Vietnam isn’t exactly a quiet country, but the chaos and noise of the Japan Day – Full Moon Festival in Hanoi on Sunday, September 23rd 2018 was something else. Even the drive to Manor Central Park in the southern district of Hoang Mai was a reminder that though this city may sleep at certain hours, when it’s awake, the madness never stops. Dusty roads packed with cars, motorbikes and bicycles were all but a prelude to the crazy scene inside the festival.
Hidden quietly in the madness was a beautiful Japanese tea ceremony, with Chado Urasenke Hanoi, the capital’s own tea ceremony club. It may sound ridiculous to hold a tea ceremony every time you want a cuppa, but let me stop you there. This ceremony in particular (known as ‘chado’ in Japanese) serves a far greater purpose than just breaking the ice with plumbers. Instead, the preparing and drinking of matcha tea (powdered green tea) is a performance of sorts, with various complex and precise steps to follow. The ceremonies originated in China sometime around the 9th century and were brought to Japan in the 12th century, but it wouldn’t be until around the 16th century that the practice became widespread and as deeply linked with Buddhism as it is today.
In a nutshell, the ceremony teaches practitioners about a culture of respect for guests and the importance of polite hospitality through various intricate steps about the correct way to prepare and serve the tea. Following these precepts also helps people find inner peace and calm, as they can focus solely on the tasks at hand. There are various schools of Japanese tea ceremonies, and the Hanoi club became officially registered with the Urasenke school in 2015, though it had been running since 2012. Chiharu Iseri is the club’s Secretary General and one of the club’s teachers.
Iseri has been practicing tea ceremonies on and off for more than a decade and after moving to Hanoi in 2010, she quickly decided she wanted to bring part of her home country’s culture to Vietnam. When I asked Iseri how long it takes to become a tea ceremony teacher she laughed, as it’s a common question that doesn’t really have an answer. “It’s a lifelong practice, it’s not just about knowing the procedures.”
While it may not just be about the procedures, they certainly look complex enough to a layman to warrant lifelong learning. Amidst the bustling ceremony the club’s members (mostly women dressed in kimonos) calmly moved back and forth from behind the stage, preparing the pots for boiling water, the table where the matcha would be put in the water, bowls for serving and cloths to present the bowls of tea in.
Serving biscuits and tea to guests correctly and politely is one of the most important parts of the ceremony, Vietnamese club member Truong Thanh Hai told me. He said the sweet biscuits have to be eaten before any tea is consumed to balance out the bitter matcha, which has to be rotated deliberately and slowly by both server and drinker. This is because the server presents the front (or most beautiful part) of the bowl to the guest, then the guest rotates it again to avoid drinking from the front, as that would be rude.
Hai has been a member of the club for three years and is one of ten Vietnamese full members, while other locals dip in and out of the club’s activities. He said the tea ceremonies are a way of finding inner peace and calm away from his day to day life, through the four pillars of the ceremony, namely harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity.
This is no mean feat in a bustling metropolis like Hanoi, but Hai seemed to get a lot from the ceremonies and their philosophy. “The stress of your job can make you angry, but through chado you step by step calm your environment and balance yourself,” he concludes.