Smile Politely

What time is it? Tea o’clock.

If you’re in the mood for some wa (harmony), kei (respect), sei (purity), jaku (tranquility), and a free bookmark with the Japanese kanji of the four basic principles of tea on it, look no further than the Japan House nestled in the nature-filled University of Illinois Arboretum (2000 South Lincoln Avenue in Urbana).

I first learned about the UIUC Japan House when my friend called to make reservations for a Japanese tea ceremony while we were in Waikiki, Hawaii. We were told that the ceremony was all booked up. However, we could try visiting Waikiki’s sister tea house in Ur-bane-ah (I mean, that’s kind of how it might sound if you over-thought it) since we were from Illinoise (sound it out…).

And that’s how my gang of roving tea aficionados and I found ourselves at a recent Saturday tea ceremony with our shoes off. Before the spiritual — “not religious at all, so don’t be concerned!” — tea service, we went on a quick tour of the Japan House led by the facility’s newest intern.

After an introduction by the knowledgeable staff, the tea service was conducted by students from the “Chado: The Way of Tea” class, which meets every Thursday at 6 p.m. during the school year. (Classes are $8 per session and open to the community.)

The student who performed the Zen ritual of preparing the first bowl of tea gave a very nice performance, especially considering that it was his first presentation of the skills he had been learning for three months.

The audience was offered a sugary sweet from Japan to offset the bitterness of the green tea for our “American” palates. Either the candy worked, or I just like green tea, because I quite enjoyed my bowl (served with the ornamental side facing out and accompanied by a polite bow from the waist, which I returned from my seat as best I could). There were about a half dozen servers to accommodate our rather large group.

The students available for questions after the tea ceremony expressed their interest in Japanese culture as their main motivation for working at the Japan House and learning the Way of Tea. Because there were 35 guests, some of the bowls of tea were prepared in a side kitchen. When an audience member asked if the tea served from the back had been prepared with the same ceremonial techniques (Oh my god, that is so rude. Who would even ask that? Keith, we can’t take you anywhere.), the students pointed out that there are over 800 ways to serve tea, and one of those ways is with a traditional electric hot water heater.

After the ceremony, our group took a stroll amongst the cherry blossoms that we had admired on both sides of the window-lined tea room. We hopped from stone to stone in the garden to soothe our worried souls and work off some of that sugary candy.

Overall, it was a lovely way to spend a Saturday and another reminder of the fun to be had in our own “Ur-bane-ah” backyard. We learned about samurai, tea, and the cultural outreach projects of the Japan House, all in sixty minutes!

Reservations are strongly recommended for the tea ceremonies, which take place every Thursday at 3 p.m. through June 27 and Saturday, May 18 at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. (as well as every third Saturday at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. from September through May if you miss this semester’s events). Ceremonies are $8 per person. Be prepared to remove your shoes! The audience is served in chairs rather than in the traditional kneeling position, but do call ahead if you have accessibility issues or concerns.

In addition to the Way of Tea, the UIUC Japan House offers several other classes in Japanese activities, including calligraphy, flower arranging, cooking, and Kabuki. Check out their blog for updates on ongoing activities or visit the Japan House website for class and event schedules, pricing, and additional information.

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