Updated: Jul 20, 2021
The traditional mindset of coexisting with nature is a fundamental part of the Japanese tea ceremony. I believe that this embrace of nature is a manifestation of our belief in sustainability. In the tearoom, this concept is often seen as a reflection of the changing seasons. Like the haiku, the tea ceremony is a Japanese tradition that requires awareness of the rhythms of nature. Today, I would like to explore the Japanese tea ceremony’s esteem towards nature.
First, let me briefly explain what the ceremony is. The Japanese tea ceremony is the performing art of preparing, serving, and consuming a cup of tea. Beginners in this world are overwhelmed with the necessity to memorise an endless amount of arcane rules, but with enough time and persistence, these can be fully enjoyed when their internal logic is understood. One confusing element for beginners is how everything changes according to seasons and events, including the style, rules, paraphernalia, flowers, and wagashi (Japanese sweets served before the tea). For example, since the photos below are from different seasons, the tea equipment is almost entirely different. The whole thing might sound ridiculous; it is just a cup of tea! In fact, the tea ceremony is not as simple as it sounds, and the ‘way of tea’ is an object of lifelong study. Now, I would like to give you a quiz to demonstrate the hidden meaning and logic of the tea rules.
Question 1. Why, for two tea ceremonies hosted in the same tearoom, is a wind furnace teakettle used in the photo on the left, whilst a sunken hearth kettle is used on the right?
(Hint: the left-hand side photo was taken in September, and the right-hand side in January.)
Question 2. In the Omote-Senke style, guests rotate their cups ninety degrees clockwise before they drink the tea inside (most schools rotate, but not always the exact same way). Why is this needed?
1. The sunken hearth kettle can be placed closer to the guests in order to keep them warm in the winter. (Under the kettle, we usually use a special kind of charcoal to boil the water.)
2. There are actually several reasons to rotate the cup.
- First, it makes it easier for the host to rinse the part of the cup which touches the guest’s lips. After you drink, the ceremony still continues, and the host will rinse your cup. If you drink with a cup rotated by ninety degrees, the part you drink would be the exact spot the host can rinse with their left hand.
- Each cup has a front side, which is usually the most beautiful and important part of the cup. As a guest, you are served with the front facing you, and rotating the cup shows humbleness and symbolic respect for the host’s hospitality. This also avoids dirtying the front side of the cup.
Ichigo Ichie: Once in a Lifetime
Each moment is unrepeatable, so let’s treasure each gathering as a precious one. This concept called Ichigo Ichie (一期一会) is heavily associated with the tea ceremony. Even with the same group of people and place, the moment can never be replicated.
The moment in the tearoom is coloured by two simple ornaments: flowers and a hanging scroll. They help create an atmosphere of peace far away and isolated from our busy daily lives. They also symbolise the ceremony’s spirit of coexisting with nature. The flowers used for the ceremony are neither gorgeous nor decorative like from flower shops or flower beds. Rather it is intentionally simple as it is picked up from wild nature and looks like it was put in a vase in an offhand manner. Flower buds are often used. This plays a role to humbly colour the tearoom enough for making guests feel the changing seasons by seeing this. The scroll sometimes represents the host’s message or the purpose of the ceremony, and the other times, again it represents the season. For example, let me share a specific scroll from my tea practice last week. On the scroll in the photo, ‘seizan ryokusui’ is written. The characters directly mean ‘blue mountain, green water’. This refers to the presence of spring, which is full of life. With this word, I can personally feel the dynamics of the pleasant breath of blooming life unique in springtime. In short, the ceremony represents beautifully changing seasons. It provides a space where one can feel the significance of splendid nature in tranquillity and a peaceful atmosphere.
One more seasonal object from last week's practice: this teapot has a cherry blossom design. It is meant to be used in April when the flower blooms.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed it!