I had a very interesting day up in Nikko Wednesday when I was invited to attend an ocha kai. Ocha means tea and kai means gathering so in this case ocha kai means a tea ceremony where tea is performed and served to guests. The tea ceremony was being given by some of the kindergarten mothers (who are studying tea ceremony) for the oldest class of kindergarten students! Not only that, the tea ceremony hall that they were using was in Tamozawa Goyoutei, the summer residence of Japan's former emperors. (Now donated to Nikko, City). Why, oh, why anyone would want to take thirty kindergarten children to this very beautiful, valuable and quiet historical building I don't know and apparently some of the mothers were of the same opinion! But the kindergarten principal strongly encouraged the mothers to consider this a great learning opportunity for the children and pushed ahead with the plans.
A couple of days before going, all of us attending were given instructions about what we could and could not wear to the ceremony. No jeans allowed for either the mothers nor the children. White socks or split toed kimono socks were required. No jewelry or watches could be worn. The rule about the jeans is probably because this was a formal setting so one had to be properly attired. The white socks is just part of the propriety on entering a tea room and probably dates back to when everyone wore kimono anyway. The no jewelry rule is set so that all people participating are visibly on an equal level, are not limited by time, and also because the tea cup which is used for drinking the tea is very valuable and rings could scratch the surface and pendants could bang against it. Again, why, oh why are we letting kindergarten children handle these extremely valuable tea cups?!
I didn't really know what to expect when I arrived at the emperor's summer residence Wednesday morning, but I was directed to a wing of the palace hidden away in a lovely garden. I removed my shoes at the simple but very large entrance and then followed signs through a labyrinth of hallways and rooms until I found a cluster of kindergarten mothers all dressed in kimono, looking very nervous and awaiting the arrival of the kindergarten bus which was expected to arrive at any moment. I was ushered into a very cold room where 5 or 6 invited mothers were waiting but we were instructed that we weren't allowed to talk and instead we all sat quietly and formally on our knees.
Two sides of the room were closed off with paper window shades (shoji) and I ventured a peek out of one by sliding it open. To my surprise there were no glass windows or walls to separate us from the lovely moss covered garden and stream running past the palace. No wonder it was cold! Zero insulation! A few minutes passed and we were directed into the tea ceremony room where 15 of the children were now seated quietly on their knees waiting for the proceedings to begin. What a surprise to find that these normally unruly children had filed in quietly and were all serious and silent!
The tea ceremony began with the tea ceremony teacher formally (meaning with many deep bows and head nearly touching the tatami mats) welcoming us.
"Thank you for your honorable presence to our very humble tea ceremony. We serve you children today in celebration of your up-coming graduation from kindergarten (in March) and rejoice at the beginning of your scholarly school life." Many deep bows from all the children.
Next three kimono-ed mothers silently glided into the room carrying three or four tea implements that would be used in the ceremony and the children listened solemnly as each implement was explained. The three mothers glided silently out taking the implements with them, but immediately afterwards a whole troupe of kimono-ed mothers entered the room and positioned themselves here and there behind the guests to help as needed. (And maybe to make sure no child dropped a very expensive tea cup!)
Finally the mother performing the ceremony entered and began the intricate ritual of making tea, each movement precise and each position of her fingers and wrists controlled and patterned in an ancient rite. The children hardly dared to breathe and all sat as still as statues. Other mothers glided into the room carrying small sweet bean cakes on special white paper and laid one in front of each child. Bows were given and returned and then the first child was instructed to pick up paper and cake and bow slightly to the child sitting next to him and say "Please forgive me for partaking before you." and then the cake was delicately eaten. I had to hide my smiles as each child mimicked the child in front of him and politely repeated the phrase to the child on the other side of him! Who would have dreamt that children could be taught such manners!
Next the tea was served and again instructions were whispered to pick up the cup with both hands, turn it slightly away from you, bow to the person next to you again, sip the tea quickly, (only a few mouthfuls in there anyway) delicately wipe the cup rim with your fingers and return the cup to the position in front of you again. I could have clapped at how each little 5 year old managed to do as instructed and not one of them made a face or complained about the frothy green and very bitter tea!
The whole ceremony must have lasted 40 minutes and then we all were requested to admire the garden (open those paper doors) and the flower arrangement in the alcove. This too, the children did with grave faces. Finally they were led out of the room and through the maze of hallways to another room where they would wait for the next group of 15 children to finish what would be the same experience. My goodness! Such angels!
I wasn't able to stay through the next group's ceremony but I certainly hope they did as well as the first group! I'm sure it was an experience that all the children will remember for a long time!