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The magic and mystery of a Japanese Tea Ceremony in New York City

Japanese Tea Ceremony

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It might not come as a surprise to those who already think of New York City as a world apart – an alien island reserved for the cultural elite or one-percenters…

Entrance to Traditional tea ceremony in Globus Washitsu
Leeann Lavin

But on a recent, monsoon-soaked evening that rendered the streets more boat-friendly than pedestrian passable even this stalwart Gotham-ite Examiner could only marvel at the newly-formed waterfalls, street-streams, and torrents of water as a sign perhaps, of spring cleansing or something biblical – and to begin to wonder about the Japanese tea ceremony that she was dodging street-scape water features to attend.

Located in a penthouse not far off Union Square, it was arranged for this Examiner to meet tea ceremony student, EunYoung Sebazco and her tea master, Satoko Souheki Mori who owns and operates Tea-Whisk, an intoxicating showcase for the enduring beauty of the Japanese tea ceremony.

It is soon clear she possesses a passion to cultivate others in the art of the tea ceremony.

Upon greeting the elegant, kimono-clad tea ladies, I was instructed to the bench across from the tea house’s front door where soaking wet boots are removed and, in more hospitable weather, shoes are left -- as in all traditional Asian homes.

The entryway door serves more as a portal.

Stepping inside the teahouse is akin to stepping into a dream world.

Was this a halodeck of the Starship Enterprise?

The drama of the evening weather only heightened the mystery of the place.

The décor is breathtaking: bamboo walls and shoji screens, Japanese Roji garden rooms (where one is further purified walking across the “dewy ground”), bold rocks, grass, and slate stepping stones, moon “windows,” and lantern statuary evoke a traditional Japanese garden.

Next to the door is a stone Asian water fountain with basin, its trickling bubbles tapping a moody, syncopated beat to the rain pattering on the skylights above.

Shoji screens reveal a dining area: the table made of a polished tree trunk, a kitchen whose antique Asian cabinets hail from the 1890’s and early 1900’s wrapping either wall next to the modern refrigerator covered in bamboo, and a main room where the tea ceremony and instructions take place.

In a recess of the room, there is an altar-like homage to the tea master’s pedigree and the Kanji art scroll proclaims this an “Oasis.”

Indeed it feels like a haven or a sanctuary.

Peaceful…

Serenity is a key element of the tea ceremony: to leave the city behind or at the door and drink in not only the tea but also the music, calligraphy and measured ambience of the tea garden…

Satoko Souheki Mori, the Japanese tea master who runs the school, explained it takes 10 years to become a certified tea instructor. She earned her certification in 2005. With a glowing smile, Souheki-san says while studying the tea ceremony many years ago in Tokyo, she used to save up just to visit New York every year; finally moving here in 2011, her 15th and final trip as a tourist.

Not unlike other New York citizens, she says she came to pursue her dream…

Today, she says she is living her dream, teaching the nuanced beauty of the Japanese tea ceremony at several locations in New York and across the country. (Full listing and calendar below)

One feels Souheki-san – and EunYoung’s complete Zen and mindfulness in being in the moment and appreciating all that their special lives’ offer. In turn, the tea ceremony offers guests the opportunity to seek their inner self to achieve a state of Zen-like consciousness, too.

The Tea Ceremony

A tour of the facilities proves equally entertaining for the curious: upstairs there is a glasshouse-like room that looks east. It too is covered in tatami mats.

In the room below, utilitarian items from everyday life serve as art: a Tokyo fireman’s jacket hangs on the wall, an antique samurai helmet, snow boots made from straw (!) and what looks like a soap dish of sorts that is, in fact, a head rest for a geisha. No bad hair days – but looks like not much sleep can be had either, using this wooden “pillow.”

Seeing the geisha accessory allows this Examiner to share some recently-researched factoid about the early geishas’ makeup: white face powder was used so that their faces glowed in the candlelight of the geisha house and stage.

Here, it was all genuine, natural visage and practiced form: from the elaborate kimonos to the artistry of the handmade ceramic bowls and the gaited, ceremonial walk.

Like a flower, the tea ceremony is multi-faceted, embodying a number of artful disciplines. As described by Tea-Whisk, it includes “calligraphy, flowers, incense, ceramics, lacquer ware, ironwork, woodwork, architecture, gardening, kimono, Japanese kaiseki meals” – and tea.

The making of the tea is not in any way to be confused with boiling water and inserting a Lipton – or even a Bigelow tea bag.

Rather, one learns to appreciate harmony, respect, purity and tranquility: the four elements of the tea ceremony.

Etiquette and manners reign supreme – all part of the refinement embodied within the ceremony.

The nexus of food, drink, fashion, and garden arts helps to explain why one studies the elements of a tea ceremony for so long. And why guests never tire watching the tea ceremony performed. Like all great art, it manifests ever-intriguing facets.

After a traditional welcome bow, the formal part of the tea ceremony began with tea master, Souheki-san and this Examiner seated in the main room on the tatami mat next to the teapot burner, nestled in the floor.

A plate of macaron-like cookies was placed on the mat in front of this Examiner. The plate was a rich, artful KeiSui-an -- a special custom made wooden mold for dry sweets (made by Tanaka Komei-san of Tomoru Kobo http://wood-urushi.net )

Traditionally, sweets are served to help balance the bitterness of the tea.

From beyond a shoji screen in the corner opposite us, the determined and focused student, EunYoung, entered the main room with great nobility.

The room was quiet. Teacher and guest were observant.

Occasionally, tea master Souheki-san whispered guidance; urging the student to turn the tea bowl from “12 o’clock to 3 o’clock,” for example. Or “Don’t show us your thumb” when she was bowing in a seated position or unfurling a napkin.

The ceremony includes purifying the water, whisking the green tea powder, Matcha, with hot water from an iron kettle to make a bubbling, thin paste.

Souheki-san is a dedicated and loyal user of the very best match sourced from a variety of tea companies. This evening, Souheki-san selected the matcha from Harney & Sons master tea blenders for three generations, located in SoHo, originally from Kyoto. https://www.harney.com

When ready, the tea cup is presented by the host. The guest admires the cup, filled with about “three to three and a half sips of tea,” according to Souheki-san. The guest then sips, drinking and appreciating the tea.

Watching, one almost feels a need to turn away – it’s that intimate.

There is so much detail required to perform the symbolic elements of the ceremony. Every movement or body formation has meaning.

Students even practice their carriage. “We walk around the room for 15 minutes every class holding a tray,” noted EunYoung.

It was explained that the tray and bowls are positioned so that the clean ones are on the side where the guests see them, the un-pure or used are on the wall side when the host is exiting.

After the guests drink the tea, EunYoung then rinses and wipes the cups clean with an origami-like folded napkin, as well as all the artfully-rendered ceremonial utensils in order to purify them yet again before arranging everything back on the tray.

The tea bowl here was especially beautiful, organic; handmade by a Long Island City-based ceramic artist, Makiko Hanafusa https://www.facebook.com/makiko.hanafusa1

Then, with the same nobility with which she entered the room, EunYoung bows and with great deliberation, walks back out, exiting the room with a carefully placed, practiced, two-finger slide of the shoji screen.

It was explained that the utensils, bowls and trays can change with the seasons. “In summer, the bowls open like a morning glory,” said Souheki. They can also be a wider, deeper-closed look.

Meal following tea ceremony & Cherry Blossom Salted Condiment Recipe

Following the formal tea ceremony, EunYoung and Souheki-san prepared a simple meal of pickled radish, topped by sticky rice and a salted cherry blossom, arranged on a leaf, sitting pretty atop ceramic dishes made by EunYoung! She is so talented.

The plating was a work of art unto itself.

EunYoung and Souheki-san had prepared the salted cherry blossoms a few weeks’ prior, made from Kwanzan ornamental cherry tree buds.

Who knew something so simple and delicious could be made from these regal emblems of the spring cherry blossom viewing season, or Hanami?

Not unlike capers, that are salted or brined flower petals, the cherry blossoms too, add taste and beauty to a dish.

Here is EunYoung’s Cherry Blossom Salt Condiment Recipe:

Ingredients

Double Cherry Blossom (Kwanzan Cherry Blossoms), Coarse Salt, and Plum Vinegar

After 1 week of soaking the blossoms in plum vinegar, we removed the blossoms from the container. And then, we lined the flat basket with paper towels and placed the blossoms in the flat basket.

Please look at pretty cherry blossoms!

We dry the blossoms in a dark area for 2-3 days.

Use as garnish, as a tea, in salads, drinks.

The salted cherry blossoms are delicious and pretty.

Satoko Souheki Mori, Tea-Whisk teaches classes at these exotic locations:

Miya Shoji

228 W 18th Street, New York, NY 10011

(between 7 & 8th Ave)

Every other Saturday, 12:30 pm - 4:30 pm

Globus Cashitsu PHC

889 Broadway, New York, NY 10003

(19th Street next to Fish’s Eddy store)

Once a month on Friday, 7:30 pm - 8:30 pm

Harney & Sons SoHo

433 Broome Street, New York, NY 10012

Please contact info@tea-whisk.com

Soukeki-san and Tea-Whisk is also on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TeaWhisk

And www.tea-whisk.com