Despite the rapid pace of our high-tech world, or perhaps because of it, the ancient Japanese tradition of tea ceremony is as popular as ever, with tea ceremony schools, demonstrations and quiet tatami-mat tea rooms thriving in cities around the world.
The Urasenke Chanoyu school of tea ceremony, founded in the 17th century in Kyoto, Japan, is one of the world's largest. Guided by the deceptively simple mission of "seeking peacefulness in a bowl of tea," its network of schools holds classes and demonstrations. In addition, other small Japanese tea rooms can be found hidden away amid the bustle of many large cities.
"If you practice tea, you become more attentive to things in general. And some people say concentrating on tea ceremony is therapeutic," said Masako Soyu Miyahara, a senior instructor at Urasenke in Manhattan, which has over 100 students.
Founded in 1964, the center is on the site of a 130-year-old carriage house. The traditional interiors of its elegant tea rooms, imported from Japan, feature a half-dozen precious woods and carefully crafted paper screens and straw tatami mats.
"Students come in from the hectic busy world, and when they leave they feel calm," Miyahara said.
The ceremony involves far more than taking a handmade bamboo whisk to a large ceramic bowl of steaming water and finely powdered green tea.
"A lot of people these days have heard of tea ceremony, and when I tell people I study it they say, 'Oh, why that's neat,'" said Gregory Kinsey, who speaks with the soft southern lilt of his native Florida.
"But when I say I've been studying it for 32 years, they kind of pause and ask why it takes so long," said the kimono-clad Kinsey, a real-estate finance professional and licensed first-degree instructor at the Urasenke school in Manhattan. (As in martial arts, tea ceremony has specifically proscribed levels of expertise.) He was taking an advanced-level private lesson on a recent Saturday with Miyahara.
"It's just that the more I learned the more interesting it became, and it slowly took over the center of my life," he said. "I'm always trying to get better."
Serious adherents must be knowledgeable about ceramics, lacquer, metal work, calligraphy, flower arranging and even cooking, as well as philosophy, etiquette, precise body movements, and the exact wording (in Japanese) of the conversation carried on during the preparation and serving of a small meal or sweet dessert, followed by a bowl of bitter green tea.
It takes at least a year or two to attain the most basic level of tea ceremony, and it can take a lifetime to master.
"According to Zen priests, every aspect of your life is Zen. Similarly, every aspect of your life is tea ceremony," said Miyahara, of Kyoto. "Tea ceremony is not a show. It is like music or dance or other arts. There is a lot of technique to be learned so that it can really flow beautifully."
Both she and Kinsey said they were first drawn to tea through their love of the Japanese sweets that traditionally accompany bowls of matcha, finely powdered green tea and hot water whisked until frothy.
But stepping off a bustling city street into the calm of a Japanese tea house, it's easy to feel the draw even before the ceremony begins.
The rustling of kimonos and gently sliding paper screens replaces the sound of honking taxis. Shoes and cell phones are left at the entrance. Tea is prepared alongside a ceramic charcoal brazier and served gracefully in handmade bowls, the best of which are so individual they are given evocative names like "perpetual celebration" or "summer festival music."
The tea ceremony, which is slow and meditative and can last from one to four hours, usually takes place on tatami mats in tea rooms featuring precious woods and paper shoji screens. A Japanese tea room traditionally has an alcove in which a scroll with poetry and some carefully arranged seasonal flowers are displayed.
Dessert is served, and then the tea, made slowly using ancient utensils over a low ceramic stove. The tea is sipped, and the last sip enjoyed with a quick, purposeful and often sonorous slurp.
The tea bowl can then be cradled in both hands to be examined and appreciated, giving way to delicate and carefully choreographed conversation.
If the guests have appreciated and enjoyed the shared moment, the gathering is deemed a success.
Although traditional-style tea rooms are difficult to find, even in Japan, they can be readily found online. Reservations for demonstrations or lessons must usually be made in advance.