The Color of the Mountains

Many people are surprised to find that Chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, is not a ceremony at all. Chanoyu literally means “hot water for tea” and is a Zen art. Its four hundred year history is filled with stories of Zen personalities and Tea masters whose practice illuminates the Way of “everyday life”.

The serene atmosphere of the tearoom resembles a zendo. It’s an empty room that is swept clean everyday and specially decorated for each occasion. The water simmers in a kettle over the sunken hearth and sounds like wind in the pines. Seasonal flowers, set in an alcove of shadow and light, are arranged as though growing wild in a field.

The most important object in the tearoom is the scroll, which like the flowers, change with each occasion. The words are usually taken from a Zen saying. Today the scroll reads, “The color of the mountains purifies the pure body.” The calligraphy is by a Zen Roshi and his personality can be felt in the direct meeting of spirit and ink on paper. These simple yet mysterious words linger throughout the gathering as the host makes a fire in the sunken hearth and serves a light meal before tea.

Tea gatherings can be held for any occasion. They can be short and abbreviated with only a bowl of tea and a sweet or more elaborate with a full seven course Kaiseki meal. The food for a Kaiseki meal is always the freshest available from local sources. Although Kaiseki food is considered Japan’s haute cuisine, and finds its admirers among modern French chefs particularly in California, at its heart it is very simple.

Kaiseki means “hot stone” and refers to the heated stone Zen monks used to wrap against their stomachs to keep from getting hungry during long hours of meditation. The portions of a Kaiseki meal are just enough to satisfy the guests before tea. The food is light, very much like nouvelle cuisine. Presentation is important, but most important is the pure fresh flavor of the seasonal ingredients.

Hot soup, rice, grilled fish and pickles are served on black lacquer trays and ceramic dishes. Each course is punctuated with servings of hot sake in thimble sized cups. In the quiet moments after the meal when the conversation pauses, the host pours hot water into the tea bowl and whisks the green powdered tea. The guests are drawn into an atmosphere tranquility.

“The color of the mountains purifies the pure body.” The words of the scroll season the taste of the food and tea. In the midst of simplicity the hosts sincerity is revealed. The interaction between host and guest is more important than elaborate food and luxurious serving dishes.

It is said that “If the goodwill of the host is wholehearted, even a bowl of rice will seem delicious to the guest.” This is true all over the world when friends gather to share a meal or a bowl of tea. The recipes in the following pages are from Kaiseki meals served during the winter months. Long evenings are spent by the fire with close friends, warm food, and drink. The tea room, garden paths, steps, and waiting area are lit by candles and lanterns and there is a large fire in the hearth. Deep serving dishes hold the warmth of the food.

Japanese Aesthetics Through A Tea Bowl

“Ceramics is one of the few arts that go beyond the self – the artist’s ego – and into the realm of prayer.”

Raku Kichizaemon, the fifteenth grand master of the Raku line of potters, creates avant-garde works of ceramic art rooted in 450 years of tradition. With a tea bowl of his own making in hand, he discusses the philosophical underpinnings of Raku ware.

The World in a Bowl of Tea

It is bright and clear this San Francisco morning as I arrive for my tea lesson.  I climb the steps of an ordinary looking building, walk through the door, and enter the world of tea. The fragrance of incense and the gentle rustling of my sensei’s kimono greet me from behind the white paper doors of the tea room. I peer around the entrance and join her as she builds a fire in the brazier. It is a perfect fire. She knows exactly where to lay the charcoal, and it burns with ruby red intensity.

I imagine my sensei at home in the deep woods, tending a campfire. I tell her this, but she says she can’t imagine carrying heavy loads through the woods. We laugh at the thought of it, and it occurs to me that she doesn’t need to go anywhere. She is already there.

This is the feeling of the tea room, the feeling deep at the core of Chanoyu, the Way of Tea. It is a place where, even in the midst of the city, you feel the peace and tranquillity of a mountain hut.  A place where worldly cares disappear.

Walking I reach where

the waters well forth

Sitting, I watch the moment

clouds arise.

                          – Wang Wei (699-759)

We sit quietly by the newly made fire and I feel our companionship.  We don’t need to go backpacking into the mountains. The great serenity and profound nature of mountain, desert, and ocean can be found here, in a single bowl of tea.

When Rikyu, Japan’s legendary sixteenth century tea master, was asked the secret of the Tea Ceremony, he replied,  “‘Lighting the fire.  Boiling the water.  Whisking the tea.”  “Well, that seems easy to do,”  said the student.  Rikyu responded,  “If you can truly do this, then I will become your student. “

A Japanese Garden

Here is a beautiful quote from the curator of the Portland Japanese Garden, Sadafumi Uchiyama. He expresses the essence of a tea garden and for me, the essence of Japanese art and culture.



Deconstruction of a tea house

This is a fascinating deconstruction of a tea house. It’s all glass, whereas tea houses of the past were dark, enclosed spaces where you could hardly see. Light and shadow were paramount aspects. But here – all is revealed.

I would love to have tea in this space. Moving through the Roji one is certainly transformed.

Glass tea house

This glass tea house mondrian’ by Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto unites wood, glass and water as a pavilion, holding the traditional Japanese tea ceremony within its transparent wall. Read more about this tea house inspired by Venetian Glass.