Into a pop-up jewellery shop in Carnaby, through a white inconspicuous door, and down a narrow staircase that leads to a small room. It is in this intimate space where London Tea Club’s Watermelon Tea Ceremony is being held.
I enter with a vague expectation that it would be a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, but instead I am greeted by a petite, lady fashionably dressed in Western clothes. This is Souheki Mori, a Japanese tea ceremony master since 2005.
When all the guests arrive, Souheki gives us a short presentation on the basics of the tea ceremony. Chado, which means the way of tea, is an embodiment of four principles: harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility. Traditionally, anyone who takes part in the tea ceremony must enter a room through a low door, so that all who enters must bow. ‘Today, I shall make matcha for you with all my heart. Please enjoy’, says Souheki with her sweet, soft voice.
In silence, Souheki gets out a red cloth and unfolds it in a set order and purifies equipments in a slow, deliberate manner. Once, twice, thrice, she wipes her bamboo spoon at a set angle and speed. With a lacquered ladle she scoops watermelon juice, pours a third of the juice into the tea bowl, and lets the rest fall back into the water melon. Splash. After putting matcha powder into the juice, she hits the bamboo spoon on the edge of the bowl to get the remaining powder off the spoon. Thwack. Then she whisks until it froths up into a pale green tea. All of this routine is done in a meaningful movement at a consistent speed. The splashes and the thwacks forming its own rhythm in thissimple ritual.
‘Please have your sweets’, tells Souheki to the gentleman on her right just before she makes matcha for him. There are only 12 pieces of Japanese sweets laid out on the table – to the exact number of guests in the room. The sweets are eaten just before drinking matcha, so that its sweetness balances out the bitterness of the tea. Souheki makes matcha one by one, going through those set movements in a consistent rhythm. When it is my turn, she hands me matcha made of watermelon juice in a plastic bowl. It is cool and fresh on the first sip, and the bitterness on the tip of the tongue is soon replaced by a soft sweet undernote of the fruit juice.
So what is my verdict of the whole experience? It would have been a beautiful experience of contemplating on small, simple things in life – but sadly the serenity of the moment created by Souheki’s graceful and purposeful movements were very soon broken by people chitchatting. The plastic bowls used to serve matcha did not add to the experience either, its cheap light touch on fingertips seemed to encourage people to slosh it down in one big glup rather than savouring it.
Having said that, it was an evening where I caught a glimpse of the essence of chado. With a little bit of imagination – sitting on top of a beautiful mountain top instead of this claustrophobic room, bamboo trees stirring in the gentle breeze… or something of the sorts (you get the picture) – its not hard to see harmony, respect, purity and tranquility within a simple act of drinking tea. Having had a little glimpse into the beauty of this ancient tradition was enough for me to leave the room feeling elated, having tasted something so different amidst this busy hectic city life.