Thursday 27 December 2012

Japanese Tea Ceremony at Hotel Okura Sapporo

With a free morning in Sapporo, we asked our tour organizer Y if it was possible for us to experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony during this period. It was a terribly last minute request, but because the FMJ staff are like Christmas Elves and can magically get things done, a few calls were made and a slot was found for us at Hotel Okura's Tea Ceremony room. Another girl on the tour group was interested and joined us, while Y followed along to act as our interpreter. 

The nigiri-guchi (crawling in door) for more formal events
The way of tea involves both the choreographed ritual of preparing the tea, as well as a whole array of aesthetic concerns from the layout of the room to what we might wrongly regard as minutiae like the scent of incense that is burned. All these parts are important aspects of a process where every gesture and movement is laden with meaning. 
Winter falls within the season of the sunken hearth
Take for instance the decoration - one bushel on a shelf and one flower in a vase in front of a simple piece of calligraphy doesn't seem like much, but the flower in the vase is a white camellia, a flower often used to represent the winter season. Even the almost illegible calligraphy has a place in the tea room, where the imperfection of the ink seeping deep into the paper means the work was executed by a master calligrapher. Everything is understated according to the principles of 'sabi' and 'wabi' that emphasize beauty in simplicity and naturalism, and spiritual awakening in emptiness, so at the same time nothing lacks meaning. 

Winter Decorations
The sweets served likewise have their own purpose. The wagashi (bean paste wrapped in a skin of rice flour, painted and decorated according to the season) was in the shape of a brilliantly red camellia, another winter flower and matching with the white camellia stalk in the vase. The bean paste was heavy but only slightly sweet, and the rice cake later was soft. This was eaten before the making of the tea. 

The other confections we received were to directly balance out the taste of the tea. The green rice sugar candy was to be eaten before we drank the tea, while the senbe (rice cracker) was to be saved for after. 

We introduced ourselves to our Tea Master Soshu Oya, a wonderfully kind and patient lady who has inducted hundreds of foreign tourists into the art of the way of tea. She began learning her craft as a young girl under her mother, who was also a Tea Master, and has been performing the ceremony for decades. After teaching us the proper way to bow in greeting, she set about making the tea. 

Tea Master Soshu Oya

It being a fairly informal tea ceremony experience, after we witnessed the first cup of tea being made in absolute silence, she encouraged us to talk, and ask her questions as we savoured our tea. That's how we found out about things like how the best tea in Japan is from Uji near Nara, and that for very important tea ceremonies, well water is drawn at 4 am, the beginning of a new day. 

She also involved us in the preparation of the tea, with the girl who joined us and I both trying our hand at performing a ceremony and serving each other. The ratio we used was one and a half scoops of powder to a ladle of water, for a comfortable, light tea. We were served with gyokuro matcha, where the leaves are shaded from direct sunlight for three weeks before the spring harvest, to enhance the aroma of the tea. The tea is believed to be full of vitamins. 

The correct actions for the scooping out of the matcha powder and the ladling of the water from the pot over a charcoal burner were imparted, before we got to the mixing of the powder and water. For me, this mostly consisted of Master Soshu telling me encouragingly "Whisk! Whisk! More wrist action, and faster!", until she was finally satisfied with the level and quality of the froth I'd generated. (I'm fairly sure my arm would have dropped off if she'd made me whisk any longer.) Then, we each found the most beautiful part of the bowl, to present to the drinker. 

Kuniyaki - Pottery in the style of the Pre-Edo Kuni state

As a gesture of respect to the host, the bowl is raised after a small bow is performed, and after appropriate admiration for the most beautiful aspect of the bowl as it has been chosen and presented, the bowl much be rotated 90° clockwise before drinking. It is considered rude to drink directly from the side you are presented with, as that is the side you return the bowl to the Tea Master at the end. 

The front of D's bowl - a Dragon

There was much to admire about each of the cups we were given. D's cup had a fierce dragon, as well as flowers reflecting the season. 

M's cup had cranes soaring over mountains on the inner rim of the bowl, and pine trees by crashing waves on the outside. 

My lovely purple bowl was what is called a 'six hyotan (gourd)' bowl, which symbolises a wish for good health and happiness throughout the coming year. 

Given the thickness of 'light' or 'weak' tea compared to everything we've ever tried before, we were very nearly overwhelmed by the cup of koicha (Thick tea) that Master Soshu prepared for us to taste. In a koicha ceremony, an entirely different matcha is used, and the ratio is three scoops of powder and a ladle of water per drinker involved, so a meal is needed before the ceremony to stomach the tea. In this ceremony, everyone shares from the same bowl. The true skill of a master is shown the thicker the tea gets, as the thick tea is not whisked but folded, and the end result cannot taste powdery, or like a paste. 

Karatsu Pottery, one of the top styles used in tea ceremonies

The tea given to us tasted heavy and intense, but was very smooth and liquid with no tell-tale crumble of powder on the tongue. 

Before we put on our coats and shoes and left for lunch, we took the time to admire the small garden outside the tea room, as well as the walkway with the stone basin at the end for ritual purification before very important ceremonies. 

Our Tea Master took a whole bunch of photos with us, got us to sign her guestbook and gave us the address of the blog saying that she'd definitely write about it, but I've lost the slip of paper she scribbled on. I've tried scouring the far reaches of the internet, but since your tea name is different from your real name (!!) I can't seem to find anything. 

She walked us out to the lift lobby, where this origami piece was on display in a glass case. It was a morning filled with beauty. 

5th Floor Hotel Okura, 9-1 Nishi 5 Chome Minami 1-Jo Chuo Ku Sapporo 060-0061 Japan

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