Come and have some tea

by Doug Wallack 

photography by Andrew Wilkinson

I am led upstairs to the waiting area outside the tea room. It’s a Saturday morning and there is a lesson already underway inside. Sunlight streams into the space, illuminating its warm wooden hues. It is February, and the outside world is freshly blanketed in snow, but here a diminutive space heater keeps the chill at bay. One of my hosts, Glenn Swann, instructs me to wash my hands in ritual purification while we wait. Following his lead, I use the bamboo ladle to pour water over alternate hands, left then right, rinse out my mouth with perhaps a teaspoon more, and finally pour out what remains along the ladle’s handle into the basin below. “Now, do you have any white socks?” Swann asks. I glance at his feet and see that he’s wearing loose white tabi—toe socks that divide the big toe from the rest of the foot. I hesitate, having no such thing among my worldly possessions, and lift one foot slightly to indicate the blue and grey running sock that covers it. “Well… that’s ok,” he says, and we continue. But now, even before we begin, it is already abundantly clear that detail matters here.

I’m at Princeton Chanoyu, a traditional Japanese-style tea house in Kingston, New Jersey that is run and owned by Kiyoko Heineken. It is located in what was originally a carriage house, set back from the road and tucked slightly behind the main house—a large, late-19th century Victorian-style home. It’s difficult to imagine what the carriage house looked like before Kiyoko and her husband Ty remodeled it in 1994 with the help of their friend, the late Shizuo Watanabe. Using a combination of local materials and elements imported from Japan, they gave the structure new life as an architecturally fitting home for the tea room—as well as for Studio Japan, a private Japanese folk art museum they run on the first floor. Now, the building might look at home in Kyoto: on its front, a circular marumado window sits above a skirt-roof and sliding shoji screen doors. Its contrast with its surroundings is charming and unlikely in equal measure.

Chanoyu is the term for the tea ceremony— though Heineken insists that this translation misses something. “It’s more like a gathering,” she explains. Attending a tea ceremony is not a passive matter. Hosts and guests alike engage in highly ritualized practices that govern their movements, dictate portions of their conversation, and even direct their gaze. It is at least as much a showcase of delicate choreography as it is one of cuisine. Ideally, then, there are no observers in chanoyu—only participants. Mastering the intricacies of the tea ceremony takes time and dedication, so it makes sense that much of Heineken’s work at her tea house is pedagogical. She has about ten adult students who come to study and practice with her each week. Many of them have studied with her for upwards of five years. I joined them for a glimpse into this world.

Guests enter, one at a time, kneeling as they cross the threshold. We move in sequence around the room, which is no larger than 12-by-12 feet. First, we kneel at the corner alcove where we contemplate the flowers and the hanging scroll of calligraphy—both of which change to set the tone and reflect the season as the host sees fit. Then, we walk to the hearth, which is sunken into the floor, and observe the kettle, before taking our seats on the straw tatami mats. The host slides open a separate back door and enters to greet us before returning to the preparation area to retrieve sweets and the tea utensils.

Chanoyu embraces an aesthetic of rustic simplicity known as wabicha. This applies to the tea room itself—with its rough and largely unadorned walls—but crucially, also to the utensils. Tea bowls and caddies are of particular importance. Certain bowls and caddies are cherished for their bumpy, imperfect surfaces, the uneven application of their glaze, their asymmetry. In 2014, the Princeton University Art Museum built an entire exhibit around one such tea jar, a 700-year-old jar called Chigusa. Andrew Watsky, Princeton art historian and co-curator of the exhibit with Louise Allison Cort of the Freer Gallery, says that a tea object “not only has to be beautiful according to those aesthetic standards. It also has to be useful.” But, paradoxically, what begin as humble, utilitarian vessels can become highly prized collectibles. Tea objects have lineages, Watsky explains, and an object owned by a tea master accrues value not only because of the prestige of its owner, but also because of the aesthetic acuity of its owner. That mark of approval becomes wrapped up in the value of the object.

After the host serves the sweets, we have koicha—thick tea, the centerpiece of the ceremony. I’m shown how to receive the tea bowl from the first guest in the prescribed way, how to pick it up, how to nest it in one hand and turn it twice with the other. I’m encouraged to contemplate its form—the drips of glaze here, its depth, its texture. Then I drink. The matcha has a deep, mellow bitterness. And it is indeed thick, whipped to a warm, rich froth by the host’s bamboo chasen whisk. I drink perhaps two teaspoons of it before passing the bowl onward to the last guest, with that much again remaining. But this is enough. Heineken later explains that the tea ceremony is meant to engage all five senses, and it is clear that this central aspect of it does so in a remarkably deliberate and closely directed way.

In describing the tea lesson, I find it tempting to reach for the word “curation,” which in recent years has gained such currency in the public sphere, because so many aspects of my experience in chanoyu were dictated for me. But I try to resist thinking of it as a “curated experience” partly because the term has developed an unfortunate aura of retail buzz, but also because, even in its earlier sense of putting together an art exhibit, the idea of curation entails a singular curator. This is different. It takes the very quotidian act of drinking tea and thrusts it into a web of tradition and ritual that began to assume its present form over 500 years ago and has been reinforced by innumerable students and tea masters since then. Watsky, the Princeton professor, argues that chanoyu is not simply a practice of reenactment, but rather one that “both honors that past and continuously keeps itself renewed” through the subtle differences in the tea objects and how they are used and through the inherent differences that different participants bring to it. Yoshiko Okuda, one of Heineken’s students, tells me that part of what she values in studying chanoyu is its complexity and her sense that it is “so complete.” She says it makes her feel somehow more than herself.

Heineken says that, for her, the tea ceremony “creates a peaceful atmosphere.” She relates a recent conversation she had with her daughter in which she was marveling at the uptick in interest she’s seen lately in chanoyu. She speculates that people must sense that the tea ceremony can help them to “have a separate space for basic life” that they have difficulty finding normally. “I just wonder,” she muses, “This world is so unstable…”

The scroll in the tea room’s alcove that day read: “Go and have some tea.” This was not simply self-promotion. Glenn Swann clarifies that it is the refrain of the Zen master Joshu in a common story, his exhortation to new monks regardless of whether he has met them before or not. Swann explains that it can be understood as an affirmation of the routine. “Daily life is the Way. It has a deep meaning,” he says. Not everyone can devote him or herself to studying chanoyu, but this seems like an idea worthy of consideration. Go and have some tea, indeed.