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A Calming Cup of Tea

The traditional Japanese tea ceremony and kaiseki meal in Orange county.

March 01, 2000|GWEN KVAVLI GULLIKSEN and JENNY ROSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tea is central to the Japanese way of life. Chado, the Japanese "way of tea," embodies the fundamental elements of Japanese art forms and ways of thought. It is both a form of meditation and a refined expression of gracious hospitality.

Chado grand master Soshitsu Sen has written "in the practice of tea, a sanctuary is created where one can take solace in the tranquillity of the spirit."

That warm welcoming spirit was certainly needed after a stressful drive in rainy Southland traffic to attend the recent New Year's ceremony hosted by the Orange County Chado Urasenke Society. Held in the offices of Amada Corp. in Buena Park, just off the Santa Ana Freeway, the ceremony with about 50 participants began with a quiet sense of calm, beauty and warmth.

Chado Urasenke has chapters in more than 30 countries around the world. Los Angeles' chapter began 48 years ago and is under the direction of 80-year-old sensei (teacher) Sosei Shizuye Matsumoto. Matsumoto, the ceremony's honored guest, is America's most revered teacher of tea ceremonies. She is a National Heritage Fellow of the National Endowment of the Arts and has performed the tea ceremony for Congress.

Orange County's chapter, begun 12 years ago, is headed by Soyu Koizumi, who was trained by Matsumoto. Koizumi, who hosted the tea, has practiced the art of tea for 35 years and is a master of calligraphy. Students study once a week for 10 years before being given formal tea names and their own students.

Tea was first imported from China to Japan in the 7th century by Japanese Buddhist monks who drank it to keep themselves awake. A late 12th century priest, Eisai, planted the first quality seeds brought from China and ground the leaves into a powder. The ritual he developed for making tea became a Zen exercise for disciplining the mind. (He also believed that tea was an effective cure for hangovers.) By the 14th century, social tea gatherings had also become popular among the samurai, who held contests (tocha) similar to today's blind wine tastings, at which participants tasted different teas and guessed their origins.

During the Shogun era, tea ceremonies of the wealthy became increasingly lavish. In reaction, tea master Sen Rikyu (1522-91) adopted a more austere approach, which still influences the practice. Chado Urasenke was established by one of his great-grandsons.

The New Year's ceremony featured a series of highly ritualized tea ceremonies. The first was in a formal, traditional tatami room complete with a charcoal brazier that warmed both the tea and the guests. During the winter ceremony, the coming of spring is represented by the sweets offered, the flower arrangements and decorations painted onto silk-lined kimonos worn by the participants.

Before taking tea, guests were served sweet gluten cakes molded into perfect miniature peaches and aptly named sei-bo, for the spirit of the peach. A 100-year-old china dragon symbolized the New Year beside a simple flower arrangement (chabana) of forsythia, Japanese orchid and curly willow. A calligraphy scroll read (in Japanese), "Happy Occasion Clouds."

Special tools are used in the making of the tea, including a ceramic tea bowl (chawan), a water urn, a bamboo tea scoop (chashaku), a bamboo tea whisk (chasen) and a lacquer tea caddie (chatsubo) that holds the bright green powdered tea (matcha) in the shape of Mt. Fuji. Ritualistic movements are made by both host and guest. A host may make up to 300 stylized moves with her arms and hands as well as her body as she prepares and serves the tea, depending upon the type of ceremony taking place.

The second tea service was less formal, with guests seated on benches and served a lighter tea stored in a bright yellow tea caddie. Calligraphy on a bright red fan read, "No matter where you go, 1,000 or 10,000 miles, tea brings people together." Beneath it was an arrangement of one narcissus blossom and a flowering branch of quince. Sugar candies in the shape of flowers (wasanbon) and a dry cookie with ginkgo leaf design were served before the tea.

A kaiseki dinner--seasonal Japanese cuisine with its roots in meals taken daily by Zen monks--followed the ceremony. Kai means stomach and seki means stone. Zen monks once warmed their stomachs with hot stones wrapped in towels to stave off hunger.

Traditional kaiseki meals consist of simple vegetarian fare presented beautifully and in harmony with the seasons. Foods from the plains, the mountains and the sea are represented, as well as the five tastes: salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami (a savory quality such as MSG imparts). Kaiseki has also evolved outside of the tea ceremony into expensive and elaborate multi-course dinners.

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