Traveling in Japan through the lense of tea is deeply rewarding, like a delicious bowl of matcha prepared by a gracious host. But this is not just any tea. They say “the taste of tea and zen – are one.” Drinking matcha (frothy, whisked green tea), tea ceremony and practicing Zen are inseparable philosophical and spiritual experiences. You can say the culture of tea and Japanese culture are also inseparable.
Practicing tea is called Chado (pronounced Sa-doh) – which means “the way of tea” and was developed by zen masters through the experience of Chanoyu (tea ceremony) which you practice as a host and as a guest.
Tea ceremony involves many forms of Japanese culture and brings them together in one seamless experience. You can appreciate flower presentation, poetry, calligraphy, various types of pottery, enjoying tea of course, but most of all – a very intimate and moving interaction with your fellow man. At its heart – the practice of tea creates a kind, generous, gentle, loving heart. Soshitsu Sen XV, the head of the Urasenke Foundation (one of the 3 major schools of tea and a descendent of Sen-no Rikyu – zen master who formalized the practice of tea ceremony,) believes that practicing tea is a means to create world peace. Ambitious idea! Let’s give it a try.
Chado is a practice of living in commune with nature, the seasons and the passing of time. Each ceremony reflects what is currently happening in nature at that very moment. A choice of a flower in bloom, a poem about the autumn leaves, a bowl that’s made to keep you warm in winter – is all considered by the host. It is also a way of meditation, mindfulness and presence. It teaches 4 basic principles: Wa – harmony, Kei – respect, Sei – purity, Jaku – tranquility. It is said that when you practice harmony, respect and purity, you will then experience tranquility. In this world of chaos, destruction and the loss of the value of life and disrespect of nature – I can’t think of a more important lesson to learn and practice. Chado in essence teaches us to honor and respect other people and the earth.
The practice of Chanoyu – tea ceremony – is to come together with others in “Ichi-go, Ichi-e” which means “one time, one meeting.” One chance, one opportunity. This moment in time, the people present, the objects arranged the way they are – will never happen again. It teaches us that every moment is precious, everyone is precious, every cup of tea should be savored just like every moment of our lives.
I could go on and on about the philosophy of tea, but I suggest that everyone experience it. Don’t be intimidated. The people who practice tea want to share it with others. The only way to really understand is to do it and be open to learning even if you don’t know Japanese language. As Master Sen no Rikyu says – “throw away your embarrassment.” Most likely you will make mistakes, but luckily there is always a master temae (tea host) around to help. So find yourself a tea room, a sincere host, and go with an open heart and mind. As the old zen masters said as an answer to any of life’s big questions – just “drink tea!” – and maybe the answer will arise once you let it go and relax.
Here are some highlights of our tea pilgrimage in Japan, some of which are important monuments to tea and some just a nice place to have a bowl of matcha.
As a note in the US, you can experience a tea ceremony at the SF Zen Center tea house once a month at Green Gulch farm via an online reservation: http://www.sfzc.org. Check your local zen centers too. You can study and practice tea ceremony with the Urasenke Foundation. There are many local chapters all around the world with classes in English. http://www.urasenke.or.jp/texte/
Kyoto: where the tea ceremony was born. You can track down the trail of tea master Sen no Rikyu.
Urasenke Chado Research center gallery & library – one of the 3 major schools of tea and probably the most popular due to international efforts by the leaders of the organization. You can drop in to check out their latest exhibit, peruse their library on the second floor and stock up on hard-to-find bibles on tea ceremony procedure and etiquette. Entry to the gallery comes with a bowl of matcha and tea sweet, but without the ceremony. http://www.urasenke.or.jp/texte/organ/konnichian/gallery/
A few blocks behind the gallery is the Urasenke Konnichian that houses the famous tea house built by Sen no Rikyu, but it is closed off to visitors unfortunately. However you can get a tiny peek at the walkway leading to the tea house from the street. http://www.urasenke.or.jp/texte/tearooms/index_tea.html
Daitokuji temple: this temple complex consists of various sub temples and opens a few of its temples every year, so if there is one you are hoping to see, you may want to check if it is open. This is the temple where Sen no Rikyu studied and practiced zen and has quite a history involving Rikyu. We were able to visit Obai-in which had tea houses inspired by Rikyu and a garden that he designed. As well as the San mon gate which was renovated by Rikyu. It is said that he was persuaded to place a statue of himself here and was after commanded to commit seppuku for the act by Hideyoshi. Jukoin-in temple is where he is buried, but it was closed. We were able to visit Ryojen-in with its beautiful dry zen rock gardens. http://zen.rinnou.net/head_temples/07daitoku.html
Kennin-ji temple: is the oldest zen temple in Kyoto. Yousai, the founder is credited with bringing tea from China and making tea fashionable in Japan. The beautiful tea house and tea garden were built to specs designed by Rikyu. You can have matcha and a tea sweet in the tea garden. Master Dogen Zenji of the Soto zen sect also trained at this temple. Beautiful architecture, art and gardens. http://www.kenninji.jp/english/index.html
Kodaiji temple: beautiful gardens, unusual tea houses built by Sen no Rikyu on top of the hill with a lovely view of the city. You can drink a bowl of matcha in the garden. http://www.kodaiji.com/e_index.html
Joukeian tea ceremony – there are various places that offer a tea ceremony experience, but most seem very watered down for tourists. If you would like an authentic tea ceremony, Soukou Matsumoto opens her lovely tea room and garden to guests and will create a very heartfelt and intimate tea ceremony for you. She was taught by her mother and other tea masters for over 30 years. She sincerely enjoys sharing and teaching the art of tea to foreigners, speaks English if needed and offers various types of ceremony from a basic to an advanced ceremony with food courses too. http://joukeian.gotohp.jp/english/index.html
Marukyu-Koyamaen – Nishinotoin tea shop and tea house Motoan. Marukyu-Koyamaen matcha is the only matcha we drink. It’s super high quality and all three schools of tea use it. That should tell you something! They have a tea cafe, shop and gallery in the Kyoto JR station, but this little hidden tea house in the middle of the city is a gem. Worth the wait to drink tea in their tiny, tiny tea room with a square window overlooking a garden. This is also the only place I’ve ever seen that serves matcha koicha (thick green tea usually served at special tea ceremonies where one bowl is shared by 3-5 people.) only for serious matcha-drinkers, not for the faint of heart. Marukyu-Koyamaen also has a tea factory outside of Uji that offers free tours, they need 4 days notice and reservation. http://www.marukyu-koyamaen.co.jp/english/nishinotoin/index.html
Kyoto Chaka Dougukan – the biggest tea ceremony supply store I’ve ever seen. It was almost overwhelming as most of what they sell is hard to find. http://www.kyoto-zuiun.com/english_map.html
Fukujuen tea shop – 5 floors of tea splendor. You can make a reservation for tea ceremony and other workshops here, also check out their center in Uji. http://fukujuen.com
Ippodo tea shop – cafe, tea shop and tea tastings. http://www.ippodo-tea.co.jp/en/shop/kyoto.html
Ruban cafe – very under the radar, she just opened her cafe the week we stumbled in. Gorgeous 100 year old building with tea room and interior gardens. Matcha and tea sweets, she also offers coffee and other treats. https://www.facebook.com/ruban2015/info?tab=page_info
Glass tea house art installation at Shogunzuka. This exhibit is only on for a period of time by artist Yoshioka Tokujin.
Uji: beautiful town where green tea leaves are grown and processed. This town also makes matcha soba noodles and various matca-flavored sweets. Pretty much matcha-everything!
Fukujuen – their shop also has a workshop where you can try grinding your own tea leaves into matcha powder, then making your own bowl of tea. Incredible! http://www.ujikoubou.com/index.cgi
Gyokusen-en, Nishida Family Garden – this is a small but historic garden, across the avenue from Kenrokuen garden. You can see the garden for a small fee, but the tea ceremony experience in their historic garden tea house (Saisetsu-tei) has been the highlight of our trip. The furo (tea kettle) in the tea room is considered a national treasure! But most important was our gracious temae host who patiently shared her knowledge of tea, the history of the tea house and its many treasures. In order to experience a tea ceremony you must call to make a reservation far in advance to schedule. There are many preparations they go through in order to perform it for you but we highly recommend. http://www.geocities.jp/gyokusen_en/top-e.html
Nomura Samurai House – now you too can tell someone you drank tea in a Samurai’s private tea room! Amazing! The Nomura family house is a beautiful home, garden and the tea room is also quite lovely. No ceremony, but tea and matcha sweet overlooking the garden. http://www.nomurake.com
Kenrokuen Garden – there are multiple tea houses in this magical garden. This garden is also one of the most famous sites in Kanazawa, spend some time lingering and then linger some more in one of the many historic tea rooms. Some overlook the small ponds throughout. We were lucky enough to experience a Grand, formal tea ceremony complete with priceless tea ware in use at the Shigure-tei tea house. http://www.pref.ishikawa.jp/siro-niwa/kenrokuen/e/index.html
Ohi pottery gallery – high end, gorgeous tea ware. Take a self guided tour of their beautiful gallery of family treasures. We were luck enough to meet Mr. Ohi Toshio who shared information about the artifacts from his family history with us as well as a preview of his recent art installation of clay painting. http://www.ohimuseum.com
Rikugien Garden – 6 poems garden. Celebrate Waku poetry, see historical tea houses and enjoy a bowl of matcha and a tea sweet (without the ceremony) overlooking a beautiful garden. http://www.kensetsu.metro.tokyo.jp/kouen/kouenannai/park/english/rikugien.pdf
Koso-an Tea House – on the outskirts of central Tokyo, but worth the trip to relax in a beautiful tea house overlooking a lovely garden. Bowl of matcha and a tea sweet, no ceremony. http://kosoan.co.jp
A lovely, little, historic garden in the middle of a business district near Hakata station, Rakusui-en garden is an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the city. Stop in for a cup of matcha and a tea sweet with a view of the garden from their large, but beautiful tea room. We met a wonderful tea teacher who showed us some of the interior tea rooms as well. Lucky and educational encounter. You always meet the most wonderful people in the tea room.
Karatsu – about an hour or so outside Fukuoka. Beautiful Oceanside scenery. If you are into tea pottery, you must visit the town of Karatsu for the day, bring a lot of money with you and maybe an empty suitcase. Get off at Karatsu station and the tourist office can give you a map with local kilns and pottery shops to visit. Don’t expect cheap prices, they know how wonderful their pottery is and you will too. It can’t be denied. Some of the most beautiful wabi sabi pottery we’ve seen so far. We were lucky enough to also get a peek at some of the climbing kilns. Wonderful pottery.
Tatsuta Nature Park is a nice stop to see Hosokawa Tadatoshi’s villa which is now a lovely park. He was a student of master Sen no Rikyu and had built some lovely tea houses and gardens which have been lovingly kept in tact.
Suizenji garden: Kumamoto’s most famous garden and a lovely tea house for a bowl of matcha overlooking the pond. Taste their wonderful wagashi, a local delicacy.