Learning the Art of the Tea Ceremony in Kyoto, Japan
March 3rd in Japan is Hinamatsuri which is Doll’s Day or Girls Day. It’s a celebration of of the Heian period (the last period of classical Japanese history) and named after what is now known as modern Kyoto.
Because I was in Kyoto in March it seemed like the perfect time to learn the art of the tea ceremony. While there are a lot of places to do tea ceremonies, I highly recommend Tondaya! I had some trouble right before the appointment (my bank decided to freeze all my cards the night before) and they were very accommodating kind and understanding of my situation. My full review is at the end but if you’re just wondering about a general idea, here is how to learn the art of the tea ceremony in Kyoto:
1. Explore the traditional Townhouses
One of the reasons to really love Kyoto is because of the darling streets. As opposed to Osaka, life slows down in Kyoto. If you look carefully in between the houses and shops, you’ll begin to notice a special kind of house, the Maychiyas. Maychiyas are traditional wooden townhouses typically found in Kyoto as it was the historical capital. They are characterized by there traditional wooden structure, narrow entrances, and multiple gardens inside. It’s a little deceptive because they don’t look like much on the outside but they are quite big on the inside. Sadly, Machiyas are quickly disappearing in Kyoto and all over Japan. They are expensive and difficult to maintain and are easily susceptible to fires and earthquakes (which are very common in Japan).
2. Time to Dress Up
Prior to this, I had no idea that there were so many parts to a kimono! I highly suggest performing the tea ceremony in one as it truly transforms how you see the traditions of Japan. Not only how you dress, but the slippers affect how you walk and your body movements in a traditional kimono.
3. Generations in every blade of grass
One of the reasons I was really attracted to this particular tea ceremony was for the history of the house. 13 generations lived in this house, and there’s something to be said about tours that really try to highlight the heritage and not just the tourism of Kyoto. The detailing in the wood structures was beautiful and even the grass is historical as it is no longer grown anywhere in Japan.
4. The never-ending lesson
As I was watching my guide, Aryano, carefully make the tea, I started reflecting about what we had talked about on the tour. One of the things she’d mentioned is she is currently a student of the tea ceremony and has been in school for four years. FOUR YEARS. The process is quite long, too long to outline here and to be honest, something I couldn’t do anyways because not having a pot of water boil over is an accomplishment for me.
5. Modern Take on Tradition
Aryano was explaining to me that even traditional practices in Japan have begun to incorporate modern elements. For instance, her tools are more modern in design and efficiency, but still made out of traditional material. You may be wondering why in the photos I am sitting on a bench instead of the floor. The house practices Ryureiseki, which is a type of ceremony that those present participate sitting on a chair due to pain of some people having to sit extended periods of sitting on the ground and very little heating insulation in the house due to it’s age.
6. Tea time
After the tea is offered to you and before you begin to drink, you bow slightly and say “itadakimasu”, which means “I will eat/drink” in a sense of gratitude.
7. How to properly drink tea
- Receive the tea in your right hand and place it in the palm of your left hand.
- Rotate the chawan (cup) 3 times clockwise with the right hand.
- After drinking the tea (if it is too hot to not blow on it, just wait), wipe the area where your lips touched the cup.
- Rotate the cup back once counterclockwise and return it to the host.
8. With love and gratitude
Arigato Aryano! Her name literally means “fabric” so it seems that this life was destined for her. I was so happy to have met the people of Tondaya.
9. Tour Review
Tondaya was a splurge for me as I was by myself and had a private tour. As a breakdown, the cost of the traditional townhouse tour + ceremony + kimono dressing was 7560 Yen which is around $90 CAD, 2 hours in total. To give you a relative figure, most private tea ceremonies are about $50 CAD and are about 45 minutes, but do not include a traditional townhouse tour and kimono dressing.
While I’m very much a budget traveler, I do believe in spending out on tours with exceptional customer service and authenticity. I enjoy being able to take my time to ask questions, for my guide to tell me stories about herself, and to learn about the history and traditions of the townhouse. Tondaya belongs to 13 generations of kimono makers. It is registered as a National Cultural Heritage site and a Structure of Landscape Importance in Kyoto.
They do a variety of tours – visit them at http://www.tondaya.co.jp/english/.
Please note this was not a sponsored review. It was truly one of my favourite days in Japan and I’m really thankful for it.
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