It’s only when you try the Japanese tea ceremony for yourself that you realise how complex and sophisticated it is…
Most people know something about how important traditional arts still are in Japanese culture, but it’s only when you try one – calligraphy, origami, flower arranging, dance or, in my case, the tea ceremony – for yourself that you realise how complex and sophisticated they are. One of the most authentic ways to do that is in the home of an expert, which is how I found myself heading with my guide and interpreter, Taeko Seki from the Women’s Association Kyoto (WAK), to the house of tea master Mrs Higashi.
Learning the precise steps of the ceremony was fascinating – though it takes years to do it properly – and I gained a lot from Taeko’s insights. She told me she’d become interested in tea culture as a way of connecting to Japan’s history: a tea ceremony is all about rituals, manners and performance and used to be a social leveller. You had to crawl through the small door in a teahouse, so everyone entered on the same level. Samurai were forced to leave their swords outside because the door was too small to fit them in.
At the end of the tea ceremony we moved back through to Mrs Higashi’s living room where she showed off her tea bowls, tea pots and incense holders. She chooses different ones for the different occasions – each one in her collection was themed around a different month.