Tea Ceremony

by Leslie Bedford

The room is silent. Our hostess, Sumiko, tucks the hem of her kimono under her bent knees. In front of her on the tatami are the utensils laid out for tea ceremony: a small ceramic tea bowl, a larger container for water; a lacquered tea canister, and a bamboo dipper, scoop and whisk.  Resting her left palm, fingers extended together, against her thigh, she reaches out with her right hand to ladle hot water from a large black pot into the tea bowl, swirling it briefly around before emptying it into the large container. Then, unfolding a red silk cloth from her obi, sash, she wipes the bowl two times. Once she has poured fresh water into the warmed bowl, she opens the lacquered canister to scoop out a measure of powdered tea and add it to the water.  Holding the bowl in one hand and the whisk in the other, and rhythmically tapping it on the rim of the bowl, she whips the tea into a green foam. Throughout, she holds herself still, her hands moving in choreographed, economical gestures, her eyes focused on each task.

It is our first tea ceremony and we are poorly prepared. But Sumiko, a long-time student of tea and other traditional arts, has promised to teach us what to do. We have taken off the house slippers she lent us to duck down into the entrance to the chashitsu, tearoom, positioning ourselves on the tatami, our legs folded under our thighs, our buttocks back against our feet. In front of us is the tokonoma; on this afternoon in early February, this alcove holds a tall white vase with a few artful branches of plum blossom and a hanging scroll with calligraphic Chinese characters brushed down its surface. Our hostess suggests we pause to admire it.

Sumiko nods to my husband to go first. She turns the bowl in both her hands until the more beautiful front side faces him and places it down on the tatami. He picks it up with both hands, turns the front away from himself and takes two or three short sips. Then she repeats the same series of steps and offers the bowl to me. The tea tastes very bitter.

The serene and silent flow of ritualized movements puts us in a meditative trance.  We are in a space without time or connection to everyday life. But this tranquil moment comes to an abrupt end with the appearance of two, small, lacquered dishes of cookies.  These are not the tasteless but exquisite sweets—perhaps tinted pink in subtle homage to the plum blossoms—we were expecting to accompany the tea. Instead, they are the lumpy, slightly burned, homemade chocolate chip cookies we’d made in the kitchen of the Catholic girls’ school up the hill from our apartment. We’d brought them as a hostess gift to Sumiko.  I gasp and then stifle an embarrassed giggle.

It would be some time before I learned that despite all its forbidding rules, tea ceremony is, at heart, simply about serving a guest a bowl of tea. The chocolate chip cookies belonged there as much as we did.

Leslie Bedford currently co-coordinates the Writing Workshop study group. Her professional life was spent working in, consulting to and teaching about museums.  This piece is part of a series called Tokyo Madeleine she wrote about the years she and her family spent living in Japan.