Skip to:Main Content

Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee University
Washington and Lee University Campus Image

The Tea Room as Classroom

 

From the purification of the utensils to the whisking and serving of the tea, students who study Chanoyu, the Way of Tea, participate in a 500-year-old tradition. In a one-semester course, they only begin to learn and understand this ancient art, but in a very concrete and immediate fashion. As students read and question, they are also expected to whisk powdered tea, handle ceramic tea bowls and bow to one another. The utensils in Chanoyu reveal some of the important characteristics of Japanese art: beauty and function, simplicity, use of natural materials, imperfection and asymmetry, desire for understatement. In such a course, students are literally "grasping" and "touching" artifacts, not only to study the object, but more importantly to actually use it.

The tea room, then, serves as a classroom and cultural laboratory. Through the study and practice of temae, the tea procedure, students are introduced to history, literature, art, traditional customs, aesthetics and perceptions of beauty, concepts such as minimalism and reductionism, the legacy of China's cultural supremacy among East Asian countries, and the foodways of a different culture. The study of chanoyu does more than acquaint students with an ancient tradition; it helps them to understand Japan today.

One of the courses at W&L, LIT 223 "Food and Tea in Japan," incorporates a "cultural lab" that is held weekly in the Senshin'an Japanese tea room in the Watson Pavilion. In the hands-on lab sessions students are expected to master the fundamental Urasenke tea procedure known as ryakubon or tea performed on a tray. In an authentic tea room, students can appreciate the beauty of traditional architecture, understand the feel of sitting on tatami, and participate in a timeless art form.