Sobin Koizumi vividly remembers her first Japanese tea ceremony.
She was a shy, quiet six-year-old girl, and her parents brought her to a tea house with them on a hot, muggy summer day.
“We approached the tea house and I saw that the path was splashed with water to welcome us, and I could smell a faint fragrance of incense from somewhere nearby,” says Koizumi, now 72 years old and a sensei, or teacher, from Kyoto.
The tea bowl she drank from had a morning glory pattern on it. During the ceremony, while the traditional small cakes and bowls of tea were served, she was well-mannered. But after they left the tea house, she surprised everyone around her by becoming very animated and excited.
“I don’t remember the sweet taste of the little cake, but the taste of the tea, I will never forget,” she says.
Observing this excitement, her parents asked the tea master to come to their house and give her tea lessons, despite her young age. A lifelong love affair with the ceremony was born, leading her to not only host traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, but to teach others to host them as well.
A Long-Established Culture
Tea first came to Japan from China during the Tang dynasty in China, from 618 to 907 A.D., when relations and cultural exchanges between the two countries were strong. Then, as the two nations became isolated from each other during subsequent centuries, China began serving tea as a popular beverage, while Japan continued to focus on its medicinal uses.
In the 12th century, Myoan Eisai, the founder of Zen Buddhism, returned from a trip to China and began growing tea for religious purposes. He suggested grinding the tea leaves and then adding hot water to them. Hui-tsung, an emperor during China’s Sung Dynasty, also wrote descriptions of how to use a bamboo whisk to mix the tea after adding hot water. This instruction formed the basis for the modern tea ceremony, which was solidified in the late 16th century by Sen no Rikyu, the priest who established and popularized the practice.
“This long-established culture of tea ceremony … has been bringing peace in the mind of Japanese people for a long, long time,” says Koizumi. “This is what I would like to introduce to more people in the world, if I may.”
Hosting a Ceremony
In the Japanese tea ceremony, a small bowl of matcha is made and served through very precise movements and actions. When matcha first arrived in Japan at least 800 years ago, it was worth more than gold, and only the elite drank it. It became popular in the mid-1700s, when the uji green tea processing method was invented, allowing the tea to be mass-produced and available to the broader population of Japan.
The world of tea ceremonies in Japan is complex. Koizumi says there are many schools with slightly different styles and rules regarding certifications, but all of them have the same origins. Over the years, tiny adjustments have been made to the ceremonies, but they mostly remain unchanged.
The preparation period for a ceremony can often take longer than the event itself, and Koizumi thinks it is considered to be at least, if not more, important. She says a casual tea ceremony may have four to five guests, while more formal ones can include up to a dozen people. In Japanese culture, she explains, it’s generally considered a good idea to know the basics of how a tea ceremony works.
Koizumi, third from the left and surrounded by her sisters, sits at age six with a stuffed animal during a tea ceremony. Her teacher stands behind the family at the left in the back row. Koizumi kept this photo for 66 years, explaining, "otherwise people might doubt my story about finding out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life when I was six." PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY SOBIN YOIZUMI
Becoming a Master
Koizumi says she was fortunate enough to study under the grand master of Urasenke, one of the more prominent tea ceremony schools. It took her three years to become certified to teach others how to host tea ceremonies, and she has taught students how for over 20 years.
Though she attempted to retire several times, medical students from the prestigious Kyoto University continued to ask her for lessons, and their professors said they could tell which students were studying the ceremonies because their physical movements became more intentional and graceful.
In Japanese tea ceremonies, the host presents their body in the most beautiful way possible by focusing on posture and breathing. Koizumi says her goal is for the ceremonies to go smoothly, with no awkwardness during the process, and she compared a good tea ceremony to a flowing river.
Koizumi says she hasn’t encountered any hardships in her time as a master of tea ceremonies because of her gender, but that was not always the case.
“According to the surviving written documents, it seems that, right from the beginning, women always had a role in tea ceremony,” she explains. “However, women likely took supporting roles and they were behind the scenes.”
Koizumi says her first teacher was a woman and had a licence to teach, but she thinks she may have been her first student. Centuries ago, the tea masters were all men; now, it’s considered a respectful thing for young women to learn how to do.
LEAD IMAGE: Kana Wasai prepares tea during a class by Yumiko Takada in Tokyo, Japan. The Japanese tea ceremony is considered a fine art. It embodies masterful preparation, with the guest always at the forefront of the host's mind. PHOTOGRAPH BY LISA MAREE WILLIAMS, GETTY IMAGES