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Serenity, sometimes, blooms wherever you make it. Late yesterday afternoon, I stopped by the Chelsea storefront of Miya Shoji, a boutique Japanese furniture store that sells elegant wood tables, tatami mats, and lanterns, for an impromptu traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
Though the outside of the store spills out onto a cold west-side block dominated by large office buildings, the interior of Miya Shoji is instantly peaceful. Rough-hewn tables made from huge slices of tree leaned against the walls, which were softened by paper screens created by the store’s designers.
A table at the center of the space was laid with a small tea-making operation staffed by Souheki Mori, a Japanese woman with an irrepressible, infectious grin who has been studying to become a tea master for over a decade. With her husband Junya, she has created Tea Whisk, a traveling tea ceremony in New York that teaches the basics of the ritual. ChariT, a bimonthly ceremony, raises money for tsunami relief in Japan, collecting a total of $6,000 in donations.
Dressed in a winter kimono, Mori guided her audience through the basics of the tea ceremony, outlining the difference between thick matcha tea, the equivalent of espresso, and thin, the foamy tea that we would be drinking, which she compared to a cappuccino. After laying out sweets on printed paper to eat just before drinking the tea, Mori began to brew individual bowls of matcha with the help of a cast-iron kettle, lacquered box of matcha, and a delicate bamboo ladle and whisk.
The ceremony is meant to be experienced as an aesthetic whole: We take in the form and texture of the materials as Mori purifies the equipment, wiping the bamboo with a red cloth and dipping the whisk in hot water, letting it fall against the side of the bowl with a hollow thwack three times, slow and deliberate. She scoops up pinches of the matcha with the bamboo spoon, pours in steaming water, and whisks together the mixture until it froths up into a pale green.
We each are handed a ceramic bowl, hot to the touch. Lifting it to our lips, we taste the bitterness of the tea and feel the heat of the liquid and the texture of the foam. After the bowl is empty, we examine the grounds that have settled at the bottom and trade bowls, admiring the glazes and patterns, each unique.
Mori’s ceremony reminds me of Ines Sun’s “Mobile Tea Garden,” a movable installation made up of dyed silk, paintings, sculptures, sound installation, and responsive projection that turns the making and drinking of tea into an immersive, outward, artistic experience. Both Sun and Mori work in the vein of relational aesthetics, bringing viewers together to participate in a particular kind of aesthetic exchange in which something is passed between creator and audience, and vice versa.
The appeal of Mori’s version of the ritual is that it’s a chance to experience the structure and format of the tea ceremony without the added intimidation of a special space or obligatory dress. It’s an hour-long dip into a warm pool of calm in the middle of the city winter.
Tickets for ChariT are $10, and the proceeds go to charity. For a schedule check their website.