May 14, 2009 — Ten students from Charlottesville's Tandem Friends School took a 20-minute drive from their school to Japan this week.
On Tuesday, they visited the Japanese garden and tea pavilion at the University of Virginia's Morven Farm, located in Albemarle County near Ash Lawn-Highland, where they took part in the ancient ritual of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
On a tour around the garden's pond, waterfalls and gazebo, the students from Noriko Donahue's Japanese class learned that the garden incorporates more than 50 plants indigenous to both Japan and America, from Japanese maples and cherry trees, to mature white and black oaks, to seven varieties of bamboo, some of which have recently been growing one to two feet per day.
Morven's four-acre garden was built in 1992 by businessman and philanthropist John W. Kluge, who gave Morven Farm to U.Va. in 2001. Like the famous Japanese garden that inspired it, Morven's garden includes lots of evergreens to provide shade and cover for the moss that covers much of the ground, kimono-clad garden curator Meg Faison explained. The garden's many prominent rocks were pulled from around the Morven property and placed by Japanese rock artists.
Armed with a fresh appreciation of the garden, the students spent 30 minutes painting, drawing or photographing the garden landscape.
Next, before entering the tea pavilion, students ritually purified themselves by washing their hands and rinsing their mouths with fresh water from a small stone basin. After removing their shoes in the tea house entry alcove, the students were led through the tea ceremony by Hiromi Johnson, owner of the local Hiromi T'ai Chi.
Each stage of the ceremony involves a number of prescribed steps, which can take years to master, explained Van Smith, a higher education fellow at U.Va.'s Morven Project, who organized the event. Johnson, a native of Japan, has studied the ceremony for more than 20 years.
"The tea ceremony is about harmony of the server and the guest," Johnson said. Similar to t'ai chi, during the ceremony the server strives to keep her left and right sides, representing yin and yang, in harmony. For instance, when she extends her right hand to handle a bowl of tea, she retracts her left hand until it rests behind her back.
"There's a certain rhythm and dance to each part of the ceremony, from the tea's preparation, to its brewing, to the whisking and the circular movement of the hand," Smith said. The sense of rhythm was reinforced as Charlottesville High School graduate Marvin Brown, now a student at New York University, played the cello in accompaniment to the ceremony.
Those being served the tea also follow a detailed ritual. They are served the tea with a certain side of the bowl facing them in order to admire the unique artwork painted on the bowl's "face." They are instructed to rotate the bowl through three full revolutions and then turn the bowl's face toward the next recipient before passing it along.
Paradoxically, the repetition of ritualized movements during the ceremony can give participants an appreciation for how every moment of life is unique and should be cherished by living "in the moment," Johnson said. The singularity of each moment in life, she said, is emphasized in one maxim of tea ceremonies that roughly translates as: "Two people, one place, one tea."
The focus on living in the moment is part of Zen Buddhism's influence on the tea ceremony, an influence that's also reflected in the design of the tea house that emphasizes natural materials, simplicity and closeness to nature. Morven's tea house was constructed in Japan in the traditional sukiya style and then assembled on site.
"I feel more at home here than in many places in Japan," Donahue said, explaining that Morven's setting is more peaceful and removed than many similar locations in Japan, which are often crowded with visitors.
Last weekend, students bedecked in kimonos from Piedmont Virginia Community College took part in a similar tour and tea ceremony, and Saturday Morven will host students from Western Albemarle High School.
"This is about as close in Albemarle County as you can get to Japan," Smith said.
About U.Va.'s Morven Farm
In 2001, businessman and philanthropist John W. Kluge gave Morven Farm and a constellation of other nearby farms totaling 7,378 acres, then valued at $45 million, to the University of Virginia Foundation, to be used for educational and charitable purposes while maintaining the character of a traditional Albemarle County estate. Kluge retained a life estate and residence on the property until 2006.