Tea ceremony sessions for athletes in Japan offer distinctive time for self-reflection

TOKYO -- Canoeist Takuya Haneda, 34, who won the bronze medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, apparently took up the tea ceremony as a stay-at-home pastime amid the coronavirus pandemic. Come to think of it, this reporter has spotted mentions of "tea" on several other social media platforms of other athletes. Tea ceremony practices are said to be like a mirror that reflects the inner self. To get a taste of such tea made by sports professionals, I decided to join a "Tea Ceremony for Athletes" session myself.

A nervous tension pervaded the room, as former soccer player Naohiro Ishikawa, 40, who was a member of Japan's national team and played in the J-League until 2017, sat with his back to the hanging scroll and seasonal flowers in the tokonoma alcove of the tearoom in Tokyo.

"Once you enter the tea room, you can feel a change in the air. You can't really have that sort of opportunity in your daily life. It's kind of like you get to view yourself from the outside," he said.

In 2015, Ishikawa suffered a serious rupture of the cruciate ligament in his left knee joint that required eight months to fully recover, and triggered his retirement as an athlete. He still finds it difficult to seat himself in a traditional "seiza" position, which requires folding and tucking the legs beneath oneself. Instead, he sat on a chair prepared in the tearoom to engage in the ritual in the time and space enveloped in a refined stillness.

"Please make yourself comfortable," said 32-year-old tea practitioner Sosho Kobori as she appeared in the room. While born in the family who founded the Enshu Sado school of tea ceremony, she played for Japan's national lacrosse team, and currently continues to play actively for a nonprofessional team. Sat before the floor's sunken hearth in traditional attire, she looked completely different from when she's on the field.

Kobori is the person behind the "Tea Ceremony for Athletes" initiative to spread the ritual among sports players. While she was overseas on a tour to compete in a tournament, she developed a desire to spread Japanese culture to the world, and launched the tea ceremony activities for athletes in 2013.

Starting with a casual tea ceremony session among fellow lacrosse players, the circle of participants grew and reached athletes of other Olympic sports, including soccer, swimming, and fencing, as well as pro wrestling and other combat sports. Among those who received Kobori's lessons on tea were World Boxing Association middleweight champion Ryota Murata, 35, and 21-year-old swimmer Rikako Ikee who competed in the summer Tokyo Olympics. "Tea Ceremony for Athletes" was even registered as a trademark during summer this year.

Time flowed at a slow pace during the tea ceremony by Ishikawa and Kobori. The kettle let out a soothing trickling sound as the water boiled. Kobori poured this hot water into a tea bowl, and whisked the tea in brisk movements, as a rhythmic rattling pleasing to the ear could be heard. As the sounds ceased, Ishikawa carefully accepted the bowl and began to savor the tea. "We drink the tea over the course of several times, but the taste is different in the beginning and end," Ishikawa said.

It is often said that tea represents the state of mind of the person performing the ritual. When I asked Kobori if this is actually true, she showed me a photo of tea made by another athlete. There were large bubbles scattered across the liquid's surface.

"Even if you usually make smooth tea, there can be times when the tea turns out bumpy. Rather than a question of good or bad, I think that this helps us notice our state of mind," said Kobori. Speaking of the tea ceremony that lasted for around 50 minutes, Ishikawa said, "This is something completely different from soccer matches. But, I think that there's a link between the two in terms of getting in a 'zone.'"

Kobori says that she recommends the tea ceremony to not only top athletes but also to people who enjoy sports as a hobby. "Although the coronavirus has been pushing forward remote practices, with the tea ceremony, people as well as objects come into contact with one another in the real world. A visit to a tearoom and an experience outside ordinary daily life may let you discover a new self through the five senses."