This spring, between 2 tea events at the Tea Institute at Penn State, we had the pleasure to be invited for a bowl of Japanese tea, twice! The first time, Mary H., a senior tea student at Philadelphia's Urasenke school, performed a formal tea ceremony on the Institute's tatami mats.
The folding of the red cloth (fukusa) was done with grace and precision. Just that was quite a show and made me think of all the practice Mary must have had repeating all these steps so well. At first sight, it may seem that the Urasenke school is over doing it with this cloth: What connection is there between this complex, traditional folding and the quality of the tea? I see several important connections: first, it teaches you an attention to details, to being graceful and the importance of clean ustensils. The second point is that this folding ceremony before the tea ceremony helps to calm down and focus your mind, so that you are getting ready to perform and enjoy your tea. All these strict rules in the Japanese ceremony help and guide the tea student to pay more attention to his/her tea brewing.
This tea was done in a very traditional, ceremonial way. The only way this experience could have been more authentic is if Mary (and us) had worn a kimono!
A couple of days later, Mr. Koike prepared a bowl of matcha for all the participants at this event. This 76 years young Japanese tea enthusiast is a big supporter of the Tea Institute. He feels it's important to learn and preserve the culture and traditions of Japanese tea. But he feels this knowledge isn't something that should make you feel constrained, uneasy. On the contrary, the main purpose of tea is to enjoy life and friendship. Tea should be part of this life, not something that feels separate and full of dust.
An Omotesenke school practitioner, Mr. Koike (like Mary) brought us Japanese sweets to pair with the matcha. But he didn't want to move to the tatami. It was more convenient to use this table and the Cha Xi set up by Teaparker. Mr. Koike simply whisked one bowl after another and, very quickly, we all could enjoy a bowl of matcha.
The essentials were preserved: water had reached a boil in the tetsubin, the tea quality was high, the bowls were clean and suitable for tea and Mr. Koike performed with the assurance of years of experience.
This Omotesenke style matcha looks and tastes very different from the Urasenke matcha. We can see that Omotesenke doesn't produce much foam, but still manages to well mix the green tea powder with the hot water. Mr. Koike's tea had its intented character. He made the complex seem simple, almost casual. This kind of improvisation could only succeed because he is a master of the formal technique.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to have tea with another longtime Japanese tea master, my friend Kim. I took him to the hills of Tucheng to taste some of my spring Oolongs. But before that, I surprised him with my Sung dynasty tea equipment.
Kim is a teacher in Germany for the Uedo Sôko tradition. This school was founded by a samurai who had learned from Sen no Rikyû.
For Kim, this way of preparing matcha is 'free style'. And outdoors ceremonies are the hardest to perform, because the environment is so distracting and uncontrollable. Nevertheless, like with Mr. Koike and Mary, I was impressed by his ability to seamlessly calm down and focus on the tea preparation.
His tea was much stronger and thicker. It should be drunk in three and a half swallows. (The last half one is for the foam). It was exactly the boost of energy I needed!
We placed bamboo chasen in my zhuni teapot so that it would be blown away by the wind! And Kim folded a white tissue paper to serve as his fukusa to clean the bowl and hold the lid of the tetsubin.
The foam appears rich and this tradition intends to have a little foam elevation in the middle of the bowl. This is also the case for Sung dynasty tea. The straight whisking technique is also close to what I have learned. But this tradition uses less water, which makes for a more concentrated bowl. It's the 'green tea espresso' for strong men (and ancient samurai)!
Japanese matcha tea schools have the longest and strictest traditions. But we can see that their most experienced practitioners are able to go beyond and don't feel limited in what they can do. On the contrary, a good understanding of what's important in the technique helps them to adapt to various situations. It also gives them the means to be more creative with their Cha Xi arrangement.
To make tea part of your life and enjoy it fully, you first have to
learn to master its traditions, and then practice it with your own, creative, free
I live in Taiwan since 1996 and have been studying tea with Teaparker. He's a worldwide tea expert and author of over 30 tea books. The study of tea isn't just theoretical, but it's also rooted in daily practice. It's a path of continuous improvement. As my brewing technique improves I get access to better teas and better accessories. These things go hand in hand. My blog documents my learning since 2004. And I have set up an online tea boutique with my selection of top quality teas, accessories and tea culture.