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Brewing the way of tea

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Posted: Friday, December 6, 2013 9:07 am

White Christmas lights add a warm glow to the dimly lit room where 10 people quietly sit, shoeless, on the carpet, with their hands resting against their legs and feet tucked under their legs.

The hosts, all women, carry small ceramic bowls containing a frothy olive green tea to their guests. They bow  respectfully with their hands pressed against the floor after presenting the tea during a Japanese tea ceremony known as a Chakai.

During Chakai, an informal tea ceremony, hosts serve tea to their guests, said Shelley Thomas, who teaches Chado: The Way of Tea.

The green tea is strong and earthy, paired with the simple sweetness of sugar-coated treats from Washington.Pastel candies, traditional to Japan, leave taste buds bouncing from the sugar rush.

Twenty-two-year-old Bellingham, Wash., resident Candice Cannedy, wearing black-rimmed glasses, sits next to her host. She carefully watches how to sip the tea with one steady hand holding the bottom of the cup and the other grasping the side.

“It was cool to see how tea is traditionally served in Japan,” Cannedy said. “I feel like sometimes in Western culture you don’t really appreciate the small things in life.” 

The class met Mondays and Wednesdays and aimed to teach students about proper tea ceremony procedure and history, Japanese aesthetic principles, Zen and how these can be incorporated into daily life. This four-credit class was offered in 2008, and fall quarter 2013 is the first time since then. At the end of the course, the 11 students planned and hosted a Chakai for guests as a part of their final. 

In September, Thomas assigned the students a project of making steeped tea for a friend without any knowledge of proper tea ceremony procedures. The students brought the same friend as a guest to their Chakai, where they demonstrated the proper procedures they practiced for the length of the quarter. 

The Chakai

The Chakai is the end portion of a longer four-and-a-half hour ceremony called a Chaji, according to documents provided by Thomas. Proper footwork, placement of utensils used and tea bowl holding technique are elements of a Chakai. 

The tea ceremony process is complex and takes years of study to understand and master, Thomas said. She has studied the way of tea for 20 years.

“I still take classes,” Thomas said. “This is something that's lifelong learning.”

Because the class is only 10 weeks long, the students learn the most basic procedure, Thomas said.  Instead of using an iron kettle like in authentic Chakai, the class uses an electric teapot because it is easier to set up and clean during class, Thomas said.

Hands-on learning experience

Since 2008, the art department has changed its program to provide hands- on learning by emphasizing activities and discussion rather than just lecture, Thomas said.

Chado: The Way of Tea is divided into two parts. Monday classes include a lecture and a discussion. During Wednesday classes, students serve and receive tea and practice what they have learned.

“One thing about the way of tea is that it’s not just about accumulating knowledge, it’s about putting into practice what you learn,” Thomas said. 

The course has the potential to teach students about respect for everything in all aspects of life, Thomas said. When Thomas began studying tea, she had been making and studying art for years. She realized she knew nothing about art after learning the way of tea, another word for a tea ceremony, because it causes those who practice to pay attention to finer details, she said.  She wants the students to understand more about their life and interests through the way of tea, Thomas said.

“When you’re in the tea room there’s all this etiquette,” Thomas said. “You see how much respect is paid to everything. Whether it’s serving tea or doing something else, they have a different understanding of how it can be done.”

Learning Chado, which means “tea way” in Japanese, has the potential to teach students respect as well as other traits. 

Chado: The Way of Tea incorporates four principles — harmony, respect, purity and tranquility — each present in different parts of the tea ceremony, according to documents Thomas provided.

Senior fine arts major Caitlin Christopher has found herself taking more time in daily activities and in the process of making her art, she said.

“I’ve been enjoying the emphasis on paying attention and slowing down [in life],” Christopher said. “My life is really busy and it's nice to have time where you don't have to be busy. I'm more attentive in the art studio and more attentive to my driving because I'm practicing paying more attention.”

Japanese vs. Western culture

One assignment for the class was for the students to attend a coffee shop and observe how people make, serve, and receive coffee or tea.

Sixth-year fine arts major Erin Thompson decided to take Chado: The Way of Tea because she enjoys Japanese culture and way of life, she said. 

At Starbucks, Thompson realized a distinct difference between the process of making coffee and what she learned about the way of tea in class, she said.

At the coffee shop, the baristas were not focused on the process, only the outcome, Thompson said. The customers’ experiences were rushed and impersonal — different from the procedure of serving tea in Japan, she said. 

The customers at Starbucks waited for their coffee in line, ordered, received their drink and left, Thompson said. 

The Starbucks customers put little process or thought put into purchasing their drinks, unlike people a tea ceremony, she said.

“The tea ceremony makes you think a lot more and pay attention to things you wouldn’t normally,” Thompson said. 

Students should take this class not only for free sweets and tea, but to learn some differences between Japanese culture and Western culture, Thompson said.  

“[Taking this class] is a way of broadening your awareness of how other cultures go about life,” Thompson said. 

The soft sound of whispers at the ceremony is a vast difference from the usual clamored chaos of tea service in America. 

The mix of hosts and guests offers a brief window into the peaceful way of tea in Japan.

The ceremony ends just as gently as it started as everyone rises slowly and wobbles onto their feet. 

The guests laugh, seemingly relieved that they were able to adjust to the Japanese style with only a few mistakes. 

The fast-paced ways of Western culture will probably never change, Cannedy said. 

Learning to appreciate and respect the tea and the cup was key during the ceremony. 

Because a person never knows when it will be their last or if they will ever drink a particular tea again, she said. 

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