Article by Chloë Lai
Photos Courtesy of Noriko Nasu-Tidball
With delicate intensity, a young Japanese woman dips a bamboo ladle into a small black cauldron and raises it up again, the steam from the near-boiling water she has collected curling softly as it vanishes. She pauses. A moment later, the ladle is being tipped into a tea bowl at a slight angle, the hot liquid streaming down its inner curve until it finds the bottom. She lays the ladle, called a hishaku, across the top of the black pot, and reaches for the chazen, a short-handled whisk also made of bamboo. Its slender legs are splayed slightly outward from the handle, their tips curled in toward the tightly bundled limbs gathered at the centre. She lowers the chazen into the bowl and raises it, keeping it perfectly horizontal. She pauses. Repeats the action. Pauses. The third time, the chazen is suddenly vertical, whipping the water first in tiny circles, then in one larger, more sweeping motion that encompasses the entire interior space of the vessel, the movements so controlled that the wide sleeve of her kimono barely rustles. She places the whisk on the table, picks up the tea bowl and without hesitation pours it out and begins to wipe the bowl dry with a white linen cloth.
I exhale sharply, realizing that what I had assumed was the matcha blending was instead the most contemplative bowl washing that I could ever have imagined.
It is the Kerrisdale Community Centre’s first Sakura Festival, and the Japanese tea ceremony demonstration by the Urasenke Tankokai Vancouver Association has just taught me my first lesson in chanoyu, the way of tea: each step of the ceremony is a ceremony in itself.
From the placement of the items on the table to the choice of decorative items, every element has been carefully calibrated to manifest the four principles of chanoyu, as established by ancient tea master Sen No Rikyu: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.
The calligraphy poem that hangs behind Mrs. Ozaki as she moves through the demonstration, for example, is a famous Zen Buddhist proverb, hibi kore kõjitsu, which means “Every day is a good day.”
Etsuko Taylor, the UVA representative whose soft voice guides us through the process, explains that the choice of poem is usually informed by the several factors, including the guests’ preference, interests and age.
“Since we didn’t know who was coming today, we chose one that can be good for everybody,” she says, smiling.
Once the tea bowl, or chawan, is dry, Mrs. Ozaki places the damp chakin inside. She sets the bowl down on the table, then plucks the cloth out and places it behind the bowl. A long, flat bamboo tea scoop, its end curved slightly like a beckoning finger, rests on a round, black lacquered box to her right, next to the tea bowl. She takes this in her right hand, using her left to move the box to the other side of the bowl. The lid is removed. Holding the box in her left hand, Mrs. Ozaki dips the chashaku in with the same precision as she did the ladle in the water, this time extracting a minute heap of bright green powder which she deposits into the bowl. She repeats the action, as Mrs. Taylor explains that the standard ratio of ingredients is 1½ scoops of matcha powder to ½ a cup of water.
Mrs. Ozaki raises the chashaku and brings it down sharply toward the edge of the bowl, to tap off the matcha particles that still cling to the bamboo. In the moment before the two make contact, she pulls back imperceptibly so that it is impossible to determine whether the wood struck the painted ceramic at all.
Replacing the lid on the lacquered tea caddy, known as natsume, our hostess returns the tea scoop to its original position. The cyclical nature of each movement, from resting to active and back again, is profoundly satisfying. On the one hand, the grace of what I am watching seems beyond intellectual analysis; on the other, this elegance is the result of 500 years of study and deliberation.
Turning to a large white ceramic container painted with tall green stalks of bamboo, Mrs. Ozaki removes the lid. This, Mrs. Taylor explains, is the mizosashi, filled with cold water to tame the heat of the boiling water in the furo kama.
“The water should be hot,” Mrs. Taylor says, as Mrs. Ozaki adds the cold water to the black pot and immediately draws out a ladle full of the tempered liquid, “but not too hot.”
Mrs. Ozaki fills her chawan, the water pooling around the edges of the tiny green mountain inside. She replaces the ladle, perching it on the open mouth of the furo cup-first so that its handle reaches toward her. She reaches for the whisk.
The man next to me leans forward, his chin almost touching the shoulder of the person in front of him. He told me earlier that he hoped to improve his own whisking technique; this is the moment he has been waiting for since he set out this morning. Like me, he has been scribbling furiously in a notebook for the past ten minutes. Like me, he will realize only afterward that from the moment Mrs. Ozaki plucked the whisk from the table until the moment she replaced it, that notebook lay gaping open, forgotten.
With gentle vigour, she begins to incorporate the matcha powder into the water. From somewhere behind her, Mrs. Taylor’s voice explains that the whisk must be in perfect condition, and the force of the hostess’s hand regulated to produce the signature fine foam of a good bowl of matcha.
“Like a latte coffee,” she says, though she is quick to add that anyone intending to replace their morning coffee with green tea should consider sencha rather than matcha, as the latter is intended to be enjoyed after a meal and may be too strong for an empty stomach. Matcha, she explains, is unique in that the drinker ingests the entire tea leaf. The most tender tips of the Japanese green tea bush are steamed and sun-dried before being stoneground into the fine powder that Mrs. Ozaki is using.
The “whipping” of the tea goes on for a surprisingly long time, though perhaps it only feels this way because the forty audience members in the room are holding their collective breath. The silver flowers on Mrs. Ozaki’s pale blue kimono ripple, and slender muscles flex visibly in her right hand. These are the only outward signs of exertion.
When Mrs. Ozaki sets down the chazen, signalling the completion of her task, Mrs. Taylor excuses herself from her narrating duties momentarily. The two women bow to each other. Holding the tea bowl in both hands, Mrs. Ozaki offers it to Mrs. Taylor, who takes it and turns toward the front row of chairs. There, playing the role of shokyaku, or main guest, is Mrs. Takeda. They bow to each other.
Mrs. Taylor rotates the chawan twice, a quarter turn each time, so that the front of the bowl faces Mrs. Takeda. Accepting the bowl, the shokyaku repeats this rotation, facing the main design of the bowl outward so that she can sip from the back. This is intended as a sign of respect for the art that adorns the chawan. Before she drinks, another Urasenke Tankokai Vancouver Association member emerges from the kitchen with sweets to prepare the palate. A small crunchy pink candy and a red bean paste mochi, freshly made by the UVA kitchen team. These sweets are distributed to the entire audience, followed by our own chawan of matcha.
“The tea bowl should reflect the season too,” Mrs. Taylor says, and they certainly do- mine features frolicking rabbits and my neighbour’s is dotted with colourful flowers. Laughing, she adds, “You wouldn’t use a cup with snowy mountains in the middle of summer!”
The tea is light, frothy, and impossibly green- I feel as though I’m about to drink someone’s front lawn. It hovers on my tongue for a split second, soft bubbles melting into themselves as I swallow. This is what a cloud might taste like, if clouds were packed with vitamin C, antioxidants and caffeine.
It is over too soon. Mrs. Taylor and her colleagues bow and thank us for coming. The audience applauds and lingers. The idea of a formal tea ceremony taking four to five hours seems far less incredible now.
Complexity clothed in simplicity, small self-contained actions cumulating in one immensely symbolic final product- the Japanese tea ceremony is social interaction as performance art.