a much greater purpose – a reminder to live in the moment.

And instead of leaving Japan in despair, I felt a speck of hope inside. Unless you’re a monk, mindfulness is rarely everlasting. But I now had a technique at hand to recall my mind to the moment whenever it drifted too far.

Learn more about how travel can teach you the art of mindfulness – and constantly reminds you to live in the moment – through some of my other adventures on the ARoamerTherapy blog today!

Booking a tea ceremony with Shizu-kokoro

I came across Shizu-kokoro totally by accident as I was walking towards Kappabashi Kitchen Town. The official address is 1-9-8 Nishi Asakusa, Taito-Ku, Tokyo 111-0035 Japan, not far from the bustling Kaminarimon Street. Check out their website for more details on how to get there.

Shizu-kokoro runs workshops Tuesday through to Saturday, with the following times:

  • 10.00-11.30 am
  • 12.00-1.30 pm
  • 2.00-3.30 pm
  • 4.00-5.30pm

While I arrived just after 12pm and didn’t make a booking, I would highly recommend you book in advance. This ensures you have a spot in one of their sessions and gives them a little bit of warning to prepare.

Bookings are for a maximum of 8 people, though they still ran the session, even though I was alone. Regardless of the numbers of people, the workshop will cost 4,000 yen per person, including tax.

Please, please do not follow my lead – dress appropriately! While Mika and Tomoko are far too nice to say anything, it goes a long way to show cultural sensitivity. Casual attire is totally fine, but miniskirts and tight pants, and bare feet are discouraged.

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