Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Way of Tea: Japanese culture in the midst of Flagstaff

by Elizabeth Hellstern

During the tea ceremony. Photo by Amanda Voisard.

Drinking tea at the tea ceremony. Photo by Amanda Voisard.

I took off my jewelry, donned white socks and prepared to focus on purification and tranquility. There was snow on the ground, but we were celebrating spring.

On March 8, I was lucky enough to join colleagues and friends for a special tea ceremony at NAU's Ceramic Complex. They have a Japanese garden and tea house that hosts occasional tea ceremonies. Visiting artists from Japan have been planning to do a ceremony there for two years, and they invited three different groups of students, faculty and administrators. One of the visitors, reknowned ceramic artist Ayako Tsutsumi, created a clay Japanese lantern during her visit to be placed in the Japanese garden.

There were eight of us in my group. We gathered together and were coached on the etiquette of a tea ceremony, such as how to receive the tea bowl with both hands, turn it to show the front design outward and then to admire out tea bowl as a piece of artwork, as well as a utilitarian tool. There was so many details to remember! I felt a little apprehensive that I was going to make a mistake...and inadvertently offend our hosts.

There's really no prescribed ceremonial etiquette in the United States that compares with a tea ceremony. And even stranger for our U.S. sensibilities was the fact that we were asked to keep silent the whole time.

The eight of us walked up the muddy, winding path from the Ceramics Complex to the tea house. We took off our shoes, quietly entered and sat down to contemplate the scroll with cherry blossoms.

And then Kaori Ono, ceramics workshop assistant to Ayako Tsutsumi, worked some tea house magic. I was spellbound as she ceremonially folded the red napkin, swished hot water around the bowl, tapped the tea scoop(with great intention) and whisked the green matcho tea. The ritual of serving tea is an art performance that has existed since the 12th Century!

In the ceremony I attended, Paula Rice, professor of ceramics, served as "Hanto," or the person who actually delivers the tea to the guests.

"I tried to bring out my gracious Japanese self, which is a trick when you are tall and blond," Rice told me. "I wore the kimono that they had given me, a very fine gift indeed."

Tea bowls are traditionally more aesthetically important than the tea pot, and the ones we used were on loan from the NAU Art Museum's permanent collection. My bowl was red porcelain, with a beautiful floral design.

The ceremony quieted me down from a busy day. It made me stop and drink in the beauty of nature and art, open my eyes a little wider and savor things more slowly. I think we all walked into the ceremony with some excitement--but we most definitely left it with some peace.

If you're interested in being involved in the ongoing Japanese garden, being a gardener, helping out in construction of the various garden element, or presenting tea ceremonies, please contact Paula Rice at or 928-600-1826.