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Drink in the Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony!

Date: 04.08.2019

The Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony is an annual autumnal celebration of all things tea, taking place across two days in the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum (Koganei City) and two in the Hama-rikyu Gardens (Chuo City). I attended the latter, the gardens being just a stone’s throw from the conveniently situated Shiodome Station and the perfect green getaway despite the central location.

Tea ceremony sado is one aspect of traditional Japanese culture that can still be a bit daunting for the uninitiated visitor. The Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony provides an easy entry into this expansive world, with individual ceremonies and workshops running all day across the gardens presenting ample opportunities to see what the different schools of tea ceremony have to offer. As a curious novice I headed first to the Fujimi yama area to take part in the ‘Outdoor Tea Ceremony in English’ event.

Under a cloudless sky we were introduced to the basics of an outdoor nodate style ceremony, demonstrated by our hostess and accompanied by explanations from a bilingual guide. We tucked into colorful pre-tea wagashi Japanese sweets, made from anko sweet bean paste, preparing the palette for the pleasant bitterness of the tea to follow.

The tools were painstakingly cleaned and prepared, the matcha stirred into water with a bamboo whisk and served to each guest with cheerful hospitality. Our tea this time was actually relatively mellow, the twenty-minute experience being equivalent to the longer ceremony’s first course – the full ceremony can apparently take over three hours!

One big discovery for me was that when it comes to the tea ceremony, attitude counts for a lot - each step of the process being carefully engineered to ensure a consistent level of mutual respect between the server and receiver. For example, each bowl is purposefully presented in a way that leaves the most beautiful side of the design facing the receiver for them to admire. Yet to drink from that same side would devalue its beauty and care shown by the server, hence the custom of rotating the tea bowl in your hands to face away from you before drinking and turning the front of the bowl back to face you when finished. Finally, after taking a moment to reflect and admire the bowl itself, one turns the bowl to face the server. It is these touches that give the ceremony its unique charm and, in some ways, make it symbolic of omotenashi Japanese hospitality as a whole that is so important to Japanese formal interactions.

I was also impressed by the elegant showmanship on display. The well-practiced flicks and flourishes gave an impressive weight to the proceedings, each catching the eye and drawing guests further into the spectacle. All the while the English-language guide explained about the elaborate preparations taking place and displayed the various tools used in the ceremony to the audience.    

Feeling like I had mastered the essentials I headed to a second ceremony held inside the park’s Nakajima-no-ochaya teahouse. This time I was able to experience a ceremony from a different school, which had many subtle differences of its own, including the tea being whisked gently for a subtler foam.

Though I had gone prepared for a much more formal experience, imagining guests kneeling in a prolonged seiza position with the tea served in a reverent silence, it was in fact quite the opposite. I was charmed to hear the host engaging in light-hearted banter between themselves as they prepared and served, conducting the ceremony with an easy grace that let everyone sit back and fully enjoy the experience. No wonder these events are so well attended.

It was also a treat to see playful seasonal touches including the Halloween-themed obi sash worn proudly by one friendly host.

Outside of the ceremonies themselves there is much of traditional Japan to enjoy at the park. At the shopping parade visitors can pick up an obento Japanese lunch or some award-winning Japan-made tea in raw or bag form.

There was also a special kabuki makeup experience to go alongside the long-running onsite kimono dressing service, and a great photo opportunity to be had in an Edo Era-style sedan chair.

Along with a host of other activities including flower-arranging and chopstick-making workshops, performances of a variety of traditional instruments and arts, and of course the chance to explore the park itself, it is easy to imagine spending the whole day there with the whole family!

So, don’t let the mysteries of the tea ceremony intimidate you! The Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony offers a valuable opportunity to get initiated in English, providing an authentic experience that is also inviting to newcomers. I certainly enjoyed my time there and am keen to check out the alternative venue once the event next comes around. 

Find out more about the event at: http://tokyo-grand-tea-ceremony.jp/en/

Fees:
Entry to the Hama-rikyu Gardens - 300 yen
Outdoor Tea Ceremony in English - 300 yen (with tea and sweets)
Indoor Tea Ceremony - 700 yen (with tea and sweets, advance reservation is required) etc.

This article was written by Robert Day.

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