Tea from the Source: Kyoto, Japan (Part 1)

IMG_1680Memory #2 from my first trip to Asia.

Though I didn’t expect climbing Mount Fuji to slow me down to appreciate the present moment, I did expect it from another aspect of Asian culture–tea.

So I made sure time on both the Japan and Taiwan itineraries went towards exploring tea culture.

1) Traditional Japanese tea ceremony

My parents and I got lost on the way to En Teahouse, just as my directions had predicted.

[Travel Tip: Japan doesn’t have normal street addresses. The numbers mean nothing so if you don’t where a business or house is on a street… you should call and get someone to wave you down. Otherwise you could end up wandering forever.]

Inside, we knelt in the small room. After letting my sore post-Fuji muscles settle, I took in the darkened space and the silence it encouraged in spite of the 10 tourists and small child gathered around its walls and the busy street just a few meters away.


We learned about the three items you bring to a tea ceremony: a piece of paper for sugary treats, a small knife for cutting and eating said sweets, and a fan. I loved the idea that the fan is not opened and sashayed around but rather placed horizontally between two people before they bow to each other. It’s a greeting of respect that symbolizes the meeting between the individual’s personal spaces.

Our booking included a demonstration and short history of the Japanese tea ceremony. I would have loved to attend an official ceremony including the charcoal laying portion and all 4 hours of ritual. But for my first trip to Japan, this demonstration fulfilled my need for tea culture.

Oddly enough my dad, the only non-tea enthusiast in our group, ended up in the seat of honor. He received two cups of matcha tea that day–which he said “wasn’t bad”, though he’s not giving up his black coffee any time soon. I would have been jealous, but I found myself entranced by the ritual movements of our host as she bowed, ran a cloth over the bamboo scoop, replaced it, folded the cloth, and moved on to the next object.

Later she explained that this was a ceremonial cleansing. Of course all the items had been well cleaned before the guests arrived, but it showed how important purity is to the environment of the tea ceremony.

Wa ke se jaku
tranquility, respect, purity, peace

Those aren’t the exact translations and they aren’t in the right order. They are the tenets ofDSC09032 the tea ceremony that the host cultivates for her or his guests and that the guests all bring with themselves. The host ceremonially cleans all the utensils in front of the guests to emphasize the purity of the tea house. And the guests are expected to arrive both internally pure as well as physically and externally clean.

Which is funny considering the best way to show that you liked your tea “to the last drop” is to slurp on the third and final sip.

I still don’t know how to properly whisk and prepare matcha tea. While I practice it with the Uji region, Kyoto-grown matcha I brought home, I also remind myself to practice the four tenets of the tea ceremony each time I prepare tea for myself, no matter what variety or time of day.

And to perhaps give myself something sweet each time I drink bitter tea. It’s part of the ceremony, after all.

Stay tuned for more updates from my first Asian adventures–Part 2 includes more tea!


About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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