Each month, Ellie Tennant scours the shelves of secondhand bookshops to dust off the dust jacket of another fascinating vintage tome…
Our host, kneeling in the small, bamboo ‘Ningendo’ tea house at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, delicately ladles hot water from the singing kettle. This is one of the few places in the UK where you can participate in an authentic Japanese tea ceremony and the assembled Westerners are watching the kimono-clad tea master with admiration. Her movements are precise, elegant – as graceful as a ballerina. Time seems to stand still. It strikes me how rare slow, considered processes are in our fast-paced, constantly-connected world. Taking part is meditative and deeply relaxing. I notice that the back of my head is tingling pleasurably with intense concentration, as it used to during piano lessons when I was a child.
Here, nothing is rushed. A typical ceremony can last up to four hours. We take it in turns to admire the decoration on the tea bowl – the ‘chawan’ – and to inspect the utensils, which are all beautifully-crafted, delicate works of art, from the ‘chasen’ bamboo tea whisk to the ‘hishaku’ water ladle.
The art and philosophy of the Japanese tea ceremony was first explained to a Western audience in 1906, when Kakuzo Okakura penned The Book of Tea in English. I have a beautiful 1957 reprint, with a pretty, paper cover.
The ritual of tea drinking is the ultimate expression of mindfulness. Tea is refreshment for the body, mind and soul. The focus is on the process, not the result.
‘It was the process not the deed, which was interesting. It was the completing, not the completion, which was really vital.’ The Book of Tea.
Okakura makes it clear that the tea ceremony is about far more than a cuppa. By focusing on the here and now so completely, participants are able to detach from the material world and access a higher realm of existence, connecting with nature and the deep truths of the universe.
‘…quiet reigns with nothing to break the silence save the note of the boiling water in the iron kettle. The kettle sings well, for pieces of iron are so arranged in the bottom as to produce a peculiar melody in which one may hear the echoes of a cataract muffled by clouds, of a distant sea breaking among the rocks, a rainstorm sweeping through a bamboo forest, or of the soughing of pines on some faraway hill.’ The Book of Tea.
The concept of ‘roji’ is explored, too – the art of creating a sacred, separate space for tea drinking. This is an idea we can all embrace, even if it’s in a simple, small way, such as leaving your work space for a break and snuggling up in a favourite armchair with a well-loved mug.
‘…the roji, the garden path which leads from the machiai to the tea-room, signified the first stage of meditation, the passage into self-illumination. The roji was intended to break connection with the outside world, and produce a fresh sensation conducive to the full enjoyment of aestheticism in the tea-room itself. One who has trodden this garden path cannot fail to remember how his spirit, as he walked in the twilight of evergreens over the regular irregularities of the stepping stones, beneath which lay dried pine needles, and passed beside the moss-covered granite lanterns, became uplifted above ordinary thoughts. One may be in the midst of a city, and yet feel as if he were in the forest far away from the dust and din of civilisation.’ The Book of Tea.
In this perfect little tome, Okakura explains the connection between the tea ceremony and the philosophy of ‘wabi sabi’ – beauty in imperfection. The tea bowls that are used are always handmade, artisanal objects, with uneven surfaces, potters’ fingerprints in the clay and hand-painted decorations that enhance their elegance. Okakura shares the story of tea master Rikiu to convey this idea.
‘Rikiu was watching his son Shoan as he swept and watered the garden path. "Not clean enough," said Rikiu, when Shoan had finished his task, and bade him try again. After a weary hour the son turned to Rikiu: "Father, there is nothing more to be done. The steps have been washed for the third time, the stone lanterns and the trees are well sprinkled with water, moss and lichens are shining with a fresh verdure; not a twig, not a leaf have I left on the ground." "Young fool," chided the tea-master, "that is not the way a garden path should be swept." Saying this, Rikiu stepped into the garden, shook a tree and scattered over the garden gold and crimson leaves, scraps of the brocade of autumn! What Rikiu demanded was not cleanliness alone, but the beautiful and the natural also.’ The Book of Tea.
To Okakura, tea represents a timeless, ongoing, comforting force in life. Whatever our worries or our wars, a simple cup of tea always offers respite and relief.
‘The East and the West, like two dragons tossed in a sea of ferment, in vain strive to regain the jewel of life. We need a Niuka again to repair the grand devastation; we await the great Avatar. Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle.’ The Book of Tea.
This is wisdom we can all embrace. Next time everything seems too much, put the kettle on. A cup of steaming tea won’t solve your problems, but it will give you a welcome hiatus from them and you’ll return revived.
Words by Ellie Tennant
TOAST & TEA
TOAST has worked with Tiosk, modern makers of tea in London’s Broadway Market, to select four delicious single estate teas, to be enjoyed without milk – or as you will. The Oolongs can be re-steeped two or three times.
Little Melon Seed Tea – a sweet tea, with a slightly herbaceous, full, clean flavour and nutty aroma.
Smoked Assam Oolong Tea – a luxurious, full-bodied tea with a subtle, smoky flavour. Unusually this Oolong is from India (most are from Taiwan).
Japanese Genmaicha Tea – a nutty, green tea, bright and golden, with a slightly umami flavour.
Milk Oolong Tea – a velvety, smooth Taiwanese tea with a delicate and creamy flavour.