Japanese Tea House Experience
Last weekend I visited Cha-ology, a Japanese tea house in the trendy Ancoats area of Manchester and had such an incredible experience I wanted to try to capture it with words and share it with you.
Photo credit: cha-ology website. All other photos are my own.
"The teahouse aims to provide a special, non-daily-life-experience" - Cha-ology website
I'd been meaning to come here for a while, but kept forgetting about it. I suppose I felt a little unsure; would I like it? Who would I go with? What would it be like? Really the point of going somewhere new is to answer some of these questions, so when my friend and colleague Elanor (@themindfulsmilecompany) shared a post about the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi, I took the opportunity to suggest a visit.
The venue is on a busy, city centre street, which for me created a pleasurable juxtaposition of calm amidst chaos. Even the shop front - which allows you to see nothing of inside - exudes tranquillity. I was drawn like a moth to the flame!
Be (or tea) here now
Once inside their are strict rules of conduct; but this strictness doesn't feel punishing in a bossy teachery way, it comes from a place of respect and the intention to create a specific kind of experience.
It's natural tones and carefully curated interior is undeniably instagrammable, but phone use is to be kept to a minimum and no selfies are allowed - something that filled my heart with joy when I read it in the pre-visit email. I have nothing against selfies per se and take them myself, but I noticed a sense of relief upon reading these rules; essentially you are given permission here to just be, rather than to capture it for later content creation. I did take a few photos of the tea and decoration, as is allowed, and it's nice to have pictures to look back on and remember the experience without it turning into a photoshoot.
We booked a Quiet Tea, which as the name suggests takes place mostly in silence. I naively thought that, as a mindfulness teacher and someone who is comfortable in my own company, this would be easy! Whilst there certainly was a meditative atmosphere and we adhered closely to the whispering only rule, it seemed impossible for Elanor and I to not share the occasional under-our-breath enthusiasm for what we were experiencing. Mostly we mouthed "wow!" and whispered a delighted "I don't know!" - in response to "what's yours like?" - because we were having so many new and unusual sensory experiences.
Each tea is served with a small sweet snack, the one pictured above was a delightful cold brew - fruity and fresh - with a red bean paste and butter in a delicate wafer that made us giggle when the crunch interrupted the silence, then 'ooohh' as the flavours developed in our mouths.
As Elanor said to me afterwards (once outside and having an excited debrief), we could notice our brains trying to categorise everything: what does it taste like? Do I like it? Is it good/bad?
But this experience wasn't just about if you liked the taste of something or even if you could describe the flavours, it was just about experiencing it for what it was; cultivating the beginners mind, which allows for curiosity, joy and creativity.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” - Zen master Suzuki Roshi
Our nervous systems are always scanning for cues of safety and danger; sometimes very new experiences can be judged as 'unsafe' because they are unknown. This is one of the reasons why trying new things is good for our mental health; we build confidence and expand our comfort zones (or polyvagal tone for a technical term) because we learn that new things - even if we don't really like them - are safe and we can cope.
As it turned out, I did like the flavours very much, though some of the textures were so unusual to me I'd need to get used to them a bit more to say with honestly I enjoyed those too.
New experiences trigger the release of dopamine and create new neural pathways in the brain - literally expanding your mind. I certainly felt more expansive and happy during and after my Japanese tea time; a good reminder that when we are feeling flat or low trying something new is a brilliant way to change our mood.
Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese concept based around the acceptance of transience and imperfection. There were examples of it everywhere in the tea house, most notably in the tea ware itself.
If you order a matcha tea, as I did, you get to choose which bowl you have it in; upon hearing this I grinned as a childlike delight came over me. I was immediately drawn to the one in the photo; I loved it's rustic form and earthy tones. It was calling to me to be held. Even now as I type this several days later my hands remember the comforting solidness of it, the gentle curves and natural texture. It was grounding and mindful to hold. As our host told us about the artists that made our chosen bowls I felt my respect and appreciation deepen.
I find wabi-sabi a relaxing and inspiring concept; it feels to me like a celebration of simple beauty, respectful attention and wise acceptance of what is.
I almost edited this image to make it more 'perfect' but that wouldn't have been very wabi-sabi!
In an overstimulating world, Cha-ology is a real tonic. It's calm and uncluttered interior, graceful and quiet staff, beautifully simple decorations and carefully created teas ooze serenity and peace. I left feeling both delighted and soothed. As the white curtain was pulled away to reveal the street outside once again, I felt a tinge of apprehension as I expected to feel an assault on the senses. I flinched internally at the thought of finishing my shopping and getting on the bus home and anticipated that I'd have a reduced capacity for the hustle and bustle of central Manchester.
How would I survive Market Street after this?!
But, to my pleasant surprise, pretty much the opposite of overwhelm happened. As I waved Elanor goodbye and headed back to the shops to complete my errands, I noticed that everything looked....shiny! And beautiful! People were interesting and charming, the buildings were fantastic to look at and life in general seemed wonderful. An afterglow of calm enveloped me for the rest of the day and I was reminded of the saying:
“Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” — Zen Kōan
The saying means (or at lease one interpretation of it) is that it's our internal state that changes our perception of our external world. Certainly the mindfulness of the Japanese Tea House experience - which was really a 2 hour meditation - had changed my internal state for the better. Want to tackle city centre Boots on a busy Saturday without losing your mind? Do your meditation first. Or yoga. Or visit Cha-ology.