Everyone who's hosted an event knows the routine. We hand-pick or cook refreshments and set out beverages, scour the house or event venue until it gleams, then greet our guests and make each of them feel welcome while keeping an eye on the dynamic of the whole group.
Hosting a Japanese tea ceremony is both more transparent and more involved than that. On the one hand, the cleaning is done and the central beverage is prepared in full view of the guests. On the other, careful thought and planning goes into aligning each ceremony with the season and date, and each hand motion is scripted by centuries of tradition.
Long before a single guest arrives at the tearoom, the host has spent numerous hours studying how to practice each of the elements of the ceremony. She has trained for months at one of the 3 major tea schools, organizations that trace the hereditary lineage of their leaders to sixteenth-century Zen practitioner Sen no Rikyu and adhere to his specifications of the ritual's form. One of the apprentice host's most important tasks is learning how to meticulously fold the ceremonial cloth used to wipe any remaining dust off the chashaku (bamboo tea spoon) and tea bowl; proper care of the utensils both honors the artisans who made them by hand and serves as a physical demonstration of the purity of heart required to share the ceremony with others.
Shortly before the ceremony, the host arranges the room. One corner features a flower arrangement that reflects the time of year and features local flora, as well as a hanging scroll of beautiful calligraphy. She also sets out the water pot and prepares a delicate sweet that will balance out the bitterness of the matcha (powdered green tea); this little dessert often is shaped like a seasonal leaf or blossom. The tearoom is built in the sūkiya style, open to a garden and filled with natural materials. The individually made metal door handles, for example, feature a minimal design that almost conceals the artistry of their forging but provides a contrasting visual texture to the exposed grain of the wooden door frame.
When the guests arrive, they crouch close to the ground as they step onto the floor-covering tatami (woven bamboo matting). This gesture comes from the architecture of the original tearooms, which featured low door openings that required all guests to crawl into the space. Crouching also reminds guests of the humility that should characterize all interactions with everyone at the ceremony. The guests individually take time to admire the flowers and calligraphy in silence.
And then the magic begins. The host bows to the guests, then serves the sweets. Occasional birdsong or wind in the trees colors the quietness. Next, the host cleans the tea bowl, matcha container and utensils with gentle strokes of her cloth. The powdered tea is carefully measured out and then whisked rapidly with boiling water. Each guest drinks a few sips from the common tea bowl after taking time to observe and appreciate the potter's handiwork. The whole process is simple yet impeccably refined.
The deliberately slow pacing of the rite imparts a heightened sense of the present moment, while the simple gifts of dessert and tea shared with a few people are wrapped with tranquility. Ultimately, the host of a tea ceremony does more than stand on the shoulders of supporting craftsmen; she becomes an artisan of an intimately hand-crafted, thoughtfully delivered experience
WORDS BY KYLAN SCHROEDER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRIS SETTY