Tea Diaries

Finding One’s Way in Japanese Tea Ceremony

View of tearoom for Japanese Tea Ceremony | Where My Heart Leads

As an ‘outsider’ to Japanese culture, I notice a stark contrast between the practice of Japanese tea ceremony and how I am used to being “taught.” Growing up in Hong Kong and the US, I am used to being “directed”, “instructed” most of my life. So it was eye-opening to observe teaching through discovery.

Filling Tea Caddy to Prepare the Mind

Just like one would prep their mind grinding a stick of ink round and round on watered stone before Ink calligraphy – In Japanese tea ceremony practice, there is the filling of the tea caddy.

One recent morning, after sifting the matcha powder, I half moved the tea caddy towards our senior teacher and half gestured to ask if she might fill it/show me how to fill it. Nonchalantly, she said, “please, you fill it.”

As students, we are told not to fill the tea caddy unless given “permission” to. Perhaps because the tea powder historically has been a rare commodity/prized possession.

A bit fearful, because I didn’t feel I had “proper instructions” on how exactly to do it, I began.

To be honest though, I’ve seen it done many times. and have once closely observed how a senior, grandpa-figure does it. He was relaxed, and just filled it like a pro. Easy, simple, just fill the darn container. That’s it. Sometimes, perhaps we just blow things up and make it look a lot more important/complicated than it really is.

In filling the empty caddy, I adjusted along the way how big a scoop of tea I deposit, the system to which I deposit the powder – Do I go round and round and round? Or just pile on on top continuously on the pinnacle of the mountain? I managed to find my way to fill it up.

When done, I showed my senior teacher. She’s like an elegant little grandma. Now, she shows me how to adjust the tea powder in the caddy with a few quick runs through the powder to shape the beautiful, verdant “mountain” – not too sharp, a little round.

No intervention. Just allowing.

I later realized that my Japanese tea ceremony teacher was probably next to me the whole time keeping an eye on what I was doing. As I was totally immersed in the piling of matcha powder, I didn’t notice.

How different it was from the conventional ways of teaching. When ready, the teachers give the student the task, without giving you a demo or instruction first.

It is through that process of discovery/and trial where the student gets an unencumbered fresh experience of doing it the first time, without pre-conceived notions of how it has to be done.

So much of tea learning comes from observation.

Passing it onwards

Another teacher was arranging flowers another morning. A beautiful purple iris that shoots out of the water. She literally made the arrangement in seconds. Chop, Chop, the flowers are cut, inserted into the water and a ring was placed on it. Creative, expressive and simple.

I asked if she learnt flower arrangement from her mother who also practiced Chado (Tea ceremony). She said in fact she was never really taught per se, however, she has observed over the years how it was done. She then goes to explain a little about how the tallest stem would be arranged this way and there, that was my “lesson” that day on flower arrangement.

It’s like some of the best teachings are transmitted, not taught.

And the transmission possible when the student is there.

And learning by immersion, by experience.

My Learning

I find it difficult to hold back from “instructing” others and “intervening” at times. When I see classmates who might be newbies, I sometimes uninhibitedly jump in to “fix” or “point out” the way to do it. Here’s the Hong Kong side of me showing.

Whereas with my teachers, they rarely point things out out-right when the thing is not technically “wrong.” Once, being haphazard as I used to be, I picked up some candy with my fingers and arranged them on the platter to be served.

Later, one teacher did exactly the same thing – arrange sweets on a platter – however, she didn’t just grab with her fingers, but used chopsticks to arrange them nicely.

I felt that she had seen what I had done one tea sitting ago. And rather than stop me in the tracks, she modelled what could be done instead. That’s the subtlety and nuances of the tea practice. Always learning.

Some Japanese sweets arranged on a wooden platter set on tatami mat. It's probably spring as the sweets are of baby pink sakura and some sprouts coming out the earth. For Japanese Tea Ceremony.

The Sweets In Chado

The sweets are often seasonal and are arranged like a picture/imagery itself.

I’ve been following midori.muko’s Instagram for her photos of beautifully-arranged sweets and tea. (Credit: @midori.muko on Instagram)