Elizabethtown College Japanese professor devoted to learning, teaching traditional tea
He pauses for a few breaths—head down, eyes closed and grimacing as he steels himself against the pain shooting across his thighs. He’s been crouched in the same position for more than an hour—on his knees, the tops of his stockinged feet flat on the floor, his back stick-straight.
Nobuaki Takahashi is performing a traditional Japanese tea ceremony or chanoyu, a strategically choreographed art form, with movements mapped out over many centuries.
Takahashi, an associate professor of Japanese at Elizabethtown College, is, in this space and time, a student, learning the intricacies of Japanese tea—not just the beverage but the way of life, the culture in and of itself.
It takes years to get to the point where you can teach … I want to be certified; I want to keep going.”
He began learning the tradition in the summer of 2017 after applying for and winning a faculty grant aimed at teaching Asian culture in unique ways. “I’d been thinking for a while of taking classes,” he said, confirming that the grant helped move him toward this endeavor.
It pays for his lessons with Todd Frey sensei, of Gessha Japanese Tea House in York, Pennsylvania, where Takahashi goes once a week or so to learn about the ceremony and the tools of the ritual.
There’s the chawan, a hand-thrown bowl that’s integral to the ceremony, not just because it holds the tea, but because it’s the focal point of conversation; there’s the chakin, a small linen, folded and unfolded, just so, and used to wipe the edges of the tea bowl. Takahashi learns the uses of each—and of the natsume, chashaku and chasen*—and the precise ways they connect to the art form.
A lost generation
The method of tea—also called chado or sado—is imbedded in Japanese culture. “You just know it,” he said. “You know how to turn the cup in your hands; there are so many details. Even how to open the [teahouse] door is choreographed. My posture, how I sit, follow orders, respect my elders.”
Though his generation began losing interest in traditional Japanese art forms, it is now seeing a resurgence toward traditional values and the arts of origami, storytelling performance, flower arranging … and, of course, tea.
Utilizing his faculty grant, Takahashi said he wishes to reach the point where he can teach. Presently, the College’s Japanese program takes students to Philadelphia each year to watch a demonstration.
His ultimate goal is to create a tea-specific class at Elizabethtown College to help teach Japanese culture. There is definite interest, he said. Takahashi believes the unique class would help make the College’s Japanese program more visible.
His interest in the art of tea, he said, began a few years back, when sensei Frey was invited to campus by another professor for a demonstration to students. He said he was intrigued by seeing “this American guy who was fully certified” teaching a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
Taking interest in tea
Frey said he discovered Japanese culture in his pre-teens. “It was in the ’60s, I saw exotic things in magazines and watched “Kung Fu” on TV. I developed a love of all things Japanese, especially Zen.”
Years later, thanks to the internet, he found a teacher in Philadelphia. “I became licensed and had this illusion that I could make a living as a teacher of tea,” Frey said. Instead, he shares his knowledge part time, speaking at colleges and teaching a few interested students, including Takahashi.
Following tradition, Frey’s teahouse is an intimate space, with a door barely larger than the bodies crawling through it—it’s designed that way, he said, to keep samurais from bringing in weaponry. There is room for just a few people, all kneeling on the floor.
“Once you come through the small opening, it’s ichi-go ichi-e,” said Frey, “an experience that is unrepeatable.” Because, when making tea, the server gives 100 percent to the experience; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime interaction.
“In the modern world where multitasking is the norm, we have lost the ability to do one thing at a time with our full attention,” notes Frey on the Gessha website. “Just this simple act is enough to change our lives and open us in a most profound way.”
In a light-grey, restrictive kimono, Takahashi begins the ceremony by asking if he may serve his guests. Other than this, he is mostly silent. It’s 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 in society.
All told, there are 88 procedures in serving tea—how to sit, stand, bow, drink, eat sweets, wipe the bowl, fold the linen. Lessons are divided into two parts—as host and as guest. “It’s equally important to learn both sides of the practice.” Frey said.
As he serves the sweets, Takahashi’s technique is corrected. Frey gives him a second or two to modify his movements before redirecting him. He has “shoshin,” said Frey, “beginner’s mind.” Slightly different styles are taught by different teachers, but the general practice is always the same, he noted. “Like a dance.”
Sweets and tea are first served to the main guest—who sets the ambiance and pace of the service—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.
Purposefully, just two bowls of tea are prepared at once. When the first is emptied it is cleaned, filled and given to the third guest. When the second bowl is emptied, it is wiped clean and prepared, again, for the first guest. The pattern repeats until the main guest is satiated.
The idea is to give each visitor the opportunity to note the bowls’ artisanship. “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.
A typical chashitsu, or teahouse, is small—just the width of 4.5 tatami mats, the equivalent of 9 feet—and it’s sparse with only a shallow fire pit, a tiny hidden kitchen, rice-paper-covered windows and rice-straw mats, but along one side is an important focal point. A scroll, plant and small decorative items, each chosen by the tea master for very specific and personal reasons. They tell the story of the season or the holiday, based on the lunar calendar. They are never the same, but always heartfelt.
In the Japanese language, traditions ending in dō, such as kadō—flower arranging; shodō—calligraphy; budō—martial arts. And, of course, chadō—the art of tea, signify a process in which the art form is studied in a specific order to achieve mastery. Dō, loosely translated, means road or long path, Takahashi said. These traditions, he said, become a lifelong path.
“It takes years to get to the point where you can teach,” the professor pointed out, noting at least six steps in the process. “I want to be certified; I want to keep going.”
Natsume – a small, usually lacquerware tea caddy, which holds the ground matcha tea powder
Chashaku – a long, thin bamboo tea scoop
Chasen – split bamboo tea whisk