We sit outside at Rumi’s place in New Plymouth, where she is preparing the setting for our Japanese tea ceremony. She carefully wipes the equipment: a bamboo scoop and whisk and a beautiful glass bowl. A red coloured double layered square of silk cloth is meticulously folded in a special manner, specifically for the ritual, the purpose is to purify. At this point she tells me to have the sweets: some plump fresh raspberries and blueberries, picked from the garden and a matcha chocolate sweet which looks green and has an interesting soft centre.
“That’s the whisk,” she says, as she lifts it to show me. With the bamboo scoop she then takes some bright green powder out of a small bamboo container and puts it into the bowl of translucent blue glass.
“What is the tea made of?” I ask.
“From the same plant as the black tea,” Rumi tells me. “Usually it is grown in the shade so it’s not directly exposed to the sun. They use only the very young buds from that tea,” she says. “This is ‘thin’ tea. There is another type which is called ‘thick’. It’s more like a Spanish chocolate, very thick like a paste. That’s the highest grade. Five guests can drink from one cup because it’s very dense, very strong. You drink only three sips, usually. You really have to do ‘that’” – she gestures as if holding the bowl and makes a sucking sound as if sipping quickly.
“First you eat the fruits with the sweets. Usually for the thin tea, you have dry sweets,” Rumi explains. “For the thick tea, because it’s more strong, you have bigger and moist sweets. We are having dry (sweets) today. Also with the matcha (green tea) chocolate. Usually in a demonstration there are not as many.
“Are you having any?” I ask. “Or is it just for me?”
“Yes,” she replies. “Usually the hosts don’t drink with the guests. But sometimes, as we are friends, I can drink also, so that’s an exception.” She laughs. “But after you, of course – not together. Everything has its own place.”
“So it’s quite a ritual. Do you know why there is an order?” I want to know.
“It’s a very logical order,” Rumi explains. “And of course the host is there to serve the guests, putting in all their efforts to please them.”
She continues: “In the tea room everybody is equal. Usually with the typical tearoom the guests come in through a very small entrance.” She refers to the current TV commercial filmed in Japan showing a tea ceremony with two people crawling into the tearoom. I want to know what the reason is for that. Rumi explains that it was established a long time ago. “During the samurai times the warriors carried swords with them. With a sword you cannot go inside, you cannot pass through that small door, so they had to leave their weapons outside. There is a special place where they put them. So everyone is equal – friends, inside.” She goes on: “In Japan a circle means peace. It’s very important. Our principle is ‘wa kei sei jaku’, which means peace and harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.” I ask Rumi to write it down for me. She writes it in Japanese. I didn’t expect that and laugh, so she writes it down for me in our familiar English alphabet.
She whisks the powdered tea and hot water. I ask Rumi if I have to eat all the sweets. “Yes,” she confirms and continues: “It’s not like our ‘tea and coffee’: Eating and drinking and drinking and eating.” She points out that the tea is made of powder. “If you don’t drink it almost immediately, the powder will sink. But it’s good that you have to drink everything because with the green tea you drink all the vitamins – the whole leaf.” She explains that the leaves are dried after they have been picked, and then ground between two stones. “So it’s very thick powder,” Rumi goes on.
“Usually when I prepare the tea I prepare it with the bowl facing me. So I turn it twice.” She turns the bowl twice. The bowl is now facing me. “Usually the guest also turns it twice, clockwise. You turn it on your palm,” she explains. It shows respect. “Usually you say to the host: ‘Thank you for preparing.’
“Thank you for preparing,” I say. We laugh.
“Usually they say in Japanese: ‘Thank you for your effort.’ And then bow,” Rumi says. “That means also ‘Thanks’. But not only for me: For the universe; everybody who was involved for making this happen today. The person who made the bowl, the person who picked the tea, the person who made everything – the tea and tea ceremony.” I sip the tea. “Once you’ve experienced one, you understand it,” Rumy tells me.
I take a sip. “It’s quite nice,” I say.
“Yes. The leaves were not burned by the sun – there’s a sweetness. It’s bitter but also sweet.” She looks into my now empty bowl, with just the leftover green pulp. “You have a heart,” she says. We laugh. Rumi continues to guide me through the tea ceremony: “And after that you usually turn the bowl anticlockwise and admire the bowl.” I gladly notice that I had been doing just that.
“It’s very special,” I say. Rumi tells me that the bowl is made of glass, which is used in summer.
“You turn the bowl twice at forty-five degrees,” she explains. “If you want another – more, you will not say anything. If you don’t say anything I will continue to make tea.”
“Ooohh, interesting!” I exclaim. I see now that Rumi has started to prepare for a second bowl of tea.
“So, do you want another?” she asks hesitantly.
“I won’t have another one.”
“You tell me: ‘Please finish’.“
“Thank you,” I say.
“I will finish thank you,” Rumi confirms. “I will finish the ceremony,” she continues. Rumi proceeds with the finishing ceremony in a ritual manner.
“It’s really beautiful,” I tell her.
“Everything has a reason.” she says.
“Is there a reason for the shape of the silk cloth?” I ask as I watch Rumi folding the red cloth a certain way.
“Yes. This is the most basic one. There are several different folding procedures. It is finished now,” Rumi tells me.
She tells me that cleaning the equipment is to purify. She explains: “Doing that you purify yourself and the guest in the room and the whole atmosphere inside and make everything calm. And also it shows gratitude to the Earth, to the people, to nature.”
“Beautiful. Quite spiritual,” I say.
“Yes,” Rumi answers.
“This ceremony is the most simple one. You can do it everywhere if you have hot water. And if you have the tea and the whisk,” she adds. “To whisk is most important of course. “ I note that the whisk and scoop have been made of bamboo. Rumi tells me that the tea container can be made of pottery, glass, or wood also, sometimes laquered. She lets me smell the dry tea in the bamboo container.
“Quite sweet,” I say. The tea is called matcha.
“Matcha is spelled ‘M-A -T-C-H-A’,” Rumi tells me. “But in Japanese it’s pronounced more like ‘Mach-Cha’ – not ‘Matcha’. Double ‘ch’, she explains.
I am interested in Rumi’s background because she is not from Japan and I wonder how she got involved in doing tea ceremonies. She tells me she was born in Bulgaria, and moved to Japan when she was twenty one, after meeting and marrying a Japanese person in Bulgaria. “I was interested in Japan and Japanese culture,” Rumi says. “I heard about the tea ceremony. That was in the late eighties – a little before the Berlin wall came down. We then went to Japan together. I had just finished university.” Having studied International Tourism Rumi tells me she was already interested in the world, travel, and different people. She studied Japanese from the time she moved to the country and speaks the language fluently.
About a year after her arrival in Japan Rumi started to learn how to perform tea ceremonies. She tells me she has been doing it for more than thirty years now, and teaches this to people in New Zealand. I want to know if she taught it to people in Japan as well. “Yes, I started it after fifteen years,” she says. There are many certificates. In the beginning you don’t need a certificate. But to go a little step further, you need a certificate, permission to start up levels. You need more than ten certificates, after you can teach. After the fifteenth certificate they give you a title, called ‘Chamei’.“
“Sort of like a ‘black belt’ in Japanese tea,” I suggest, as it reminds me of my own training in Shotokan Karate and gaining my second Dan Black Belt after a number of years.
“When the teacher sees that you are able to go further, then the teacher usually proposes and that can take many years,” she continues. “Once the teacher recognises your ability and your skills, and interest in doing it that’s when they basically ask you to continue and to go up a level. You can also ask for it yourself,” she adds. “Yes you can say that ‘I would love some day to teach’ of course. But only if they approve. The teacher applies to the centre office. The headquarters give you that permission. If you don’t have that certificate, you are not allowed to see upper procedures. That’s the Japanese culture.“
From Japan, Rumi came to New Zealand six and a half years ago. She started teaching tea ceremonies in New Zealand soon after her arrival. “I was very fortunate to find that in New Plymouth they have an authentic tea house. Usually it’s open during the Garden Festival. The owner brings his teacher from Japan and show the ceremony to the guests who come to the garden. They offer teas. I started to help them the first year I was here.”
I ask if Rumi has had any challenges when she came to New Zealand. “Yes,” she acknowledges. First of all it’s very far from everywhere. It’s not easy to go back to Japan or Bulgaria. But in the beginning there were less Japanese things here to buy to cook. But these days it is improving. Now they say there is a shop where you can buy matcha. The tea you buy in the supermarket is not the same. It’s more for cooking. It’s much much lower quality.”
“The food you eat now is it mainly Japanese or do have now a combination of Bulgarian and Japanese?” I ask.
“Yes. It’s quite a mix,” Rumi confirms.
“And the language?” I want to know.
“The language was challenging for me too. Communicate all the time in English and still… not that easy. But I was fortunate also to find many Japanese living here. This moment I teach tea ceremony to Japanese and some Kiwis.
“That’s quite impressive,” I say.
“Is there anything you view as a success – over the last six years?” I ask.
“I did a lot of tea ceremony demonstrations at different schools around Taranaki, a retirement home and at the hospice, and started to teach after about three years. That was a success, to be able to share it more. To be able to help when people come. Of course I would like to share it with more people. With Kiwis also. Not as easy as ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) or yoga. A lot of utensils are involved. And place also, you need a place to do it. You need a vase and flower also.” She points at the little vase with flowers on the table in front of us.
“How do you see your future?” I ask.
“I would like a tea room/tea house somewhere. Maybe build one here,” she says.
People who would like to have an experience can contact Rumi on 027 9593178 and then she will take it from there – where and how.