If you have ever witnessed a Japanese tea ceremony, then you know that it is a very special event. Unfortunately, many Westerners think the ceremony is just a fancy way to drink tea. As Fuyuko Kobori, a 17th-generation tea master and one of the rare women to attain this position explains, the tea ceremony is a meditative moment that invites self-reflection and deep awareness.
“I think a lot of people [from the cities] do the tea ceremony as an escape from the real world,” she told me in an interview from Onishi Gunma, an artist residency in rural Japan where she hosts tea ceremony workshops for visiting artists. Many Japanese people are caught up in the fast-paced rhythm of city life, added her husband Gill, a painter and ceramicist. The tea ceremony, an ancient ritual said to have been brought to Japan in the 12th century by Chinese Zen monks, offers a chance to slow down and enjoy the present moment.
“The Japanese word for tea ceremony is Chanoyu, which means something like ‘one time, one moment’, says Gill. “And every moment is precious,” adds Fuyoko. The workshops she hosts to introduce people to the ceremony generally include a talk, followed by a performance of the ceremony. “The ceremony takes about four hours [and in that time] we do a lot of things, like drinking sake, eating kaiseki food, making two types of tea, thick and thin, washing hands, and walking along with the tea room,” explains Fuyuko. “You don’t talk much, so the five senses are open, and you feel many things. The most important thing during the tea ceremony is to enjoy the moment.”
The tea ceremony has roots in Zen Buddhism and Samurai culture stretching back centuries. Zen philosophy is based on training the mind to maintain a state of order, and the tea ceremony arose as a way to practice this. Chinese people had a tradition of drinking Matcha as part of a Zen ceremony. “The philosophy of the Zen monks fit well with the Samurai of the time, [who] were about self-improvement and raising their own rank within society,” says Gill. The tea ceremony and Zen meditation fits with this. It’s about self-reflection and thinking about self-improvement.”
According to Fuyuko, there are as many as 200 tea ceremony schools in Japan, each one connected to a different family. Hers is descended from Kobori Enshu, a 16th-century grandmaster who founded her family’s tea ceremony school. Today, her father is the grandmaster, and following Japanese tradition, her younger brother should be in line to take his place. However, he realized that he is not passionate enough about the tea ceremony to commit to the training required to become a grandmaster and eventually take over the family school.
“I never doubted I would be a tea master, maybe not a grandmaster…almost all grandmasters are men and I’m a woman,” explains Fuyuko. “I cannot say I never thought about it, but I didn’t think I would be a grand tea master in the next generation. But I really like the tea ceremony, and I really want to do the tea ceremony as a lifetime job.” As a woman, Fuyuko will likely face some obstacles—she is bucking Japanese tradition, after all. But she is forging ahead and late last year, she began her training to become a grandmaster when her father passes away. In January, she received her license to teach the tea ceremony to others.
People travel to her family’s school to learn more about the tea ceremony, which is a vibrant and key element of Japanese history and culture. “The most important role the grandmaster plays is to preserve tradition,” she says. Not everyone intends to become a tea master; many come for the meditative experience or to learn more about different aspects of culture expressed in the ceremony. “We teach them how to do the movement in the tea ceremony to make tea, or how to act in the tea rooms,” explains Fuyuko. “There are tons of manners in the tea ceremony. We have class five days a week with different levels of students. We teach them how to move, how to sit down, how to bow, how to talk, all the knowledge of the Japanese traditional art, architecture, crafts, food.”
Fuyuko Kobori participates in a number of tea-ceremony-related events, including art exhibits, installations and workshops around Japan. If you visit, be sure to sign up for one of her workshops. Yes, there are shorter tea ceremonies available, but do not miss out on the opportunity to witness this traditional ritual being preserved and passed on by one of Japan’s few female tea masters.