When you arrive, a “dewy path” leads to the teahouse or home, even if it looks like water splashed on the pavement: Which it is. This wet path is often a sign of welcome in Japan but it has
The doorway is tiny and low, which means you have to stoop to enter. This thoughtful feature was designed to make everyone – even feudal Lords – bow upon entering out of respect for each other: The host and the ritual. Everyone inside the teahouse is equal regardless of his or her status in the world: Be it the Queen of England, a farmer, or your little sister. Just as samurai would have to leave their ornate swords outside the door, today it is polite – and sometimes requested of you – to remove any signs that might suggest your status, like a huge diamond or that 1933 gold Patek Phillipe watch.
At the doorway, pray you don’t have holes in your socks and that they are brilliant white or better yet never worn. Wear shoes that are easy to put on and take off. This is critical! One guest I encountered had boots that laced up to her knee. It was excruciating watching the Japanese guests squirm in discomfort as they waited, implying that they might be pressuring her to hurry.
There is an order to everything in Japan – including the ranking of guests at a tea party – even though everyone is to be considered equal. The oldest – who is usually the most experienced at the formalities – is called the Shokyaku. You will understand who this is almost immediately and they might even be introduced as such. She or he will be seated in the first position in an attempt to provide comfort to the guests by showing everyone what to do by simply going first. The other guests will mimic their actions. Your role as
Starting from the décor, everything in the teahouse is there for a reason: To keep your mind focused on the present moment. As a matter of fact, there is nothing in the teahouse except perhaps a beautiful scroll written in calligraphy or vase of flowers, arranged with meticulous care depending on the meaning of the ceremony and purposefully set in the alcove or on the floor. Everything is to be acknowledged quietly and respected, so follow the Shokyaku. There are absolutely no distractions apart from what you conjure up in your head, and for foreigners there’s usually a lot of head chatter going on.
Sitting in Seiza
Shoes off, you will be escorted onto the tatami floor to sit in “seiza”: On your knees with your butt resting on your heels. You will be shown where to sit, so no worries there. Foreigners are usually offered a cushion or some other lifting device, often followed by an apology for society making you sit this way.
“Oh, this is easy,” you announce…until 15 minutes go by, the third dish out of 20 is approaching, and your thoughts move from the serene moment to sheer panic. The only thing you can think about is shifting your weight! Discomfort morphs into outright pain. As the
If you pretend to be cool and stay seated in seiza until the end, it’s guaranteed that the side of your face will crash onto the tatami mat when you try to get up. All feeling has flooded out of your feet, and I mean ALL.
No pins and needles anymore, just nothingness…
“Was this the point?” you wonder, as you immediately look down in search of your feet. You are sure they’ve left your body and are walking out the door with the nimble Japanese!
But on a serious note, if you get the chance to attend, GO! Your life will never be the same.