Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Way of Tea Ceremony, 14th June

Every month or so (it doesn't feel like it is quite that regular) there is a demonstration of a Japanese Tea Ceremony at the top of the British Museum, in, predictably, its Japenase section. It's free - you just have to find it.

No - they tell you where it is - Room 92. But, predictably, it is at the very top and probably the farthest bit to get to, with no direct elevator access from the ground floor so even though I got the museum with fifteen minutes to spare, I only made it in the nick of time to the location. Or so I thought. Loads more people turned up even as it was underway, leading to the slightly awkward predicament of me having a spare seat next to me that nobody could get to, making me look a bit of a tool. I'd turned up when there wasn't many people there and so had thought it would be weird if I sat right next to the guy on my row when there was loads of space around me. 15 minutes later and all the seats were filled and there were even people standing. I felt conspicuous. But anyway...

When it starts there are three people dressed in traditional Japanese garb. One of these is the tea ceremony host, one is the primary guest and one is the person giving the talk and explaining what is happening. He starts by offering round a box of matcha tea powder and explaining that Japanese tea is different to that of English or Chinese tea - they grind the leaves and dissolve them into the water making a more potent tea.

The speaker asks for a volunteer to take part in the ceremony. Luckily someone raised their hand - I wanted to watch and also, I don't like tea; I hadn't planned on having to drink any.

In the Japanese section, there is always a tea house set up anyway. But in the Way of Tea ceremony it actually gets put to use. The two guests opened the small door on the side and entered, and sat kneeling. Then the host came through another door at the back and began laying out all of the components and ingredients that are an integral part of the ceremony.

All the while, the speaker is explaining a little of the history of tea and the ceremony (it took this form roughly 400 years ago when a Zen Buddhist reclaimed the ceremony from the elite and said it should be a spritual and intellectual endeavour for all). He then explains how it is an experience for all the senses and how each item is symbolic and has a part to play in entertaining each sense.

The host purifies all of the materials and then he makes the tea and passes it to the first guest. She has eaten a sweet by this point, which helps to make the tea taste better (as it is so strong it can leave a bitter after taste which the sweet helps to nullify). There is even ceremony in the drinking of the tea. The bowl of tea is passed to the guest with the front facing her. As this is the prettiest part, she twists the bowl and drinks from the side, not the front. There is only about 50cc of tea in the bowl (at this point it was shown around the audience) and can be drunk in 3 or 4 gulps. After that the bowl is cleaned where the lips touched it, and is twisted back. At this point the guest might admire the bowl and ponder its meaning.

The speaker explained, here, that the bowl in which the tea is served will have been chosen for a reason. Today it was a ceramic, open, colourful bowl. This was appropriate because it is summer, and an open, thin bowl will allow some of the tea's heat to escape and make for more pleasurable drinking. Had it been winter, a chunkier, darker coloured clay bowl, which would retain heat and warm the fingers, might have been used.

After the first guest returns the bowl, the process is repeated for the second guest. When she has drunk hers, the host goes about purifying all of the items again, and tidying the space he has used, so that it is in the same perfect order it was before the ceremony started. When he exits, the guests also leave, and it is almost like nothing ever happened.

Unfortunately, no photography or filming was allowed which is a shame as I wanted to take a picture of the sweets that they served, and showed close up to the audience - there were some sweet biscuits and some jello sweets - soft jello encased in a hard candy shell. They were pretty and arranged colourfully together to resemble a hydrangea - again a symbol of the time of year.

The whole thing lasted only 30 minutes or so, after which the audience is invited to ask questions. Several Japanese members stayed behind and chatted for quite a bit with the ceremony's participants. I counted only 13 people or so when it started but like I said, it was pretty much full by the end.

It's a charming little event. Maybe you wouldn't want to go out of your way to make sure you see it, unless you're a tea fanatic or Japanophile (or me, crossing things off a list) but if it is on when you're visiting the British Museum I highly recommend you take some time out of your wanderings to experience this calm, symbolic 400 year old tradition.

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