My stomach grumbled, and Kevin looked at me, alarmed.
It was a bad time for my body to let me know it was lunchtime. We were kneeling on tatami grass mats in a tiny hut, silently watching a kimono-clad woman fold a napkin again and again. Just a few minutes before, we were asked not to speak during the silent performance. I was trying so hard to be polite yet, here I was, ruining the moment.
We were at the Nakamura Tokichi Honten, a well-respected tea grower and teahouse in Uji, a small town thirty minutes from Kyoto, Japan.
Tea has great cultural significance in Japan. The traditional tea ceremony (chado) is considered one of Japan’s highest forms of art. In English, the word chado is translated to the “Way of Tea” (“cha” meaning “tea”, and “do” meaning “way”). This dreamy concept signifies the practice offers a broader spiritual and mental experience, beyond just your typical cup of tea.
As a long-time tea lover, I’ve always wanted to visit Japan and learn about tea production and tea culture. In planning our recent trip, I learned Kyoto and Uji are great places to learn these crafts. This is because Kyoto is home to Urasenke, an exclusive program that educates students in this traditional art. Urasenke students train for over a decade to become tea masters and eligible to direct ceremonies for national leaders and distinguished guests. As for Uji, some of the finest Japanese teas are produced in their community. The cool, morning mist rolling off of the Uji River provides an ideal environment for growing tea.
We visited the Nakamura Tokichi company headquarters to–I admit–shop for fancy tea in their store, but also to take part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The Nakamura family has owned the business for over 160 years, and photos of the family elders and an altar to their ancestors are displayed in the front room. In recent years, they started hosting daily chado demonstrations to give tourists at taste of this traditional art.
Our kimono-clad guide was Moegi Yokoyama. Moegi studied at the Kyoto Urasenke school for three years, and she’s been leading these tours for the past year.
There are no tea bags, tea balls or infusion devices used at Nakamura Tokichi. A ceremonial cup of tea is made with matcha, a finely-milled, powdered tea. In the most traditional ceremonies, the honored guest helps grind the loose tea leaves by hand using a stone mill. So, for the first part of the tour, we got to try grinding the tea ourselves.
Our host told us to move the mill slowly but steadily, at about one full rotation per second. Hasty or irregular movements would result in unevenly ground tea. Kevin and I took turns grinding the stone, counting out loud so we could help each other keep a steady pace. The dense stone mill was heavy, and I kept turning it over to Kevin when my arm got tired.
After about 15 minutes of work–frustratingly yielding only a few tablespoons of powdered tea–Moegi told us we had enough and asked us to follow her through the back courtyard to a tiny ceremonial teahouse. It was at that point that the experience became meditation–again, we were asked not to speak, nor take any photos. (I captured this one of the courtyard as we went to leave.)
We sat in silence as our host carefully selected the utensils she wished to use, filled a heavy stone kettle with water and suspended it to heat over a small indoor fire pit. Though we knew the utensils were already clean, she ceremonially washed each utensil one by one, then presented it to us for our review. This ritualistic cleansing shows the host’s respect for the guests.
The first course was a bowl of matcha jelly — a colorful mix of gooey sweets. As I noted above, I was hungry, so this was a welcome surprise. She said that one of the reasons for the sweets is to coat the stomach because the coming bowls of tea would be very strong. I tried not to devour it too quickly.
Seasonality is important in Japan, and nowhere more so than in a traditional ceremony. In between courses, Ms. Yokoyama stopped to quietly explain what she was doing. Everything in the room — the utensils she selected, the scroll on the wall, the flowers in the vase, and even the kimono she wore showed the season of the year and respect for the guest. Every movement was intentional and precise.
After the sweets, we were offered two bowls of tea. First was koi-cha, a very heavy tea suspension stirred into a thick paste. The koi-cha style tea uses using only the finest tea powder from older trees. Moegi said it was only prepared for very special occasions and that most Japanese people would never get to experience the koi-cha tea course. Though I was not accustomed to the heavy texture, I was grateful to try this traditional preparation. The second bowl of tea was usu-cha, or “thin matcha”. This is the tea style most common to Japanese locals. Our host whisked the tea we had milled into a light and frothy suspension before handing it to me to taste.
In both cases, our guide showed us how to take tea politely from our host:
- When offered the bowl, bow to the others to excuse yourself for going first.
- Take a moment to admire the hand-crafted bowl, and ask questions about it if you wish.
- Turn the bowl in a single rotation.
- Bring the bowl to your mouth with both hands and take a sip.
- Finally, wipe the bowl with your napkin before passing it on to the next guest, who would repeat this process.
Though they were little gestures, following this practice shows respect for the host, respect for the other guests, and an appreciation of their gifts and their time.
We closed the ritual with another bow, an appreciation for the simple beauty of this art, the attention to detail, and how it represented the broader Japanese cultural values of kindness, respect, and compassion.
Noisy stomach and all, I was still welcome and respected in the Nakamura teahouse.
Visiting Nakamura Tokichi Honten:
The town of Uji is a 30 minute JR train ride from Kyoto. The Nakamura Tokichi Honten (Main Store) is right across from the Uji rail station.
The Tea Ceremony Experience: There are four small group seatings a day: 11am, 2pm, 4pm. Ticket cost: 4,320 yen.
The tea merchant also has an onsite restaurant (Tokichi Cafe) that offers a full lunch menu and matcha sweets in a more informal setting. Their matcha tea and sweets pairings start at about 1,200 yen.
Can’t get to Japan?
Experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in San Francisco!
The Urasenke Foundation of San Francisco, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing the Urasenke tea tradition, offers monthly tea ceremony workshops at their tearoom on Powell Street. Check out their monthly calendar of events or call them: 415.433.6553.
Our trip to Uji was supported by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All opinions are my own.
Top Photo Source: DepositPhotos