Pottery club hosts Japanese tea ceremony
Cholmondeley’s Coffee House was different on Sunday afternoon. The usual hotspot for live music and slam poetry was quiet with an easy calm; even the painted buzz of words on the walls seemed to succumb to the peace. Before the event even began, the Brandeis Pottery Club’s Japanese tea ceremony was a gentle respite from the hectic excitement of the Festival of the Arts.
Of course, that didn’t mean I wasn’t excited; I was the first of three to arrive for the 2 p.m. session, and I had the pleasure of acquainting myself with the hosts, two students in traditional Japanese attire and an orange cloth tucked into their clothes.
Lian Chen ’19, dressed in a lovely floral yukata with a muted green obi around her waist, coordinated the event with the Brandeis Pottery Club. She informed me in an interview with the Justice that all the tea bowls used to serve the tea in the ceremony were handcrafted by members of the club. Monika Xu ’16, dressed inversely in a muted kimono with a vivid floral obi, is not a member of the pottery club but is a Japanese course assistant. In an interview with the Justice, she explained that they would be serving matcha, a special form of green tea powder that differs from other kinds in how the leaves are grown and processed.
Both students had past experience in the famous urasenke style of tea ceremony, urasenke being one of three main tea schools in Japan. The two other visitors and I had the chance to watch two variations of the style as Chen and Xu made tea in turn.
“Would you like to be my guest?” Chen asked me first and, overeager, I knelt right at the edge of the presentation space. Too close, as it turns out, and I was ushered back a few inches, which sent a ripple of laughter through the small group. Only once everyone resettled could the ceremony begin.
As Chen performed the tea ceremony, Xu explained the significance of each utensil and motion. It turned out that the orange cloth folded in their obis was a tool called a fukusa, a special square cloth used to purify the implements before the tea is made. According to Xu, the color of the cloth differs depending on the gender of the host: orange or red for women and deep purple or green for men.
Chen used her fukusa to gently wipe down the tea caddy, which held the matcha powder, and the bamboo tea scoop. Afterwards, she poured hot water into the tea bowl in order to wet the tea whisk, also made of bamboo. Xu explained that the water is meant to soften and purify the tea whisk before its use. The tea bowl was then emptied and refilled, and matcha powder was added with the tea scoop. Chen then demonstrated how the tea whisk is used to dissolve the fine powder into tea.
She turned the tea bowl clockwise before handing me the tea. “You turn the cup so the front is facing the guest,” Chen explained as I set the tea bowl onto the palm of my left hand and balanced it with my right. The tea was the perfect temperature, hot enough to bring out the flavor of the matcha but cool enough to drink comfortably without risk of burning. It was delicious, and only propriety kept me from asking for a second cup right then.
To my surprise, I was allowed to keep the tea bowl that held my drink: a gift from the pottery club. It is a charming design with a smooth, mossy half-glaze around the upper half. I’ve boasted about it to everyone who knows me at least twice.
Xu performed the tea ceremony next, going through the same motions with her fukusa, scoop and caddy. However, unlike Chen, Xu made use of a brass kettle and a large lilac water jar, made by Chen herself. Xu explained that the water jar is filled with unheated water with which to refill the kettle, as storing water in the brass would lead to a metallic flavor.
When asked in an interview what motivated her to host a tea ceremony, Chen replied, “In high school, I appreciated the calm, slow feeling of tea ceremony. I felt that to share that would be good for Brandeis.” Remembering how content I felt at the end of the event, I am inclined to agree.
And I did eventually get my second helping of tea.