The Art of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

I was traveling to Japan for the second time. Having never left Tokyo on my first visit, I wanted to explore more and chose Kyoto. Traveling alone and speaking no Japanese, I decided to hire a driver. I found Hiro. I had no idea what I should be seeing in Kyoto so Hiro asked me one simple question: “What are you interested in?” I’m not sure even he knew what he had done. But by avoiding the more common tourist question, “What do you want to see?” he uncovered what I wanted to learn while in Kyoto and was able to craft a unique travel experience suited specifically to me.

“The Japanese tea ceremony!” was my answer. Admittedly, I had no idea what I was asking. Only after an entire day of visiting shrines and temples and tea shops did I find myself coming away with more questions than answers. Hiro crafted an expert day which started at the Rakusai Bamboo Park. With bamboo playing such a critical role in the crafting of Japanese tea, this visit provided a strong grounding in the actual making of the tea. From there we visited Kosanji Temple where the first tea leaves were brought to Japan. Then we went on to Ryoanji Temple and the Daitokuji Temple where it is said the tea ceremony originated. Our last stop before our lesson was Ippodo tea shop where their tea lessons reminded me more of a wine tasting, not that there is anything wrong with that. By the way, if you don’t have plans to visit Japan, you can stop by Ippodo’s NYC location for a taste of Kyoto.

I was introduced to the way of tea, ironically, by Canadian transplant, Randy Channell at Ranhotei in Kyoto. I’ll admit, I thought attending a Japanese tea ceremony would be similar to afternoon tea at the Savoy Hotel in London, with a few more rules. When Hiro asked me what level I was, I knew I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Despite all of that, attending a beginner lesson on the tea ceremony is a must do if you’re in Japan, especially Kyoto where it all started. Randy just scratched the surface for us in terms of the flow of a traditional tea ceremony and how to properly make a cup of green tea (which in Japan is really matcha, what we in America traditionally think of as green tea is something completely different). He introduced to the lifestyle of the tea ceremony. He explains it in detail in his book, “The Book of Chanoyu Tea the Master Key to Japanese Culture.” Randy explains it best in an interview with the Japan Times, “ To unlock is not so difficult. After unlocking the difficulty would depend on how far one wants to enter. “Oku ga fukai,” which means “the back is deep,” is a phrase that is often used when speaking of tea and other Japanese cultural arts. There are so many “ways” to go and the path to mastery of each one is deep.” I would have to say, I’m in deep.