A student in Hakone’s Japanese tea ceremony class holds the traditional whisk and bowl.
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The Moon Viewing House is one of several teahouses at Hakone.
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The return of spring first brings delicate pink cherry blossoms, then red azaleas and purple wisterias to Hakone, the 18-acre Japanese gardens and estate in Saratoga created in 1917. It’s also when another celebrated aspect of Japanese culture comes into view: the tea ceremony. Although Hakone cultivates the centuries-old ritual through private classes and group demonstrations year-round, public tea ceremonies only take place the third Sunday of each month April through November, with three seatings a day. Depending on the number of participants and the weather, the stylized serving of hot green tea may take place in one of Hakone’s four teahouses—including the newly landscaped, intimate Pine Moon House—or outdoors, according to tea instructor John Larissou. (Hakone’s other cultural programs include origami and storytelling, kimono demos, Zen meditation, and the annual Matsuri festival May 20).
“The usual tea gatherings last for an hour, including some explanation and the tea ceremony itself, which is 30 to 45 minutes—long enough for most people to sit on the floor,” notes Larissou. He teaches the Omotesenke “way of tea,” a highly specific but natural-seeming practice developed by the eldest son of 16th-century Kyoto tea master Sen no Rikyu, whose family eventually founded three schools of tea. At Hakone, as in Japan, participants cleanse their hands and mouth with water from a bamboo spigot, then enter through a small passageway into the teahouse. They sit on tatami reed mats while Larissou whisks matcha with hot water, near an alcove decorated with a seasonal scroll and flowers. They drink the tea carefully from ceramic bowls before respectfully returning them.
Larissou began the public ceremonies nearly 20 years ago with then-president of the nonprofit Hakone Foundation, also an Omotesenke teacher. “The idea was people would just be ordinary guests of the tea ceremony,” Larissou recalls. “Neither one of us had any love of what’s called a ‘tea demonstration’; tea is really meant to be experienced, rather than have someone do it as a kind of play.” Omotesenke instructor Sohki Matsui, who has led classes at Hakone and in her Los Altos home for more than a decade, says she “definitely recommends” Hakone’s public tea ceremonies ($7, plus the regular $10 admission). “The tea rooms at Hakone are quite nice, and the garden itself is very authentic—you feel the Japanese feeling, not just an imitation.”
Originally published in the April issue of Silicon Valley