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At the Peak of Cherry Blossom Season, a Japanese Tea Ceremony
Our writer finds a slice of tranquility in an unlikely place.
By Carol Ross Joynt
The new Japanese tea room, or chashitsu, at the Chado Urasenke Center on L Street in downtown Washington. Photograph by Jeff Martin.
Comments () | Published March 26, 2012

Imagine finding serenity, relaxation, and spirituality in an office building on bustling L Street in downtown Washington. Japanese ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki used those very words as he explained the charms of Chado, the Way of Tea, at an intimate ceremony Friday at the Chado Uresenke Center, where a small group of us gathered to commemorate the opening of the Center’s chashitsu, or tea room, the second of its kind in the city (the other is in the Japanese Embassy). For nearly 90 minutes we were in a world apart from the madding crowd.

The Japanese tea service is based on tradition and ritual, and the Urasenke Center (http://www.tankokaidc.org) is dedicated to preserving the Japanese tea culture. Every step of the tea ceremony is performed just so. The servers and guests each have their roles and an etiquette to follow. When Ambassador Fujisaki said he had “not really practiced” all that much, it put the other two dozen of us at ease. We watched what he did and followed his elegant example.

Our hosts were the Sen family, the descendants of a long line of Chado grand masters whose heritage dates to the 16th century. We were welcomed by the current grand master's wife, Masako Sen; her daughter, Makiko Sen; and her nephew, Koichiro Izumi, all of whom were visiting from the family home in Kyoto. Like the ambassador and his wife, Yoriko Fujisaki, and several other guests, they were dressed in traditional Japanese clothing, or kimono. 

For the first half hour we sat on wood benches and boxes in a room, facing the still-closed tea room. Welcoming remarks were made by Masako Sen, Ambassador Fujisaki, William Breer, who is head of the Chado Urasenke Tankoka in Washington, and Irene Inouye, wife of Hawaii senator Daniel Inouye. We learned that the tea room and adjacent garden took six months to build. It was noted that the date for the opening ceremony was set some time ago, when no one could have known the cherry blossoms--a gift from Japan--would be at their peak. "We are very lucky the blossoms are two weeks early," said Breer. 

In an elaborate ceremony the group of dignitaries pulled silk ribbons to unveil a plaque carved with the room's name, "Washin-an." The word "wa" translates as harmony; the word "shin" means deep. Sen said she hoped the room would symbolize a "drawing together of people for the deepening of peace." The Urasenke Center will make the room available to the public for lectures and lessons about the tea ceremony.

The unveiling was followed by the tea ritual. We removed our shoes, put on Japanese sandals, and walked through the Roji garden to the door to the tea room, where the sandals were removed from our feet by an assistant. We stepped into two connected tatami rooms, decorated in shades of calming beige, and knelt on the floor. The guests lined two walls of the room while Sen and her family, plus other assistants in kimono, performed the ritual of the tea ceremony. While Makiko Sen knelt and mixed the green matcha tea in a pot of hot water--powder, by the way, not loose tea leaves--we were served a delicate sweet called kakehashi no sakura, decorated with a cherry blossom. We were each served individually, and the server and guest bowed to each other with every presentation. The bowls of tea were served the same way. 

There was not much conversation during this part of the ceremony. Time was taken to observe the details of the special utensils and bowls, which were donated by the Sen family and bear the family crest. We were told about the construction of the beautiful tea room, which includes distinctive Kyoto cedar that in the growing process was manipulated by hand to have a rough, natural texture. The posts in the room, keeping with tradition, were not squared off. The ceiling beams were made from seven varieties of wood seamlessly bound together with inlays of cherry wood in the shape of cherry blossoms.

The room's principal and simple adornment was a scroll with words that translate as "A pure wind arises." 

After the ceremony, though, the ambassador and his wife shared some words with Irene Inouye, and there were smiles and laughter. Others in the room began to talk and become more animated. Our moments of relaxation and spirituality were coming to an end as we prepared to reenter the chaotic city outside.

The members of the Sen family gave Japanese bows and American handshakes as the guests departed. In a city of often mundane swag, the Urasenke Center presented each of us with a box wrapped in beautiful blue paper decorated with yellow, pink, and orange blossoms. Beneath it were three more wrappings, each more beautiful than the last, which eventually revealed a silver box that held individually wrapped Suetomi cookies. And then, back to reality.

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Posted at 02:45 PM/ET, 03/26/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Blogs