BY EMMA RUBIN '20
“We leave all worldly concerns behind when we enter the tea room,” Miko Brais told the guests of The Way of the Tea, a traditional Japanese tea ceremony held Friday, Oct. 21 in the Wa-Shin-An building of Eliot House.
Wa-Shin-An, which literally translates to “peace-mind-house” but idiomatically means “dwelling of the peaceful mind,” was constructed in 1984 and has since played host to numerous Japanese cultural events. The space is centered around a zen garden which can be seen from the tea room.
“The Way of the Tea” was open to students and their families. In the Wa-Shin-An building, straw mats, known as tatami, line the floor. The number of mats is used to measure the room, Brais explained. This tea room measured eight tatami mats ,whereas a traditional space in a Japanese home would average at about four and a half. Brais also pointed out a hanging scroll which documented “The four principles we follow while practicing tea.” These include wa (harmony), kei (respect), sei (purity) and jaku (tranquility). Underneath the scroll were some flowers picked from Miho Machida, the tea master’s garden.
During the ceremony, Brais explained that according to the customs of the ceremony, the first two guests would be served before the others. Because of this, the first two guests would typically be highly respected and revered. As was customary, Machida brought out a plate of cookies for the first guests from Kyoto, Japan, which combined sweet and salty flavors with sugar and miso paste, among other ingredients.
According to Brais, in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, sweets are always served first. Usually, a light meal would also be served after the sweets, but due to the shorter length of this tea ceremony, only the cookies and tea were served. While offering the cookies, Machida and the guests bowed to each other, following custom. Before serving the tea, Machida folded a red cloth, following a specific pattern that has been practiced for more than 500 years. From there, she lifted the lid off the kettle and an elongated bamboo scoop allowed her to dig up some of the matcha tea from its container and place it in a bowl. Traditionally, each tea scoop has a poetic name; this particular scoop’s name translated to “it’s a good day.” A ladle of warm water soon accompanied the ground up tea, and Machida mixed the tea and water using a bamboo whisk.
She then presented the warm bowl of tea to the first guest, rotating the bowl so as to show the more beautiful side to the visitor. The guests then ate their cookies and drank their tea. Matcha is a fermented green tea that retains its bright color when served. In this ceremony, the tea was served at a thick “split pea soup consistency,” Brais said.
In Japan, tea ceremonies are often reserved for the upper class because of the elaborate planning and the amount of space needed. Many Japanese people have never attended a tea ceremony themselves, and it is not very common to have a private tea house. Hosts can take months to plan such an event and it is considered a great honor to be invited to one.
The tea ceremony was completed with a bow from the tea master, then reciprocated by the participants. Although the ceremony was very much abridged from a traditional practice, it still offered an accurate glimpse into “The Way of the Tea.” Qinghong Wang ’19 and Yuxin Wu ’19 both attended the ceremony, and neither had been part of a Japanese Tea Ceremony before. Both thought it was great and very interesting. Wu said, “We love Japanese food.” Wang added, “We have matcha all the time, if there’s a matcha flavor we would definitely go for that.” In addition to generally enjoying the tea and the experience, Wang said, “It’s great to introduce another kind of culture to people here.”