Thursday, November 09, 2006

Special Foodventure #13: Japanese Tea Ceremonies (Downtown/Little Tokyo)

Of course, what better way to ward off an unlucky review #13 than going to a place of worship? Actually, I found out about this special event almost last minute through Slow Food LA's site/blog. Having had numerous British afternoon teas with scones and finger sandwiches, Chinese "yum cha" with dim sum galore, Indian inspired masala chais and, of course, boba milk teas under my belt, I figured it's time to carve another notch by going to my first ever Japanese Tea Ceremony, taking place at the Zenshuji Soto Mission temple in the Little Tokyo district (which is rapidly becoming gentrified with urban renewal condos, chic shops, and fast casual eateries - something that I'm ambivalent about.) But I digress - and here are some shots of the temple:

The half-day event started off at 11 am with an hour long "chasen kuyo" worship/prayer service with alternating English and Japanese sermons, with a door prize drawing afterwards (various materials [fans, wall tiles, etc.] with japanese kanji calligraphy and some jade/amehyst bead bracelets.) The chasen kuyo ceremony room was very beautiful and ornate with lacquered wooden furniture, gilded decoration pieces, porcelain statuettes and wonderful flower arrangements (but no photos since I'm sure it would be totally inappropriate to be taking them - and the ceremony room was closed-off afterwards.)

After the service, I (along with about a hundred other guests) were free to explore the temple and participate in its epicurean events (2 tea ceremonies and a luncheon.)

My first stop was a Ryu Rei ceremony, prepared on a special table with the person seated on a chair. I arrived in the room to find this minimalistic yet elegant set up.

The equipment set upon the beautiful table consisted of a bowl to hold water, a container for matcha tea powder, a bamboo tea whisk & mixing bowl, tea scooper, water scooper, and an iron pot for heating.

Soon the tea preparer came and began her meticulous ritual of cleaning the various tools and, of course, preparing the tea with the utmost care.

As I observed in awe of the attention to detail in this ceremony (from the careful folding and unfolding of the silk cleaning cloth to the delicate handling of the container lids,) we were served tea sweets - which I believe are rice cookies, on a decorated napkin:

Very airy and ever-so-slightly sweet -- it's pretty unbelievable that something so simple can be so good (that can actually be the motto for the whole afternoon.)

Soon after nibbling away at the cookies - we were served our matcha tea -

Definitely very yummy stuff for an unsweetened green tea (served in a thick irregularly shaped bowl with all sorts of bumps, grooves and spotty coloring, which I guessed, and later confirmed, that it was highly prized and a marker of quality craftmanship [hand made]) . The tea itself had great nutty flavors with hints of sweet grass and just enough bitterness to round it all out. I slowly and steadily sipped this steamy, foamy drink away.

After finishing the tea, we were free to examine the bowls, as well as the other equipment used in the ceremony - which gave me an opportunity for a more close-up shot of the pretty wares.

Feeling a bit famished afterwards and seeing the other tea ceremony was still in progress, I went to the basement cafeteria for their vegetarian luncheon ~ again, another delight for the eyes.

A varied mix of veggies from a slaw-like salad to a mushroom-flavored sticky rice, and square of goma dofu (sesame tofu) in teriyaki sauce, and a fried sweet chestnut - served with a hot and soothing winter melon-ginger soup & very smooth sake that smelled faintly of ripe bananas. There were very few seasonings used in this entire lunch, but it tasted anything but bland -- the unadulterated flavors of the various leaves, tubers, roots and gourds shone through in their purest form ~ and they complemented each other very well.

Following the satisfying meal, I head to the Hon Seki ceremony - prepared in a tea room with the hostess in a seiza (a kneel-sitting position which I'd imagine would put feet to sleep in minutes.)

Like the ryu rei area, the hon seki (literally "tea room") is pretty much free of unnecessary adornments - which in turn highlights the few decorations that are there, such as the tea tools, plant and calligraphy wall scroll.

Soon, the guests of honor were escorted onto the hon seki and the tea hostess came out and started her preparations (similar to the ryu rei, except in the seiza position almost all the time - it was interesting - and mentally painful - watching her change positions and shuffle along while maintaining the kneel-sit.)

As she prepares the tea and chats with the guests of honor (interspersed with many bows by both parties), our tea sweets are served.

I liken this best to a red bean mochi, except of course the exterior is yellow sticky rice. Sweeter than the cookies from last ceremony, but still pretty mellow on the sugar.

Soon, our yummy matcha arrives . . .

Again, quite yummy - and I can hear moans of pleasure from the other tea tasters as they slowly sip away.

This time, only the guests of honor were allowed to examine the tools (which I understand, it's quite hard for anyone to move, being super crammed into a small space) but we were free to admire our bowls -

and that pretty much wrapped up my day. Took a stroll at the gift shop where I admired more tea accessories (didn't buy anything) then left - it was 3:30p.m. All in all, a great experience that was worthy of my half-day and my $40 (all-inclusive, and I'm sure a significant portion is donated to the temple). It's definitely something I recommend everyone trying at least once - but do have a lot time available, a lot of patience and an appreciation for minimalistic Zen-style arts. And of course, being prepared to feel like an outsider if you're not Japanese (everyone working the event were very nice people, but like any culturally heavy event - even culinary ones - it can't be helped that certain gestures, actions and sayings are going to be relevant to just that group.)

I believe the Zenshuji Soto Tea Ceremonies are a once- or twice- a year event, but here's their address and info in case you're interested in going there just because (and to keep an eye out for the next one.)

Zenshuji Soto Mission
123 Hewitt St.
Los Angeles, CA


Chubbypanda said...

Oooooh. Very classy looking. Did you feel at one with the universe afterwards?

- Chubbypanda

Dr.Gray said...

I've always thought that the Japanese tea ceremony was so beautiful. But to be honest for me to many rules I do not do well with rules. For now I stick with my matcha in a latte.

gourmetpigs said...

Hehe I came across this old post looking for japanese tea ceremony classes! Now I know where your avatar came from ;)

Btw, how did you get to attend the tea ceremony class? Can anyone do it? Me wants.

Lauren W. Deutsch said...

What a great posting. You can contact the Zenshuji Soto Mission (headquarters temple for a prominent Zen group)
123 South Hewitt Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Tel 213-624-8658
Fax 213-6248650

Classes are held on Saturday afternoons three weekends a month. An excellent teacher

Lauren W. Deutsch said...

Urasenke classes at Zenshuji are taught on Saturday afteroons the first through third weekends a month.

123 South Hewitt Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Tel 213-624-8658
Fax 213-6248650


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