Exiting the elevator onto the fourth floor of the Main Building of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, we walked along the corridor leading past elegant banquet and meeting rooms. In the distance,Tea Master Setsuko Tanaka, dressed in a simple and beautiful kimono, was waiting.
As we approached, she bowed deeply and welcomed us to Toko-an, the tea ceremony room housed inside of the Imperial Hotel. Entering what at first appeared to be simply an ordinary door in the line of those leading to various banquet rooms, what laid beyond took my breath away: passing through the entrance to Toko-an is to enter another world.
Just inside the Western-style door stood a traditional wooden sliding gate, the type one might usually associate with an outside garden, which lay open ever so slightly. Sliding it open fully and guiding us through, the tea master explained that leaving the gate open the width of three fingers is a sign of welcome to guests; a fully closed gate would indicate the tea room is currently occupied or in the process of being prepared.
The decision to include a tea ceremony room in plans for the new Main Building, which is Western-style and opened in 1970, was firmly rooted in the Imperial Hotel’s history of caring for overseas visitors; housing a tea ceremony room inside of the hotel itself provides guests an opportunity to participate in a traditional Japanese custom that they may not otherwise experience.
The Toko-an consists of three chambers in which ceremonies of various sizes can be held. “It was designed in the Sukiya-style by master architect Togo Murano” Tanaka-sensei told us as she guided us through the waiting area. “Many people interested in architecture come to see his work.”
Stepping across the stone path, freshly sprinkled with water reminiscent of newly fallen dew, we were led past a beautiful Japanese garden that had been landscaped on top of the roof of the Imperial’s third floor.
Arriving at the namesake Toko-an chamber, a small 4.5 tatami mat space, Tanaka-sensei explained this is the traditional size of a tea ceremony room. While there is a larger door through which guests generally enter after taking off their shoes, she showed us a much smaller and lower door called the nijiri-guchi, through which guests would have traditionally entered. Requiring one to literally crouch down and crawl through the small opening, a samurai would have been unable to enter with his sword still attached to his side assuring weapons would be left outside. Inside the tea room the societal strata of samurai, farmers and merchants disappear, making all people equal.
Prevailing here is a feeling of Wa-Kei-Sei-Jyaku, short for “peace, respect, purity and quietness” found in the teachings of Sen no Rikyu (1522 – 1591), who is considered to be the father of the Japanese tea ceremony. Adding to the esthetic of simplicity are the objects displayed in the room’s tokonoma, or alcove. The kakejiku, or scrolls, are changed depending on the occasion of the tea ceremony and the season, as are the flowers that are arranged by Tanaka-sensei herself.
The tea ceremony vessels also change according to season: from May to October, tea is served in shallow bowls in which the tea cools more quickly, while from November to April it is served in deeper tea bowls which retain heat longer.
The tea master’s connection to the Imperial Hotel is deep: the aunt from whom she learned the tea ceremony had also worked here. It was through this connection that she became the Imperial Hotel’s tea master, serving in this role for the nearly five decades since the Toko-an opened in 1970.
In the Imperial’s tradition of consideration for visitors from overseas, if requested, guests can be gently guided in simple English on everything from how to properly take off their shoes and enter the tea room, to how to partake of the traditional sweets and rich green tea. Including a visit to the Toko-an is such an important part of their travel plans that some guests from abroad make reservations while still in their home countries.
Before the ceremony began Tanaka-sensei urged us to quietly pay special attention to the beautiful movements surrounding the purification of the tools and the making of the tea as this would lead to a feeling of peace in our hearts. The tea ceremony is not only good for the spirit, she added, but it is also healthy for the body as the sweets are made from beans and the tea itself contains vitamins A and C.
Asking her for a message she would like to share with people contemplating a visit to the Toko-an, Tanaka-sensei replied that amid the hustle and bustle of daily life it would bring her great happiness to provide a feeling of refreshment to all of her guests.
As the tea ceremony concluded and with the sweetness of the bean confection coupled with the bitterness of the tea still lingering in my mouth, indeed a sense of relaxation and peace had washed over me. Partaking in a cup of tea is only a fragment of what one experiences upon a visit to the Toko-an...
Documentary filmmaker Ian Thomas Ash was born in the United States and has lived in Japan for 13 years. Part four of this series will be published in June.