Weekend leisure: Taking time out for tea

By Melanie Cooper

There's a lot more to the time-honoured Japanese tea ceremony than a quick cuppa and a biscuit, writes Melanie Cooper.

Eleanor Goldsmith stands in the 'Arts Of Asia' gallery at the Auckland Museum. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Eleanor Goldsmith stands in the 'Arts Of Asia' gallery at the Auckland Museum. Photo / Steven McNicholl

A good cuppa is a fine thing but for most of us it involves a quick dunk of a tea bag sandwiched in between the day's activities. For practitioners of the traditional art of Japanese tea ceremony, though, it's the process as much as the resulting hot drink that makes it a restorative brew.

Eleanor Goldsmith, who works 11-hour shifts providing phone assistance to travellers whose best-laid plans have hit a snag, says focusing on the detail of the tea ceremony provides her with a sense of peace and respite from daily stresses.

"For me the relief is in being able to focus on something that doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things but that I enjoy getting right. I enjoy the ritual of it; giving myself over to the detail, concentrating on getting each and every move exactly right."

A full tea ceremony - reserved solely for days when Goldsmith doesn't have a shift - calls for a lengthy list of equipment. Each piece has its own place in the ceremony: a brazier, an iron pot for heating water, cold water pot, tea container, tea bowls, a bamboo tea scoop, water scoop and tea whisk, a dish for waste water, silk and muslin cleaning cloths, special papers and floor mats.

The tea itself comes in a bright green powdered form and delivers a richer taste than the leaves. Powdered green teas that have earned the praise of tea ceremony schools also tend to cost a bit more.

"It's not a cheap hobby but if you join a club you can use their equipment until you get your own."

Goldsmith has accumulated most of the pieces she needs now - each of them with their own back story. Her traditional Japanese kimono came via Trade Me, she secured her heavy iron kettle from an antiques fair at the Alexandra Racecourse and her lacquered tea caddy comes from the Fukushima prefecture, recently devastated by the earthquake.

Originally from Wales, Goldsmith first joined a tea ceremony club while working as a new graduate in local government in Japan.

"I was struck right from the start by a sense of fitting in despite being a foreigner, and being made to feel very welcome. Hospitality is at the heart of tea ceremony, you are thinking about others and about making it an enjoyable experience for them."

"Tea ceremony is an art but it's not an art like drawing or painting where you need that innate skill to begin with."

Goldsmith went on to study tea ceremony in Japan for nine years, before emigrating to New Zealand with her husband in 2006, but rates her skills at an "intermediate level".

Now a teacher for the NZ Japan Society's Auckland Tea Ceremony Group, she joins a small but growing group each month to practice and share in the ritual.

"Coming together is a really important part of tea ceremony. You need other people to capture the sense of hospitality and community which is at the heart of it."

She says the essence of tea ceremony is not that it has to be perfect but more the idea that people should try their best on every occasion.

"There is a Japanese saying 'ichi go, ichi e' or 'one time, one meeting' which is a reminder that every meeting or occasion will only ever happen once so uld make the most of it."

In an effort to keep traditions alive and share the culture the NZ Japan Society carries out public demonstrations of tea ceremony. At around 20 minutes they are a pared-back version of ceremonies Goldsmith witnessed in Japan which included special occasion tea ceremonies of up to three hours.

"The three-hour ceremony involved a thick tea and a thin tea and a meal but in the end it was still about sharing the occasion with the people that were gathered together."

She says the Japanese philosophies threaded through tea ceremonies resonate with a lot of people.

"It is about slowing down, taking time to appreciate each action and each moment."

Living tradition

Practice every fourth Wednesday from 7pm. $5 per session (NZ Japan Society members). For information email culture@nzjapan.net. You can experience a tea ceremony and tasting today at Auckland Museum: the NZJS hosts this week's session of the River Lives series from 11am-2pm looking at the stories and traditions of the Tonegawa River.

- NZ Herald

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