The Meaning of Tea

Human relationships and attention to detail are at the heart of the serene Japanese tea ceremony

Friday - December 16, 2005
By Lisa Asato
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Genshitsu Sen observes as Terence Mott inspects the shifuku, a silk pouch that protects the ceramic tea caddy for thick tea
Genshitsu Sen observes
as Terence Mott inspects
the shifuku, a silk pouch
that protects the ceramic
tea caddy for thick tea

What’s the hurry? Have a seat, and why don’t you enjoy a cup of tea?

That’s the rough translation of “shaza kissa,” from which the Shaza no Shiki tea ceremony, popular with the young people of Japan, gets its name. The shaza ceremony was presented last Saturday to a standing-room-only crowd at the Honolulu Academy of Arts Doris Duke Theatre by Dr. Genshitsu Sen, who travels the world promoting peace through the study of tea known as Chado, or the Way of Tea.

“Chado is not just about drinking a bowl of tea,” Sen, a former grand master of the Urasenke tradition, says through an interpreter. “What’s very important is the relationship between the host and guest and how they relate to each other.”


As Robert Huey, director of the University of Hawaii Center for Japanese Studies, says, it’s the host’s role to make guests feel welcome and to serve a good bowl of tea, and the guests’ role to receive the tea with gratitude and respect. “In effect,” he says, “the message is, ‘This moment matters enough to me that I will stop behaving like I do in the everyday world, and will show my commitment to this moment by devoting all my attention to each detail.’”

Keiko Shinagawa places charcoal in the hibachi to heat water for tea
Keiko Shinagawa places
charcoal in the hibachi to heat
water for tea

Attention to detail is apparent in statements such as this one by Sen, describing the smelling of incense: “The fragrance is supposed to go in from your right nostril and out your left. It’s very complex.” And it’s evident in the way the guests handle and examine - and thus appreciate - utensils used for the ceremony’s main event, the sharing of a bowl of koicha, or thick tea.

Japanese tea ceremony, called chanoyu - literally “hot water for tea,” follows strict protocols. But it also offers flexibility.

“Just like in the West, if you were to entertain a guest you would probably choose a coffee that might be perfect for them. In tea it’s the same thing. The host is free to choose the tea that they might like to serve their guest, or the sweets for that matter, the flower, everything. It’s whatever they feel they can best entertain or greet their guest with.”

Genshitsu Sen explains the actions of Terence Mott, Junko Mori, Keiko Shinagawa and Tandra Matsumoto during the tea ceremony
Genshitsu Sen explains the actions of Terence Mott, Junko
Mori, Keiko Shinagawa and Tandra Matsumoto during the
tea ceremony

The shaza ceremony requires even more teamwork than other tea ceremonies because each guest has a role to play, be it arranging flowers for the altar, preparing the charcoal to boil the water, or burning incense for purification.

As the action on stage proceeds, Sen narrates, “First of all, the hanto (host’s assistant), has brought in seasonal flowers on a tray. Please watch, the host has made a motion to the second guest to prepare the flowers. That is what she has been instructed to do, so that is what she is doing. Now ‘chabana,’ or tea flowers, are not meant to be carefully arranged. You simply pick them up and place them in the vase because the whole essence of chabana is that it’s supposed to be very natural, not artificial. Very fast, as you can see, it took only a second for her.”

Terence Mott enjoys a cup of hot tea
Terence Mott enjoys a cup
of hot tea

The 16th century tea master Sen Rikyu established four principles as the essence of Chado: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. After his death, his grandson Sotan created the foundation for the Urasenke tradition. Today the Urasenke Foundation has 95 groups and branches worldwide, including five branches in Hawaii.

In an art in which actions speak louder than words, the near silence of the 30-minute performance was punctuated mainly by Sen’s explanatory remarks.

“Some of you may be wondering why it was so quiet during the tea ritual, how come there’s no talking,” Sen says. “Well, actually in tea, there’s never a problem of too much talking. In tea, excessive talking or chit-chatting is not considered to be a very good thing. And ... when we come into the tea room then all of us in that tea room will forget about who we are, what our class or distinction may be in the outside world. We lay all those things aside, and we simply use this time and space to appreciate everyone and to be considerate of everyone.”

Keiko Shinagawa ceremonially purifies the hibachi fire with a long feather
Keiko Shinagawa ceremonially purifies the hibachi
fire with a long feather

For Tandra Matsumoto, who performed the role of the host’s assistant and who studied and worked in Japan for 13 years, Japanese tea ceremony is a microcosm of Japanese culture that gets to the symbolic heart of its people like no other Japanese study can.

“It’s one thing to speak a language and get across what you want to, but it’s another thing to understand where the person you’re talking to is coming from,” says Matsumoto, whose ethnicities include Hawaiian and Japanese. “And that was always lacking when I was growing up. I always felt a sort of void, and tea ceremony helped me understand my Japanese part of my family. I’ll always be grateful that tea ceremony was able to teach me that.”

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