The singular charms of New York that initially seduced me to take up residence in the city (quirky book stores, genre-defining bars, and affordable ethnic restaurants) have abraded with the rising cost of living and commercial homogenization of the city. While pols squeeze residents for every hard-fought, burnished penny, absentee landlords gloatingly execute leases with banks, and boring, big-box brands like Restoration Hardware (notably in the former Pastis space). Even homegrown restaurants have alarmingly morphed into mini-empires (Shake Shack in Istanbul, for instance). Disenchanted, I turned to Google in hopes of finding an authentic, uncommercial experience in the city. I searched for a Japanese tea ceremony.
A recent conversation over a cup of earthy oolong with Sebastian Beckwith, owner of high-quality, wholesale and online tea company In Pursuit of Tea, left me encouraged that participation in a Sadou (or Chadou), if I could find one, might revive dampened spirits. As it happens, there is someone performing this ancient art of drinking etiquette in New York: Souheki Mori.
Dressed in an elegant kimono, Mori gracefully accepted me into a penthouse in a building near Union Square. The facility, referred to as Globus Chashitsu (889 Broadway, PHC), is a converted apartment owned by American Japanophile Stephen Globus. He sponsors its use for her impermanent tea ceremony, a 100 percent charitable organization called Tea Whisk (she donates proceeds to victims of Hurricane Sandy and the earthquake in Japan). Along with ceremonies and lessons, the space plays host to Japanese art exhibits at which Mori conducts ceremonies, too.
Dispensing with my coat, shoes, and bags, paring me down to the essentials, she led me through a short hallway, past a trickling fountain, and over top stepping stones nestled into faux grass as though navigating across a tiny, ersatz courtyard.
The apartment had been converted into a serene study in shoji screen and tatami mat minimalism, replete with a rock garden; a lone cast-iron kettle rose from the floor in the corner of the central room where tea service would be conducted.
Settling down on to the woven mats, we chatted about Mori’s background. Her endearing, calm demeanor, the sign of an exemplary hostess, belied the once-hectic career she’d forged in Japan working as an IT consultant and analyst. On several occasions, the job demanded exhausting 24-hour attention. Her increasingly frantic existence — a component of what Buddhists term “suffering” — drove her to find solace in the study of tea service. Yearning to spread Japanese tea culture to the States, she moved with her husband to NYC and founded Tea Whisk.
Tea ceremony, like many meditative endeavors, sounds deceptively simple in principle. In Mori’s words, the purpose is “to make tea for someone.” The practitioner purifies the guest’s cup, serves him or her matcha, and hopes the guest will enjoy it, inducing a smile.
To become a Master at the spiritual communication of harmony, respect, tranquility, and purity through tea, Mori studied ten years at the Japanese Association of Tea Ceremony (J.A.T.C). Her school, one of the youngest in Japan, was founded in the late 1800s; the ceremony dates back 400 years. To bring context to our forthcoming tasting, she guided me through a brief history of the drink in Japan.
Camelia sinesis arrived on the scattered island nation in 1191, by way of China. Through the 12th and 13th centuries, tea consumption was limited to the nobility since tea plants weren’t yet widely cultivated. Monks took up drinking the caffeinated elixir to stay awake through grueling hours of meditation on empty stomachs. By the 16th and 17th centuries, Japan’s war period, the Samurai became tea cognoscenti, drinking matcha before and during clashes, often inviting enemy leaders across battle lines for negotiation over a restorative cup. Eventually, tea became the drink of the people, and schools training pupils in the art of service proliferated.
Mori allowed me to select a cup from a range of ceramics handmade by Japanese artisans. I was drawn to the delicacy of one in particular; glazed in egg-shell white, the exterior’s textured cracks gave it a fragile, vulnerable persona, but I knew the cup would be fundamentally strong. The others felt heavy and solid, almost assertive, by comparison. Mine, I discovered, was the only vessel in the collection crafted by a woman. Clearly, the mindful tenor of the moment had already affected me if I was analyzing and assigning character traits to tea cups.
Mori guided me to a seat across from the kettle. Upon a glittering platter lay three pastel-hued sugar wafers, the name of Mori’s tea house in raised Japanese characters on each. A set of tools waited patiently for her small hands to implement them: a slender tea scoop, a bamboo whisk, and a lacquered box that stored the powdered matcha. Mori entered the room with soft but deliberate steps, and proceeded to ritualistically cleanse my bowl, and essentially make me tea, as promised. A full-length ceremony, replete with a Kaiseki meal and two types of tea — thin and thick — can take up to four hours. We dabbled in thin tea for 40 minutes.
I asked Mori what she wanted guests to gain from the experience. “I want to share this Japanese art…and make tea from my heart,” she said. “I want people to feel comfortable, to relax, and be themselves…Before discovering the ceremony, I constantly worried about every small problem in my life. Paradoxically, despite the appearance of regiment, tea ceremony has taught me that we are not perfect beings. We should appreciate each moment that we have because it will never repeat again…I hope it helps people think about their life.”
Mori’s ceremony engaged my senses: I listened to the soft whisper of the whisk, and felt the rough edges of my cup while lifting the frothed pea-green liquid to my nose for a breath of its vegetal aroma. In the mouth, the lingering sweetness of the wafer softened the tea’s savory notes. The air was still and quiet. I had paid attention. I felt calm. She had done her job, and I smiled.
On February 21, Globus Chashitsu will host an Ishikawa Prefecture Kimono & Craft Exhibit and Special Tea Ceremony. Entry to the exhibit is free, from 1 to 6 p.m., no reservation required. The tea ceremony will be held at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Reservations are required as seating is limited. RSVP at email@example.com.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 6, 2015