In his exclusive series for Outpost, explorer and editor-at-large JEFF FUCHS reflects on the fascinating people and indelible moments of his extraordinary expeditions, and the role tea has played along the way. In this installment, he writes once again about the ceremonial act of partaking of tea in Japan—here in Tokyo, at a formal “tea ceremony.”
Story and Photos by Jeff Fuchs | Outpost Travel Media
Where: Western Tokyo, Japan
The Tea: Ceremonial Grade Koicha
The small alleyway leads ahead to an intersection, and from right to left strolls a figure in a black robe with shaved head, almost like an apparition. The figure takes long strides in his brief appearance before disappearing to the left behind neat, grey-toned buildings. Is that him? Is that Udagawa-san?
I race forward to the intersection, but there is only a mother walking with her uniformed son around that corner. The black robe and clean-shaven skull are gone. I look to Julie and Akemi to verbally ensure that I, in fact, did see the black robe. My wife Julie nods, and I feel a small surge of optimism, more certain now that I haven’t imagined the figure.
My journey here to western Tokyo was not made alone, though our numbers have not helped locate Udagawa-san or his little space for tea. I’m scurrying with my wife and her mother Akemi in tow down an alley, looking for a small house surrounded by bamboo “on a corner.” Within that small house, a tea ceremony awaits, along with the current head of the Sowaryu Tea School, Udagawa Sosho, who will himself serve.
The entire day has been built around this invitation to tea, and to an experience that was organized and recommended by local acquaintances who understood my interest wasn’t simply in the tea but in the people “of” the tea. My motivation is based on a description of both Udagawa-san and his ceremony. “An intimate mix of chaos and formality where tea might even be forgotten,” were the words that sealed it for…exactly how I enjoy my chaos—with an element of formality.
I crave this chaos, and the tea, and to meet this alchemist, all of which has turned me into a slightly ragged figure as we scurry along. Chaos isn’t something I’d imagine infusing with anything Japanese, much less the languidly rigid world of food and consumption—but the mention of its possibility is the sprinkling of stardust for me. Formality, and its taut structure, is a stunning element in ceremony and tradition; but it is (for me at least) the dash of random chaos and energy that can turn moments into something eternal.
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Both Julie and Akemi are far calmer and more accustomed to these intricately and almost formulaic urban spaces of Tokyo, having both been born nearby. They move smoothly and without panic. Julie is irritated with me and, not for the first time, reminds me we are still early.
“It isn’t only the tea itself that has pulled me here; it is also the fact that the 18th head of the Sowaryu tea school, Udagawa-san, will be presiding over the evening”
Tokyo’s neat and tidy day is ebbing, with a grey light taking over. Within me there’s a slight panic that we are close but no wiser as to the location of our destination, or the tea. It happens at times, when a serving of tea is coveted and expected at a certain hour but not forthcoming—and so my slight panic is a very real thing.
It isn’t only the tea itself that has pulled me here; it is also the fact that the 18th head of the Sowaryu tea school, Udagawa-san, will be presiding over the evening. The founder and first head of this lesser-known school of chanoyu (or “way of tea”) and hospitality, Kanamori Sowa, established Sowaryu in the late 16th century during Japan’s Edo period. As the current head of the school, Udagawa-san is responsible for passing on a set of ancient hospitality principles, and ensuring those principles remain intact and alive—though, ironically, my own motives for wanting to come here are entirely based on Udagawa-san’s reputation for a bit of “orchestrated chaos.”
We turn another tidy corner, and there we are (as Julie had reassured me it would be). In front of us, a green vertical set of bamboo cylinders line a corner, ground-floor home. It is as was described—but there is no sign, no visible marking of any sort other than the green bamboo that provides a kind of delicate barrier, a sort of fence that is a subtle divide between the tiny world of tea inside, and the surrounding metropolis of almost 14 million people.
The actual entrance to the home isn’t immediately obvious, but again, Julie finds the access point, just as the door is opened from within and a narrow sliver of dark quiet almost inhales us inside.
Within, after having been ushered through an immaculate doorway, we are shuttled onto an L-shaped series of tatami mats that gently crackle as we pad sock-footed over them. We sit facing a little square space of minimalism. Nowhere is there a sign of tea except for a dimly lit corner where there seems to be a kind of rough tea bowl. As it turns out, I will not see any tea for the next nearly two hours; it is banished from my mind from the moment we seat ourselves in this candle-lit sanctuary.
Zac, a young Frenchman wrapped in robes, effortlessly blurs around as he seats and welcomes us in languid Japanese and English, before disappearing through a small single doorway in the corner. And, there suddenly, he is—Udagawa-san. That black robe and shaven head is right there before us with a precocious smile, a soft bow, and an almost childlike energy of joy offered up all at once. Nothing serene could ever exist on that face, I think.
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He is everywhere all at once after his discreet bow, and the robe is barely able to contain his energy as he introduces us to this small rectangular room. As he talks, much comes from him about life, living, and the principles of giving. One concept embodied in this space around us is that this is, beyond all other things, a sanctuary of hospitality, where the mind can be restored. The world’s loud rattles, sprays, and bustle do not reach into here, and this is by design. We are in a place of nourishment, and all is being alchemized by Udagawa-san.
In a flourish of chirps, smiles and laughs, Udagawa-san is suddenly offering us sake, pouring it into wide shallow cups and explaining that everything served to us tonight has a story and a context. The sake is to relax us, to distance the notion of anything rigid or formal, and the layout of space and time here are, in themselves, a deliberate tonic for the senses. Local products, made by artisans and suited to this wet season in September, pay tribute to a time where society had to follow the “eat local, eat seasonal” tradition.
In a thrilling bit of reverse chronology that immediately resonates, I’m encouraged to offer Udagawa-san a cup of sake, as his enjoyment and participation in the moment are as vital as ours. It is, in fact, a kind of duty that all are offered a sip of the stuff out of a burnished-silver sake “kettle.” This gesture immediately eases any formality that could easily spring up in such a space. Sake flows, and Udagawa speaks about motives and traditions that should—in his way of seeing the world—be kept.
“Beyond formality, there is the need for hospitality and lightness of spirit,” he says through translation. Beside me, Julie is mottled in the dim light of three candles; and my mother-in-law Akemi seems to be slowly easing into this most wonderfully unscripted of tea times, though at one point she does ask quietly, “But where is the tea?”
Warm, with numerous cups of sake within, we are then treated to a meal (still no tea) in the kaiseki style of multiple small courses of local and seasonal delights, with the emphasis on seasonal. Mushrooms, a rampaging miso soup, tubers, delicately prepared ginkgo biloba, and an offering of sumptuous nori (dried seaweed) are all dedicated to restoring, preparing, and exciting the palate. Neatly sliced pickled daikon takes the palate into a soft trance of sweet and sour.
And the old Japanese concept of “satoyama”—seasonal foraging and replanting for eco-sustainability that’s common in mountain villages—is present in our meal. A return to the idea that all should not necessarily be available at all times: we eat what is in season, what is native to the area, what is available for all.
Zac and Udagawa-san almost glide in smooth, easy movements that don’t disturb the air, creating shuffling shadow-scapes that almost blur in the candlelight. Udagawa-san reminds us that the purpose before us is to ease all participants into a state of complicit unity, even if only for a brief period of time. His energy and perspectives are not simply the result of being a teamaster; they come from his time as an ordained monk within the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes an awakening and enlightenment, even if through abrupt means.
Our series of flow-moments here within Udagawa-san’s unscripted script—with bits of seeming chaos—is part of a journey of coming together, and each moment, however informal, is a step closer toward that end. I’m a contented passenger on this ride, and I note with delight that even my exacting mother-in-law is enthralled and thoroughly engaged in these thus-far tea-less moments. Her coos of satisfaction fill our little room.
Delicate flavours, blood vessels pumping, facial muscles relaxed in the simple surroundings that coax the being into a sense of wellbeing—these sensations surge the mind (mine at least) into a kind of sumptuous pleasure void. Concepts of sustainability are everywhere, though in this case, it’s just common sense. The iron rice-cooker (a kama) will boil water for both rice and tea (the latter of which has still yet to make an appearance); and the flames of wax candles warm as they flicker, providing just enough glow to make out forms in this room of stoic minimalism.
Somehow it is time for tea, though the informal lessons continue in every gesture and word. At one point, through translation, Udagawa-san mentions that “life and living is relationships,” and it is a thought that stays with me. This capsule of time managed by Udagawa-san in this little square is devoted fully to present-tense relationships, ones of the here and now. It is part of his gift and duty. And if tea wasn’t to arrive, I’d still feel I’d been part of something exquisite (though the tingle of the also-exquisite “ceremonial grade koicha” tea’s delicate flavours is still there, as even now I crave a hit.)
Koicha (or thick tea)—the luxuriant, almost syrupy tea made from whisking a high-grade finely-powdered green tea (called matcha)—is, in fact, the tea we’ve been waiting for. And at last, the tea of this very informal tea ceremony has arrived. Suddenly, Udagawa-san is solemn and silent as he slowly whisks the green dust and water into a paste. Though nothing of the festive nature of the participants has diminished, we are reminded that with this tea, something of the evening is being bound, something completed.
My mother-in-law Akemi is nodding her approval, as though she is finally being treated to a part of her own culture she recognizes intimately—precision and detail. The bowl, too, has a story—of course it does! Close to four centuries old, it belongs not to any one person but to the moment and all the moments it has been a part of. It is worn, its surface a matt finish, as though it has gathered a little of every tea ever served from its depths. All has been building to this shared bowl from which we will all sip.
I am presented the bowl by a still-serious Udagawa-san, and sip some of the chlorophyll power before passing it on, distinctly aware of the provenance of the bowl in my two palms. All is silent as we pass the bowl and share the koicha, binding us all further. Then another bowl of the bright-green thick tea is prepared, and it is enough somehow.
Before serenity takes over completely, a little smile appears on Udagawa-san’s cherubic mouth, and a little “chaos” is brought closer as Zac elegantly appears with cocktail glasses.
“Tea cocktails,” Udagawa-san giggles, and I realize the brilliance of his methods: levity is present throughout his tea ceremony to frame that brief serious moment of the passing of the bowl. What he serves beyond all other things are joy and respite. Cocktails, carved ice, matcha, and my mother-in-law’s little laughs fill the room. Our “evening” will end five hours later with a memory of tea and time etched into the marrow. ♦
Jeff Fuchs is an expeditioner, writer and long-time tea connoisseur who writes regularly about tea and travel.