LISTEN>> Japanese Tea Ceremony

In a suite of audio posts, visiting journalist Corinne DeWitt heads into our three collecting areas—Library, Art, and Botanical—and meets up with staff to explore facets of the vast collections that are the core of The Huntington. First up: Botanical.

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CORINNE DEWITT: It’s a warm and quiet Tuesday, and we’re in the botanical gardens at The Huntington.

Walk with me up the winding path through the Japanese Garden to the Seifu-an teahouse, where gardens cultural curator Robert Hori performs a traditional Japanese tea ceremony for myself, my producer Kate Lain, and garden curator Andrew Mitchell.

The breeze is cool, the birds are chirping, and the kettle is on. Here we go.

ROBERT HORI: I’m Robert Hori, and I’m the cultural curator for the botanical gardens. Gardens are not just a park-like setting, but they’re really social spaces. [To be] a cultural curator implies that a lot of activities that happen in the garden that [are] associated with the garden which help to enliven, activate the garden, but also give people a deeper understanding of their appreciation of that garden.

We’ve now arrived at the Seifu-an teahouse, and we encounter a giant stone, which is probably one ton, one and a half tons. This is an important stone because it’s a threshold which marks the entry from the outside world into the inside world of tea. So let’s cross over.

We’ve now gone onto cobblestone, and the path gently curves. By gently curving and by having these changes in elevation, what we’re doing is slowing down. As we enter the roji, which is the dewy path that takes us to the teahouse, we hear the sounds of nature. We hear the leaves in front of us. It’s like we’ve just entered into a woodland setting.

There’s a beautiful filtered sunlight that’s coming through the trees, and as the path turns and we find stepping stones, this helps to slow us down even more and focus our attention.

When you’re invited to tea, the idea of purity is very important. It’s physical purity as well as spiritual purity. Before we go into the tea room, we wash our hands. Then we rinse our mouth with water, which is in the tsukubai, which is a rock basin found outside the tea room.

We’re coming to this junction, and we have to decide which path we’re going to take. Today we’re going to take the humble entrance, the crawling-in entrance.

The guest has entered into the tea room through a small door which is about three feet by three feet. In Japanese it’s called the nijiri-guchi, which means the crawling-in entrance. We have two entrances in the tea room: one is a standard door, and one is a small door. To remind us of our humility, the guest will take the humble door.

As soon as the guest enters the tea room, in front is an alcove. In that alcove there’s a piece of calligraphy. Today’s scroll has four Chinese characters on it, and the Chinese characters read wa kei sei jaku. These are the 4 principles of tea. Wa means harmony. Kei, respect. Sei means purity, and jaku means tranquility.

The sound of the water as it’s coming to a gentle boil is called “the sound of the wind in the pines.” It’s supposed to sound like a gentle breeze that is whispering through the pines. Part of the enjoyment of tea, when you’re invited to a tea gathering, is to listen to the different sounds of the kettle.

The utensils for tea have been laid out in the room. In front is a natsume which is a thin tea caddy, a lacquered container that has the powdered tea in it called matcha, and a raku, a red raku bowl.

With striking of the ladle on the futaoki ladle rest, that marks the beginning of the tea ceremony.

The host has taken two scoops of powdered tea from the natsume, the caddy, and then takes a scoop of hot water and pours about half into the bowl, then returns it to the kettle. Taking the tea whisk, [the host] whisks the tea and the hot water to make a very frothy brew.

The guest raises the bowl in appreciation first, and then will turn the bowl. There’s a front and a back to the bowl. By turning it, this is one way of showing her respect to that object so as not to drink from the most beautiful side of the bowl. It’s also one way of sharing the beauty of that bowl with the other guests who are in the room. So please have your tea.

Today’s sweet is a famous sweet from the Nagoya area. Nagoya is a sister city of Los Angeles in Japan, and the poetic name for this sweet is futari shizuka. Which means “the two lovers in quietude.” It’s a small ball, and half of it is red and the other half is white. And one is the woman, one is the man. They’re wrapped in a fine rice paper cloak.

ANDREW MITCHELL: You know, it’s powdery; it’s melting. It quickly melts in your mouth, and the flavor is a very subtle sweet.

ROBERT HORI: There’s basically only one type of tea, and that’s Camellia sinensis, and all types of tea are made from Camellia sinensis. It’s how it’s processed that makes it different. So if the tea has been fermented or left to dry out in the sun, it’ll turn brown or black. Matcha has been steamed. It’s picked, and then it’s steamed right after it’s picked. That preserves the greenness. Then it’s left to age for six months to deepen the flavors and bring out the volatile oils. Then it’s ground into a powder. What you have in matcha is the whole leaf. You’re tasting the entire plant. Some people may say that it tastes like wheat grass, or it may taste like spinach, but it has a very strong vegetal taste. It’s kind of the taste of green.

Once all the guests are served, the host will refill the kettle with cold water, and this will bring the boil to an end.

The teahouse here is about 50 years old. It’s been given a new life at The Huntington. It’s been renewed after 50 years. It’s an important reminder that we are here for really only a very short period of time. We never own something. We’re the stewards of that tradition. We’re the stewards of that object. What’s really important is to find a proper home and ensure its future. I think that that’s what we are doing with this teahouse and all the objects that are at The Huntington.

Also in this audio series:
LISTEN>> Caring for a Collection

Corinne DeWitt is a visiting journalist with the office of communications and marketing at The Huntington. She earned her master’s degree in arts journalism this spring at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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