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Student Storyteller: The Japanese tea ceremony and insight into modern life

By Cynthia Williams ('13)
teaceremony.istock

It was a small group of about 50 that met on Saturday afternoon at Wake Forest to experience one of Japan’s most well-known traditions — the tea ceremony. The small numbers added to the tranquil mood as we sat around tatami mats to hear the quiet descriptions of each movement.

The tea plant traveled from China to Japan during the Tang Dynasty, around the year 600. Since then, the Japanese have studied the plant and created their own tea drinking traditions. The spiritual experience has a strong relationship with Shinto and Zen Buddhism ideals of cleanliness and transience.

I spoke with the sensei, or teacher, of our tea ceremony after the event about what the ceremony means in modern Japan with its highly advanced technology and fast-paced urban life. She eloquently explained to me that the tea ceremony teaches discipline to the modern day Japanese culture, as well as provides an important link to an old tradition.

Afterwards, the sensei talked about a concept central to tea ceremony: the phrase一期一会 (ichigo-ichie). The phrase, translated “a once in a lifetime encounter,” is put on scrolls in tea rooms to convey the important idea that each time we meet for tea, it is special and unique, and while we may meet again, it will never be quite the same. Because we so often find ourselves concerned with the future, we forget to appreciate and live in the now; therefore, it is a phrase to which every one of us can relate.

When living with people from a culture different from one’s own, we may be concerned that we will accidentally say or do something that makes the other person uncomfortable, so we choose instead to stay in our comfort zone.

From my own study abroad in Japan, I can offer a few suggestions, whether you are visiting another country or people from other countries are working and living in your home country. First, have an open mind. Be willing to learn from the people and culture around you. Second, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, whether linguistically or culturally: it’s all part of the learning experience, and the more you show your willingness to learn, the more you’ll find yourself learning. Third, put yourself out there, because just like the phrase ichigo-ichie explains, your experiences meeting people from other cultures is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and though you may meet again, you’ll want to be sure you make the most of each encounter.

Cynthia Williams is a senior political science major from Elizabeth City, N.C. She is a co-leader of the Japanese Studies Club and last year spent a semester studying abroad in Japan.

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