I recently stopped by Itsy Bitsy, one of my favorite College Avenue shops, and was bowled over by an enormous change. In September, one third of the store was transformed into an authentic koma-cha-sitsu or small Japanese tea room. But the lovely tatami-matted platform ringed by serene green walls is not intended to provide a cup of tea after a long day shopping. Owner Shun Yang has taken her 25-year study of the way of tea and integrated it into her popular store to share her love of the traditional ceremony she describes as “life-long learning.”
She leads small classes on Monday and Tuesday mornings and Thursday evenings where students practice elements from the Japanese ritual that has been observed for over 400 years including:
…how to correctly open and close sliding doors, how to walk on tatami, how to enter and exit the tea room, how to bow and to whom and when to do so, how to wash, store and care for the various equipment, how to fold the fukusa, how to ritually clean tea equipment, and how to wash and fold chakin. As they master these essential steps, students are also taught how to behave as a guest at tea ceremonies: the correct words to say, how to handle bowls, how to drink tea and eat sweets, how to use paper and sweet-picks, and myriad other details.
— excerpt from http://japanese-tea-ceremony.net/
This Monday morning I am permitted to observe two students in their kimonos and obis, as they rehearse some of the meticulous movements that make up the ritual. They have been studying tea with Shun for 2 ½ months and are just at the beginning. Today they struggle with one of the most challenging steps, folding the fukusa just so. The small orange cloth is tucked discretely in their kimonos and used for the ritual cleansing of the tea-scoop and tea-caddy. It is exacting work and at one point they need to yank the cloth taut to produce a resounding snap.
Before stepping up into the tea room, however, students stand at a large stone and remove their shoes. Shun explains that the stones that line the front of the tea room represent “the way into a different world, not the outside world, but a more spiritual space to rest your body and soul.”
A lot of the practice centers on slowing down enough to savor the moment. One is handed the tea bowl and studies it from right to left. One learns precision in closing the shoji screen door, first 2/3 of the way with the left hand, then 1/3 of the way with the right. “The challenge is to be patient, look at everything carefully and appreciate it,” says Shun. The hardest obstacle for new students is the necessity of kneeling for an extended period of time. “One reason for the rules,” Shun points out, “is that when you focus completely, you cannot think of outside things.”
While Shun prepares the water and the tea for her guests by whisking the powdered green matcha with a chasen or bamboo whisk, I learn that being a guest at a tea-event has its own rules. Guests are supposed to enter the room one by one, bow and appreciate the flower arrangement and the hanging calligraphy that always adorn the space. Shun translates the meaning of the scroll now hanging in her tea room, “When your heart is quiet, the tea will taste better.”
Shun grew up in Taiwan and lived in Japan for 10 years where she took classes in ikebana flower arranging; but the study of tea was not commonly shared with outsiders. When she moved to California in the early ‘80’s, she worked as a waitress at Yoshi’s, whose owner took her along to study tea with her own esteemed teacher. Shun has been practicing once a week ever since and has formed deep bonds with her “tea sisters”. The study of tea has changed how I approach other things in life,” she says, “It’s a spiritual practice.”
I am seated on a stool outside the tiny room, ideally sized for 3-4 people. But I am also included as a guest in the ritual and offered a plate of okashi (sweets) to eat first and a bowl of strong frothy cha green tea to follow. I feel privileged to share this moment of tranquility.
Itsy Bitsy, 5520 College Avenue, Oakland, 510-428-1651