I'm not a coffee guy. I much prefer tea. Before I moved to Japan in 2012, I thought "green tea" was just the generic tea served in Japan that happened to be green. Once I got here, I realized that there is a whole world of tea waiting to be discovered if you have the patience and palate to appreciate it. And the real gem of the Japanese tea universe is matcha, a thick, frothy drink made from powdered tea leaves that features a very strong taste.
But as much as I love tea - and even after I had tried matcha numerous times here - I was never so interested in the actual tea ceremony itself. I had heard that it was slow and rather dull, full of intricate movements beyond my appreciation and ceremony for the sake of ceremony. For whatever reason, I had the image that it was something that was very one-sided, meaning that to sit a watch a tea master perform the ceremony as a onlooker would be uninteresting and feel very distant.
How wrong I was.
In late 2016, I met a fellow foreigner named Tyas Sosen who has devoted his life to the craft of tea. He runs his own tea room called Kyugetsu, as well as manages The Tea Crane, on online tea distributor of various teas where he overseas the entire organic tea growing process from field to your teacup. Tyas invited me to attend a tea ceremony at his private tea room a few months ago, promising to change the way I think about tea. He claimed to be able to fill ninety minutes with an engaging and deeply interesting ceremony. I admit I was skeptical.
Again, I was wrong.
The experience at Kyugetsu was incredible. From even before you enter the tea room, everything is explained and demystified in a way that gives it meaning and helps you understand why each detail is an important part of the ceremony. Not once did I feel like an outsider watching someone perform for me. It was an interactive experience unlike any other. The guest themselves play an integral role in the ceremony, and you feel an active part of the whole experience. When Tyas whisks the matcha tea into a thick paste-like mixture, the buildup to that moment and your connection to it allows you to feel as though you yourself are holding the whisk and preparing the tea. It becomes remarkably personal and generates a startlingly closeness between the guest and tea masters.
There were a number of impressive elements that made up the ceremony that I was privileged to attend that day, but here are my choices for the top three key parts of the tea experience at Kyugetsu that really blew me away:
Originally from Belgium, Tyas Sosen studied Japanese culture and language in university before moving to Japan to study in the Enshu school of tea. As the only Belgian living in Japan to earn the rank of fully-qualified tea instructor, Tyas has devoted his life to spreading awareness of Japanese tea and the ceremony accompanying it. His knowledge is deep, and his passion is evident.
Working along Tyas is Stephen Soshun, a English-born tea master and professor emeritus at Kansai University in Osaka. The two work well as a team, with Tyas performing the precise movements to prepare the tea, while Stephen narrates the process and provides enlightening commentary. As strange as it might sound, Stephen's gentle British accent added a sense of both grandfatherly calm (sorry Stephen!) and dignified gravitas to the whole affair.
The obvious benefit that these hosts bring to the experience is that they both speak fluent English, meaning nothing is lost in translation. Questions are welcome, and discussion is encouraged. Both of these tea masters have a gift for opening up the world of tea with detailed explanations that is both deep and engaging. You will feel instantly drawn in by their passion and knowledge. And this is where the real magic comes in. You'll find that the bonding over tea has brought down barriers, both social and emotional, and a connection has been made. It never feels touristy like other tea houses, where you can hear the voices from the guests in the waiting room ready for the next ceremony. Your time at Kyugetsu is all about you, learning the intricacies of the ceremony, and your bonding with fellow guests and the hosts. By the end of the ceremony, you've made some wonderful new friends over a cup of tea.
The Kyugetsu tea house was magnificent, a contemporary-yet-traditional house built for a geisha in Kyoto's classic Miyagawa-cho neighborhood. Traditionally, a visit to a tea house would be prefaced by a walk through a specially designed garden. This would convey a sense of journeying from our world of stress and everyday worries into a realm of calm and refined grace, where one can focus on the ceremony at hand. To reach the Kyugetsu tea house, guests walk down the main street of Miyagawa-cho, which is still an active geisha neighborhood where these traditional entertainers live and work. Instead of walking into a peaceful garden, we are walking into the past, into an age of traditional ways of life that are fast disappearing from our modern world. Maybe you'll catch a view of a maiko (a geisha-in-training) as she darts down an alley, or overhear the distant sound of a koto harp as a geisha practices for her performance that evening.
The interior of the house impressed me before we even entered the tea room. At the top of the narrow stairs is a small foyer leading into other rooms with a very special floor. Made of polished paulownia wood, this smooth surface is designed for a singular purpose: for geisha to dance upon. This is the stage that the lady of the house would perform while her guests watched from the adjoining formal room, there very space where Tyas holds his tea ceremony. The tea room features all the traditional trappings you'd expect like tatami mats and a prominent tokonoma alcove complete with flower arrangement and Zen scroll, and features an expansive wall of windows that let in a soft light diffused through thin rice paper screens. This house is a masterwork of traditional craftsmanship that needs to be seen to be believed.
I often tell my tour guests that entering a tea house is akin to entering another world. This is exactly the feeling you get when enjoying a tea ceremony at Kyugetsu. It was remarkable how the setting was able to transport us to another frame of mind where the universe consisted of just the guests, the hosts, and the ceremony at hand.
I don't want to spoil the actual ceremony by going into too many details. It's something that might be best experiencedgoing in blind. However, I do want to highlight the tea itself. This is not the regular matcha that you can drink in tea houses and restaurants all over Japan (and nowadays, all over the world). The tea used in the Enshu school is a thick paste with a consistency almost like cookie batter. It's a bit grainy and has a harsh taste, so it provides a stark contrast to the subdued, refined ceremony leading up to it. The high caffeine level can be a shock to the stomach, so a small traditional sweet is provided with light tea before the actual ceremony to line your stomach. Still, nothing will prepare you for the feelings - both physical and emotional - that accompany your first sip of thick matcha. This is a special treat that even local Japanese rarely have a chance to savor.
If anything, the overwhelming taste of this thick tea helps you appreciate the experience on a deeper level, because you can't appreciate a sweet taste without knowing the (very) bitter. And once you can clearly separate and acknowledge the bitter and sweet in the tea ceremony, you can do so in your own life. Tea becomes a metaphor for existence that can bring clarity to things on a much broader scale than just what you find over a cup of tea. But let's save the deeper stuff for the tea room, where Tyas and Stephen can explain things to you in a way far more enlightening than I can...
It's enough to say that if you have even an inkling of interest in tea and ritual, you will be delighted with the presentation and explanations that are offered. You don't play a passive role, as the guest is just as important as the tea master in a tea ceremony. It's ok to feel a little lost and nervous as you're ask to pick up a cup a certain way or when all eyes are on you as you take your first sip of tea. Savor the moment and appreciate the uniqueness of the experience. By the end of the ceremony, when you can engage Tyas and Stephen in casual conversation and Q&A about tea and life in Japan, you'll feel like old friends. It's astounding how tea can bring strangers so close over the course of a single ninety minute ceremony.