the way of tea: rebecca lyn cragg of camellia teas in ottawa, canada

This is part three in my interview series with chanoyu practitioners, this time it is with the lovely Rebecca Lyn Cragg from Camellia Teas in Ottawa, Canada.  Camellia Teas can be found at their website, and on Twitter as @camelliateas.

You can read part 1 with Gabrielle Soga Caciula of Belgium here; and part 2 with Morgan Beard of Philly Tea, Philadelphia here.

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Tell me about your connection to Japan and to tea

In 1996, I had a chance to work closely with a young Japanese student while I was teaching English in Montreal. Getting to know other students, I felt a kinship with the expatriate Japanese I met and this sparked a desire to learn more about the country and its people. In 1998, I joined the JET Programme in the Kansai area and this started a seven-year journey into learning more about the traditional arts as a way to improve my own language teaching (teachers improve most when they too continue to learn in the position of student).

With a strong interest in tea that came from my own family background (we enjoyed Afternoon Teas and had a family blend of our own, the N.M. Paterson Blend), coupled with an M.A. in Cultural Anthropology with a strong focus on art, it seemed natural to explore Chanoyu or The Way of Tea (often translated as the Japanese Tea ‘Ceremony’) to incorporate my interest in culture with my passion for tea.

Since 1998, my connection to Japanese tea rituals has deepened and expanded, even since returning to Canada in 2005.  More important though, are the tremendous philosophical and life lessons that these rituals and their discipline teaches us through the ‘kata’ or form (these are called ‘te(n)mae’). I have been steadily studying the schools of Omotesenke, Omotesenke-Sei-ha and more recently the Sencha school of Sei-Fu-Ryu. These ritual offerings of tea centre initially on offering the guest the best cup of tea we can prepare.

As our training progresses (and this can take decades, or a lifetime), our skills in attending to other aspects of what we offer the guest develops. At the center of course, is always offering a guest an outstanding bowl or cup of tea. Many who view the tea ceremony only once or twice miss this key point; they are distracted by the ritual itself and believe that Chanoyu or Sencha Do is only or mostly about ceremonializing tea preparations. However nothing could be further from the truth: we use the best quality teas, carefully measure quantities and calculate brewing time, pay close attention to the type of water used and its temperature and more in order for the guest to enjoy the offering. I believe this is a very particular aspect of the Japanization of these tea rituals that started in China and have been developing for over a millennia in Japan.

Over time and with guests who can understand more of Chanoyu culture, the offering becomes more profound as the host takes equal time and attention to the environment surrounding the occasion of tea-drinking (the tearoom and its utensils). The care, patience, time, devotion, thoughtfulness we can add to the tea preparation elevates the experience (we hope!) for the guest.

Thus enjoying these tea rituals, is more than simply tasting a beverage, but imbibing a very expansive and sumptuous sensory experience which includes, sound, fragrance, beauty, aesthetics, natural materials, the major elements (air (wind), water, fire, earth, metal) and more.

Tell me how you best translate the traditional tea ceremony to your tea practices at home, how are they simplified, what is still really important.

Translating the Cha-do, Chanoyu or Japanese Tea Ceremony experience and bringing it into North America is an ongoing discovery and challenge for me. I am often asked about Chanoyu’s ‘purpose’ and I see this question as closely related to concepts of mastery and authenticity – or the concept of ‘traditional’.
In so many ways, when we bring cultural practices from one place to another, much can be lost in their transportation. The greatest challenge perhaps is not so much in finding tatami mats, tea bowls, matcha or the architectural elements that make up the Chanoyu context, but rather helping others understand the values and philosophy of the Way of Tea. In addition, helping those who join us understand that what they are doing is not passively viewing a live ‘performance’, but rather ‘participating’ and actively engaged, consciously in an interaction with their practitioner is critical for my practice at home here in Canada.

In 2009 I had the great pleasure of attending the Friends in Tea Conference. For five magical days, I was surrounded by a new North American Tea Family – people, like me – who had been touched by, and were trying to share, Chanoyu in their own North American context.

Within my own context in Ottawa, in a city of over 800,000, there are less than a dozen practitioners, most Japanese, nearly half not trained in Japan and without teachers here. In the five years Camellia Teas has been in operation, we have served tea to over 17,000 guests – however the number of those guests who have chosen to pursue studies in Chanoyu is very small in comparison (perhaps less than 10). What this means for practicing something ‘traditional’, is essentially that we have to understand that compromise and adjustment will be part of the transition of Chanoyu outside of Japan and into a culture as different as the North American context, with its multicultural societies. Much of what is obvious in Japan must be explicitly taught here, and so striving for ‘traditional’ (which I interpret as ‘authentic’), can be challenging.

In terms of what this means for me at home (and ‘traditionally’, Chanoyu is practiced in the home, not in museums, restaurants or shopping centers as is happening for logistical and contemporary reasons both in Japan and abroad today), is that when guests come here to Camellia House, which is also my residence, they enjoy touching some elements of the Chanoyu experience within one of our five tearooms.

I have made adjustments to accommodate those who find it difficult to kneel in seiza with benches and chairs (and this too, is also happening in Japan), for example, with a floating tearoom that allows the practitioner to remain kneeling in seiza while the guests sit close by on stools. Another adjustment (and again, this is happening in Japan as well), is to use electric heaters for the water rather than the traditional charcoal. At Camellia House our insurance provider was resistant to the idea of our using charcoal indoors, but we do have an outdoor teahouse where we can practice this aspect of Chanoyu (learning to heat the water with charcoal and laying the fire, enjoying the perfume of the incense, mingled with the scent of the embers is such a pleasure and an essential aspect of Chanoyu).

In terms of simplification, when sharing Chanoyu in a demonstration or gathering context, I provide guests with a verbal ‘picture’ of what Tea Practitioners would do – and then allow the guests to reach for or try to achieve what they can. We are finding that after five years, there are a growing number of guests who may not wish to study the preparation methods (the Temae), but are interested in learning how to participate more fully (properly, in terms of etiquette) alongside the host.

Tell me about your tea buying – where from, do you buy direct from estates or from importers.

Many who enjoy drinking or selling tea do not necessarily have the time, language facility or financial flexibility to travel directly to Asia and visit the tea farmers. Fortunately, we are blessed by many in the Tea industry who take time and care deeply about offering clientele around the world the best teas they can find. I am so grateful that there are truly exceptional Tea People in the world to assist all of us!

 

outdoor tea room

 

Camellia Teas has been very fortunate to have developed wonderful relationships with particular farmers in the Shizuoka area, as well as in Uji (near Kyoto) where I buy directly from both the farmer and producer. During the seven years I lived in Japan, I was able to develop the language and cultural fluency that has been very useful for me to maintain and develop new connections directly with the tea industry there.

Whether a year is good or ‘bad’, I feel it is important to continue to offer the loyalty, commitment and support of farmers and merchants in order to allow them to continue to do what they do best for us all.

I also enjoy supporting local tea shops and merchants so that at the local level, we can enjoy shopping at locations here in our own cities.

What do you drink at home?

A typical day for me starts with the Shincha (fresh, spring Japanese green tea), that we order from Mr. Moriya’s farm in Odawara City. For over a decade, I have enjoyed drinking pots and pots of this fresh and delicious tea. Each spring we import enough for our clientele and Camellia House (although one year, I was short for 17 very long days!!!). Aside from Shincha, I also drink matcha (powdered tea) during the course of offering lessons, demonstrations of Chanoyu or holding gatherings.

Last week for example, I hosted 9 different Chanoyu events, so I likely drank a bowl (or two) of matcha each day. In the evening, to bring me ‘down’ from my green tea intensity (some call this a ‘high’), I created a calming herbal blend we call the Camellia Tranquility Blend.  Depending on how much tea I’ve had in a day, I will sometimes steep this tea for 10 – 30 minutes to intensify the herbal benefits (sleep-inducing!).

When guests visit us at Camellia House, they are always offered tea, usually our house Shincha, but often other teas we have grown very fond us such as the outstanding Oolongs from Taiwan, as well as Yunnan Pu-erhs and other Chinese greens.

In more recent years I have strayed away from the black/red/ Assam or Indian teas, mostly because they have a strong effect on my body when I drink them. But like many, I enjoy a nice afternoon tea with milk and sugar from time to time. I think it’s important to find a way to enjoy any tea someone offers us, no matter what our preference might be at home. The sincerity and kindness we demonstrate of accepting what someone offers us as tea and our receiving that with an open heart, devoid of judgment or condescension, is one of the most beautiful values of the Way of Tea.

Much is lost in human relations, when we focus too intensively on whether something is ‘organic’ or in a loose-leaf form or in a tea bag, whether from this tea plantation or tea shop, or this hill or that…In each moment, no matter how humble the tea may be – it is always my hope that we can concentrate on the spirit in which any tea is offered.

What ignited your passion for tea ceremony and its rituals?

My earliest memories of Chanoyu were simply being overwhelmed by its beauty, austerity and complexity. Within the architecture of the temae (the ‘kata’, or form), I found such a retreat from the chaotic world surrounding me. When living in a foreign culture (at times, even our own!), we can trip or make such blunders and mistakes. But in the tearoom, within the haven of tea culture – once you know the ‘rules’ – you can enjoy such a deep feeling of acceptance and beauty.

Over time, as I began to explore its philosophy and deeper message, I felt I had found something that I had been searching all my life. Many practitioners spend years studying the form, without ever getting to the main point: Chanoyu’s philosophical and spiritual values. Fortunately, I have been blessed with tremendously patient and strict teachers who have been inspirational guides. My life is so much richer and fulfilling having discovered these tea rituals.

For those who stand outside the Chanoyu Culture, looking in at something silent, mysterious, exotic and elaborate, they cannot often find or appreciate what it is that captures the hearts of practitioners. We in turn, are not always able to convey our fascination and commitment skillfully either. If I could offer an analogy, it might be a little like those who attend a classical concert: while the general audience may enjoy the melody, or harmony they hear, likely other musicians, particularly those of the same instrument – and even more so – those who have studied, played and enjoyed that particular composer’s piece, are best able to empathize and appreciate whether the musician has interpreted the piece well, or played that crescendo ‘correctly’, or not.

Athletes too I think could understand that ‘mastery’ is something we strive for throughout our lives. Playing a ‘perfect game’ is nearly impossible (as impossible as becoming a Tea ‘Master’, a term I strongly dislike). The people attending the sports game can cheer and be pleased with the outcome if the athlete wins, but not necessarily understand the brilliance of applying certain strategies, or understand the intricacies of what a move was particularly well-executed. In the end, the same is true of these tea rituals: likely only other practitioners (of the same school, and there are dozens of different tea schools), can really appreciate the time, effort, thoughtfulness and depth that has gone into creating a tea gathering. Still, the musician, athlete and tea practitioner continues to forge ahead, enjoying the collegiality as well as the general audience.

What’s your favorite tea related memory or location and why is it special to you?

Over more than a decade (and this is extremely short in terms of my own teacher’s 49 years of study, or her teacher, or her teachers teacher!), there are so many special memories, it is too difficult to choose! Would it be when I practiced mirror-temae in front of colleagues? Or attended a tea at Daitokuji temple for Rikyu’s monthly memorial? Or serving tea this past April to 350 guests at our Tea Family’s annual celebration… or perhaps holding a special Memorial tea for my Mother after her passing? Or serving tea at the Ambassador’s residence – or… or… or… In a sense, each and every single gathering we hold is so unique, so treasured, so intensely special – it is one of the beautiful elements of tea culture to appreciate each instance as it is ‘unprecedented… unrepeatable’ in the words of Eido Roshi (Daibosatsu Zendo).

If I had to choose one special memory though, it would likely be my final tea gathering in Japan for my tea family in 2005. I had hand-painted each of my tea family tea fans, with a message in English explaining how special they were to me and how they had touched and changed my life and presented to each of them. But also, because I wanted them to know how deeply I felt as we shared different cultures, I wrote a letter in English and had it translated into Japanese sharing with them what impact they had had on me and how Chanoyu had changed my life. During my temae, when those attending usually appreciate the experience of Chanoyu in silence, I had our newest member, my kohai, read the letter aloud in Japanese to my Tea Family. Hearing her read my words on my behalf helped to center me during my temae, to concentrate on preparing tea for my best friend, who sat in the place of honor.

It was a moment where time seemed to stand still – where in the silence of our tears, our powerful emotions, the words of a young girl, and the feelings of a young, foreign woman, could be felt with such poignancy. This intense and bittersweet experience remains one of the most powerful experiences of my whole life.

How do you help educate your customers about tea, how do you get them to try new things.

The greatest mystery for me to is always what brings them to come to a Chanoyu gathering! Although we all have a sense of what to expect when we take in a concert or visit a sports game or restaurant, I am always amazed at how little guests know about Chanoyu before they come – and yet they decide to visit and take several hours out of their busy lives to experience something completely different.

Educating guests about Chanoyu is much easier for me than it might be for musicians or athletes. When you go to concert for example, you can’t walk on stage and play the instrument; nor can fans run on to the field and throw a ball with the pros. However, in tea ritual – you are invited to touch, to feel, to drink from antique vessels, appreciate and enter into the tea space and participate closely with the practitioner. While traditionally, this has been something reserved only for those involved directly with study –one of my personal missions has been to bring these tea rituals, particularly Sencha-do and Chanoyu, into the mainstream because of all they can do to enrich our lives.

Educating people about the teas themselves and their brewing techniques has been something Camellia Teas has been passionately devoted to doing for the past five years; through workshops, seminars, tastings of course and demonstrations, we have brought tea sommeliers directly from Japan to teach us here in our own context, with our own teapots and items.

In terms of Chanoyu and other Asian Tea rituals, we have had the opportunity to work with the National Museum here (Canadian Museum of Civilization) on a number of occasions to share both Vietnamese Lotus ceremony as well as the Japanese Chanoyu practice. At our National Gallery of Canada, and National Arts Center, we have partnered with embassies and cultural performers to incorporate tea offerings as part of other events.

My recent 2010 initiative here in Ottawa has been to create Tea Festivals and join with local and international partners, working with national media (print, television and radio) as well as with local journalists (we have had two documentaries done on Camellia Teas in the past few years) as another way to reach the mainstream consumer.

Online media, such as Twitter, Facebook, websites, youtube are also other ways that we can bring Tea Traditions into the 21st century. Nearly every day, I receive messages from around the world about the various youtube videos I have posted on various aspects of traditional arts.

In closing, the most important thing we hope our guests, clients and customers learn and experience is that tea and its rituals are about slowing down, reflecting and developing a sense of appreciation, respect, gratitude and patience.

In slowing down, taking a few minutes to join a tea gathering, visit a tea house and brew a loose-leaf tea in a traditional vessel at home, I truly hope that we can maintain a connection with our collective past, explore a deeper understanding of history, and develop the respect for the philosophies of other cultures and their values.

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Camellia Teas of Ottawa was established in 2005 by Rebecca Lyn Cragg (nee Benoit) of Ottawa, ON, Canada. The name comes from the Camellia Sinensis plant, which produces most of the World’s Teas. Although we have a special interest in Japan’s Chanoyu, Camellia Teas is equally interested in the Vietnamese Lotus Tea Ceremony, The Korean Tea Ceremony, Gong-fu Cha, Puerh Teas and other Chinese Tea Cultures. For this reason, we didn’t want to identify ourselves solely with Chanoyu. We are constantly researching, studying and preserving these ancient and evolving Tea practices and their related art forms.

About the Founder and President of Camellia Teas:  For seven years, Rebecca was trained in the Omote-Senke Way of Tea by Mrs. Eiko Kuwayama at a Zen Temple called Sango-ji in Wakayama City, Japan. She continues her studies of Tea in Omotesenke through NY and with annual trips to Japan and studies Omotesenke-Seiha in Ottawa. In the summer of 2010, Rebecca began her studies under Mrs. Shinobu Sakane in Sencha-Do (Seifu-ryu) in Ottawa.

Rebecca Cragg has an M.A. in Cultural Anthropology, as well as B.A. and B.Ed. with focus on art, education and museology. She holds certification in Sodo Kimono Dressing, holds Kyojo ranking in Sagagoyu Ikebana and is also a Japanese Brush Painter. You can find her free painting and kimono-dressing videos online at youtube under ‘camelliateas’. Rebecca authored six books in 2009 and plans more for 2010.

Photos courtesy of Rebecca Cragg and Amanda McAlpine.

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  1. […] You can read part one of this interview series with Gabrielle Soga Caciula of Belgium here; part two with Morgan Beard of Philly Tea, Philadelphia here and part three with Rebecca Lyn Cragg from Camellia Teas in Ottawa, Canada here. […]

  2. […] Tea, Philadelphia here, part three with Rebecca Lyn Cragg from Camellia Teas in Ottawa, Canada here, and part four with Michael Ricci […]

  3. […] the way of tea: rebecca lyn cragg of camellia teas in ottawa, canada – [@camelliateas] […]



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