Culture Connection: Japanese Tea Ceremony

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URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) — Some people put honey in their tea. Others use sugar. But to properly perform Japanese Tea Ceremony, it takes “kokoro” — heart, mind, and spirit.

Grad student Diana Liao says “it’s a fully body experience.” She began studying this artform in 2015 from U of I Professor Emeritus Kimiko Gunji, a master of the craft.

Gunji has been teaching all things Japanese culture at the university for 30 years, but her earliest memories of tea ceremonies go back even further.

“I was only five years old back home in Japan. My grandmother was practicing,” says Gunji. “I was kind of curious of what was going on. Almost like playing house.”

As Gunji grew up, her child-like curiosity turned into passion. She’s served thousands of tea bowls in her time.

“But every time is new. Every time is different because we have this saying…which is one life, one opportunity,” explains Gunji.

There are more than 800 ways to serve a bowl of tea in Japanese culture, but it’s all centered around four principles: harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.

Gunji and Liao say it’s not so much about serving the tea as it is about preparing it in the correct way.

There’s a certain order to mixing the green matcha powder and specific movements that must be done when serving and cleaning up, but it comes full circle at the end.

“Once you let go of those little steps, you realize, really, it’s all about being able to make tea, to serve it to someone, and respect them,” says Liao.

A Japanese tea ceremony is something you have to experience in order to fully understand, and that’s what makes it an example of intangible cultural heritage.

For Liao, preserving that heritage with university students and Japan House guests is her mission.

“We hope that through sharing Japanese tea ceremony and cultural diversity, it makes the world more tolerant because they know what another culture is up to, what other people believe, and how they feel,” says Liao.

Gunji and Liao were able to expand Japanese Tea Ceremony teaching at Japan House thanks to receiving a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.

There’s a weekly community tea class open to the public. Click here for more information.

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