I have such mixed feelings about the British Museum. On one hand, it is genuinely astonishing building filled with all manner of treasures which mark the history of our species (at least over the last 2.3 million years). If I had to name one museum that a tourist should see, without question I would say this one. Usually when I tell people about my blog, they say “oh yeah, visit the British Museum a thousand times,” and there’s something in that, because I honestly think you could go there a thousand times and still learn something new. The Time Out books list the British Museum four times, which is going some. They urge you to do a late here, sit in the great court, visit the galleries in your lunchtime, and this, the Way of Tea. So there is a kind of uneasy inevitability about my going to the British Museum in this blog.
My unease with the place comes from a single and unpalatable fact: we British nicked much of this stuff from other people, and/ or bought off them at embarrassingly low prices. In some notable cases, those people want their things back. And yet, and yet… there are some things they do so brilliantly in this museum I just want to move in.
One of these things is the ‘Way of Tea’ ceremony. Every once in a while I spy something on the list of a thousand things that makes my heart sing, and the ‘Way of Tea’ ceremony is one of them. I don’t know if it has come across from my various witterings on here so far, but I like tea in much the same way as the Pope likes organised religion. To enjoy the ‘Way of Tea’ ceremony, you first have to discover when the damn thing is on, and there is no obvious rhyme or reason to that: all you can do is regularly google it, and then try to book an afternoon off. You also have to go all the way up to room 92 on the fifth floor GOOD AND EARLY. I’m certain that I got up there bang on 2pm, and it was well underway when I got there, and it was standing room only. Finding your way up to room 92 is no small feat either (from the main entrance you go through the main glorious courtyard, through the American Room – room 24 – to the north staircase which you climb, or there’s a lift if you prefer).
When you eventually track it down, you will find two kimonoed Japanese ladies in and around a little wooden Japanese house. One of the ladies will tell you that in the older homes of the wealthy, they had a separate tea room, used for nothing else whatsoever than the consumption of tea. No listening to music, no reading of books or faffing with twitter. Just tea drinking. It was a sign of serious wealth to have one, and modern Japanese homes don’t really bother. So it is something of a dying art, the Way of Tea, although you can hire a special pop-up tea room, if you feel so minded and live in Japan.
So it is very sweet to watch this arcane ceremony in action. One lucky audience member actually gets to join in. There is a special wooden door that the guests pass through (the hostess knows they have all arrived when she hears the door clap shut behind them). The hostess then comes in heats the water in a big pot over a charcoal powered heater. The guests are served in strict order of their importance (although sometimes there are pleasantries about who that is). The guest will first be served a sweet, which they eat to prepare their palate for the bitter tea to come. The hostess makes each cup in turn by pouring the hot water into a tea bowl, with the tea waiting inside. She passes the tea bowl to the first guest who turns it to present the prettiest bit of the design before taking a sip. When she is finished, the hostess serves the second guest, and the guests are served in turn until they have drunk their fill. Then, and only then, does the hostess get to have a brew.
All this differs from the British equivalent in a number of ways. First, our celebration of the glorious tea leaf is a much more informal affair, and everyone just consumes bucketloads of tea and cake as and when they want to. We get to sit down on chairs, rather than with our feet tucked behind you on the floor. Not even the tea is the same as the Japanese equivalent: our tea is black and fermented, Japanese tea is purer, green, more bitter and better for you. And don’t even get me started on the milk. The lucky audience member who joined in the ceremony was asked what she thought of the brew. She said, infinitely politely and with care: “The flavour is different to what I’m used to, but I like it.” Our guide smiled, turned to the audience and said, “she’s very sweet.”
Spouse and I are debating whether we should move out of London and move into the suburbs. Spouse has a dream of a back garden so large he can give up his allotment and a house with four bedrooms so I can have a library. Watching the quiet clinking of water pots and beautifully decorated cups, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I might be better off with a room utterly devoted to the drinking of tea. It is, after all, the drink which both stirs the soul and soothes the senses, and with which one can solve most problems of both the heart and head. We will return to the British Museum, as I have invented a simply magnificent game which can only be played there. In the meantime, keep a beady eye open on their website for the ‘Way of Tea’ ceremony. It takes longer to find it than it takes to sit through it, but if you like me are a fan of a good cup of tea, you should definitely go.
This link details all the forthcoming events, including the Way of Tea, through to December http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/events_calendar.aspx and this site gives you all the information you need to make a visit to the British Museum. http://www.britishmuseum.org/visiting.aspx