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On the southern fringes of Kyoto in the city of Uji, there’s a statue honoring “The Tale of Genji,” Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th-century classic Japanese novel in which Uji makes an appearance. The statue is near the location of the ancient Uji-bashi Bridge and a leisurely stroll from UNESCO World Heritage sites such as Byodoin Temple, which houses the beautiful Phoenix Hall, and Ujigami Shrine. But besides its literary references and architectural wonders, Uji has also become famous for another important cultural icon: green tea.
First cultivated in Uji by shoguns in the 14th century, green tea originally came to Japan from China. Today, a street in Uji called Byodoin Omotesando is lined with green tea shops selling everything from matcha, or pure powdered green tea, to green-tea flavored Kit Kat bars and shaved ice. Here, it seems everything is infused with the taste of unfermented and slightly bitter, pale crushed leaves. So it comes as no surprise that Uji is not only a center for Japanese green tea merchants but also the nexus of the green tea ceremony.
I recently had the rare privilege of learning about the Japanese tradition at Taihoan, the municipal teahouse. I half-expected an elaborate series of actions that usually define a ritual. Instead, I learned the ceremony is relatively simple, though there are nuances designed to instruct people on how to behave in traditional Japanese culture, such as how to walk on tatami mats and how to bow, sit, stand and more.
During a typical Uji tea ceremony, a group of people kneel or sit cross-legged along the edges of a tatami mat, since it’s considered rude to point the feet toward the host. It’s customary for the guests to remain silent and allow the host to provide diversion through the presentation of the tea. The host first serves “wagashi,” Japanese sweets that are usually made from bean curd or sweet potato. Then comes the actual tea, presented in a decorative bowl. Before drinking the tea, guests turn the bowl clockwise twice so the design faces toward the host. Once finished, they then turn the bowl back and place it on the mat.
The order and timing of the ceremony is crucial. Eating sweets beforehand allows the guests to savor the taste and coat the palate with sugar before drinking the acerbic tea. Also, the colors of the host’s clothes, the sweets and the details of environment are all dictated by the seasons. Our wagashi was a small treat called “Hydrangea in the Rain,” given that it was served during the rainy season. The whole experience reminds guests to be mindful of the moment and appreciate everything nature has to offer — even rain.
While a host can attain a certificate that reflects his or her tea education, becoming a master of the traditional tea ceremony is an ongoing process. The same is true for guests: Each ceremony is a reminder that, like the passing of the seasons, there is no real completion — only an opportunity to gain more wisdom in life.