When she arrived in Japan in 1996, Margie Yap had given up her 1,400 square foot home and family, as well as ownership of her multi-million dollar marketing agency. Now, as a new student at Kyoto’s Urasenke Chanoyu Institute, she lived in a 10 by 10 foot room and slept on a tatami mat. She didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak Japanese. She had to pick up the difficult language via a phrase book and immersion.
“As soon as I got off the plane, I felt like a wide-eyed deer caught in the headlights,” she remembers.
She was right to worry. The next year would be the hardest of her life, with days and nights entirely devoted to the study and practice of the art she’d come to Japan to explore: making tea.
Today Yap runs the renowned Issoan Tea School from her home west of Portland. It features one of the most beautiful tea rooms outside Japan and boasts students from around the world. Her courses range from the ceremony itself to many other Japanese cultural art forms, from ceramics to textiles.
But to reach this level of achievement in her field, Yap had to do more than master the ancient, intricate Japanese tea ceremony. She also had to master her own mercurial mind.
THE ART OF LEARNING: An ArtsWatch Occasional Series
“Before I started to study Chado,” she wrote later, “I was a flighty person with a very small attention span. I was great at starting things, but lousy at finishing them. When I began my tea study, friends laughed because they knew it wouldn’t last. For a while, I didn’t start new things because tea showed me how unfocused and chaotic my life was.”
She’s not alone. In our current age of manifold electronic and other distractions unimagined a quarter century ago, many can relate to Yap’s difficulty in finding focus, concentration, depth. Her journey through the ancient art form, which demands focused attention, offers lessons for all of us.
Yap grew up in Portland and Hawaii, a third-generation American of Chinese and Hawaiian descent who has, throughout her life, endured racist discrimination and “go back to where you came from” taunts. Her attraction to Japanese culture came from second-hand American sources: teenage encounters with James Clavell’s epic novel Shogun and the movie The Karate Kid, both with prominent scenes featuring the tea ceremony.
Those led her to primary sources: The Tale of Genji and other literary classics, Noh plays, and Kabuki plays.
Her own first experience with the tea ceremony was at a demonstration at the Portland Japanese Garden. At last, she had met someone who could teach her the ceremony she’d encountered in books – the revered instructor Minako Frady, whom she called “Sensei” (a term of respect meaning roughly “teacher”).
At that point in 1982, a few years out of the University of Oregon, where she’d studied journalism, Yap was working as a corporate marketing and public relations consultant. Why study chanoyu, the Japanese name for the tea ceremony?
“It was partly culture and partly the taste of tea,” Yap recalls. “If you want to study Japanese culture, study tea. All the high arts of Japan converge there.” Ceramics, flower arranging, gardening, meditation, fiber art, and many more go into Chado, the way of tea, “which incorporates centuries of Japanese history, literature, and culture which come together in the study and discipline of making and serving tea,” Yap writes on her website.
She’d initially hoped to take the 10-week introductory class from Minako-sensei and then be able to do a tea ceremony herself. But, as she would learn over and over again in the coming years, quick and easy isn’t how Japanese traditional culture works. “In Japan, if something is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing,” cracks Yap’s husband Craig Tenney, whom she met when both were working in marketing at Intel, and whom she calls her biggest supporter in her journey along the way of tea.
“I didn’t even make tea for the first six months,” Yap remembers. “My teacher made me clean the tea room, prepare the tea utensils for the ceremony,” and much more. “I had to learn how to be a guest, learn the etiquette before I even touched the teascoop.”
Steeped in Tradition
There was a lot to learn. Today’s ceremony originated half a millennium ago, with Zen Buddhist monks who imported matcha (the refined powdered green tea whisked in a bowl of hot water) from China centuries before that and incorporated it into their spiritual practice.
The ritual was picked up by Japan’s warrior elite during Japan’s medieval turmoil. The ceremony provided a way for the leaders of warring samurai factions to meet in neutral territory to work out their differences. In a traditional tea room, guests crawl in through a narrow opening that, five centuries ago, forced the commanders to disarm, leave behind their armor, weapons, and retinue.
“The etiquette developed to make the participants feel safe,” Yap explains. “If everyone plays by the rules, no one gets hurt. It’s like traffic laws.”
Soon the country’s emerging wealthy merchant class adopted it as an elite artistic pursuit that helped weave social ties. It grew more austere when the revered 16th century tea master Rikyū and others placed a higher value on less-refined, unglazed, even rustic pottery styles, valorizing authenticity, honesty and what we might today call minimalism — what the Japanese term wabi. The Zen principle of mindfulness has permeated the ceremony ever since.
“The heart of the tea ceremony is not found in the tea,” Yap writes, “but in the four principles of wa-kei-sei-jaku, or harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility. The tranquility comes from learning how to be in harmony with others, respect for others and oneself, and purity in thought and action.”
Putting those principles into ceremonial practice can require months of study — or a lifetime. It’s challenging even for someone raised in Japanese culture. For a born-and-raised American like Yap, the demands might seem insurmountable.
Upping Her Game
During her years of study in Portland with Minako-sensei, Yap struggled. She couldn’t really focus exclusively on learning the way of tea. She was raising a family, working in marketing, and launching her own company with her husband.
In retrospect, Yap believes that what she was seeking from the tea ceremony’s rigorous beauty was the sense of discipline and focus it demands.
“In the beginning, I could not keep my focus long enough to get through a two-hour tea lesson,” she recalls. “My Sensei called me ‘the flying girl’ because I was so ungrounded. She would scold me all the time: ‘Pay attention, you’re flying again.’”
Minako-sensei was patient, but also tough, sometimes peppering Yap with questions while she was trying to remember the next move in the entirely memorized procedures, or temae, of chanoyu, the tea-making ceremony. The purpose was to teach the flying girl how to maintain focus and glide smoothly through distractions, even converse with guests, without interrupting the work.
“The trick in chanoyu is to make everything look natural, easy, and uncomplicated,” Yap explains, “even though there is a lot going on.”
America’s instant gratification culture couldn’t have prepared her for the traditional Japanese obsession with detail. Which foot to use at literally each step of the process. How to fold the tea napkin properly. How to sit down and stand up gracefully in the formal kimono always worn when hosting the chanoyu. Her sensei spent several lessons teaching her how to put it on. Finally, she was allowed to dress herself. It took her three hours to get it right. “Good,” Minako-sensei told her when she finally emerged properly attired. “Now take it off.” The lesson time had expired.
The tea room provided an oasis from her busy life, as did her marriage to Tenney, whose groundedness also brought more steadiness to her life and work. He even studied the tea ceremony for three years before they married, to better understand her devotion to it. Though their business thrived, something was still missing.
After two years of studying with Minako-sensei, Yap decided that what she wanted to do was teach Chado herself.
To do that, Minako-sensei told her, she would need advanced education at the one accredited school that teaches the art of tea — Kyoto’s Midorikai School, Urasenke Chanoyu Institute’s immersive program for non-Japanese tea students, which accepted only a half-dozen non-Japanese students each year. After a year of intensive preparation, Minako-sensei urged her to apply.
With Tenney’s support, she sent in the application to the Midorikai School, and a year later received her acceptance.
Midorikai has rightly been called “boot camp for tea.” Instruction took place from 8 am to 8 pm, six days a week. Along with two lectures per day, the students did chores when not in class, including cleaning toilets. Since the tea ceremony is 80 percent cleaning, Yap says, they were studying, cleaning, preparing, and learning all day. Water for tea making often came from a well and the students had to get up in the morning to fetch water in a pair of five gallon buckets and haul it uphill, all while wearing a kimono. They had to remember the correct order of hundreds of procedures and move their bodies with exquisite control. By bedtime, all were exhausted.
For Yap, it was “culture shock,” she recalls. “I did not just live in Japan for a year, I lived in 18th century Japan. I had to wear a kimono every day, and the room I lived in was four and a half tatami mats – about 10 feet square. I didn’t understand very much Japanese, so people were yelling at me all the time because they thought I was not listening to them.”
Her teachers would watch her make tea and criticize everything from how she wore her kimono to how quickly and gracefully she made each move. Developing the physical stamina to rise and descend gracefully while carrying fragile tea utensils in both hands made her feel awkward, ungainly. Worst of all was sitting on her knees, sometimes for hours at a time. (The long version of the traditional tea ceremony can last five hours and the host does most of the work kneeling.)
“They insisted that I sit properly,’ she wrote. “At first, it was hard to pay attention to anything else while my feet and legs were screaming at me in pain.” She tried stretching, immersing her legs in warm water, breathing exercises — nothing stopped the pain. Finally she asked her assigned senior student mentor, who could sit for days without apparent pain, “When will the pain in my legs go away?”
“The pain never goes away,” he replied. “But after a while you won’t mind it so much.” She realized that focusing on the pain was preventing her from absorbing her lessons.
Yap complained regularly to her student mentor about how much stricter the teachers were with her than any other student, and how flustered and angry it made her. “Why were they being so unfair with me?” she demanded.
He replied that it takes a lot more effort for teachers to be strict with their students. “The strictness you see as picking on you is really them showing you how much they care about you. They want you to do well and will spend the time to correct you. So next time you get a correction, just say ‘hai’ [yes], or even better say ‘thank you.’”
Yap didn’t just have to learn the painstakingly detailed variations and arduous art of the tea ceremony, including subtle social interactions, etiquette, choice of utensils, seasonal changes, and more. She’d also have to change her attitude, from hard-charging American entrepreneur to humble student.
“It was a hard lesson for me to learn, with my rebellious nature exerting itself,” she wrote later. “But when I began to embrace the learning and just said, ‘hai’ when someone corrected me or scolded me, and I really meant it, things started to go better for me. I was given more attention by my teachers, new opportunities opened up before me. I made more friends who were eager to help me out in learning the language.”
Gradually, she discovered that the real lessons would have to come not from her teachers, but from within.
“Tea is not a thing to learn from teachers,” the school’s equivalent of the dean announced at their orientation. “Tea is not the procedure, and this is not a university. Seek for yourself. If you have a strong will, you will learn the way of tea, the way of life, the way of the spirit.”
So it’s not just about the tea. And yet it is.
“Temae, the procedure for making tea, to our American eyes, may seem overly complicated and rigid with rules,” Yap has written. “But these procedures have been refined for more than 400 years to be able to make a bowl of tea in the most efficient and beautiful way. Doing a simple temae and making it look natural and beautiful takes a lot of training. Many years of study and practice go into holding a formal tea gathering, but, in the end, the taste of the tea is what it is all about.”
There are different kinds of tea ceremonies, ranging from small informal chakai for just a few guests, running from half an hour to an hour in length, to a much more elaborate chaji that involves multiple-course meals, a garden intermission, rigorously structured rituals, and two different tea ceremonies. And yet the essential tools are as simple as the process is complex: a bamboo scoop (chashaku), ceramic bowl (chawan), and bamboo whisk (chasen). Every tea ceremony follows the classic beginning (purification of utensils), middle (making and drinking tea), and end (closing movements, including clean up) sequence of any traditional story.
Preparation can be as involved as the ceremony itself. For a formal tea gathering, Yap will put together a guest list, choose a theme, compose a haiku, and inscribe it on hand-lettered invitations. On the appointed day, she’ll clean the garden and thoroughly vacuum, sweep, dust, and wash the entire house and the tea room. Then she’ll choose utensils that match each other and the theme, clean them all, and then air dry and arrange them. She’ll also prepare or procure appropriate tea sweets; make soup stock; make and wrap small gifts for the guests; write a list of the utensils for them to take home as a memento; pick and arrange flowers; hang the appropriate scroll for the season; cook the meal; sift the tea; don her kimono; and meditate before guests arrive.
One of the host’s primary considerations in making choices for a ceremony is seasonality, which stems from the Japanese devotion to nature. They recognize not just four seasons, but 72. Early spring might bring daffodils, while peonies appear in high spring. The tea ceremony encourages guests to pay attention to those variations. Everything from the choice and placement of flowers to the fire, the pace of preparation, and the choice of utensils, even the stories the host tells varies with the season. The aim is to create an atmosphere of tranquility and respect for the guest — an ultimate act of hospitality in what is essentially a social event. Japanese call this omotenashi.
“A lot of the ritual of Chado is to help the guest, and the host, too, become present,” Yap writes. “As we enter each doorway or gate, we leave something of the world outside. The traffic, school work, your mother-in-law — each and every time you step through a doorway you become less and less burdened. By the time you enter the tea room, you can be present. Nothing matters so much as what is happening at this very moment — you are all in.”
In such a calm atmosphere, the guests’ focus is entirely on what the host is doing, so she must make every gesture meaningful and carefully considered, including the exact angle, down to a fraction of an inch, her body is lined up with various parts of the room; her posture, including such details as how high her knee comes up; how far she sits from the guests; which hand picks up and puts down the bowl; where on the bowl fingers are aligned; and innumerable other factors.
“When you and your body know the procedure by heart, you don’t need to think about what comes next,” Yap writes. “You can free your mind to concentrate on the guest. It is about sincerely wanting to make the best tea for your guests, rather than making no mistakes.”
The sound and tempo of each step also matter. The precise manner of entering the room, picking up, carrying, and putting down each utensil is prescribed. As is the arrangement of the charcoal that heats the tea water and the timing of bringing it to the specified temperature, which the host deduces from the subtly changing sounds of the water bubbling as it heats up.
Once, Yap conducted a demonstration on movement for a post-graduate course for theater majors. “It looks so natural,” one student said, “and simple to do.”
“But he failed to notice that I always entered the room with the right foot and exited with my left,” she wrote. “He also failed to notice that when I folded my fukusa [woven cloth tea napkin] all the folds and corners lined up, every single time. He also failed to notice that everything was in its place, and not a centimeter off in a ten-foot square space.”
Noticing is part of a guest’s duty in a formal ceremony, as is asking polite questions about aspects of the room and ceremony, washing hands before entering, closely regarding the tea when served before sipping, and more details of etiquette. Journalistic candor compels me to confess that I unwittingly violated just about every single one of these unspoken precepts when Yap served me. Yet I felt entirely at ease throughout, never uncomfortable, nor even suspected I’d transgressed any norms. It was a thoroughly relaxing, yet stimulating delight.
These scrupulously rigid steps all have deeply embedded roots in Japanese culture. For example, “there are pauses where nothing seems to be happening,” Yap explains, “but that’s almost more important than when something is happening.” Those pauses reflect the fundamental Zen concept of ma, white space or negative space.
After it’s all over, the guests leave and the host faces an hour or more of cleaning up and putting away — the third and final segment of the ceremony.
From Student to Teacher
When Yap returned to Portland from her studies at the Midorikai School, she knew a lot more about tea, Japan, and herself. The separation had strengthened and refreshed her marriage to Tenney. “It was like getting acquainted all over again,” she recalls. And from living in a tiny space with only essentials, she’d learned how to determine what was important. She immediately started decluttering her Portland home.
“By getting rid of extraneous things,” she wrote, “I was amazed at how unburdened I felt.”
Grateful for all the effort her teachers and mentors had expended on her behalf, she wanted to give back by teaching Chado herself. “Knowledge gained, if it is not shared,” one of her teachers had told her, “is knowledge lost.” But she knew she wasn’t ready.
“After Midorikai, I thought I was farther than ever from becoming a teacher,” she wrote, “because I had found out in my year in Japan just how little I knew about the way of tea.”
She wanted to continue learning Japanese, so she called a friend at Tektronix who spoke the language and who agreed to give her lessons.
She also resumed tea lessons with her sensei, Minako Frady, then seized an opportunity to study with Bonnie Mitchell of Seattle, a devotee of the way of tea since the 1970s.
While working simultaneously in communications at Corbis, a Seattle company owned by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Yap’s study with Mitchell-sensei provided a welcome oasis of calm. She acquired teaching credentials in the art of tea in 2001 and assisted Mitchell-sensei in her teaching of the tea ceremony. After a few years, Mitchell-sensei told Yap that she was now ready to start her own school.
Returning to Portland in 2004, Yap opened Issoan Tea School. The name means “One Grass Hut,” and according to the website, “exemplifies the impermanence of the wabi tea aesthetic, as well as the moveable nature of the structure of the tea room itself.”
Yap brought distinctive advantages to her new teaching practice, including her marketing skills. “I was very ambitious,” she recalls. “Using my corporate experience, I put together a whole program to market myself and attract students.” She created brochures, postcards, and exhibition materials.
She also spread the word via her blog, Sweet Persimmon, which contains a trove of information about Chado and showcases Yap’s insights into how her experiences with tea and other manifestations of Japanese culture resonate in her own life. She’s not afraid to be vulnerable, to document her own struggles in the tea room and beyond — how painful it is to kneel for extended periods; dropping and shattering pottery; feeling impatient; and the difficulty of keeping her attention from wandering. She often uses the blog to extrapolate life lessons from various parts of the tea ceremony, as well as her other experiences and cultural insights.
She developed presentations, partly inspired by those she’d seen in Seattle, mixing her personal stories and historical facts. She has presented at Buddhist temples, martial arts schools, festivals, cultural organizations, including the Japan American Society, has even taught at University of Washington, Sarah Lawrence College, and Portland Community College.
Yap developed a 10-week Introduction to Chado class. Remembering how difficult it had been for her — someone who didn’t grow up in Japanese culture — to understand the historical traditions of the detailed process of tea, she developed a class “to ease people into the Japanese culture, rather than just throwing them into making tea.”
Each class had three or four students and, pre-Covid, she taught eight or so classes per week, sometimes teaching as many as 30 students per week. Students range from teenagers to retirees, and include Asian and Caucasian Americans. Some were foreign students or Japanese women whose husbands were temporarily assigned to Portland offices and wanted to maintain contact with their culture. Others’ interests had been piqued by martial arts, study of Japanese language, the opportunity to wear kimono, or to enjoy the beautiful tea sweets.
Yap also offers advanced courses for those who complete the introductory class, teaching them how to perform the ceremony themselves. A typical course might include an incense and poetry night in which students share tea, sweets, and jointly written poetry, all while mindfully appreciating the scent and even sound of burning incense. Some students have continued their studies for over a decade and have often performed the ceremony at public events, including at the Portland Japanese Garden.
Yap doesn’t make the course a museum. “If you’re looking for someone to teach you to make tea the original way,” she explains, “I’m not the teacher for you. Tea is a living tradition. It is passed teacher to student, but it also has changed with the times. New procedures are developed, changes made to old ones.” For example, allowing women to conduct the once-male-only ceremony and, more recently, not sharing sipping bowls during a pandemic. She’s learned how people learn in many different ways and adjusts her instruction accordingly. She’s also a lot more encouraging to her students than the disciplinarians at Midorikai.
The Art of Tea
Today Yap is a full time instructor in the way of tea, having given up her past corporate career.
Issoan Tea School frequently offers workshops and classes in other Japanese cultural arts, inviting experts in textile arts, cooking, and more. Students might carve a tea scoop from bamboo, arrange flowers (always handpicked from what’s blooming in season, never store bought), or make a tea napkin.
To study the way of tea thoroughly is to get an education in Japanese art and culture. The ceremony has inspired such ceramic art forms as Raku, Shino, and Oribe. Yap’s intro class includes an overview of Chado-related Japanese aesthetics covering gardening, architecture, literature, art, tea ceramics, calligraphy (the scrolls hanging from the tea room wall), kimono dressing, flower arranging, ironworking, and others, including etiquette on how to be a guest at a tea ceremony. It also includes zazen meditation and how to put tea practice into daily American life.
Artistic expression also characterizes the ceremony itself, though maybe not strictly in the Western modernist sense of art as the artist’s personal expressive statement. Instead, as with jazz or blues music and other forms of art that emerge from popular culture, the art of presenting a ceremony lies in which choices the host makes from a vast though constrained range of possible combinations, such as “your choice of utensils and how they harmonize with the rest of the ceremony, including the flowers and the color of your kimono,” Yap explains.
Although a visitor can enjoy the ceremony on the simplest levels — the taste of the tea, the atmosphere of the tea room — an experienced and knowledgeable guest will divine the artistic intent behind those choices, “to read what the host is saying with that selection of utensils,” she writes. “How do they relate to the scroll? How do they relate to the other utensils? Do they expand the theme, or do they take it in another direction? Like a movie set, there is nothing in the room that was not put there by the host.”
On my visit, Yap told me later, “I was trying to give you a flavor of how magical it all was. So I left the scroll up from New Year’s about the white crane dancing in the pines. It’s glittery and fascinating, unlike anything you’ve seen before. I chose the tea bowl to contrast with that magic — a plain brown one with a little gold, a little out of round — to give you that plainness of the wabi aesthetic.”
Those were only a few of the many choices she made that I was oblivious to, yet that created precisely the overall feeling she intended.
“Chado is what I call a shared creative experience,” Yap explains. “It’s not all about me or the guest, but together we’re creating a most unique experience. So we should be present and pay attention, because it can never happen again.”
But Yap hastens to add that you don’t need to know anything about Chado to attend and enjoy a tea gathering.
“The guests don’t have to get everything,” she insists. “People can enjoy it at many, many levels: hospitality, meditation, seasonal, artistic, or Zen Buddhist. The guest can do nothing wrong. As my guest, it’s not your job to make me comfortable. It’s my job as host to make you feel comfortable and welcome. It shouldn’t be intimidating. You should feel special. I tell people who come to it for the first time to forget all about the etiquette and just enjoy.” I sure did.
Bringing it Home
By 2017, Yap had been studying the way of tea for 35 years, teaching it for 13. She knew she would never stop learning or teaching. But something was still missing from her practice. An essential part of the tea ceremony isn’t only what happens — but also where it happens. The atmosphere of hospitality, mindfulness, tranquility so crucial to the experience depends on — or at least is greatly enhanced by — the environment: spare furnishings, natural light, a properly placed and chosen scroll, and more.
When she first returned from her year in Japan, she asked her husband Craig if they might add a tea room to their home — and if he could build it for her. Over the next two decades, as Yap was developing her Chado skills, Tenney mastered the art of woodworking. He built Yap portable tables for her presentations, a storage compartment, and other Japanese style furnishings. Finally, in 2017, he was ready to build the tea room.
“The construction of Japanese architecture is so precise,” Yap explains. “In the tea ceremony, if you’re a centimeter off in a 10-foot room, you’re off. In Japanese construction, if you’re an eighth of an inch off, you’re off. If he didn’t level the floor, the sliding shoji screen would stick or fall out.” Tenney had to use special joinery techniques to avoid using visible nails or screws. He had to make a raised floor so that the fire pit could be sunk below it.
“He had to learn to build a tea room by building a tea room,” Yap says, and described the construction process on her blog. The result was a masterpiece that must be experienced to be fully appreciated. The shoji screened windows, including one necessarily backlit by a hidden lamp instead of sunlight, cast a muted glow over the jade-tinted walls, straw-colored tatami mats and cedar sliding doors. (Take a video tour of the tea room here.)
“The tea room is like a sensory deprivation chamber in that it is bare of decoration or furniture,” Yap wrote shortly after its completion. “It is quiet and often dimly lit. The walls are a muted color and the tatami mats straw colored with black borders. Because of this austere setting, anything that happens is highlighted and perhaps magnified in importance.”
It’s also more than merely a visual experience. “I was sitting in the tearoom the other day listening to the rain on the roof,” began one of Yap’s recent blog posts. “If you keep your ear tuned to the sounds of the tea room, you will find so many other sounds that you have never heard before. Like the way the kettle sounds as it heats the water. Every kettle has its own song. As the water heats, it begins to sing and mummer. You know the water is at the right temperature for making tea when the kettle sounds like ‘the wind in the pines.’
“Another sound you might notice the next time you are at a tea ceremony is the sound of the water as it is poured into the bowl. Hot water sounds completely different from cold water. No matter which bowl it is, the sound is different. The soft shuffling of the host as he enters and leaves the tea room, the whisk as it froths the tea, even the plunk of the water ladle as it is put on the stand. Listen, can you hear it?”
To enter Issoan Tea Room is to enter a portal to another world.
“It’s a jewel box,” Yap marvels. “People go into my tea room and it’s like they’re transported into another world. It’s pretty spare and Zen. There’s nothing on the walls, not a lot of distractions from the activity that takes place there. People feel that energy, that calmness. If you’ve never seen a tea ceremony or tea room, when you step inside, you think ‘this is a sacred space.’ It’s a place where people can breathe and relax.”
It also represents the full integration of Chado values with Yap’s home and inner life. After all these years, Chado had given the flying girl the solid grounding she’d sought when she first encountered the ceremony. With the new tea room in her home, she was literally living the way of tea.
Yap and her students were able to enjoy the new tea room for about six months of classes, demonstrations, workshops, tea gatherings, and other events. Then the coronavirus arrived, making gatherings in an intimate space dangerous.
“In the mornings I go to sit in the tea room,” she wrote in a poignant post a few weeks after she closed the tea room to gatherings in March 2020. “The light in the morning is so beautiful. Even though it is empty and silent, it is still peaceful. I clean the tea room in the morning, hang a scroll, and arrange flowers. Sometimes I put on a kimono and heat the water. Then I make myself a bowl of tea. Who will drink the tea? Sadly, it is me, by myself, who enjoys this stark beauty.” Until Issoan reopens for gatherings, she sits “in the silence of one host, no guest,” she wrote.
Within weeks of the shutdown, Yap had figured out a way to offer classes by Zoom. Taking the way of tea to the internet has greatly expanded her reach. She now teaches eight group classes per week online. And for the first time, she’s attracting students beyond Oregon. Yap’s long years of forging connections in the relatively small tea ceremony world led to plenty of recommendations. She now has students from around the country and even the world, including Ukraine, Texas, Arkansas, France, Belgium, Amsterdam, Australia, and even from the birthplace of Chado: Japan.
Of course, it can’t be the same experience as in person gatherings. Students now must acquire or improvise their own equipment or facsimiles: whisk, tea bowl, hot water source, scoop, cold water jar, and matcha. And Yap herself, like so many teachers, has had to adjust her instructional methods. For one thing, on web conferencing, “everything is reversed” — a serious challenge when so much depends on which hand or foot is supposed to move at a given moment. But Chado is, after all, a living tradition. And unlike many other teachers, she’s willing and able to adjust to 21st century realities. Worried about how many of the older generation of teachers were passing, she has created a three-year-long master class for training new teachers. And she has resumed presentations: her next happens April 21 at Clark College‘s Sakura Festival in Vancouver, WA.
The Covid crisis’s enforced solitude also prompted Yap to gaze inward as well as outward. Her blog entries teem with gratitude — toward the technology that has made it possible to connect with old friends and new students and toward the many guests she had hosted — and will host again — over the years.
Yap thinks that, even though it’s a ceremony conceived in ancient Asia and thoroughly permeated by Japanese culture, Chado has something to offer to a ‘flying girl’ like her and other 21st century Americans caught up in frenetic lifestyles, constantly bedeviled by distractions: the opportunity to focus mindfully. “Covid has given us a breathing space to reassess American life,” she muses, “and I think the tea room does that too — it gives us a breathing space.”
Chado has given Yap space, but it’s also taken time. Mastering the art of tea demands a degree of devotion, skill, and commitment that any serious artist in any discipline will understand. “When tea is your passion, it sometimes is a hungry monster,” she wrote, “demanding more time, more energy, more of your life.” For Yap, all the work is worth it to achieve the tranquility and connection with guests that a properly performed ceremony achieves.
“There are those special moments where the host and guests become one,” she writes. “Time seems to stand still. Heart to heart communication is going on without even gestures or eye contact. The whole world slips away and the universe is aligned for this very special moment. It cannot be planned for, or forced, but takes place naturally as both host and guest become completely open and merge. It doesn’t happen very often, but to experience the beauty and connection, not just with the people, but all of the universe is profound and has been life-changing for me.”
One of her sensei in Japan told her Chado becomes the yardstick with which you measure your life. Years later, she’s figuring out what he meant.
“Over the many years of study, Chado has changed my life,” she writes. “I cannot imagine my life without it. Every time I step into the tea room, I learn something new. As I learn more about the way of tea, the more I learn how I am in the world. The tea room is a microcosm of life and how I behave there often translates to how I behave outside the tea room. The same challenges that face me in the tea room face me in life. I can use the lessons that I learn in the tea room to enrich and appreciate my life.”
Yap recently posted a list of 25 lessons she’s learned from her years of practicing Chado, beginning with Pay Attention, Acknowledge Others, Care for Your Guests, and ending with Live in Harmony with Nature. Her blog teems with entries that derive valuable life lessons from her study and practice of the way of tea. One of my faves: “If you are going to make a mistake, make it beautifully.”
Yap is still learning. Just this month, she resumed occasional study via Zoom with her old Seattle teacher, Bonnie Mitchell-sensei. Thanks to web conferencing technology, she’s also been able to attend virtual workshops, lectures, demonstrations, and gatherings around the world, including one sponsored by her old school in Kyoto, continuing her lifelong quest to learn more about Chado and other aspects of Japanese culture.
“The study of Chado is so broad and so deep that it would take a lifetime to just know what it is all about,” she wrote, “and probably another 20 more lifetimes to attain master ship in few of the disciplines. We could take a single aspect of the way of tea, tea ceramics, for example, and say you spent 40 hours a week just immersed in it, it would still take you nearly five years to become an expert. Yet you could spend 30 years studying tea ceramics and still not know all there was to know about it. Take that and multiply it by the many other aspects of the way of tea: flower arranging, gardening, architecture, calligraphy, cooking, sweet-making, literature, poetry, history, etiquette, kimono, wood working, lacquer, Zen, and those years add up very quickly. Not to mention studying the hundreds of tea procedures, tea utensils, and types of tea gatherings. I still feel like such a novice on this path; there is still so much to learn.”
She still occasionally makes mistakes and, as she’s gotten better at conducting the ceremony, it’s easier for her mind to wander. No surprise then that she’s lately taken up other disciplines — calligraphy, archery, watercolor — that also demand intense focus, the better to keep the flying girl solidly grounded.
No matter how much she’s gained from her study of chado, Yap values it most for helping her achieve what she set out to do when she began her study over 30 years ago — help others.
“Now I am a teacher of Chado. I have upped my game and I do feel fulfillment in what I am doing. And yes, in my own little corner, I feel like I am making a difference in the world.”