By Aubrey Keene (Hokkaido, 2004-06) for JQ magazine. Aubrey moved to New Jersey from Kentucky to complete a master’s degree in Asian studies from Seton Hall University. This is her first article for JQ.
On Saturday, February 3, the New York Adventure Club offered participants a private tea ceremony demonstration at the Urasenke Chanoyu Center of New York (UCC) in Manhattan. Nearly two dozen participants from the area attended to have their first experience with this iconic Japanese cultural tradition.
Experiences like this are not unique for members of the New York Adventure Club. The group, formed in 2013 by CEO and founder Corey William Schneider, was an effort, he explains, “to get my friends to join me on my random weekend adventures around the city.” For more than a year and a half prior, Schneider had been exploring the city on his own as part of what he calls a “mini-early life crisis” that triggered a desire to do more fulfilling activities in his free time. By founding the group on Facebook, Schneider hoped he could get others to join him: he quickly discovered his idea was a hit when over 100 people showed up for the first event. The group now boasts more than 9,000 members, with activities ranging from trapeze classes to tours of Grant’s Tomb to tea tastings happening almost every day of the week.
On a chilly Upper East Side afternoon, participants gathered in the lobby of the UCC for an introduction by their chado, or way of tea, master Yoshihiro Terazono, who gave an overview of the 140-year old building. Originally a horse carriage house later refitted as an art studio for Mark Rothko, the UCC purchased the building in 1980 and spent two years transforming the space into a tea ceremony center. It now houses three tatami mat rooms of various sizes where students come and practice throughout the week. Each room opens to an outdoor space of a garden area with a view of the windows three stories above. The aesthetics successfully evoked the image of a tea house in Kyoto, the birthplace of Urasenke.
After removing their shoes, the guests were led into the main tatami room to begin the demonstration. Terazono emphasized that once a person enters the room, they should try and forget the outside world and focus only on experiencing the ceremony. He encouraged everyone to try sitting seiza on their knees, but also to relax their legs if it was too painful, which most in attendance were relieved to do. Once everyone was settled, the demonstration began. A current student of the school was the host, bringing in the tea ceremony utensils to make the tea. Everyone was first served a wagashi, or Japanese confection, to offset the bitterness of the tea to be served later. As the ceremony would normally only accommodate three guests, two other women provided assistance to the host to ensure every guest would be served in a timely manner.
After everyone enjoyed their sweets, the host then began preparing the tea. Terazono instructed us on how to hold the bowl, drink the tea, and then admire the bowl after drinking was finished. He likened it to a kind of art performance where each action was already scripted to help the guests appreciate all aspects of the ceremony. Terazono also described different aspects of the ceremony we could not experience that day, such as having a kaiseki meal before drinking the tea, and answered questions from the group. One person asked about the scroll hanging in the tokonoma, or alcove. In kanji it read: 一期一会 (ichigo ichie), or “one time, one meeting.” Terazono explained that the scroll was meant as a silent message to the guests. For this scroll, the idea was that this experience was a singularly unique one that would never happen the exact same way again, which the participants were asked to keep in mind when experiencing the ceremony.
Everyone was then served the bright green matcha tea in large handcrafted bowls. Each guest was careful to go through the steps for drinking the tea as best they could, especially finishing the tea with the requisite loud slurp. After returning the bowls to the assistants, the host completed the ceremony by cleaning and removing the utensils from the room. At this point, Terazono split the group in half. He gave a tour of the rest of the building to the first half, featuring the other tea rooms and the garden. The others waited in the tea room and chatted with the host, an American named Philip Hafferty who began studying the tea ceremony as an undergraduate at Harvard more than a decade ago. Once the first half had completed their tour, the host led the second half on a tour as well. Finally, everyone returned to the entryway, where they put their shoes on and thanked Terazono for the afternoon.
Prior to the event, Schneider had expressed hope that “people [will] walk away with a newfound understanding of Urasenke and Japanese culture, and appreciation of New York City for possessing these types of diverse communities.” As someone who had lived in Japan and even practiced tea ceremony there, this event was an exciting experience. It was amazing to see the number of people who were interested in learning about tea ceremony, and to watch Terazono and his students taking their time to patiently demonstrate and explain all they could about tea ceremony in just 90 minutes.
If you are interested in seeing a Japanese tea ceremony demonstration, or just want to look at the unique architecture of the building, why not give this tour a try? The New York Adventure Club will offer it again on Saturday, March 3, at 1:30 p.m. Register for the event here.
For more information about the group or to sign up for their free weekly newsletter, visit www.nyadventureclub.com. For more information about the Urasenke Chanoyu Center of New York, you can visit www.urasenkeny.org or see the building in person at 153 East 69th Street in New York City, open Tuesdays through Fridays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.