Kristin Bigsby, Klipsun staff writer
As April came to a close, Yap was behind in responding to the usual 300 e-mails she receives daily. The CEO of the Corbis Corporation, a Bellevue-based image-licensing company where Yap works as the director of corporate communications, had scheduled a meeting with her to discuss the upcoming catalog with nine others in a teleconference to New York and Hong Kong. The London office had questions, and Yap searched for answers while she juggled more than 60 phone calls per day to relay media questions between Los Angeles, Paris and Kuala Lumpur.
In the midst of the corporate buzz, her office was a quiet place where she could retreat and return her focus to what is most important to her — an awareness of life.
Staring at the mountains, she realized it was time to rescue herself from “go” mode — no phone calls or one-liners to traverse the fiber optic hemispheres, no more signatures to be inked.
She unscrewed the top of the black thermos on her desk and poured hot water into a reddish-brown ceramic bowl. Dipping a scoop into the lacquer container next to the thermos, she emptied two heaps of matcha, a powdered green tea used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, into the dish and stirred. She picked up the bowl and let it rest gently in the cradle of her tiny hands, the ridges of its etched design pushed against her skin.
The tips of her fingers were exactly where they should be: pressed together near the lip of the bowl. Her thumbs covered the surface closest to her body, ready to support the angle of the container when she lifted it to her mouth.
She observed the deep green of the liquid. The tea’s color was of the same intensity as its taste—bitter, like biting into the tealeaf itself. As she drank, she brought herself back to her center, paying attention to each ounce of liquid as if nothing else existed but the very moment during which the tea rolled past her tongue.
To keep focused in a life that buzzes with tasks, Yap practices Chanoyu, the Art of Tea, developed 800 years ago in Japan.
“Some people go skiing, some people garden, and I drink tea,” she said. “It’s how I get back in touch with myself. This just happens to be very effective for me.”
Chanoyu, which literally means, “boiling water for tea,” represents a ritual that transforms an everyday act into something sacred. The host of the ceremony and his or her guests practice living in the present moment, a concept of awareness rooted in Zen Buddhism. In Japanese culture, drinking tea is considered an art—a ceremony that celebrates simplicity and tranquility through the auspice of prescribed movement.
Aside from drinking her daily cup, Yap practices formal Chanoyu under the instruction of Bonnie Mitchell, a Seattle resident who began studying the ceremony by way of Urasenke—one of three schools of tea—in Kyoto, Japan, in 1974.
Chanoyu is rarely practiced outside the island country, but once per month, students from Seattle’s Urasenke Foundation gather at the Seattle Art Museum to share matcha with museum guests.
To practice for public appearances, the students engage in weekly classes. They are taught to focus on each gesture, treating movement as art.
In a quiet house in central Seattle, in the midst of a bright day in mid-April, Mitchell kneeled in the corner of a 144 square-foot room and guided three onna, or women, through a formal Chanoyu ceremony. Yap and Eiko Shima, enveloped in matte-colored silk kimonos, sat on their knees, buttocks resting on their heels. Each robe was intricately designed with black thread, which curled into perfect circles along the waistline, then turned straight, like the short dark hair which fell loosely on Yap’s shoulders.
Sunlight filtered into the room and illuminated Eiko’s hair, a sweep of raven and silver held together with a chopstick. The two looked carefully sculpted, concentrating on their crafted appearance. The onna acted as guests, humble and patient, gracefully postured into position like the long necks of swans.
Their host, Michiyo Shima, Eiko’s 35-year-old daughter, sat across from the onna in a similar position.
Gracious yet firm, the teacher guided her students in the correctness of each gesture, from setting the water to boil on the sunken brazier, to gathering the accouterments of the tea ceremony in smooth gracious movements from the ground-level shelf on the side of the room.
When Michiyo got up to retrieve a bamboo ladle and the lacquer vase containing the tea, she stood in one swoop motion; her back end lifted her body, unfolding from the ground up. She walked upright, slowly; her feet pointed forward, one in front of the other, gliding silently.
Steam rose out of the pot, disappearing into the air. When Michiyo returned from gathering the utensils, she demonstrated folding the orange napkin. She whisked the matcha into a frothy concoction, turning the tea bowl to show off its exquisite design. Each movement was careful, controlled, almost perfect. The first bowl of tea seemed to float from Michiyo’s delicate hands into those of Yap’s.
“One of the things we teach is to handle heavy objects as if they’re light, and light objects as if they’re heavy,” Mitchell said. “I think that what we teach is that everything is precious, but nothing especially so. So we handle the cloth which is used to wipe the tea bowl as carefully as possible, with awareness. The first thing you teach is precise movement—this goes exactly here, and this goes exactly there. But really, what you’re trying to do as a teacher is release the student to the point that they begin to inform their ceremony with their own inner self, whatever it is they have to give.”
Diana Wright, assistant professor of history at Western, has participated in Chanoyu ceremonies more times then she can count. She has traveled to Japan several times since 1980, and claims the precise motion Mitchell speaks of is key to the ceremony. She thinks of the ritual as a narration of movement.
“It’s like a ballet dance,” Wright said of Chanoyu. “If you miss the pirouette, everybody knows.”
Ichigo, Ichie, meaning “One meeting, one opportunity,” expresses the ideal of Chanoyu: that each tea gathering and each life experience is unique, that life is made of moments that are most meaningful when they are realized as they occur.
Yap says the tea ceremony helps her focus on what’s most important in life, which to her is being in the present, not missing a minute of anything.
As she cradled the bowl of matcha prepared by Michiyo, she admired its color and breathed in the vapors that danced forward from the liquid’s surface.
“It gives me space to breathe in life,” she said about Chanoyu.
It took hundreds of years for the preparation and drinking of tea to be viewed as an expression of Zen belief, says Theresa Choi, who coordinates the ceremonies at the Seattle Art Museum.
In the ninth century, tea was introduced to Japan from China, where the preparation of matcha was confined to the monastic rituals of Zen Buddhist temples. After offering tea to the Buddha, monks drank the beverage themselves. The stimulant in the tea helped to stave off drowsiness during long periods of seated meditation.
Today, it keeps Yap awake at work—but it also has a calming effect. The tea helps her remember who she is and how to pay attention to what she’s doing, almost like a walking meditation.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, the ruling samurai of Japan took up the tea ritual and incorporated it into social gatherings, and by the late 15th century, tea drinking came to be regarded as a path to enlightenment.
While the ceremony itself was called Chanoyu, the path to enlightenment came to be known as chado, the Way of the Tea. Harmony, respect, purity and tranquility became the principles that lined the path, and were paid great attention to while drinking matcha.
As the Art of Tea evolved under the influence of Zen, the wabi aesthetic emerged. Closely related to the frugality of life in a Buddhist temple, wabi emphasizes compassion, honesty, prudence and the appreciation of simple, natural objects and space. Each chashitsu, or teahouse, is constructed using this concept as an architectural ethic.
Wabi exhibits a preference for imperfection and impermanence.
But the onna, like Yap and Michiyo, who perform in the ceremony, counter the asymmetry with an awareness of their own grace and balance.
As Yap finished her tea in class, sipping from the bowl three times, (as instructed by Mitchell), Michiyo handed a bowl to her mother. Eiko nursed the frothy green tea, maintaining her perfect posture. Yap waited for her elder to set the bowl down, then they both unfolded the white napkin which rested on the ground to their left. Placing each napkin squarely in front of their knees, the onna folded their hands like paper origami cranes into their laps and turned their gaze to Michiyo, who maneuvered a black lacquer box filled with sweets toward her guests.
When the box was placed in front of Yap’s napkin, she removed the container’s lid and selected a sakura mochi, or cherry cake, a bean-paste candy wrapped artfully like sushi with gelatin sugar and topped with a cherry tree leaf. She slid the box across the tatami mat to Eiko, who also selected a sweet.
“In the beginning, you have to think about where your hands should be,” Michiyo said. “Everything seems refined, but it’s more. Once you get that down, you can enjoy the tea. You can enjoy the flavor, the frothiness, and the color—how it matches the room. You can enjoy how the tea looks in the bowl, and when you’re drinking, you think, ‘Oh, that tasted good after the sweet.’”
Michiyo watched as each guest brought the sweet to their mouths—not their mouths to the sweet, as often seen in American culture—and giggled with delight.
When the last of the candy was swallowed, the guests remarked on the taste of the matcha and sakura mochi served during the ceremony. They asked who created the bowls from which they drank the tea, and where the latter had been grown. Eiko commented on the single flower beneath the scroll in the corner where Mitchell was seated. It was a pink camellia, that’s petals were slightly open.
“The moment is the moment, and you can never recapture it,” Yap said.
Still kneeling, the women placed their hands on the floor in front of them, angled their fingertips in ever so slightly, and bowed to their host.
The ceremony was complete; the tea was gone, but Eiko and Yap — calm and composed, safe from the chaos of everyday life — could still taste it on the tip of their tongues.