Following my last post on the Japanese tea ceremony, let’s delve a little deeper to explore one of the two kinds of tea ceremonies.

What most foreigners experience is a short tea “session” or tea time (chakai). You might hear it called cha-no-yu. The matcha tea is usually made “thin” (usucha) and you get to drink the entire bowl…all three sips!

Then there is a much more formal affair (chaji) which is a full-blown four- or five-hour meal followed by the tea ceremony. But for now, let’s focus on the chakai.

Conversation during the ritual is minimal–very minimal–and it’s best to let your host initiate it. You would do well to memorize some phrases as a gesture of respect. One of the most important phrases is to thank your host for making the tea: “o-temae chodai itashimasu“. The other biggie is to apologize to the person sitting next to you for drinking before they do. If you wait after receiving your bowl of tea, it’s a major insult to the host! The phrase is: “o-sakini shitsurei shimasu (literally I’m being rude for going before you). That’s enough Japanese for now.

Representing an expression of respect, tranquillity, harmony, and purity; this graceful dance is a time for the host and guests to enjoy a peaceful, quiet time with a view to spiritual enlightenment regarded as “ichi-go-ichi-e” or “wakei-sei-jaku”.

When the host enters the tearoom, both the guests and host bow to each other in unison with flat palms on the tatami mat: index fingertips touching each other to form an inverted V.  I will skip the actual steps in the making of the tea and gear this toward what you, as a guest, will be doing.

First an exquisite masterpiece of a sweet (wagashi) is presented to you, either on a plate or on a folded piece of special hand-made washi (paper). It might be on a tray that you have to pass to the guest next to you. Usually guests bring their own paper for sweets or are given some in advance. If you have tea ceremony paper, place it in front of you. Some guests will also have a folded fan and a utensil to eat the sweet.

It’s hard to explain what this “sweet” actually is, because we don’t have anything remotely like it in the West. Wagashi comes in so many varieties and all are works of art. One of the most common is a beautiful, rather chewy “cake” made with bean or chestnut; vaguely similar to marzipan in texture but not in taste. These edible works of art represent the seasons, a poem, or even nature and are made more for the mind than for a snack. But for now, just know that wagashi prepares the palate for the emerald, strong frothy sip which follows.

When you receive the sweet, don’t wolf it down! This delicacy is to be admired, contemplated, and then eaten with a special wooden or metal utensil that looks vaguely like a knife or an olive fork (kashikiri). You will think it’s simply too beautiful to eat, but are encouraged to do so, “as nothing is permanent in this life” according to Zen philosophy. Eat all of it, probably in 4-5 bites, using the kashikiri.

To be concluded in tomorrow’s post A Glimpse Into the Tea Ceremony: Chakai Versus Chaji – Part 2

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