It had been quite a day already. Delicious sushi breakfast, a visit to Sengakuji Temple – the resting place of the famous Forty-Seven Ronin – and to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. We’d checked into our hostel and wandered Inokashira Park. We were jetlagged and tired, dizzied by Tokyo’s blinding light and speed, but we couldn’t stop quite yet. We rushed off to Roppongi to wind down with a Japanese tea ceremony.
I was fortunate enough to study tea ceremony for about a year in Tokyo, and during that time it grew to be one of my favorite parts of traditional Japanese culture. Tea ceremony celebrates quiet and simplicity, encouraging a mindfulness that we don’t get to experience often in our hectic lives. Every tool is an art piece, and the ceremony itself a cross between moving meditation and performance art, each motion carefully honed over nine centuries. There’s also something to eat and drink at the end; what’s not to love?
Unfortunately, tea ceremony can be quite intimidating. The rules are Byzantine, the traditional kneeling position is painful, and the language so formal that even native Japanese speakers have a tough time with it. Add to all this that the minimum length for a traditional ceremony is two hours, and most people – Japanese included – find they’d rather watch from afar than get involved.
But I was determined that my fellow travelers should experience tea ceremony for themselves. The ideas espoused by tea ceremony are at the very heart of Japanese culture; I would be remiss if I didn’t at least try to find a way for them to participate. And so, after much searching, I found the perfect opportunity at Hotel Okura.
Unfortunately, we were late. Besides being slow getting into Roppongi Itchome Station, we kept getting turned around in the maze of back roads that spider web through Tokyo. Even when we found the hotel, we were dismayed to learn that we had come in the wrong entrance and still had farther to walk! Seeing our frustration, the concierge personally guided us to the seventh-floor tea room where our hosts were waiting.
Our hosts were two older Japanese women, immaculately dressed in fine silk kimono: Mrs. Sato, our server, and the slightly younger Mrs. Watanabe, who would be helping behind the scenes. Sato did most of the talking, using lightly accented by quite proficient English. They were very understanding and polite about our late arrival (nearly 15 minutes!) and our frazzled appearance. Sato directed us to enter the tea room, take off our shoes, and relax while she and Watanabe finished their preparations.
A quick tangent to address this apparent inconsistency: if we’re 15 minutes late, shouldn’t preparations already be finished? Indeed they were: Sato and Watanabe’s. But having a clear, relaxed mind is vitally important for a tea ceremony guest. If you enter the ceremony rushed and stressed, you’ll go through it as rushed and stressed as you came in, missing the beauty of the artistry and the opportunity to be mindful. Instead, the opening minutes of a tea ceremony are designed to transition the participant from the hectic world outside the tea garden to the tranquility within. Sato and Watanabe politely claimed these moments for themselves to keep us from feeling as though we’d put them out (even though we most certainly had), but in reality we were the ones who needed to finish preparations – by relaxing and taking a moment to breathe – before entering the tea room.
We shuffled into the indoor “tea garden” and took seats on a bench under a false straw eave. To our right was a floor-to-ceiling picture window looking out on an outdoor garden. Being on the seventh floor, there were no cars or pedestrians in our view – only a lovely rock and moss garden, sculpted pines rising from the earth here and there. In the distance, skyscrapers faded into the clouds. A fountain bubbled in the center of the room, helping to further quiet our nerves. After about two minutes, Sato returned. She led us to the fountain and taught us the proper way to purify ourselves before the ceremony. Then, everyone purified, she led us through paper screen doors into the tea room.
We took our seats on the benches provided – no painful kneeling required! – and Sato sat behind the tea bureau at the far end of the room. She asked us to introduce ourselves and made pleasant conversation. She taught us about the different parts of the tea room and helped ease us further into relaxation.
As the conversation reached a lull, Watanabe appeared from behind the screen and brought in a tea bowl. Sato explained that our ceremony would last about an hour and, in order to achieve the shorter running time, Watanabe would be preparing tea in the back while Sato also made tea in the front. This would allow them to make all the tea necessary in half the time it would normally take while still allowing us to watch the ceremony performed twice. She assured us that Watanabe was classically trained and would use traditional methods so no one would drink improperly made tea. With that, she began.
Watching a tea ceremony is a transfixing experience. It’s almost like theater – you can feel a hush settle over the room as the ancient, practiced actions of the host flow smoothly into one another, a ballet performed by one.
Within minutes, the first steaming bowl of matcha tea was finished. Sato stood and carried it to Shannon. She coached him through the correct actions. He bowed to Sato, and then to us. He apologized for beginning before us. Then he turned the bowl and lifted it to his lips. As he lowered it, he seemed surprised. Sato broke Japanese etiquette to perform a bit of Western etiquette. “How do you like it?”
“It’s good!” Shannon said. “I thought it would be more bitter.”
Sato smiled and encouraged him to drink the rest. Just as he finished, Watanabe appeared to give Jeremy his bowl. Sato walked him through the motions as she had for Shannon. When he was done, she began making my bowl of tea.
As she handed the warm tea bowl to me, I was perhaps too excited. This bowl would be my first taste of proper matcha green tea in a decade. Although matcha is becoming a popular flavoring for things like ice cream and drinks, the subtle flavor of the tea is always buried under a heap of sugar. I prefer matcha alone, steaming hot in a bowl, but it’s almost impossible to find in the States this way.
I raised the bowl to my lips, breathing the aroma. I took as sip. The tea tasted bright and green, with just a hint of sweetness. There was no bitterness, but the flavor was strong the way that dark chocolate or red wine are strong. Perfect.
I tried to savor it, but a perfect bowl of tea is fleeting; it must be drunk before the subtle magic between the tea and the water and the froth are broken. I drank every drop I could, resisting the urge to slurp out the foam. Just as I finished, Watanabe padded in and offered Jason his bowl of tea.
After everyone had their tea, Watanabe appeared with a tray of sweets: little rice cakes filled with sweet bean paste. Not everyone liked these as well as the tea – traditional Japanese desserts use very little sugar compared with American desserts – but I thought they were delicious. Each was presented on a small paper napkin with a bamboo “fork” to cut and eat the confection with.
All the tea drank, all the sweets eaten, Sato showed us into a more traditional tea room hidden behind a screen. She encouraged us to step up and try kneeling on the tatami mats. She was surprised by how well the boys managed, and I was disappointed to find that I could no longer kneel for more than a few minutes at a time without my legs falling asleep. After a few more minutes of chatting, Sato guided us to the door, waited for us to get our shoes on, and showed us to the elevator. As the doors closed, Sato and Watanabe waved their goodbyes. We stepped into the cool evening air, relaxed and rejuvenated.
Address: 2-10-4 Toranomon, Minato-ku, Tokyo 105-0001
Directions: As I mentioned, Hotel Okura is a little difficult to find. Although it’s walking distance from four train stops, there’s no direct route. Your best bet is to come into Roppongi Itchome Station (Nanboku line) and follow the signs pointing you to the Izumi Garden. Take every possible escalator and set of stairs up until you arrive at a scenic pedestrian pathway heading east away from the station with traffic running below the pathway. After a few minutes, you will arrive at a crosswalk. Do not cross the street; instead, turn left. Within about 100 feet you should pass the Swedish Embassy on your right. Within another 600 feet or so you’ll pass Hotel Okura South Wing on your right. Keep walking forward. At the intersection past Hotel Okura South Wing, you’ll see a large sign advertising the Okura Museum of Art. Your GPS – if you have one – will likely suggest you turn right at this point. Ignore it; this will bring you to the wrong entrance. Do cross the street, but continue north until you see the Hotel Okura Main Entrance on your right. Enter and check-in with the front desk. They will take you to the seventh floor where the tea ceremony is held.
Note: the Hotel Okura Main Building will undergo renovations starting August 2015. During renovations, the tea ceremony may be relocated to the South Wing of the hotel. Please confirm the specific location when you make your reservation.
Cost is 1500 yen (~$15 USD) per person. Fill out the request form and select your date and time preferences.
- Don’t be late! (Do as I say, not as I do.) You may be turned away if you’re late. The hosts serve several groups throughout the day and will have to cancel your reservation if your tardiness will prevent them from serving the group after you. We were luckily the last group of the day, but it was still quite embarrassing to keep the poor hosts waiting. So…
- Arrive at the station early! Although it only takes about 15 minutes to walk from Roppongi Itchome Station to Hotel Okura, it’s very easy to get turned around. Give yourself at least 25 minutes to arrive at the hotel. And…
- Arrive at the hotel early! Although this isn’t strictly necessary, arriving about 5 minutes early will let you begin the process of unwinding before your tea ceremony is served and help get you into the right mindset.
- Know that this isn’t your grandma’s tea. Matcha is quite different from tea as we know it in the States. Rather than steeping tea leaves in water, matcha is made by whisking ground tea leaves into the water. This gives the tea as very strong flavor, bold color, and thick consistency. Be prepared for something totally different from what you’re used to.
- Wear comfortable shoes that are easy to slip out of. This is a good rule of thumb anywhere in Japan, but particularly when you know you’ll be going indoors to anyplace other than a shopping center or store. Even hotels occasionally expect you to take off your shoes in the lobby before entering the rest of the hotel. Although it doesn’t seem like it takes long to untie or retie your shoes, it feels like an eternity when someone is staring at you fumbling around with them.
- If this is one of your first stops in Japan, pay close attention to the way the host teaches you to purify yourself for the tea room. This is the same procedure used to purify yourself before entering a temple or shrine. If you can remember the procedure, you’ll feel super cool as you flow through the motions like an old hand.
Based on my diary entries from November 7, 2013.