Head down, eyes closed, he steels himself against the pain that’s about to shoot across his thighs. He has been on his knees for more than an hour, crouching, the tops of his stockinged feet flat on the floor.
Associate Professor of Japanese Nobuaki Takahashi has been performing a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, a strategically choreographed art form, with movements mapped out over many centuries. A full ceremony can take several hours
In this space and time, the professor is the student, learning the intricacies of tea—not just the beverage but the way of life and the culture with which it is associated.
He began his journey in summer 2017 after securing a faculty grant for teaching Asian culture in unique ways. The funds pay for his lessons with Todd Frey, sensei of Gessha Japanese Tea House in York, Pennsylvania, where Takahashi learns about the process and tools of the ritual.
The teahouse is an intimate space with a door barely larger than the bodies crawling through it—designed that way to keep samurais from bringing in weaponry. As the house is just the width of four and a half tatami mats, or 9 feet, there is room for just a few people. All kneel on the floor.
There is a shallow fire pit, a tiny hidden kitchen, rice-paper-covered windows and rice-straw mats. Along one side are important focal points—a scroll, plant and small decorative items chosen by the tea master to tell the story of the season or the holiday, which is based on the lunar calendar.
In a restrictive kimono, Takahashi begins the ceremony by asking if he may serve his guests. Other than this, he is mostly silent. It is a show of respect, he said. To become a tea master you not only learn how to sit and move, but how to behave and be respectful.
There are 88 procedures in serving tea—how to sit, stand, bow, drink, eat, wipe the bowl, fold the linen. Sweets and tea are served first to the main guest and then to the subordinate guests.
The main guest sips his tea three times, no more-no less, and signals that he has finished by making an audible slurp deep inside the tea bowl.
“After you drink, you observe the tea bowl and talk about it,” said Takahashi. The observation conversation is central to the ceremony.
In the corner, on his knees, Takahashi continues cleaning, wiping and serving.