Monday, June 15, 2009

Tea in Hawaii: Chado demonstration

I confess: At first, I dreaded a recent trip to Hawaii. Five days with in-laws, and only in Waikiki. It smacked of touristy buffets, crowded beaches and the same exhaust fumes I inhale every day in Chicago. But when I began researching things we might do for fun, a footnote on the Fodor's map of Honolulu put my kettle to boil. The Urasenke Foundation "exists to promote a better understanding and appreciation among the American people of the rich cultural heritage of Japan as expressed through the art of chanoyu," which is the Japanese tea ceremony — and they have an outpost in the heart of Waikiki, offering twice-weekly demonstrations of the ceremony in their own tea house. Y'all enjoy T-shirt shopping. I was there.

The Urasenke location in Honolulu is in the shadow of Donald Trump's latest monolith, in a nondescript, low old building with hardly any signage on Waikiki's western boundary. At 10 a.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, they demonstrate the tea ceremony in a tidy, open-air tearoom (pictured, before I entered) — specially constructed according to traditions — for a suggested donation of a whopping $3. (Just call to let them know you're coming, 808-923-3059. I was one of three people on a stuffy Wednesday morning.)

Visitors first sit for a brief video (on VHS, played through a "Magnum P.I."-era TV set) explaining the basics and history of the ceremony, all through a quaint narrative about a mother and daughter off to visit a friend's house, where he prepares the whole shebang for them. It's got a very grade-school, turn-the-knob-when-you-hear-the-chime feel to it, but there's a good bit about the taste and traditional differences between thick and thin teas.

You're then marched along a tranquil stone path to the tea house in back. Shoes off. Sit on a woven mat. Two women then run through a demonstration of the ceremony. The real deal can last up to four hours and include a full meal; this demo is half an hour, tops, and limits the culinary experience to a couple of cookies. After narrating their way through it, serving each other, the women then repeat the ceremony, serving the visitors. Cookies first, light and sweet, waking the palate. Then individual bowls of matcha tea are whisked on the spot. Not too thick, not too thin, and bracing. Lots of bowing. At my request, they showcased some of their wares. I was particularly intrigued by the bamboo water ladles, and I've been looking for some ever since.

Here are a couple of videos of a similar Urasenke demo, via YouTube ...

Any fellow Chicago tea lovers want to take a two-hour chanoyu class here? The local JAS offers one every now and then, but there's a minimum of four students, which they don't often meet. Let me know.

Later, we escaped to the Big Island and visited some of the burgeoning tea plantations there. More on that later, stay tuned ...

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