The Japanese tea ceremony is a traditional art in which actual consumption takes a backseat to process and presentation. It’s also an activity for the privileged, one in which people can enjoy only if they have spare time to devote to classes. But Noriko Morishita has shown how a modern woman can embrace a fading art and the calmness it can bring. Morishita’s The Wisdom of Tea: Life Lessons from the Japanese Tea Ceremony was so successful in Japan that it was adapted into a 2018 film. Now translated into English by Eleanor Goldsmith, the book is more a memoir of her path to a slower lifestyle and self-acceptance than a treatise on the tea ceremony.
In 1977, Morishita was a university student from Yokohoma and an aspiring writer. She came of age at a time when Japanese women were starting to defy the expectation of marrying young and staying home with their kids. Morishita knew she didn’t want that life, but wasn’t sure of much else. On a whim, she and her cousin Michiko started learning about tea from a neighbor they called Aunt Takeda. Michiko was interested in tea, but Noriko found the ceremonial aspects of it and other arts like flower arranging outdated.
In my mind, they were all lumped together as pursuits that conservative parents who regarded marriage as a form of job-hunting forced on their daughter to ensure that they married money. If I was going to take up a hobby, I would prefer flamenco or Italian.
There was a lot to the tea ceremony that Morishita viewed as vulgar. She had taken to the western custom of quietly drinking soup and drinks, as she viewed the west with modernity. But Takeda-sensei instructed the women to slurp when they finished their tea to indicate they were finished.
Even when Morishita tried, she felt she could never learn tea properly. She thought she needed to learn the steps of the tea ceremony through memorization, but Takeda-sensei boldly corrected her.
You mustn’t memorize it! It’s not good trying to remember it with your head. Practice is about going through it as many times as you can, until your hands start to move of their own accord.
The years passed and Morishita often wanted to quit. Most Saturdays, when her class met, she would rather just rest at home. She also found it impossible to learn and still viewed the art of tea as something only older people enjoyed. Yet as the years passed and she experienced romantic heartbreaks—including a broken engagement to a man who cheated on her—and felt she had no direction with her freelance writing jobs, she started to look forward to her tea classes and the stability it provided. She and the other students didn’t share many personal details with one another, but Morishita knew they would provide a warm welcome when she arrived at class each week. Even staring out the window at Takeda-sensei’s brought her an inner peace.
In the garden, the wisteria blossoms swayed. The light was dazzling as it shone through the young persimmon leaves, and a fresh breeze stirred the air from time to time.
And this peace, as she learned, was the reason she grew to love the art of tea. Morishita would become Takeda-sensei’s most loyal student, studying with her for twenty-five years and appreciating the way the ceremony changed according to the time of year.
Tea was all about physically experiencing the aesthetics and philosophy of the traditional Japanese way of life, which sets great store on living in harmony with the changing seasons.
Morishita wrote The Wisdom of Tea for a Japanese audience: this is not an attempt to explain the tradition to a Western audience. Nor does the West itself have much that is comparable: there aren’t many traditions there that are so tied to a national identity. For English readers it’s a unique look into one women’s path toward self-acceptance as she learned to appreciate and enjoy the traditions—and the slower pace—of her culture.