Casually enjoying a fusion of water and tea
Text: Keiko Nakamura / Photos: Tamami Tsukui and Takashi Oka
In the central area of Kyoto city, there is a street running north-south called Ogawa-dori, meaning “stream street,” though we don’t see any stream along the street. This street name originated from a stream which used to flow here and lead into the Horikawa river. Attracted to the good quality of the water of that stream, masters of Chado, Japan’s “way of tea,” established their home bases along the stream. Walking south on Ogawa-dori, here and there you come across shops specializing in chado implements, and a stretch of estates with impressive front gates. The estate at the north is Urasenke’s Konnichian estate, and directly south of that is Omotesenke’s Fushin’an. Mushakojisenke’s Kankyuan is a short distance further south, but nevertheless, it is intriguing that the estates of the three Sen families which were established by the great-grandchildren of Sen Rikyu, the man who developed Chado, exist along this same street. Albeit the stream was covered over in 1963, blocking its flow, the underground water is still in good condition, and the three Sen families continue to use the excellent spring at their respective estates, protecting it as a sacred place.
Urasenke is the largest Chado line of all, and the name of its tea room, “Konnichian,” is a synonym for its historical estate. Passing through the sedate cedar-bark-thatched “Kabutomon” gate and proceeding through the garden pathway, there is the Ume-no-i water well. Water is drawn from it every morning to make tea, and the well has never run dry. “The water is drawn at the hour of the tiger; around 4 o’clock in the morning, is the rule. According to the theory of Yin-Yang and the Five Elements, this is the time when positive energy increases. The water must be drawn before the rooster crows,” I was informed by Chado researcher Dr. Hiroichi Tsutsui, Vice Director of the Chado Research Center. He also said, “Legend has it that when the nation’s capital was transferred to Kyoto in 794, plum trees which put on white blossoms were brought to Kyoto from Nara, but after some years, a portion of them began putting on red blossoms.” The underground water which flows into Kyoto from the mountains on three sides is rich in minerals, so it is possible that the white plums turned to red plums owing to the iron. The water used for tea similarly is full of minerals, we could say.
I visited the Chado Kaikan training facility right across Ogawa-dori from Konnichian and was showed into a dim tea room with tatami floor. A dry landscape garden could be seen through the sliding panels made of reed, and every time a breeze arose, it made the bamboo leaves rustle. In the alcove, there was a nice harmony between the scroll reading “Pure Spring” and the Hibiscus syriacus flower. Mr. Shoji Soken sensei, wearing a light summer kimono, prepared tea for me in a beautiful manner. A distinctive feature of Urasenke’s matcha is that it is whisked well so as to be frothy. When coupled with the soft taste of the well water, the matcha tasted mellow. The astringency of the tea was probably reduced just enough by the combination of the tannin with the water which, having been boiled in an iron kettle, had increased its iron content. Dr. Tsutsui explained, “Rather than steeping the tea leaves as in Sencha, matcha is a matter of drinking the leaf altogether. The fine particles of tea powder, ground in a stone mill, are round, and blend well with the mild water. Matcha really is a fusion of water and tea.” Eisai Zenji, who brought tea back to Japan from China in the Kamakura Period, wrote, “It is an elixir for eternal good health,” and by drinking this precious tea leaf, people have experienced its effectiveness. Urasenke has many overseas associations, and Mr. Shoji travels around not only Japan but also places overseas teaching Chado. He told me, “It was hard water I used in Saint Petersburg, Russia, last summer. When I came back to Japan, I appreciated that we have soft water, for soft water does go well with tea after all.”
Urasenke’s Chado Research Center is a facility where one can get the feel of Japanese traditional culture by such means as viewing the exhibitions mounted several times a year in the galleries. One feature is that, with admission, visitors can have matcha service in the ryurei style, meaning using tables and chairs, as opposed to sitting properly in a traditional-style Japanese room. Japan’s first international Expo was held in 1871, in Kyoto, and for the Kyoto Expo the next year, the 11th-generation Urasenke grand master ― the grand master five generations previous to the current grand master ― thought up the ryurei style for welcoming guests from overseas. Ms. Yoko Nakano, who is in charge of the matcha service at the Chado Research Center, explained, “We receive many kinds of overseas guests; some do not like the unfamiliar taste of the matcha, while some hold out their tea bowls and request second helpings. This is a place to enjoy tasting the tea at ease, so please drink it as you like.” There’s no need for stiffness, no worry about feet feeling numb, and another nice point is that the servers will explain about the manners and the decorative articles if you ask. It is not enough to simply drink the matcha quietly, for the thing to do is to sip up the last bit with an audible quick last sip. That way, you fully partake of the kind efforts of the one who prepared the tea, and there can be this communication between you. I was not aware of this before. Enjoying the “fusion of water and tea” to the last sip, I felt contented and refreshed.
Urasenke Center, 1st and 2nd F
ADDRESS : 682 Teranouchi Tate-cho, Horikawa-dori Teranouchi agaru, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto
Tel: 075-431-6474 (Japanese); 075-451-8516 (English)
HOURS： 9:30 a.m. ～ 4:30 p.m.
Contact : email@example.com