After my recent trip to Kyoto, I have a better understanding of the Japanese tea ceremony (chaji). I met up with very pretty Atsuko, the tea master and owner of Camellia Tea House in Kyoto, Japan. The tea house is a traditional 100 year old geisha ryokan in the Ninenzaka area which is in between Gion and Kiyomizu Temple and not far from Sannenzaka. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn.
Ms Atsuko explained that Japanese tea ceremony, called Sado has been around for more than 400 years. It is a highly elevated way of making tea, offering tea to others and enjoying the tea ourselves. O-cha (green tea) is part of Japanese culture and its health benefits have been accepted worldwide. Japanese ladies are encouraged to learn the proper ways of making and serving green tea. Till today the culture and ancient art of serving green tea is being practised in Japan. Atsuko San stressed that the Japanese tea ceremony is not just about drinking tea, but a spiritual experience of harmony, respect, purity and tranquility as well.
I had to remove my shoes before entering the tea room (cha-shitsu) where the tea ceremony was held. The room had tatami (reed floor matting) flooring and overlooks a picturesque and tranquil garden with the sound of a water fountain. The room was rustic and almost bare except for a beautiful ikebana (Japanese floral arrangement) and the implements for the tea making ceremony. The room had a faint smell of Japanese incense.
The implements for successful traditional tea ceremony are bamboo tea whisk (chasen), ceramic tea caddy for storing the green tea powder, a small wooden scoop for scooping tea powder (chasaku), the kettle (kama) for boiling water, tea bowls (cha-wan), cloth for cleaning the tea bowls, portable charcoal stove (furo), long bamboo ladle (hishaku) and stone water jar (mizusashi).
Atsuko-san explained that it can take many years of practice to master the art of Japanese tea ceremonies. As I have a problem with bending one of my knees (The last time I sat on the floor cross legged was more than 10 years ago), she gave me a chair to sit and observe the tea ceremony. I had to ensure that I did not talk in between to distract or disrespect the ceremony. I had to even configure my camera to mute so that the clicking will not distract her or the others participating at the tea ceremony.
She started the ceremony by preparing the tea serving utensils which were cleaned and purified very gracefully with calculated and concentrated moves. A kettle of water was put on the charcoal stove. I noticed that the cleaning of the tea bowls with the cloth was done with a high level of concentration akin to meditation. Even the folding and keeping away the cleaning cloth was done in a systematic manner.
Atsuko then scooped three scoops of matcha (green tea powder) and placed them in a tea bowl. This portion served one guest. Using a long handled bamboo ladle, she scooped enough hot water into the bowl and whisked it in a zigzag motion with the bamboo tea whisk to make a thick, frothy tea. Take note that the water should not be boiling. Therefore the temperature should be around 80°C.
She then got up deftly and came up to me and presented the bowl of green tea. As a guest, I was expected to admire the bowl and rotate it before sipping the refreshing warm tea. She then went back to make the next bowl of tea.
Finally my experience of the Japanese tea ceremony ended. Atsuko-san taught me how to appreciate the entire ritual and I must say that I felt a sense of serenity and alertness during and after the ceremony. I felt embarrassed when I think of how I make a quick tea by jiggling a green tea bag in a cup of boiling water!!!
If you are in Japan, particularly in Kyoto, take time out to attend a Japanese Tea Ceremony and if you can, attend Atsuko-San’s.
Camellia, Kiyomizu, Ninen-zaka
349 Masuya-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto 605-0826
+81-75-525-3238 or +81-70-5656-7808
From Kyoto station:
Kyoto City Bus #100 and #206 will come straight to Kiyomizumichi It takes about 10-15 minutes. Go East on Yasaka-dori street and you will find Yasaka Pagoda in front of you. Pass it, and there are stone-stairs on your left going down. Go down, and it’s Ninen-zaka. Camellia is on your left side building with a sign ‘TEA Ceremony’ in English.
From Kiyomizu Temple:
Go down until you see stairs on your right going to Sannen-zaka. There’s a hot pepper shop in the middle of the stairs on your right. Go down the shopping street for a few minutes and you will find another stairs going right to Ninen-zaka. Camellia is on your left side building.
Tell your taxi driver ‘Kodaiji, Ninen-zaka’.Since cars are prohibited in Ninen-zaka during daytime, you will have to get off at the entrance of the street. Keep walking about 100 meters and before the stairs, you will find Camellia on your right side.