Steeped in tradition
The ineffable principles of the classic tea ceremony
IT was a short and fascinating walk from the station through the streets of ancient Nara to Sekigawa-san’s humble abode. The internal walls of his home were fragile and the floorboards grunted and groaned.
The monk’s wife, neatly bound in a kimono, proudly afforded myself and five of my newfound friends (Myong Hee, Kikuko, Misako, Mayumi and Yukari) a palace-sized welcome as she knelt in the genkan (entrance), bowing deeply as we removed our footwear.
Once we were settled on the tatami upstairs, our host prepared the tea ceremony that would mark the start of our lesson in shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine — or, more literally, ‘ ‘ dedicated person’s food’’) and our formal kaiseki meal.
The tea ceremony was originally a monastic discipline, in keeping with the fundamental Zen philosophy of wa kei sei jaku, or harmony, respect, purity, tranquillity. It was developed, with the help of tea master Sen Rikyu, into an art form, and has become an important custom through which patriotic Japanese are able to demonstrate their understanding of the cultural ‘‘code’’.
Before imbibing matcha (a brew made from powdered green tea), one must first consume a traditional Japanese sweet — often made with beans and flavoured with sugar. A tumble of pleasantly chewy little spheres made from rice powder, coated in kinako (roasted soy bean powder) and sugar, were not as sweet as some of the beanbased wagashi (tea ceremony sweets) I have consumed previously, and were deliciously moreish.
This important step, on the physical level, helps mellow any bitterness in the tea that follows, but on a spiritual level it enables one to taste both the sweet and bitter in life.
Looking official in his blue robes, Sekigawa-san slowly lowered himself into a kneeling position opposite me. With a slender bamboo tea scoop he transferred two dabs of matcha into a ceramic tea bowl, then poured boiled and slightly cooled water on to it. He agitated the mixture with a fine bamboo whisk until the opaque green liquid was pale, thick and foamy on the sur- face. He rose, walked quietly to me and carefully placed the bowl, with the ‘‘face’’ (the most decorative side) turned towards me, on to the table.
As is customary, I admired the bowl, then placed it on the palm of my left hand, before rotating it three small clockwise turns so that the face was respectfully directed away from me while I consumed its contents.
Although it was daunting to have all eyes on me, I excused myself, then drank in three large indoctrinated slurps, ensuring the tea was emptied on the last long sip. The vessel is communal, so the required etiquette is to then gracefully wipe once, with your thumb, where your lips have caressed the bowl. I returned the bowl counter-clockwise three times to its original position, before gently replacing it for collection. Boiled water was then poured over the whisk into the bowl, cleansing it for the next guest.
The ceremony over, our host gave a long talk on shojin ryori. Within the small, hushed room it would have been difficult for anyone to have translated for me, even at a whisper, but I did grasp the crucial bit: when he invited us to lift the paper coverings off our place settings to reveal our food trays.
In front of us were individual dishes containing three of the basic meal components and cooking styles: nimono (a simmered food) of kyo-yasai (Kyoto vegetables); aemono (dressed food); and tsukemono (pickles), of which you must retain at least one piece for cleaning your bowl at the end of the meal. The combination of several cooking methods is required for a balance of textures, flavours and colours, and it is common to serve three, five and sometimes seven dishes with rice.
Sake was poured while we ate, and I was taught the cup should be placed upon your left hand with your right underneath, sliding out and upwards in a slightly cupped position to say ‘‘when’’ — so subtle and refined.
Rice was brought to the table and placed on our left, while shiitake dashibased miso, laden with chunks of konnyaku ( j elly from the devil’s tongue root) and lots of vegetable peelings (as nothing is wasted), was placed on our right, providing the fourth shirumono/ suimono (soup) component of the meal. A fifth, agemono (fried food), came in the form of kakiage (shredded vegetables in tempura batter), which was placed in front of us on small plates lined with patterned rice paper. The leftover kombu from the dashi was also used in the kakiage in very fine slivers — adding an extra dimension of flavour and texture. Zen Buddhist monks in training start the day simply with tea and rice. Lunch provides their one full meal. Kaiseki loosely translates as ‘‘pocket or bosom stone’’ — it was believed the monks would carry around warmed stones in their kimono over their stomachs to stave off hunger between the main meals.
Before the kaiseki could commence, we each removed seven grains of rice from our bowl using our ohashi (chopsticks) and placed them on our left palms, before transferring them to one side of our pickle dish — an offering in honour of those with little or no food.
Officially, one should eat in an anticlockwise direction — you can start with whatever dish you choose, but you must finish everything in that bowl before moving on to the next. It is also courteous to eat everything presented.
Symbolically, tea was poured into our rice bowls to mark the end of the meal. We then wiped around the sides of the dish with our reserved pickle, which was trapped between the tips of two chopsticks, before scraping any remnants into the next, anti-clockwise, dish. This continued until we made it back to our rice bowl, which we cleansed as best we could until all the sediment was sitting in the tea. We then drank the liquid and finally ate the pickle slice. Our seven grains of rice were then tipped on to a central plate and fed to birds or fish in the local koi pond. This is an edited extract from Zenbu Zen by Jane Lawson (Murdoch Books, $69.99)
The Japanese tea ceremony was originally a monastic discipline