In 2008, on one of my frequent trips to Japan, I had the fortunate opportunity to attend the Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony, an event that takes place once each year. (Read more about the annual Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony).
Leading-edge technology, fashion, and consumerism are evolving at top speed. But even amidst today’s pace and a popular culture that is sometimes closer to a pressure cooker than a zen garden, traditional culture is revered, respected, and practiced. Kabuki theater performances are in full swing. Traditional architecture that survived WWII is carefully maintained and enjoyed by many in-country tourists. And the hottest new museum is the Tokyo-Edo Museum, a beautiful modern complex in the Sumo-wrestler stables neighborhood, which showcases old Tokyo.
As I came to see, this very grand tea ceremony, which I was afraid would be losing attention to Italian espresso, Starbucks, and Parisian-style tea, is alive and well, and practiced by many dedicated young ladies, studying in apprenticeship to the older tea mistresses of Tokyo.
Jo-An Chashitsu (tea house), an historic national treasure.
Hamarikyu Gardens, Tokyo
I was so excited to go to this big public tea ceremony that I was the first visitor to arrive. Those who know me would undoubtedly think my watch was stuck in the wrong time zone. But my enthusiasm clearly flattered my hosts. The setting for this beautifully choreographed event was the teahouse in my favorite park in Tokyo, called Hamarikyu. It’s a tidal garden on the Sumigawa River, the site of a former Shogun’s duck-hunting property. We observer-guests were seated in a square along the outside edge of the tea ceremony room. Every view in this garden is picture-perfect. Japanese landscape architecture has always struck me as a collection of perfectly balanced scenes. It’s impossible to take a bad picture here, because no matter where you point your camera, the composition is ideal.
Beauty, Respect, Humility
This concept of perfect balance carries over to the tea ceremony, in which first the host, then each participant, comes on the scene in perfect timing and pitch. Beauty, respect, humility, and appreciation are communicated with graceful gestures. This harmony is carried through to the balance of flavors between the smooth, but bitter, whipped matcha (ceremony tea) and the ultra-delicate seasonal sweets that are taken before and with the tea.
Higashi; Treats Served at Japanese Tea Ceremony
It’s customary for these melt-in-your-mouth treats to be made from local and seasonal fruits and in shapes reflective of the season (ours were shaped like maple leaves and had fall-harvest plum flavors sandwiched in delicate wafers). Each one in isolation would be delicious, but the tea and sweets together were perfect. Beautiful. A treasured memory I won’t forget.
The Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony is an informal event held in Hamarikyu Gardens, Tokyo each year in October (find dates here). During this event many tea ceremonies are carried out. Both indoors and outdoors, for advanced tea drinkers, for beginners, for children and there are even ceremonies carried out in English. If you visit Japan as a tourist in October this is a really great opportunity to get acquainted with an important piece of traditional Japanese culture.
The ceremonies carried out during the Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony are designed for beginners. That means you don’t have bring or prepare anything. However be aware that the indoor events are hugely popular and typically require advance reservations. A ticket for one of the outdoor ceremonies can easily be bought on the day.
Updated from original 2008 publication.