We had to take off our shoes at the door of the shofuso, so it took some time to get used to the smell of all those feet shuffling across the tatami mats.
Before the ceremony began, I found myself wondering if the scholars and priests who once lived in houses like these years ago smelled the same aromas when they invited guests to have tea. Then again, their guests probably weren’t tourists from Connecticut or college students with holes in their socks.
On Sept. 10, the Pine Breeze Villa – a Japanese tea house located in West Fairmount Park’s Horticulture Center – held a historically authentic Japanese tea ceremony. The ceremony itself is formally known as a chanoyu, which is the centuries-old practice of preparing and serving tea in Japanese culture.
A “shofuso” is a 17th century Japanese home and garden that housed socially elite individuals such as scholars or government
Pine Breeze Villa, the shofuso that is now located at the Horticulture Center was actually designed and built in Nagoya, Japan in 1953 by Yoshimura Junzoo. In 1954 it was presented by the America-Japan Society in Tokyo to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for exhibition. It was then given to the city of Philadelphia in 1958 and transported and reassembled
where it now stands in the park.
The tea ceremony itself was orated by Morgan Beard, a tea instructor from Urasenke La Salle – a school affiliated with La Salle University that is dedicated to educating people in the custom of chanoyu. Beard, garbed in a traditional,
plaid and charcoal kimono, began the program by explaining the history behind tea and it’s origins in Japanese culture.
“The tea ceremony was brought back to Japan from Zen monks studying in China,” Beard said. “Tea, as an everyday beverage, caught on in Japan first among the upper classes and Zen monks who had brought it there … and then spread throughout the population to everyday people.
“Beard noted that chanoyu, although eloquent, is not a necessary process for preparing tea in Japan. Many people prepare tea in the conventional way: by combining hot water with a tea bag. The traditional tea ceremony associated with chanoyu is only maintained by the older generation in Japan today, and not very readily accepted by young people.
“What you’re seeing today is a very careful, very conscious way of preparing tea,” Beard said. “The point of the tea ceremony is not simply focused on the drinking of tea, … the point of doing tea in this way is to give people an experience of coming together, of sharing in a moment and to really give them something they can take away with them and use in their everyday lives.
“Beard explained that, along with the tea from China, came the idea for the spiritually enlightening process of preparing that tea.
“A nobleman named Murata Shuko, who enjoyed tea very much, saw the possibility in making tea through a type of Zen experience,” Beard said. “He wanted to merge both tea and Zen together in order to make a single discipline.
“Beard stressed that one important aspect
within chanoyu is that it should be a rather humbling and peaceful experience. Although not peaceful, sitting among 30 strangers with two socks that don’t match can be awfully humbling. Luckily, as the tea was being prepared by Beard’s demonstration team, a favorable aromatic scent finally began to drift throughout the room.
“The first thing that happens at a tea gathering is that the guests arrive,” Beard said. “They will come through the doorway on their knees as a sign of their own humility and also as a sign of being on equal footing.
“The tea is prepared by the host of the particular shofuso, in which chanoyu is being held. The host uses an iron kettle heated by charcoal and, for most of the process, prepares the tea in front of guests. As our ‘fictional’ host prepared the tea, other demonstrators in the ceremony came in and out of the room serving sweets to every guest at the program. Beard explained that these sweets are made with a bean paste mixed with sugar and a type of seaweed, producing a consistency that’s almost like gelatin.
That part of the program generated some very excited expressions as the sweets made their way around to everyone.
“Once the sweets are served, the host comes in, greets the guests and says, ‘I’ll make a little bowl of tea for you,'” Beard said. As she explained what was happening, everyone looked on as the demonstration illustrated the actual art of chanoyu.
Finally, with the process complete, tea was served to everyone in attendance. With two hands supporting the porcelain bowls in which the tea was provided, everyone sipped their tea slowly, closed their eyes and seemed to drift around the world to the distant land of Japan.
“The coolest thing about this [tea ceremony]is that it really embodies Japan,” said James Atchison, a senior Asian Studies major and employee at the Pine Breeze Villa. “It’s Japan’s culture and history. By coming out here you can escape the city, … and it’s really
Atchison also said that it gives people who come to the tea house a much better understanding of Japan’s unique traditional culture.
“When we give people this history, I think it really helps them a lot,” Atchison said.
That history did seem to help as every one sat and drank tea, showing less interest in the mismatching socks scattered across the room, and paying more attention to the immediate Japanese culture they were submerged in.
Through the open doors of the tea house, the guests watched as coy fish splashed in the pond that reflected the surrounding landscape and afternoon sun. The hum of Montgomery Drive was barely noticeable behind the large trees of the shofuso’s garden. At that particular moment, it truly did become difficult to tell exactly where Philly ended and the ancient land of Japan began.
The Pine Breeze Villa will perform another
traditional tea ceremony Oct. 15 at 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.To get there, take Interstate 76 West to the Montgomery Drive exit. Turn West onto Montgomery Drive and make the first left through the gate and onto Horticulture Drive. Follow that back to the tea house. You could also take the 38 bus from Center City to the intersection of Belmont Avenue and Montgomery Drive.
T.C. Mazar can be reached at email@example.com.