Appreciating Japanese ceramics through tea

Japanese tea ceramics will be explored during the next workshop at the Nikkei Centre | Photo courtesy of Nikkei Centre

Maiko Behr, founder of SaBi Tea Arts, brings the intricacy and elegance of Japanese tea ceremonies to the West Coast. On August 18th, she will introduce participants to ‘Omotesenke’ and Japanese ceramic art at the Nikkei Centre.

Omotesenke is a style of Japanese tea ceremony that is not very widespread outside of Japan, although we have quite a few practitioners here in Vancouver. I first began to study Omotesenke tea in 1993…while I was living in Japan and studying Japanese between college and graduate school,” says Behr.

Behr explains that she was born in Japan and grew up on the East Coast of the U.S. in a small town where there was no Japanese presence or community. To her surprise, she was asked to present a tea ceremony for her local community after returning from her studies in Japan. “I realized the role that this cultural art could play in raising awareness and understanding of Japanese culture more broadly among people with little exposure to the culture. This feeling stayed with me even after I moved to the West Coast where there is a much larger Asian population,” she says.

For over two decades, she continued to study the art of Omotesenke-style tea ceremony between San Francisco and Japan. Initially she began teaching out of her home in 2012, founding SaBi Tea Arts in 2016 to provide an accessible public space for those interested in experiencing the art more extensively.

On the topic of Japanese ceramic art, she remarks how it has deeply influenced Western pottery, and says “Japan has a very rich ceramic tradition that is intimately connected with the local topography of the numerous pottery centers throughout Japan…The art of the tea ceremony has long provided a market that supported the development of regional kilns and sustained them for centuries.”

Behr eloquently depicts the sense of utmost presence that can be instilled by attending these types of tea ceremonies. She explains that within the practice lie techniques for viewing and appreciating the various ceramics being used, as well as methods for learning from the host about individual pieces being viewed. “I feel that this way of focusing our attention and all of our senses on each individual utensil brings a sense of heightened appreciation for even the most mundane objects that can be carried over into our everyday lives,” she says.

The Nikkei Centre offers a space for her to hold the tea ceremony workshops four to five times a year. Each workshop is themed slightly differently, meaning that interested parties can attend once or multiple times and consistently receive a unique experience. In addition to this, Behr reinforces that no experience with the tea ceremony is necessary for those who wish to attend.

Her main objective is to introduce various aspects of Japanese traditional art and culture, using the context of a tea ceremony to do so, saying that “[Tea ceremony] is a comprehensive cultural art that encompasses a wide array of different art forms”

Behr is aware that those unfamiliar with tea ceremonies may believe that they are formal occasions accompanied by a strict set of rules, remarking that it is common for people to assume that they are uncomfortable and require a lifetime of study. She wishes to share the enjoyment of tea and wants participants to know that when they attend a tea ceremony, “the important thing is to relax and enjoy the experience by opening all of your senses to your immediate surroundings. If you are able to do so, there is no such thing as making mistakes as a guest as long as you maintain respect for the other participants.”

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