An account of a formal Japanese tea ceremony by Elliot Mitchnick, who holds the rank of Junkyoju (Associate Professorship) of Urasenke, the 400 year old tradition of Tea headquartered in Kyoto, Japan.

(If you have Japanese enabled on your browser, you will see most tea terms with their kanji. In addition, most terms have definitions available by holding your mouse over the word.)

Roji stones

One by one,each guest leaves the machiai 待合 waiting room and slips on a pair of garden zori 草履. These zori are made from wonderful woven materials and very primitive in style to the standard zori used by the Japanese for everyday use. The zori’s beauty notwithstanding, if they are new they are the most uncomfortable shoe I have ever worn. I think this is due to the fact that when new the zori have not loosened enough to make them comfortable to wear and the bottom sticks into one’s arch.

We are now in the heart of the roji 露地, a truly transforming space that acts as a bridge from the ordinary world to the world of tea. The roji was once described with the characters 路地, which might translate as road or path and ground or place. This was changed to 露地, translated as “dewy path.” This change is said to have occurred in the late 16th century. It is attributed to Sen no Rikyu, the most influential tea master of all times. Like all important figures in Japanese history what is true and what is not is a blurred area and much of the traditions of the world of tea are just that - traditions with much not being backed by historical fact. For me, the idea of a dewy path from the outside world to a “higher world” is just a wonderful term. I am grateful to whoever thought of it.

Koshikaki machiaiBut, what is true is the incredible ”non beauty” of the roji 露地. What I mean is, the path of stepping stones and plants seem to have been put there by God. There seems to have been no effort, and the plants - just plants, form a lush beauty that takes us away from all the ordinary thought of life and free us to beyond the ordinary. This, for me, is the feeling of walking through the roji to the middle gate, chūmon 中門, the roji is not large, but the path makes it seem so much larger that it size.

We enter a space of lush green, that allows us to move along at a relaxed pace until we reach the middle gate. The first guest will open it and proceed to the koshikake machiai 腰掛け待ち合い. The tsume will close the gate and follow the other guests to the seating at the koshikake machiai. See two photos of a koshikake machiai in the gallery section.

The first guest will take the Tobacco tray, or tabakobon 煙草盆 off the round mats and then place the mats on the wood with the tobacco tray between the first gust and the other guests. The tobacco tray will have a hiire 火入れ or small container with ash and a lit piece of charcoal, a tobacco hiire, to hold the loose tobacco, haifuki 灰吹(ash recepticle - a bamboo tube with a bit of water in the tube for the disposal of ash from the pipe), and a pipe. Today, more often than not, the tray will only have the hiire and haifuki. You can tell quickly how rushed the host was by looking at the white ash that forms over the glowing piece of charcoal. But, that is just being picky as the true joy is to pick up the hiire and feel its warmth in your hand and take a puff of tobacco if desired. The pipe itself originates from Holland traders. The tobacco is an old, shredded style that you pack into the pipe. You light it with the heat of the charcoal in the hiire and take your puff or two. When I lived in Japan, you could buy this style of Tobacco in Kyoto only at Daimaru or Takashimaya once a week. Today, the use of the tobacco is not important and its meaning is to welcome the guests and show them the host is taking his/her time even for the smallest details.

If the roji is well designed, one cannot see many things that are near the koshikake machiai, but you can hear. In a few minutes you hear the sound of water on the bushes and plants that surround the tsukubai and then the pouring of water. There is an excitement that all the guests have as the tea is about to really begin. They can hear the host with the ladle removing as much water from the basin as he/she can and then pours fresh water from a wooden bucket into

the basin. The host then carefully purifies him/herself with the water, returns the bucket to the preparation room and walks toward the middle gate. The host opens the gate, walks through, and all the guests rise and there is a silent bow. The host returns the the teahouse and the guests prepare to move on to the tsukubai. The first guest says, “Osaki ni”, or “please excuse me for going before you”, and will turn the mat over so it rests on the back wall, then each guest will follow. The last guest will return the mats to the starting position and place the tobacco tray on top and follow the guests through the chumon to the tsukubai area. There are some pictures of the tsukubai area in the photo gallery.

Each of the guests, starting with the first, go to the tsukubai to purify themselves, similar to the purifying basins at temples throughout Japan. The guest first takes out a handkerchief to wipe their hands after using the basin, then crouches in front of the basin with the handkerchief on the knee. The guest takes the ladle and a scoop of water and pours some on his left hand, switches to his left and pours water on his right hand. Next, with the ladle in his/her right hand, takes another scoop and pours some on his/her left palm and uses it to rise out the mouth, then spits it out. The guest then picks up the ladle and allows the remaining water to run down the ladle to purify the object for the next guest. The guest then returns the handkerchief to his/her kimono. One by one, each guest repeats the purification.

The tsukubai つくばい is a “place” rather than just a water basin. The basin is generally called a chozubachi 手水鉢 in tea gardens, and the hole is usually circular and it is always placed low so that one must crouch in order to use it. I think it is Arthur Lindsay Sadler’s book, that attributed the following quote to Rikyu; “It is necessary for all, even the greatest of men to stoop low on the ground, for it is by humility that the true Sage is known”. The tsukubai area is usually 5 to 15 steps from the tearoom and when you approach there are a number of stones in front of the basin. Urasenke has a a stone to the left that is shorter than the right stone used to hold a bucket of hot water in the winter called a youku-ishi 湯桶石, and a slightly taller stone to the right for a lantern during the evening tea called a teshoku-ishi手燭石 and a flat stone directing in front of the basin called a mae ishi 前石. More detail on the design and construction of tsukubai can be found in Tsukubai - Design & Construction.

sekimori-ishiWith first guest leading, all guests will follow the path to the tearoom. As there are sometimes different paths, i.e. the path that the host might take to the mizuya 水屋, or preparation room, and on that path is there will be a small stone with black hemp rope tied around it is used to tell the guests to stop. This stone is called sekimori ishi関守石. You can see one in the photo gallery. When the guests arrive at the tearoom they might see an interesting feature of the roji, the chiriana 塵穴, or dust hole (pictured in part 1). This is a mortared or cement hole placed in area in full view of guests and near the nijiriguchi 躙口, the crawl in entrance way. Most of the time it is just there as a decoration, but if we look further at its Buddhist symbolism, the unwanted dust of the world can be left there when we enter the tearoom. This small hole becomes an important symbol as we enter the tea room. The size and shape depend on the size of the tearoom, and those with interest, feel free to ask. There is also a photo in the gallery area of the chiriana and of the nijiriguchi. In the photo of the nijiriguchi you can see a hanging broom called a warabiboki, a broom of fern fronds (now used for decoration, but in the past was used for the cleaning the roji).

Now with the first guest leading, the guests open the sliding door and enter the tearoom or chashitsu 茶室. End of Part 2.

Back to Part 1.

Proceed to Part 3.

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