Kiwis, Japanese, bond over a different kind of cuppa
TEA and tragedy were shared at the Japan Festival in Wellington .
Tea ceremony practitioners from New Zealand and Japan gathered at Wellington Town Hall for demonstrations of the art.
The festival’s theme was Kia Kaha – a reference to New Zealand and Japan’s shared experiences of natural disaster and recovery in recent times.
Tea ceremony, kendo and self defence expert Sue Lytollis, 54, accompanied members of the Sakai branch of the Tankokai Urasenke Tea Club on their visit and took questions from observers at the club’s demonstrations.
Ms Lytollis says although there are various differences between the two cultures, when disaster strikes their common qualities of resilience and mateship become clear.
“The proximity of those two catastrophic events has definitely brought the countries closer together,” she says.
New Zealanders can learn a lot about Japan from tea ceremony, as every part of the art reflects the country’s culture and history.
“I hope Kiwis can look on it as a moving meditation that conveys artistic endeavours and a sense of Japanese history,” she says.
“For example, when I open the container for the powdered tea, I show guests the inside of the lid, which is covered in gold leaf.
“I’m showing guests I’m not poisoning them, because the gold reacts to any poisons in the tea powder.”
Assassinations by poison were common in Japan’s Warring States Era – spanning the 15th and 16th centuries – in which tea ceremony was invented.
The practice developed as a way for warriors to hold negotiations in a neutral space where weapons were banned.
It spread to merchants and commoners, and served as a leveller in a society ruled by hierarchy.
“Tea houses have a low door called nijiriguchi, and all participants have to kneel to enter,” Ms Lytollis says.
“So the tea room came to be known as a hierarchy-free zone, because everyone had to bow at the same height.”
Ms Lytollis intends to start up an Urasenke tea club in Wellington early next year, and keep close ties with the group from Wellington’s sister city of Sakai.
The way of tea holds a special place in Sakai City because the originator of the art, Sen no Rikyu, was born there in 1522.
His heirs created various styles of tea ceremony, of which Urasenke, Omotesenke and Mushanokojisenke are the best known.
The Urasenke school has branches all over the world and accepts international students to its full-time tea apprenticeship programme in Japan.
Kaori Katamine is a Sakai resident and the third generation of her family to master the Urasenke style of tea ceremony.
She says both the tea ceremony and the drink itself have a healing effect on people.
Ms Katamine says Wellington, with its mountains and sea views, does not feel like a foreign country to her.
She says the four principles of tea ceremony, wa (peace) kei (respect) sei (purity) and jaku (tranquillity) can be appreciated by anyone anywhere in the world.
“The idea of kei is especially important to me when I do the ceremony.
“I must show equal respect to all the guests, regardless of their status outside the tea room, by preparing the tea and utensils with the utmost care.”
She says the hardest part of the tea ceremony was remembering the order of guests.
Frederic Soumagnas and Merumo Mukaide went to both the Urasenke and Omotesenke demonstrations at the festival.
Mr Soumagnas says the couple drink brewed green tea all the time, but the tea ceremony gives them a rare chance to enjoy the more intense powdered tea.
Ms Mukaide says green tea has many uses in her native Japan.
“Green tea has an antibacterial effect, so some people gargle with it to prevent catching colds,” she says.
“You can also use old tea leaves to absorb odours, or put them in your bath to purify your skin.”
Other demonstrations at the festival, run by the Wellington City Council, the Embassy of Japan and the Asia New Zealand Foundation, included flower arranging, hip hop dance and a fashion show of styles both traditional and modern.