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Embracing Tea and Tradition at the Japanese Friendship Garden

When's the last time you were intentional about your food -- noticing every bite, exploring the flavors of an appetizer with your tongue or resting in-between sips of a good cocktail? Blaming our lack of time, most of us end up scarfing down even the most gourmet meal in mere minutes. Either that or we're too busy gabbing with friends/spouses/children to actually notice the food we're eating. 

We're no better than these koi fish swarming to a guest's handout.
We're no better than these koi fish swarming to a guest's handout.

That's why the Tea Ceremony at the Japanese Friendship Garden (Ro Ho En) in Phoenix is so appealing. It forces you to be in the moment. It's also so relaxing and beautiful to watch that you don't want to be anywhere else.

Our silent host pours the tea water back into its original container.
Our silent host pours the tea water back into its original container.

Our silent host pours the tea water back into its original container.

​According to our guide, the Japanese tea ceremony is a longstanding cultural tradition which dates back to around the 12th century. The preparation of the tea is akin to a ritial dance: there are exacting, deliberate movements and planned pauses. There is no speaking, though at the Gardens a guide explains the ceremony as it goes along.

Everything serves a purpose, from the red napkin our hostess creased, folded and refolded to the various tea vessels and tools. The jars and bowls are carefully selected in colors to reflect the season.

A ritual cleansing before the tea.
A ritual cleansing before the tea.

utside the tea house, guests take turns ritually cleansing their mouths and hands with water from a small fountain. The ritual then moves indoors. Shoes are removed and carefully placed with toes facing outwards. If you have stinky feet, no worries. The Japanese Garden provides clean socks in white or black to match your outfit!

After the "first guest" makes his or her way into the tea room, everyone else files in and takes a seat. Traditionally, you'd sit on the tatami mats, but with American comfort in mind, the Friendship Garden's tea room has laquered stools and a comfortable height table. The ceremony begins as the hostess enters the room and begins a complex series of tasks.

Embracing Tea and Tradition at the Japanese Friendship Garden
Even the sweets look perfect.
Even the sweets look perfect.

While the hostess is busy preparing tea, the assistants bring each guest a "sweet" on a napkin. Mine was a pretty little soft biscuit filled with what I'd guess is a sweet red bean paste. Not exactly Tammie Coe, but trust me when I say you'll want to eat it. Remember, everything here is purposeful, and this treat's purpose is to help cut the bitterness of the tea. It works like a charm, making the tea palatable to the last drop.

Powdered tea predates the leaf variety in Japan.
Powdered tea predates the leaf variety in Japan.

After the tea has been consumed, the hostess works in reverse, breaking down the tea service and cleaning up the table. By this time, our group of eight was so relaxed that we could barely speak. Our brains wouldn't even form coherent sentences as we floated out the door. The assistants bid us goodbye with a traditional bow.

See you next time!
See you next time!

Ro Ho En is closed for the summer season, so you'll have to wait until fall to see the tea ceremony unless you book a spot in the next few weeks. They've also got a few interesting classes, including a Kimono Dressing Workshop, coming up later this month.      

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Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix/Ro Ho En

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