Experience the living history of the tea ceremony and find a moment of Zen in this busy world. Through the luscious grounds of the Sohenryu School of Tea Ceremony, connect with the traditions and wabi-cha that have evolved since matcha first came to Japan through Kamakura.
BY Lori Ono
One should not miss the extraordinary experience of the Japanese tea ceremony. Sado (or chado), the way of tea, combines many of the aesthetic ideals Japan is famous for. The elegance of the tea bowls. The Zen feeling of the purposeful decorations. The beautiful kimono. The attention to detail and the precise movements. The balance of the matcha with a delicate sweet. The Japanese Tea Ceremony’s long history is a living tradition that continues to evolve. Matcha, the hot beverage made from powdered green tea, continues to gather devotees.
The Living History Project, led by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, provides events and hands-on experiences in some of the culturally important sites all over Japan. Visitors can learn about the Japanese people’s lifestyle and customs across the country and throughout history. Finding out about Japan’s earliest history, the Jomon culture, or trying on period costumes at the UNESCO-designated Himeji Castle are only a few of the programs.
With the Matcha and Zen experience, learn about the history of matcha and take part in the centuries-old traditions that are still an active part of Japanese culture.
Matcha is believed to have arrived in Japan through the port of Kamakura. Eisai, the founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan, enjoyed China’s custom of making tea from powdered leaves and brought it back to Japan early in the Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333). Eisai wrote a book called Kissa Yojoki (“How to Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea”), which is Japan’s oldest book on tea and one of the Kamakura Important Cultural Properties. He believed tea was an herbal medicine and extended age. Science has proved that matcha is high in antioxidants and polyphenols that are good for our body.
Kamakura was the largest port city at the time and a port city more open to new ideas. The tea culture in China also appealed to Japanese. What started as a way to entertain friends by enjoying expensive art while drinking tea evolved into a formal experience which embodied Japanese aesthetics over the next 400 years. It became a way to show social status, but also became more widespread. At the heart, the idea was to show omotenashi (hospitality) and for a long time, focusing on the original traditions imported from China was considered the most correct path.
The ideas of Sen no Rikyu (1522 – 1591) produced the largest change in the tea ceremony into the form we know it as today. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the military ruler of Japan at the time. As Toyotomi’s tea master, Sen no Rikyu had a lot of influence. Rather than adhering to the tradition of using imported tea bowls and tools, Sen no Rikyu preferred simple items made in Japan. He created a new style of tea ceremony based on simple instruments and rustic surroundings. This style came to be known as wabi-cha.
Three different tea schools descend from the ideas of Sen no Rikyu but there are many branches of tea ceremony. Some schools of thought prefer to follow traditions without variations. Others embrace variations while some embrace certain ideas but add their own interpretations. The evolution of sado is an exploration of how Japanese people manifest omotenashi.
The Sohenryu School of Tea Ceremony was created by Sohen Yamada and passed through the Yamada family for 360 years. The school is currently based in Kamakura. Sohen Yamada XI is the “Iemoto,” which is the title given to the head of a tea school. During your experience you will learn the story of the Sohenryu School, how this school evolved from Sen no Rikyu’s ideas, and their ideas about wabi-cha and omotenashi.
According to Iemoto, this program is less about rules and more about the spirit of the tea ceremony. The tea ceremony has been used as a way to create a space and a moment of relaxation. The search for an oasis in busy life is a common thread that connects us to the past. People have always sought a way to relax, connect with nature, and to center themselves. Our concerns or situations may differ from our ancestors, but the need to “switch off” remains the same. In some places, this moment is created by going into nature. With the tea ceremony, the idea is to create a space, a retreat from daily life. Relax into sensation from the things around you: the beautiful garden, the art in the alcove, the feel of the tea bowl, and the scent and taste of the tea. All elements are specifically chosen to create a silent message from the tea master to you.
The garden is purified before each guest arrives. Uchimizu, scattering water into the air to allow it to rain down, purifies the garden. Even in the heat of summer, each guest can enjoy water drops glistening on pine needles and the rich green moss carpeting the garden. Trees are gently shaken so the loose leaves that flutter to the ground can be picked up by hand. Each surface is cleaned, including the stepping stones.
The etiquette for a tea ceremony can seem daunting. Where and how should I sit? How should I hold the tea bowl? When can I talk? What should I talk about? I’m supposed to notice something? What should I notice? Don’t let that stop you from joining. Iemoto says, “The most important element of omotenashi is to remove anxiety.” The experience includes a navigator, who guides you with gentle comments and questions that focus your awareness on the moment. There are no wrong answers. Your observations are true to you and it is part of what makes each tea ceremony unique.
Before the tea ceremony, your experience begins with Wabi-Yoga. This doesn’t involve a set of sun-salutations. The gentle movements and stretches center you in your body and bring your awareness into the moment. It can also loosen up some tight muscles and make it a bit easier to sit in the classic seiza position if you want to try sitting formally on tatami mats.
At the Sohenryu School of Tea Ceremony, the experience is based on the comfort of the guest. They recommend loose clothing that is more dressy than casual but not athletic wear. If you have a kimono, you can wear it, but a yukata is too casual. A suit is fine if it’s comfortable and not restrictive.
You will be asked to remove rings or bracelets or watches, to prevent scratches or potential chips to the tea bowls. Tea bowls have been passed down for generations. The history and lineage of a tea bowl is a source of pride for the school.
You are given a pair of tabi socks to wear indoors and when you tour the garden, you borrow a pair of traditional zori (straw sandals) that are gentle on the garden.
Tour the grounds of Sado Sohenryu Fushinan from the comfort of your couch and get a behind-the-scenes peek. If you’ve ever wondered what happens behind the scenes to make a tea ceremony so perfect, this virtual tour is your chance. Explore the garden and the room but don’t miss your chance to see the work that supports the magic of the moment.
The Sohenryu School of Tea Ceremony is a 10 minute drive from Kamakura station. A taxi is the most convenient way to get there.
Find a moment of calm and reflection in the serenity of the garden and the ritual of sado. Discover for yourself why this living history thrives in Japan.
The Exclusive Matcha Experience is a 3-hour event for 2 to 8 people. After a meet and greet, you will learn about the history of tea in the drawing room. A session of Wabi-Yoga centers your mind and body, preparing you for the walk in the tea garden and the tea ceremony in the Hokyudo room.The experience concludes in the drawing room where you can chat with your host and the navigator. This is a great chance to ask questions and share your insights about the experience and you will receive a gift of matcha to take home. For more information about booking and price contact: email@example.com.
I’m a Canadian writer and photographer based in Tokyo. I love helping people enjoy their time in Japan.