Japanese Tea Ceremony

I recently had the honor to attend a Japanese tea ceremony – albeit an abbreviated one. It was an experience not to be forgotten.

I know nothing about tea ceremonies – Japanese or other. And when it was suggested that our “Flavors of the World” committee of the International Women’s Club create one, I had no idea what was involved. I thought perhaps we could add other counties as well. How wrong I was!

A Japanese tea ceremony usually takes three hours. It is carefully thought out, involves many utensils and is an honor to attend. Ours was held at the home of the Japanese Ambassador to Israel, under the caring and concerned eye of his wife Nobuko Takeuchi. Our honored guest was Taiko or Taiko-san as is the proper and honorable form of address.

As a room full of women sat quietly and listened, Taiko-san explained the meaning behind the Japanese tea ceremony and what each utensil is used for. She showed a bamboo brush, used to clean out the inside of the sipping bowl and explained how one man makes only these brushes, his entire lifetime! The same for the wooden spoon.

The ceremony is conducted in silence and considering it can last for three hours, we all wondered how it is done! But as Taiko-san brushed the bowl, wiped it out, poured the tea and served it to her guests (with the help of an assistant) it was clear how patience is a virtue.

Each movement of her delicate hands had a definite purpose, bringing mind and body together for this ancient rite. We watched her repeated movements, her concentration and her elegance as she served, waited, accepted the bowl and performed the ceremony again – for each of her guests.

Honored guest #1 was our “Ambassadoress” Nobuko, who knew exactly how to behave. She gently sipped from the bowl until the tea was finished, forgoing the usual noisy slurp at the end which indicates gratitude and completion. The others invited to join Nobuko followed the same pattern of behavior, as we watched in fascination.

Taiko-san explained that in the usual ceremony, the same bowl is used to serve each guest. I asked what was probably a silly question – “What if someone has a cold?” It was not the first time this question was asked and Taiko-san was patient but explicit in her answer. “But a Japanese person would never accept an invitation to a tea ceremony if he or she had a cold!” That would be unheard of – one always thinks of others, before thinking of oneself.

After the tea ceremony, I had arranged with Taiko-san that she would dress one of our ladies in a kimono, or yakuta, as the summer kimono is referred to. We chose a very happy, smiling member of our group – a Brazilian with a huge zest for life. As Taiko-san wrapped Aline in the robe, tying it up with the two white narrow strips of fabric, and then completing the ensemble with the two-sided obi (the belt which wraps around the bodice) we were once again reminded of the patience and beauty involved in Japanese customs. Explaining that Japanese women are usually not very well-endowed in the bust area (and we had a few laughs over the appropriate terms), she showed how women are usually wrapped up to hide their body, to display modesty and not show off their curves.

I was touched by the details in the ceremony, and the skill and patience to conduct it. I was impressed, as I always am by Japanese design, by the beauty of each object. No detail is too small – each aspect of this rite is as important as the next. It brought me to wonder about the difference in our societies. We, in the West, especially here in Israel, have a tendency to want what’s new – and we want it fast. We don’t have patience for rites and rituals – with the exception perhaps of the Sabbath and holidays where we follow certain traditions.

I think there is much to be admired about the Japanese – their respect and reverence of others, their patience, their less-is-more attitude. For a few brief hours, I think we all wanted to be Japanese!

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