O-susume desu! Chakai Tea Ceremony



Viewing the utensils: tea bowls, tea scoop and tea container. (Photo by Jennifer Thwaites)

By Jennifer Thwaites

A few weeks ago I sacrificed my usual Sunday morning lie-in in order to attend Onomichi’s annual Botan Chakai ,or, literally: “Peony Tea Meeting”. A chakai is a kind of tea ceremony(chanoyu)gathering at which a group of guests (sometimes up to fifty in one sitting) come together to enjoy relatively simple servings of usucha (thin mattcha tea) and one or more small snacks(okashi), which are distributed and consumed in a set fashion, according to the customs of the particular tea ceremony school of which the chakai host is a member. Chakai, which are often public events, are numerous: they are often held at a temple in connection with offering tea to the gods, but may also, for example, honour the first tea of the year or the opening of the hearth (which is only used in tea ceremonies during the winter months). Botan Chakai is held in April to enjoy the newly-bloomed peonies in the grounds of the temples which host the event.

Chakai are ticketed events and the host does not necessarily know all the guests personally. In addition, since there may be a large number of guests, the host cannot herself make tea for each individual present. Therefore, the first two or three guests are served tea prepared by the host in front of the group, and the other guests drink tea that has been whisked in an adjacent room and carried out by assistants of the host. A large number of guests can, in this way, all be served within quite a short time.

Attending a chakai for the first time can be a daunting prospect for anyone, with or without experience of tea ceremony practices and good Japanese language skills, and I wouldn’t like to go to one alone. Special tools should be brought: kaishi (paper on which snacks are placed shortly before eating), a knife for cutting larger cakes, a pouch for carrying these and any uneaten tidbits and a small fan, which is the symbol of the guest in chanoyu. From the way the guest holds her hands on her lap to the manner in which she cleans the serving chopsticks with her kaishi, to say nothing of receiving and drinking the tea itself, every movement should be carried out in a particular way and other guests may be especially interested to see how a foreigner fares throughout this etiquette obstacle course. Then, of course, there is the (potential) challenge of sitting seiza for long periods of time. Famously useless at sitting seiza, on this particular occasion I could only manage about fifteen minutes before numbness followed swiftly by agony set in. However, the setting of a narrow, tatami room, ringed completely by very smartly dressed, older ladies all sitting perfectly still and composedly didn’t exactly encourage informality and, in each of the three separate stages of the Botan Chakai, I persevered and ended up suffering increasingly severe pain in my legs which left me unable to stand up for several minutes following the final ceremony, while my 80-year-old tea ceremony sensei put me to shame by rising up gracefully and gliding away almost the minute it ended.

If I haven’t just scared away those of you who might once have wanted to experience a chakai, let me explain what I loved about the one I went to. To start with, it was a great opportunity to enter two of Onomichi’s beautiful temples: Jikanji and Tenneiji as something other than a sightseer. First, we waited as a big group to be called to a formal ceremony at Jikanji, during which we watched the host prepare a ceremonial cup of thin mattcha, drank our own when it was brought by the assistants and (before drinking the tea) ate a perfect little curved pink cake filled with red bean paste. One of the best moments of the whole morning for me was sitting in the absolutely silent tatami room watching the kimono-clad host prepare tea carefully and beautifully, using exactly the same movements I’ve been learning (imperfectly) for the past eighteen months. It was also interesting to examine the utensils from the ceremony afterwards: the tea container, tea scoop and tea bowl which, if used at a chakai are always particularly beautiful or unique and which, after the principal guest requests it, are ceremonially cleaned and displayed at the end for all guests to inspect. At this point, the main principles of tea ceremony: harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity were well and truly broken, as the whole room swarmed forward to see, and I was forced to defend my place near the utensils from a couple of little old ladies who clearly didn’t mind pushing in! After that, it was time to slip back into our shoes and proceed slowly in small groups under sun umbrellas down Onomichi’s twisting, narrow lanes to Tenneiji where the final two stages were to take place.

We had to wait quite a long time to be admitted to the second stage of the chakai. It seemed to me that during the waiting periods the “work” of this event took place: the prolonged greetings and introductions that went on because most of the guests were affiliated to one of numerous tea ceremony groups that meet to learn and practice and, therefore, everyone knew everyone and fellow students, teachers and teachers’ teachers had to be acknowledged and greeted with respect.

The second stage of the chakai -in format very similar to the first- was unexpectedly (for me anyway, given my distinct lack of kanji skills and therefore ability to suss these things out beforehand) interesting because of the sweet served. Often, a chakai will reflect in some way what is happening in the world at that particular point in time, be it the season or a current holiday and, since 2008 is the year of the Olympics, the snack was five little multi-coloured candy rings joined on a piece of string. かわいい!

The chakai ended (more than three hours after it began) on a slightly more relaxed,
mattcha-less note with a “breakfast” of a wrapped sticky rice ball, some beautifully-presented smoked cheese and fish and a small cup of black tea. For me, one of the funniest things about the chakai was watching people not eat the food set in front of them. Eating half a tiny cake, delicately wrapping the rest in kaishi and tucking it into the special pouch guests carry with them is one thing, but putting a steaming hot rice ball directly into your bag is quite another! Seeing other guests stash part of a beautiful little meal away with a furtive smile reflected the feeling I had about the event in general: at first glance quite formal and proper, but with a lot of fun and mischief going on under the surface.

If you are at all interested in tea ceremony or you’d just like the experience, find out from your local community centre or from a friend in the know about chakai events near you and give one a try! Onomichi’s Botan Chakai and Sakura Chakai both take place around April. I would recommend a crash course in guest etiquette (and what to bring with you) if you are a complete beginner or you might find yourself totally at sea, but it’s definitely well worth the effort, even if you only do it once!