The first thing that strikes you about Mrs Okayabashi’s sitting room is that there’s nowhere to sit. The only furniture is a low table and a large flat screen TV. There are no chairs or sofas. The room is also completely bare of any ornamentation or clutter. There are sliding doors opening onto a wooden terrace which looks onto a narrow strip of formal Japanese garden. Next to it is a room of the same size, with the same outlook, with no furniture in it at all. There’s a small recess in the centre of the floor which holds a stove on which sits a large pot with a lid. This is the room where Mrs Okayabashi conducts her Tea Ceremony.
In England there are certain rules which every well brought up person observes when drinking tea. The include not putting the milk in first (Nancy Mitford called the lower orders Mifs on account of this habit); not sticking your little finger in the air when holding the cup; and not pronouncing the word scone as if it rhymed with Joan. But these have nothing to do with etiquette and everything to do with snobbery. In Japan etiquette is everything.
Mrs Okayabashi is fully trained in all the intricacies of the Tea Ceremony. Tea with her friends will normally take four hours, but we are treated to a truncated version. First, she solves the mystery of where to sit as we are provided with thin cushions to sit on. The Japanese are happy sitting on their heels but my legs simply aren’t supple enough and I’m allowed to sit cross-legged, yoga style. First, we are given a small, very sweet, cake to eat. This is designed to take away some of the bitterness of the green tea. Then Mrs Okayabashi prepares tea for each guest in turn. She uses a ladle to take some water from the pot and adds it to some powdered green tea in a bowl which she stirs with an implement called a tea whisk, which looks like a large shaving brush. She then hands the bowl to the guest, who holds the bowl with one hand underneath and one hand to the side. The guest then says “oh sakie” (meaning “I will drink first”) to the person sitting to his left and drinks the tea in three gulps, after each gulp expressing his appreciation to the host. When everyone has drunk their tea they are given a thin flavoured biscuit to eat, after which the process is repeated. I felt honoured to be given this glimpse into the real Japan, and greatly relieved that I didn’t have to sit cross-legged for the full four hours.