Outing: Tea Demonstration at the Chado Urasenke Tankokai Washington D.C. Association

This is a bit of an exciting outing post. You see, when I was a child, I remember a local museum having an exhibit where they recreated a Japanese tea house inside the museum. I wondered recently if the exhibit still existed, or if it was a temporary one, so I was looking around the internet. I did not find the exhibit, but I did find out that my city has its own tea ceremony association, the Chado Urasenke Tankokai Association of Washington, D.C., which holds weekly open houses by appointment.I decided to send them an email and see if they would make an appointment for me to come by, see their tea house, and learn more about the Japanese tea ceremony. I was fortunate enough that they not only invited me by, but also allowed me to take a few pictures to share with you.

The tour began at the front door to the tea house, which is on the second floor of a rather unassuming office building downtown. My host, Mioko, opened the locking door and showed me the closet where I could trade my street shoes for house slippers and leave my purse safely out of the way. Then, she showed me into the tea lesson room. We both took off our house slippers to step up into the tea house, which consisted of two rooms: a six-tatami less formal room and an eight-tatami more formal room. The formal room had an alcove with a scroll and a small flower. Mioko explained that they can also open the divider between the two rooms to make a large formal room.

She showed me around the rooms and explained the significance of the various elements, from the recreated tea garden on the tea house’s balcony, to the particular clay color of the walls. Much of the design of the tea house comes from the preferences of the shogun at the time the Urasenke school’s master lived. After that, she showed me to the formal tea house and began the demonstration of the tea ceremony.

The ceremony began with the presentation of a tray of sweets, which I got to contemplate as Mioko returned to her preparation area to bring out the various elements of tea preparation: the tea bowl, whisk, scoop, linens, and a waste water bowl. She then performed a ritual cleansing of the tea canister and scoop with her cloth. Then, she invited me to have a sweet while she prepared the tea. I bit into the crispy biscuit on my paper, and then tried the pressed sugar confection, letting it melt on my tongue, while I watched her make the tea.

The idea behind the timing of the ceremony is to allow the guest just enough time that the sweetness of the confection is still in their mouth as the tea is served. Sure enough, just as the last bits of sugar melted, she presented me with my bowl of tea. I hadn’t mentioned that I drink matcha, so I think she was surprised that I enjoyed my tea. The matcha was very smooth, both in flavor and consistency. It was eye-opening to have a bowl prepared by a true master. It was also quite delicate and floral, with an umami flavor that melted into sweetness as an aftertaste. Truly excellent matcha.

After I finished my tea, she invited me to examine the tea canister and bamboo scoop, explaining the history and process used to make these items. The canister she used for the demonstration had a flower design that was once again a favorite of the shogun at the time of the master’s life in Kyoto.

Once she had finished the demonstration, she invited me to try making a bowl myself. Of course, by this time, my feet were starting to get very sore from the sitting! But I endeavored to try the process. She had us move to the informal room, where a small tea kettle made it easier to serve the water without the elaborate ritual of using bamboo ladles. She also helped me set up my own tea equipment on a tray, making it easier to carry in and out of the room.

I won’t pretend my attempts were anything but humorous, but she was impressed with how quickly I picked up the particular method of folding the cloth used in the ritual, and how well I was able to create froth in my tea. After I made my bowl of tea, she suggested I switch back to playing the part of the guest so I could taste my own bowl of tea. After two bowls of matcha and the satisfaction of completing the elaborate ritual, I was exhilarated.

The whole experience took just under an hour and was a wealth of information, both about tea preparation, and about the context of the tea ceremony in Japanese history. What I found particularly interesting was the strong connection to the context of the time in which the master lived. Certain elements are admittedly due to the preference of the ruling shogun, not for any supposed mystical reason. I found it down to earth and refreshing. I also found Mioko a pleasant guide. It is always awkward for me to go places with the purpose of sharing them on the blog sometimes, and she helped put me at ease. If you’re in D. C. and curious about the tea ceremony, I would definitely recommend you email the association to make an appointment.

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Fukamushi Shincha from Tomotcha: First Impression of a New Subscription

I mentioned on Twitter a little bit ago that I was cancelling my subscription to Simple Loose Leaf in favor of a sub with less variety but more likely to provide teas I’m interested in trying. I signed up for Tomotcha earlier this month with the hope that I’d get my first tea in early June. Imagine my suprise when a flat little packet from Japan showed up in my letterbox earlier this week! Immediately after signing up, I was a little regretful, as the Tomotcha website leaves something to be desired. Other than an address confirmation from them, there is no way to sign into an account on their website and check on your subscription. Their Twitter feed hasn’t updated since last winter, and I was beginning to worry that maybe I signed up for a defunct service that was still charging people through automated web services.

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But that wasn’t the case! Yay! I got my tea and wanted to brew some immediately. Of course, it was a weekday evening, so that would have led to some difficulty falling asleep. There was also the fact that I realized a day or two earlier that my gaiwan are not suited to brewing Japanese green teas, which have smaller leaves than the Chinese ones the gaiwan excels at brewing. So I ordered a simple glass kyusu set and some cups for my office. They arrived yesterday, so this morning I was finally able to taste my new tea.

The tea that arrived was a Fukamushi Shincha, which is a deeply-steamed green tea from the first harvest of Sencha. The dry leaves look like most Japanese green teas I’ve encountered and has a strong vegetal, seaweedy aroma. The first steeping is meant to be at about 160-170F for a minute. The first thing you notice is the brilliant color, which reminds me of everything springy and growing. It smells very, very green. The taste is fresh and grassy. It’s very refreshing on a hot day. Subsequent steepings were done for 30 seconds and retain this freshness.

All in all, I’m pleased so far with this service and now I’m looking forward to months to come!