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The Wisdom of Tea: Tea Ceremony in Kyoto

book the Wisdom of Tea by Noriko Morishita

So spring fled, summer blazed,

and autumn winds began to blow-

when, our eyes lifted heavenward

toward the meeting of the Stars,

we write down our fondest wish

on a mulberry-paper slip

slender as an oar,

rowing across the celestial stream.

In my previous blog, I wrote about my experiences visiting the amazing, head-spinning Gion Matsuri in Kyoto in July. It was a huge reason why I had hoped to visit Kyoto.

But I planned my trip so that I would arrive in Kyoto just in time to see Tanabata. I had read so much poetry regarding the romantic Star Festival, and my hope was that I might see something of the celebrations.

I especially hoped to see the pretty o-kashi sweets.

And when our especially dear friend in Kyoto, Mai, invited me to go with her to tea ceremonies which celebrated Tanabata and Gion Matsuri, she once again gave me experiences that are among the most beautiful that I've ever had.

朝々や茶がむまく成る霧おりる asa-asa ya cha ga mumaku naru kiri oriru

morning after morning my tea tastes better… falling mist


Mai in kimono

Mai is our dear friend who lives in Kyoto. She is trained in Urasenke tea ceremony, and is passionate about sharing her love of Kyoto arts. Many of my most wonderful experiences of being in the city are because of Mai and the places that she has taken me to.

Before I visited Kyoto for Gion Matsuri, Mai shared a book with me that she likes very much. You may know it too. It's called The Wisdom of Tea and it's by Noriko Morishita. There is a lovely film made of it too, called Every Day a Good Day.

sankeien garden yokohama

Yukki visited Sankeien Garden in Yokohama this summer,

and this beautiful place is included in Noriko's book.

The story follows Noriko from her early days making copious mistakes while learning the discipline of tea ceremony. It's a fascinating read that explores many of the aspects of tea ceremony that often raise questions in visitors to Japan.

This year, Mai was wonderfully kind, and I was very fortunate to be able to go with her to two very special tea ceremony events.

One was with a small group of friends at a private house, celebrating the Tanabata Star Festival and Gion Matsuri.

And the second event was a more formal tea ceremony at a temple near Kitano Tenmangu, in the Kamoshichiken district.

So, in this blog I would love to share what I am learning through Mai about tea ceremony, while weaving in insights from her recommended book, The Wisdom of Tea.


January 2019 was when I travelled to Kyoto to establish Zusetsu, and it was the first time I met Yukki's friend Mai. Mai invited me to go along with her to her tea ceremony class, in a warm tatami-matted room above a busy teahouse. Time disappeared as I sat so happily in that upstairs room with Mai and her sister, her elegant sensei, and her class-friends, as they practised making tea. I enthusiastically drank every bowl of matcha that was so kindly placed in front of me, and delighted in the delicious sweets. I was excited to try koicha, the thick intense matcha. And I always remember Mai's sensei saying to me, because I had drunk such a lot of matcha, ‘I think you’ve had enough now!’

The Battle of Humility

When Mai took me to tea ceremony at a small chashitsu at Daitokuji, we spent several minutes balancing on our white zouri slippers on a rounded stone just outside the tea room. Mai turned to me and said, just wait, no-one will move along as no-one wants to sit nearest to the kettle and be the guest of honour.

We were stuck – people sat closely around the perimeter of the open-framed tea room, and there was not room for us to even climb through them.

And so I recognised the moment in The Wisdom of Tea when something very similar occurs:

An hour later, our turn finally came.

“Sensei, where should we sit?”

“Anywhere but the main guest’s place,” Sensei replied. “Apart from that, sit where you like.”

…The only spaces left were the two for the main guest and second guest, right at the head of the row. Nobody made a move to sit there. Still standing in the middle of the room were two flustered middle-age ladies who had been late joining in this unique variation on musical chairs.

“There are places free here, so please take a seat.” The attendant tried to usher them into the spaces for shoukyaku and jikyaku, but the two women became even more alarmed. Insisting, “Oh, we couldn’t possibly. That wouldn’t do at all!” they managed to wedge themselves hurriedly right into a spot where no gap had existed a moment earlier.

This meant that, little by little, everyone else had to shift sideways to relieve the squeeze. The third guest, who was closest to the top seat, appeared anxious lest she end up being pressed into the main guest’s place. Her grim look revealed her determination not to budge from that spot at any cost, no matter how much she might be exhorted to move.

Eventually an elegant lady in her eighties is persuaded into the guest of honour spot, and her response is very sweet:

Loath as she had been to take on the role, as soon a she lightly settled herself into the shoukyaku spot, she straightened the hem of her kimono, adjusted her collar, then placed her fan before her knees and beamed as she addressed us all: “My, my. Please do pardon me for taking such a lofty position. I’m looking forward to this chance to study today.”

Once the shoukyaku vacancy had been filled, relief rippled through the room, the sardine-like squash

eased, and everyone sat more comfortably. (pp.56-58)


Nichinichi kore koujitsu – every day is a good day

The Tokonoma

camellia garden teahouse

As a guest at tea ceremony I have learned that the alcove or tokonoma is a special place where carefully chosen items are displayed by the host to make the guest feel welcomed. It is nice to take time to appreciate the scroll, the flowers, and the incense.

You may remember our Instagram Live from Camellia Garden teahouse in Kyoto. Atsuko san (pictured) met us by the tokonoma, and introduced us to the scroll which displayed the four gods which are prayed to for the peace and protection of Kyoto.

A detailed miniature brightly-coloured Gion Matsuri float was beautifully displayed on a small tray. We learned that many floats travel around Kyoto, and there are special food and souvenir stalls to enjoy.

The ikebana flowers were hiougi, which evoke the shape of the hinoki cypress fan which ladies of the Heian court used all those years ago. Hiougi, or leopard flower, is the flower for Gion Matsuri.

And, near to the edge of the tokonoma was a beautiful flowing branch of bamboo, with colourful tanzaku paper strips for our Tanabata wishes.


Listen to the Rain

Noriko writes:

“When you enter a tea room, look at the scroll and flowers in the tokonoma first,” Sensei instructed us. “The scroll is the greatest treat of all in Tea, you know,” she added. (p.79)

On page 81, there is a lovely passage in the book where Noriko describes entering the tea room on a fiercely hot summer day, and glancing at a long scroll hanging in the tokonoma with the single kanji for the word 'waterfall' written on it in 'thick, vigorous strokes.'

...the final stroke cascaded on down through the empty space and came to a stop near the edge of the scroll. The force of the calligrapher's brushwork had left tiny spots of black ink spattered across the paper.


For a moment, I could feel the spray on my face.

A cool gust of air rose up from the pool below...

Oh, it's lovely and cool.

And it's in this moment that Noriko realises that:

…You aren’t supposed to read the characters with your head. You just need to look at them, like a painting.

Noriko goes on to say:

While we repeatedly practiced increasingly incomprehensible o-temae, we enjoyed wagashi, held the utensils, admired the flowers, and felt the wind or water blowing out from the scroll.

We engaged all five senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste – as well as our imagination. Every week, single-mindedly, we savoured the season of now. (p.83)


A Splash of Water

japanese tea ceremony scroll

I was so glad to have learned about the impression of the scroll in Noriko's book, because when Mai and I went to the small gathering near Shimogamo Shrine, the ink painting in the tokonoma really struck me. Just look at it! Isn't it very much like the artwork that Noriko describes in her book!

So much thought and care had been put into choosing this art work for the guests on a hot summer's day.

The art is created on washi, pleated and shaped like a fan and hints at cooling breezes.

The water-blue ink is shaped like translucent refreshing water.

A gentleman artist who sat near us pointed out the unusual position of the signature seal - the water is halted by it, and splashes over the top.

And we were informed that the shape of those swirls of water represent the symbol of Yasaka Shrine - in celebration of July's Gion Matsuri.

So in one beautifully expressive piece of artwork, in a small room on a fiercely hot day, this translucent image of splashing water was placed there to be refreshing and cooling for the guests.

And Noriko writes:

...The scroll says ‘listen to the rain’: When it’s raining, listen to the rain. When it’s snowing, look at the snow. Savor the heat in summer and the biting cold in winter. Relish each day to its fullest, whatever that day might bring. This way of life is enshrined in Tea. (p.163)


A Gathering of Friends

gion matsuri painting

The private tea ceremony was beautifully themed around Gion Matsuri and Tanabata.

So much care had been taken over the choices of implements and decorations, and it was a joy to recognise the care and detail that the host had provided for us.

In the summer-matted ante-room was a screen decorated in that Heian-reminiscent way with little squares of gold and silver leaf. On it were mounted paintings that referenced the July celebrations of the city. There was an image of a maiko (referencing Gion and the matsuri); there were boats on the river with fireflies (referencing the warm summer evenings), and this painting of a Gion matsuri float.

tanabata tanzaku display

In the ante-room hung a beautiful tanabata display of sasa bamboo, hung with tanzaku written with Chinese poetry.

It made me think of the waka poetry in Genji Monogatari, and how it always referenced classical Chinese poetry :)

The colours of the paper were specially chosen too.

After a warm gathering together in the ante-room, we all moved through to the tea ceremony room.

The tea room display featured an antique illustration of a kimono with spools of silk underneath, signifying the Weaver Maid of Tanabata.

The silk was of the same colours as the tanzaku.


The tokonoma flowers were gathered in a bamboo flute, to signify the kon kon chikichin, konchikichin music of the Gion Matsuri, and hung near to the water scroll.

This group of kindly people had come together to admire beautiful art, to enjoy warm conversation, and to enjoy delicious tea. They were so welcoming to me :)

Everyone studied the implements with such interest and pleasure.


I watched with anticipation as the host unfolded and refolded the fukusa cloth and then wiped the lid of the natsume matcha powder pot in the hiragana 'ko' shape that Noriko describes in her book :)

The pot had the two constellations of the Tanabata lovers Vega and Altair discreetly decorating the top.

And what was extraordinary, was when the lid was removed, the gold that had shone so brightly on the inside of the pot now shone silver like the moon. And Mai informed me that that was caused by the reflection of the green matcha powder.

tanabata sweets

And then there were the sweets! I had longed to see Tanabata sweets for tea ceremony.

The round o-kashi were filled with anko and flavoured with mikan citrus, and coloured blue - a rare and difficult colour to achieve we were told, and decorated with stars of gold leaf for Tanabata. They were served on a heavy glass dish punctured with star-like holes, and as transparent as cooling water.

At the beginning of the tea ceremony, a huge variegated leaf like a giant mulberry or maple, striped and green and white covered the water jar. Mai told me that this was popular in the Heian era. It was cooling, and I was fascinated.

Mai told me that in the Heian era, poetry would be written on leaves like these, and to conceal the contents the leaf would be wrapped in paper. Over the years, the leaf habit fell away, and the paper became the tanzaku for writing wishes on that we recognize in Tanabata :)

The matcha bowls were all different, one had kintsugi gold to glint like the stars of Tanabata; one had the unusual red glaze of the Yasaka Shrine symbol.

tea ceremony sweets

The tea ceremony was in 3 parts. Following the usucha matcha we had delicious and delicate Japanese tea to drink before eating small coloured sweets and a strip of sweetened seaweed - it was amazing!

They were served on this wooden plate in the shape of a cooling fan.

Kyoto tea ceremony

And then we had cold tea in Meisen porcelain cups with dainty handles, picked out in wild flowers like an Alpine meadow.

The flowers on the cups echoed the ikebana flowers - they reminded me of a cooling Alpine flower meadow in summer.

'Tea ceremony is about the story', said Mai. And it's true that the tokonoma scroll, and the meadow flowers in the bamboo flute were all a part of a suggestion, leaving your imagination to fill in the rest. The Meisen porcelain took me to refreshing Alpine meadows, just as the natsume took me to the stars.


When you hear the water splash into the tea bowl,

the dust in your mind is washed away

–Sen no Rikyu

The Temple Tea Ceremony

kitano tenmangu tanabata

Mai and I met at the entrance to Kitano Tenmangu, which was festive with bright decorations for Tanabata.

Kitano Tenmangu holds a special place in my heart, as something magical always seems to happen whenever I visit.

Mai was delighted to discover the colours of the threads and tanzaku were replicated at our second tea ceremony, located at a beautiful temple in Kamishichiken.

Kamishichiken is one of the flower districts of Kyoto: it's a beautiful and refined area of ochaya and geisha okiya.

The tea ceremony was a private tea ceremony hosted by Mai's sensei.

While it was more formal than yesterday's friendly encounter, it was still marked by the gentle warmth and quiet kindness of the people of Kyoto. Everything was of a heightened level of beauty: the rains poured through the heat as we sat in the open-framed room of the temple, and the sound was something I will never forget.



I've written before of my intense perception of the warm breezes rustling the leaves of the willow tree just outside the Daitokuji tearoom, as we knelt inside on the tatami floor.

On this day in the temple I briefly turned to look behind me across the temple garden and register the beauty of the rain.

Noriko writes of the bubbling water in the stone bath outside the tea room to help cool the guests in the summer heat.

Our artist friend Anne spoke of matsukaze in our interview with her, and the sound stayed with me when I visited Camellia Garden in the north west of Kyoto in the autumn.

Noriko writes:

In the tea room, one sound can constantly be heard as a low, quiet undertone. We call it matsukaze: the wind through the pines. Small pieces of iron are attached with lacquer to the floor of the kettle specifically to generate this sound. When the water begins to boil, the wind’ comes in and goes in waves: shush-shush-shush-shush. Eventually it becomes a single continuous sssssssssshhhhhhhhh. Once the water reaches a rolling boil, it becomes a raging gale, whistling through the trees. Matsukaze and tea are inextricably entwined. (p.152).


Gathering in a Temple for Tea

In the room where the guests initially gathered were flowers, and a list of the implements that we would be seeing today. Mai knelt on the tatami to read of the treasures to come.

In this ante-room the scroll featured a lovely ink painting of chimaki talismans for Gion Matsuri.

We signed in to the event with an inked calligraphy brush.

In the tea room, the scroll image was horizontal, and this was because we were all seated on chairs. We could easily see the art work. If we had been kneeling on tatami and looking up at the scroll it would have been a vertical image.

I took care not to walk on the decorated seams of the tatami.

The mizusashi water jar and pot for holding the hishaku bamboo ladle etc were a rich celestial blue that was glazed so shinily it looked like the brown leaf shapes were carried by water.

tea ceremony

Scene from the movie Every Day a Good Day

In her book, as a young woman Noriko is instructed to carry the water jar lightly: to carry heavy things as if they are light and light things as if they are heavy.

She learns how to scoop the water from the kettle with the hashiku bamboo ladle, taking the water from the bottom of the kettle, not the top: she is instructed, ‘middle cold, bottom hot’.

The chawan tea bowls at the temple tea ceremony were all different in shape and style, and they all looked like seriously beautiful (and costly) works of individual art. There was a flatter celadon glazed bowl which was a tea bowl for summer, which I believe was Chinese.

I was surprised by the level of Chinese influence. In The Tale of Genji, Chinese artefacts are considered high status. I immediately thought of the Heian waka poetry and how it references Chinese classical poetry, and how at the previous tea ceremony Chinese poetry had featured on the tanzaku.

The chashaki bamboo tea scoop had been made by someone very important!

My tea bowl was high-sided, and richly gilded with accents of silver. There were leaf images, and scrapes to the inner gold which excited interest.

Another tea bowl was black on one side with splashes of a whitish colour in the bottom. My imagination told me they were koi - the bowl had been named by its creator 'Biwa-ko'.

Mai had thoughtfully brought a small Nishijin-ori style purse for me called a sukiyabukuro, to store my wooden youji sweet-pick and the kaishi papers to balance the sweet on.

The sweets were a violet shade of blue and dusted with gold leaf stars for Tanabata, and were served on semi-opaque glass dishes that had a scalloped edge. The glass rays of the dish radiated out from under the sweet so that the stars in that milky way orbited within a giant moon.

That sweet was very light.

I sat with Mai in an open-framed tatami room beyond which the rain fell from the sky in a sheet. I sat next to a little girl and her mum, and the little girl's skirt pattern echoed the daisies on my long dress. The little girl was being introduced to tea ceremony at a young age. The matcha was brought to her in a small bowl. She enjoyed her Tanabata sweet!

Noriko writes:

One day when it was pouring down, I became so absorbed in the sound of the rain that the room seemed to disappear, leaving me right in the middle of the deluge. As I listened, I eventually became the rain falling on the plants in Sensei's garden. (p.xiii)


Kyoto Sweet Shops and Teahouses

Kyoto sweet shop kanshundo

In the wagashi-making lesson that I enjoyed later in the week at the sweet shop Kanshundo, we learned how to make jou-namagashi.

White bean paste is pushed through the mesh of a strainer to make fine flakes. These are then carefully applied to a central ball of anko red bean paste with chopsticks!

Noriko writes:

Wagashi are flavoured not simply with their ingredients, but with the season itself. [p.70-71]


Each one of the plump, round sweets was covered in tiny cubes of agar and perched on a real hydrangea leaf. Their colors varied like the flowers on which they were modelled:

some were bluish, while others had a magenta or violet tinge…

I picked up one of the bluer hydrangeas with the spicewood chopsticks and placed it on my kaishi.

I picked up one of the bluer hydrangeas with the spicewood chopsticks and placed it on my kaishi. After taking another moment to appreciate its delightful form, I pressed my silver sweet pick

against the agar. The jelly resisted slightly before

the flower split in two, revealing the azuki paste inside.

When I popped a piece into my mouth, the

delectable sweetness of the bean paste mingled

with the coolness of the agar. (p.157).


kyoto teahouse kagizen


There are other ways to enjoy matcha tea and a sweet in Kyoto.

I love visiting the teahouse Kagizen, which is very near to Gion where I was staying on this trip.

It's always difficult to choose the sweet when a selection are brought to the table! This time I chose this translucent sweet that looks like a wave.

kyoto teahouse rokujuan


It was thundering and raining when I stood outside the beautiful villa Rokujuan. The house was warm, inviting, and cosy in the lamp light as the rain poured down. I was given a tour of the old house and told of its history, and then I was led to a table in a quiet tatami room, overlooking the garden.

I can't really describe how I felt, sitting in this beautiful place, enjoying the refreshing and astonishingly delicious hanawarabi sweets which encased flower petals. It was a truly wonderful place to be!

Saryou Housen

kyoto teahouse saryou housen

On my last day in Kyoto, I travelled back to Shimogamo Shrine, and walked through the little lanes to the Saryou Housen teahouse. It is so popular I had to wait to be shown to a table and take my seat on the tatami floor.

I enjoyed a delicious Kinto sweet with the green matcha. The sweet reminded me of my attempt to make one at the wagashi class at Kanshundo :)

On the walk back to the station I crossed the stepping stones over the Kamo river and plunged my feet into the cool water!


Studying the Way of Tea

In The Wisdom of Tea, Noriko describes entering the tearoom, sliding open the door, and walking to the kettle in six steps on the tatami, while not treading on the tatami edging.

Atsuko san of Camellia Garden Teahouse in Kyoto said that there were many micro-movements to tea ceremony. Noriko writes about how she was encouraged to absorb the movements, not to study and learn them. Her hands began to learn to move by themselves. The movements over time and practise become second nature – her body knows where to move next.

Japanese tea ceremony

Scene from the movie Every Day a Good Day

'When you sit in front of the kettle, you have to be in front of the kettle.' Sensei would say. You have to concentrate on emptying your mind. (p.151).

It is important not to be thinking about problems or letting the mind drift – you need to be in the present.

There are seasonal variations to tea ceremony, the most striking perhaps being the winter o-furo, with the welcoming embrace of the warmth in the tea room provided by the brazier sunk into the tatami floor. Conversely, for summer tea, the brazier sits at a distance to keep guests as comfortable and cool as possible.


chawan tea ceremony bowl

Haiken is a formality which happens after usucha, the sharing of the tea. The tea ceremony materials are passed from guest to guest in order to share the pleasure of appreciating their artistry. It is the opportunity to take time to hold the tea bowl in your hands, to feel the weight, to admire the colour and decoration, gently turning it over to see the base and the seal.

Each implement is then carefully placed onto the tatami next to the guest on your left.

I listen to the sound of the breeze in the willows beyond the teahouse and the gentle murmurs of appreciation from the guests.

Noriko writes:

Amid the scent of the charcoal and the sound of the wind through the pines in the kettle, I would put thoughts of myself on hold as I opened up my heart completely to my five senses. Bathed in the white light that filtered through the sliding paper screens, I would watch intently as someone swished a chasen back and forth, then eat wagashi, drink the hot tea, and slowly exhale. I’m part of the seasons, too. All I need to do is connect to them like this... (p.176)

wagashi-making class

From the Kanshundo class: Cathy's wagashi!


Zusetsu JanuaryInJapan Bookclub

I hope you have enjoyed reading about the beauty of tea ceremony,

and about the fascinating book The Wisdom of Tea by Noriko Morishita.

We would love to hear about your experiences of tea in Japan, and to this end

we would love to invite you to join us for our JanuaryInJapan Bookclub.

The Wisdom of Tea book Noriko Morishita

You are welcome to read the book The Wisdom of Tea,

or watch the movie Every Day a Good Day,

or simply join us to chat about your good memories of tea in Japan.

Our optional extra read is The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

The Book of Tea Kakuzo Okakura

Let's have a relaxed chat about tea in the dark days of January to lift our spirits!

Our online JanuaryInJapan Book Club will be on Saturday January 20th at midday UK time

and it will run for approximately one hour.

This year, Yukki and I are absolutely thrilled to be joined by our friends Akira san and Mai.

Mai has very kindly offered to answer your questions about Japanese Urasenke Tea Ceremony.

Akira san (visiting researcher at Utrecht University; JSPS; research fellow affiliated with Hokkaido University) will guide us through the differences between

Western philosophy and the philosophy of Tea in a short presentation.

It is a free online event, but we ask you to sign up to our Eventbrite ticket page as spaces are limited.

Our Eventbrite page is now live, so please do sign up for your free tickets!

We will email you the Google Meet link just before the event.

Thank you for reading, and hope to see you soon,

Cathy and Yukki xxxx


Thank you as always to Mai

Noriko Morishita, (Eleanor Goldsmith translation), The Wisdom of Tea, (Allen and Unwin),

and the movie of the book called Every Day a Good Day.

Sankeien Garden, Yokohama

Poem, 'So Spring fled...': Royall Tyler translation of The Tale of the Heike, (Penguin Classics).


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