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autumn tea ceremony

Today I joined fellow members of the Chado Urasenke Tankokai Washington, DC Association in holding an autumn tea ceremony event (chakai) at a private home in Washington, DC. We had three seatings throughout the day, with around eight guests at each seating.

We typically hold two such events each year, one in the spring and one in the fall. Guests include other Association members and acquaintances, which encompasses a wide circle of people from personal friends to our tea ceremony instructor to the occasional dignitary.

KatieHere are my pictures, many of them behind the scenes, and none of them taken during the tea ceremony itself inside the tea room. I did get to act as a guest during the first seating, but for the most part I helped out in the preparation area and in the foyer, where I directed guests to the waiting area. I can't yet put on a kimono by myself, so I had major help with that beforehand, to the extent that I'm probably a net drain on our volunteer resources. But I try to be appreciative, make myself useful, and soak up logistical wisdom so that I'll be able to help carry on the tradition.

I don't remember whether I've recounted how a chakai goes, but anyway, I'll try to give you an idea what it's like. As a guest, you arrive and sit for a short time with the other guests in a waiting area, where you're served some small non-tea beverage. This time it was a hot kelp infusion; other times it might be apple cider or a cherry blossom petal infusion. You'd then be collectively ushered into the tea room, taking off your shoes just outside of it. (Hopefully you're wearing either tabi or thick white socks, too, for walking on the tea room's tatami floor. Speaking of attire, if you don't happened to have a kimono, you'll be wearing informal but "nice" Western clothing—dress trousers or below-the-knee skirt topped with a dress shirt or blouse and maybe a blazer.) In the tea room you'll be invited to have a look at the alcove containing a calligraphed wall scroll and a seasonal flower arrangement. Once you and the other guests are seated, the host and assistant will greet everyone before bringing in a tray of sweets to be passed around among the guests. Unless you're bid otherwise, you take one sweet and eat it on a small, folded piece of thick white paper that's provided to you. Sometimes treats are served on individual plates instead of together on a tray. If you have any doubt about whether to eat the sweet right away, it's fine to wait: the host or assistant will certainly invite you to do so at the right time. If you have any food allergies, your host will appreciate knowing about that as soon as you accept the invitation to the event; among the more common allergens, chestnuts and sesame seeds come to mind as potential ingredients in traditional Japanese sweets.

Unless you have leg or foot problems, you'll be expected to at least try sitting seiza. You won't be expected to be able to endure it very long, and indeed, you should relax into a more comfortable position when you start to experience pain or numbness. If you're wearing trousers, you can sit cross-legged; regardless, you can try a dignified slouch with your legs to one side or the other.

When you're served your bowl of tea, it's nice to briefly express your appreciation to the host, but if she's already engaged in conversation with another guest, I'd avoid interrupting and just go ahead. Full guest etiquette includes some sentiments expressed to the guest who drank before you (along the lines of "I'm pleased to join you") and the guest who will drink immediately after you (along the lines of "Please excuse me for going before you"), but those lines sound a little awkward in English, and you would not be expected to know that kind of etiquette unless you're studying tea ceremony. Ideally you'll rotate the bowl 180 degrees before you drink so that you're drinking from the "back" of the bowl rather than the "front", and rotate it back when you're finished drinking. The assistant will remove the bowl when you're done. Feel free to ask the host or assistant questions about the tea, sweets, utensils, wall scroll, or flowers. Once all the guests have drunk, the host will finish the tea ceremony, leave, and re-enter one last time with some parting words. And that's it.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 5th, 2007 06:02 am (UTC)
Sounds like things went pretty well... Looks like you even got help with the kimono.
Nov. 5th, 2007 06:14 pm (UTC)
very nifty! thanks for sharing the little details of process and etiquette - it's a fascinating glimpse into another culture...
Nov. 22nd, 2007 10:40 pm (UTC)
hi katie!

Thank you for your interesting and detailed story, I hope you can explain more about your knowledge about Japanese culture. I found your site last week while I was looking for information about Konbucha tea. Since I bought that spontaneously in a asian supermarket here in Vienna and was curious what it exactly was.

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )