On this date exactly one year ago, I experienced my first Japanese Tea Ceremony. As I’ve mentioned, I’m very interested in Japanese culture and food, and matcha in particular. When I heard that Frederik Meijer Garden in Grand Rapids, MI does regular tea ceremonies, I had to go!
I grew up in Grand Rapids, and my family has many fond memories of going to the Garden. I’ve watched it grow and develop over the years, and a Japanese Garden opened there in 2015, complete with a tea house (where the ceremony takes place).
Excited to be back at Frederik Meijer Garden!
Japanese gardens are spaces of contemplation, stillness, and beauty. The traditional components are: stone, water, and of course: plants! The garden at FMG was designed to have many winding paths, suggesting a spiritual or contemplative journey as you wander the grounds. They have a zen garden, waterfalls, and the central lake was designed to outline the Japanese character for “heart.”
View of the garden from the highest point.
We began the tea ceremony outside of the tea house at a little covered bench area, and the tea master came out to greet us and lead us into the house. We removed our shoes, and sat on a long bench mounted on the wall. The house was pretty small and, despite the fact it was 85 degrees and humid, there was no air conditioning…just some fans. I felt sorry for our hosts, dressed in full kimono. But they looked awesome.
Tea master, far left, with helpers all in kimono.
Since our tea hosts spoke little English, they had a translator give the complete narrative and translation of what was going on during the ceremony. She provided the history of the ceremony, and a very detailed description of the environment, tools, etiquette, and steps. At first I was a bit disappointed we didn’t get to actually participate in the ceremony (we just watched), but once I realized how complex it was, I was grateful to not have the added pressure of doing things “correctly.” While meant to be a peaceful time of personal reflection, focus, respectful fellowship, and embodied beauty, tea ceremony hosts and participants study for years before they master the art. I’ve heard estimates of 10 years or more! And the ceremony itself can be a four hour-long affair (although ours was not that long). Each step carries meaning as well as function, beauty as well as hospitality.
Inside the tea house, tatami mat room with tea making supplies in the corner.
The host of the tea ceremony is instructed to have a sprig of something from nature on display, something simple (not grandiose), and from the current season. A simple saying is also often displayed in calligraphy to promote stillness and contemplation.
After watching 2 of the ladies go through the process of the ceremony, with each step explained by the interpreter, we were given a chance to taste the tea (prepared by lady #3). Each person was handed a cup / bowl with a bit of matcha in it to taste. The bowls are Japanese pottery made in Shiga prefecture, Japan, which is the sister prefecture of Grand Rapids, MI. The same area also supplied the treat we would try later. “Each bowl is very special…a museum piece in its own right,” said our guide. No pressure holding something like that and trying to act graceful with it, right? She also said that it is customary to turn the “prettiest” part of the bowl with the nicest design element or coloring away from yourself and towards the other people in the room, so that you are sharing the beauty with them rather than keeping it to yourself. She mentioned this after I’d already begun drinking…
This tea was definitely not sweetened! It was really nice to try authentic tea ceremony prepared tea. And much to my delight, we were also given a treat: a small sakura-flavored mochi (made in Japan!). I had been hunting everywhere to try something sakura-flavored, so I was overjoyed to try it at last, and a very authentic version at that! There was a small sakura blossom design on the top, and the mochi was nice and soft. The flavor tasted delicate, and was like a sweet perfume taste. Not easy to describe.
While the treat was delicious, it was the only item we consumed other than the small amount of tea. I’ve mentioned before how I enjoy more food pairing with tea, so I was a bit disappointed to not only just be an observer, but also not get to taste or drink much during the event. The cost per person for the tea ceremony was $60, which I thought a bit steep given the fact that there was little participation and not much tasting. One could, after all, learn similar information about the tea ceremony from YouTube videos free at home, so other than the ability to ask questions, shouldn’t there be some additional incentives for having the “in-person” experience at an affordable price? Perhaps that would take the tea ceremony too much out of its native context, I’m not sure, but a bit of disappointment due to the reasons above was my main impression after the experience.
Still, I was very glad to have the opportunity to go! I can’t say I’m eagerly looking to attend another tea ceremony, though. I’m content to stick with bottomless pots of tea and 3-tiered towers of food for half the price, thanks. 😉
Until next time…tea you later!