I recently attended my first chanoyu, or traditional Japanese tea ceremony, at the transcendent East Village teahouse Cha-An (230 E 9th St.). It was sublime, but I've struggled greatly with how to best describe it.
After a few days, however, it's struck me: that's completely missing the point. Chanoyu is, at its essence, about letting go of the outside world and absorbing the moment. It's not about perfection or permanence: in fact, the two basic concepts, as established by the 1500s tea master Takeno Joo are wabi-sabi, or the singular beauty in imperfection, and ichigo ichie, a celebration of the unique and ephemeral nature of every encounter.
The only way to understand chanoyu is to experience it. Yes, I realize that sounds like some pseudo-yoga (or -Yoda) platitude, but it's true. Keep in mind the Japanese tea ceremony was developed and formalized centuries ago by Zen Buddhist monks, so it can get away with concepts that may sound ridiculously New Agey to modern ears.
The dichotomies are enough to make your head spin: The rituals of the tea master are so choreographed and simple, yet these ancient motions take decades to master; the setting is so minimal, yet the beauty it exemplifies is more stunning than the world's most opulent ballroom. But as soon as you leave the outside world behind, as you've implicitly done with your first, unshod, whispering steps on the tatami mat, and begin to focus on your immediate senses, all those thoughts fall away.
Your eyes adjust to the muted, paper-screened light and you begin to feel the heat of the small, intimate space rise. The only sounds are of the water softly bubbling in the cast-iron kettle, the steady stream pouring from the bamboo ladle into the bowl, and then the precise and insistent whisking of the matcha into a silky froth. You feel the texture of the clay as you cradle the bowl, and the weight of the emerald-green liquid inside; then finally, the warm touch of the tea on your lips before its deep, heady, vegetal flavor fills your mouth.
It's not doing the experience justice, but that's all I can write. You just need to go.
Cha-An performs a 30 minute tea ceremony for two to four people Sundays, by reservation only (212.228.8030; $15 per person, cash only).