and the five senses
Words: Yoshiko Arakawa, Translation: Heather Glass
In this feature we introduce you to the many different ways in which omotenashi style hospitality is extended and the things in which it is given form, to appeal to the senses through the eyes, ears and palate of a guest. We trust we will help you to savour the best of Japan’s omotenashi culture, by alerting you to watch out for, listen out for and hone your sensitivity to these almost imperceptible ministrations.
Tea ceremony and omotenashi
Just as in the West where guests are hosted with a cup of tea, in Japan there has been a culture of entertaining guests by enjoying green tea together. It was during the Kamakura period – from the 12th to the 14th century – that the custom of tea drinking as a tasteful pastime spread across Japan. Over time, and with the advent of the Muromachi period – from the 14th to the 16th century – the custom of chanoyu, or tea ceremony, emerged, in which a guest would be invited to enjoy whisked powdered tea, or matcha, and objects imported from China, or karamono, would be used as utensils and to decorate the zashiki drawing room. The famous tea master, Sen-no-rikyu, perfected the way of tea over 400 years ago in the Azuchi Momoyama period. The traditional culture of tea became an integral part of Japanese life and it has continued to bring spiritual richness and pleasure ever since.
The matcha used in tea ceremony is a type of green tea and is made by powdering the leaves of the tea plant. The carefully grown matcha is diligently whisked to a froth by the host in the tea ceremony room and while slightly bitter, it becomes a drink with a depth of flavour, in which umami and sweetness sit well together. Before drinking tea, guests at tea ceremonies are first served traditional sweets to enhance the flavour of the matcha.
After that, they enjoy the same drink, sometimes passing the tea bowl to share. The practice of everyone drinking a little matcha from a single bowl brings the guests in the room together in communion. Taking small sips and so tasting a little at a time means the aftertaste lingers long in the mouth, and tasting the rounded flavour of the tea as it gradually infuses the mouth is a delicate pleasure to be thoroughly enjoyed.
There are different schools of tea ceremony and the way in which each school makes tea is different. However, what we can say is that what is common to all schools of tea is that any host who entertains with matcha has a firm desire to do so competently and to have their guests enjoy the taste of the tea they imbibe. The true pleasure of the tea ceremony is that as a host hosts their guest and the guest drinks the tea with thanks, the communion between them deepens. In addition, when delicious green tea is tasted as part of a tea ceremony in a tea room, it is not just the sense of taste, but all of the five senses that are fully engaged. Completion is reached in awareness of the total experience, which incorporates being in concert with the seasons and time of year, the beauty of the host’s deportment and the modesty of their words, guests being considerate of each other and the taste and preference of the host apparent in their choice of utensils.
If you have the chance to take part in a tea ceremony, please embrace the experience of the coming together that this fleeting moment in time provides. Watching the flowing beauty of the carriage of the tea ceremony will, strangely, cause you to forget the passage of time. The feel of the tatami reed mats beneath the soles of your feet, the aroma of the tea, the heat conducted to your palms, the flavours and the encounters with others; the true pleasure of the tea ceremony is in fully tasting each of the moments described in the principle of ichi go ichi e (one occasion, one encounter). Please do have a drink of tea; it will transport you to a place of ease that is anything but humdrum.