Category: Read, Listen & Watch

‘Tea Life, Tea Mind’ and my Urasenke experience

BOOK REVIEW – Don’t look for any advice on how to source the best Matcha in the Kyoto region in this book. Soshitsu Sen XV’s ‘Tea Life, Tea Mind’ is all about the Way of Tea, the Japanese tea ceremony, and the why behind it.

Soshitsu Sen XV, born in 1923, is the retired 15th grandmaster of the Urasenke school, one of three main schools in the Japanese tea ceremony, and tells the story of his way into the tea ceremony. As a son of a grandmaster the tea ceremony was a big part of his youth, but it was not an easy path laid out by his father. After carefully discovering the spirit behind the tea ceremony, Shoshitsu Sen XV becomes a traveler after WWII, spreading the knowledge on tea ceremony to countries like the United States.

Next to his way in to tea, the book also contains firsthand information on the history and symbolics of the Way of Tea, the spiritual philosophy of the ceremony that goes hand in hand with the Zen philosophy and the why behind certain the practices and utensils used during the tea ceremony.

This book was first published in the late 70s but is just as applicable at modern times. Soshitsu Sen XV tackles the problems with the modernization of Japan by using the Way of Tea. If you didn’t know this book was written almost four decades ago, you probably thought he talks about the distractions of mobile phones, social media and other kinds of easy (and addictive) in-your-face entertainment of modern times. In the following quote, Soshitsu Sen XV writes about the importance of (seasonal) awareness of your surroundings in tea ceremonies: in winter, warmth should be a crucial part of the scene, while in summer that should be coolness.

“One of [Sen] Rikyu’s seven rules is ‘in summer suggest coolness, in winter, warmth.’ Of course we all seek coolness in the heat of the summer, but there is more than one way to obtain it. One is the short-lived coolness of air conditioning; then there is the longer-lasting coolness that comes from adjusting one’s state of mind to take advantage of whatever coolness nature provides. The practice of Tea leads us to appreciate this second coolness. However, many people today may find it difficult to understand this, having lost the will and ability to control their craving for material comfort. Trying to modify civilization for the better, industrial development is quickly separating man from nature. Accustomed to doing whatever we want easily and quickly, we find ourselves increasingly alienated from nature. Prior to the industrial revolution in Japan, the Japanese lived in harmony with nature and developed the custom of becoming one with it, and one with each other, through sharing a bowl of tea. We can learn much from their experience.”

Tea Life, Tea Mind

As non-Zen and an admirer but not a practitioner of the tea ceremony, I cannot lecture you on the spiritual mindset that goes hand in hand with the Way of Tea. I think ‘Tea Life, Tea Mind’ is an excellent step-in-guide for beginners for that. But how do I apply the lessons learned from this book in my own (tea)life? Recently inside me a little movement started that told me to focus more on my tea sessions. I deeply believe that the tea I brew (Japanese, Chinese or whatever origin) tastes better when I do it with complete dedication. The Bi Luo Chun brewed in front of the television never tastes as good as the same Bi Luo Chun brewed in a tea session with my full attention. A Matcha whisked while taking pictures for Instagram or the blog just isn’t as good as a Matcha whisked for the simple reason of drinking that Matcha. Same for the setting: the enjoyment and the appreciation of the tea you drink is so much higher when drinking it at a lakeside without the buzz of a city distracting you from what it is about: the tea and the moment.

Tea Life, Tea Mind

During my months working as a cleaner in a cozy little guesthouse in Gion, Kyoto, in late winter, beginning of spring of 2016, I experienced this myself. Growing an interest in Japanese tea and the tea ceremony, I decided to book an English-language ceremony at En, close to my guesthouse. It was my first experience with a Japanese Tea Ceremony and besides the fact that it was interesting to see how the Matcha is prepared ceremonial style, it wasn’t a good experience. The Japanese style room was overfull with about 20 people and the sounds of people waiting outside for the next ceremony didn’t help either. It was plain: I saw the Matcha being made, I made a bowl myself, but there were too many noises and too many things going on to really feel what I was doing and seeing.

How different was it at Urasenke, yes, the school of Soshitsu Sen XV. I went to visit the Urasenke School a few days before I left Kyoto and it was no doubt the best tea experience I had during my time in Japan. Next to the head office of Urasenke, the school opens his doors for visitors with a few exhibition rooms and a place to experience the tea ceremony, Urasenke style. Incredibly enough, they charge you nothing for it. You buy a ticket (by that time 700 yen, about 6 euros) for the exhibitions and for access to the library and if you book ahead, you can attend the free tea ceremony experience of about an hour.

Tea Life, Tea Mind

I was incredibly lucky that day, because usually these ceremonies are given in Japanese, but this day I was the only visitor attending the ceremony and the instructor spoke very good English. Having a personal tea ceremony experience with a skilled woman who was able to explain me everything in a slow pace… How fortunate I was. It was Sakura season in Kyoto so I was offered a wagashi wrapped in Sakura leaf, and then learned how to play the role of host and guest in the tea ceremony. The hour went fast, the Matcha was delicious and the experience unforgettable. Afterwards I went up to the library to watch the films on the Urasenke tea ceremony and by the time I wanted to leave, the lady walked up to me to explain more about what I had seen in the films and offered me another Matcha in the room where visitors who didn’t book a tea ceremony could see a quick version on how a Matcha is made.

I asked the instructor where I could buy the books that I had seen in the library and she gave me directions to a bookshop (they are not selling their own publications in the museum) before waving me off. On the way to the bookshop I passed temple gardens, cherry blossoms and deserted small alleyways in the north of Kyoto while revising the experiences of that day. In this city, even in its modern version, enjoying the non-materialistic is so easy….

Tea Life, Tea Mind

Talking Tea

Talking Tea is a podcast in which Ken Cohen talks to people around North-America (and even Europe) to learn more about North American tea culture. Expect lots and lots of information on Chinese tea, Japanese tea and tea culture when listening to his interviews!

At the time of writing the third season of Talking Tea just started, which means that if you don’t know this podcast yet, you have a lot to catch up to! I love listening to these interviews when I’m on the bike to work, or enjoying the sun in the park. It’s an easy way to bring your tea learning materials with you everywhere you go.

Talking Tea

Ken Cohen is an expert on Japanese tea and tea ceremony, but a lot of his episodes are tackling the topic of Chinese tea as well. Cohen fits really well in his role as an interviewer: he clearly knows a lot about tea but he interviews in a very humble way, not taking the stage showing off his knowledge, but asking just the right questions and listening to the guests in the show. His shows with Shunan Teng from Tea Drunk (who has a video channel herself) on Pu’er, Gua Pian and Silver Needle (links) are very interesting, as are the interviews with Shiuwen Tai, owner of Floating Leaves Seattle and export on Taiwanese oolongs. But there is a lot more to listen to with nice episodes on Japanese tea, the culture of Tea, the Qi of Tea, the Tea Ceremony, The Art of Tea, anything you can think of.

You can either download the podcast in iTunes or listen the episodes on the website of Talking Tea (click here).

Shunan Teng (Tea Drunk)

If you’re interested in tea trips, the origin and the processing of tea, than the videos of Shunan Teng from Tea Drunk are a great resource.

As the owner of Tea Drunk, a teahouse based in New York I’d love to visit one day, she travels to the land of tea every year to source her teas. I first heard Shunan speak in an episode of the Talking Tea podcast and was immediately hooked to her stories. She has an incredible knowledge of tea and is pretty outspoken about everything that’s going on in the tea world. You can learn so much of her just by listening to her. In her videos on the Youtube channel of Tea Drunk she takes the viewers with her on her tea trips and gives them a unique insight on how to source and process tea.

Pretty much all the teas are covered in her videos: from raw pu’er in Yunnan to Tai Ping Hou Kui to the Phoenix Mountain Dancongs. She climbs the tea mountains, helps the farmers pluck the tea and sometimes even processes the tea herself, or gives a detailed overview of how the tea masters process their tea. I’m always very grateful for people like Shunan and also Don Mei to share their incredible knowledge of tea with others. They are a great inspiration and I can honestly say they are my YouTube-teamasters. Time to book a ticket now and travel to those incredible teamountains myself!

Don Mei (Mei Leaf)

‘Hey Teaheads!’ This probably sounds familiar to you if you’ve ever watched a YouTube video from Don Mei on his channel Mei Leaf. If this doesn’t ring a bell, then be ready to spend the next week watching his videos while sipping teas.

There are many ways to learn about tea if you, like me, are new in this vast world. I’m a fan of reading books but YouTube is a great source of information as well. I discovered the videos of Don Mei relatively late so I had a lot of catching up to do, and they are of great help in understanding more about quality tea.

The visuals are very useful: I’ve already brought into practice how to actually investigate the leaves and see the differences between high grade and medium grade tea. And his tasting notes are fascinating to watch. Somehow it’s incredibly weird to see someone describing a taste and aroma on television, but with the enthusiasm that Don Mei is doing it, you can watch for hours without getting tired of not being able to join him on the tasting.

Don Mei on the Telly, Shui Jin Gui on the Belly

Don Mei on the Telly, Shui Jin Gui on the Belly

Don Mei must have been a teacher or has a talent to be one, because the patience with which he explains everything about tea (the process of making the tea, how to brew, how to define quality tea and so on) is incredible. His videos are for tealovers of every level: there are many useful videos on step-in-topics like ‘teabags vs. loose leaf tea’ and the different types of tea, but also on more detailed topics like the terpenses in Bai Hao Oolong (Oriental Beauty). In the tea tasting videos he analyses the tea by using SCOPE: Season (S), Cultivar (C), Origin (O), Picking & Processing (P) and Elevation (E).

The YouTube channel  has different kinds of playlists to make it easy for you to browse through the different levels and topics. There is the Drinking with Friends playlist, Basic Tea Education playlist and, my absolute favorite, the Tea Trips playlist. The video on Don Mei sourcing his Dan Cong teas in China gives you a unique insight of a world normally unknown to the common tealover.

So, wrapping up with the words of Don Mei at the end of every video: ‘Thank you for being a part of the revelation of true tea, stay away from the tea bags, keep drinking the good stuff and spread the word, because nobody deserves to drink bad tea.’