W&L keeps an ancient Japanese tradition brewing

By Wan Wei

Five years ago, the formal Grand Master of the Urasenke Tradition of Tea in Kyoto, Japan, gave a plaque and a name to the new Japanese tearoom at Washington and Lee University — Senshin’an, “clearing the mind abode.”

That year, a female freshman, being a little lost in W&L’s intense social culture, discovered something deep about this clearing-the-mind-abode.

 Gabrielle Tremo works in her W&L office. (photo by Wan Wei)

Gabrielle Tremo works in her W&L office. (photo by Wan Wei)

All four years as a student, Gabrielle Tremo practiced the tea ceremony. This Saturday, between 10 a.m. and noon, she and the other two members of the Chanoyu Tea Society will perform it in the Watson Pavilion’s tearoom. The tea society members will also give narrations during the demonstrations. Each tea ceremony generally takes about 30 minutes. Seatings are offered just outside the small, delicate tearoom where the public may come and go to observe.

“When you are in that tearoom, you are not in Lexington,” Tremo says. “You are in the heart of mountains and the middle of Japan.”

The Greek system

After graduating in 2015, Tremo worked for a year as a digital communications specialist for theU.S. – Japan Council in Washington D.C. Then she returned to Lexington for a job in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at W&L. Her job now is to enhance the content of W&L’s website as a writer and with graphics.

In her freshman and sophomore years, Tremo could not find a place for herself on W&L’s
campus. Approximately 77 percent of W&L’s students are members of Greek organizations. Tremo, however, did not join a sorority. She lost the couple of friends she had made in her freshman year to the Greek system, where they were fractured into their sororities and fraternities.

It was Janet Ikeda, an associate professor of Japanese, who not only introduced Japanese tea ceremony to Tremo but also helped her appreciate her talents and passions. She began to form her unique identity on W&L’s campus, thanks to that professor.

“If I didn’t take her class, I don’t know who I would be today,” she says.

The class was the Seminar in Japanese Literature in Translation: Food and Tea in Japan. The course is still offered fall term by Ikeda. It is structured to have a lecture session and a lab session. Students learn Japanese culture through reading Japanese literature, and they have hands-on experience with the tea in the tearoom.

Coming from Portsmouth, N.H., Tremo loved watching Japanese samurai movies growing up as a kid. When she began the class at W&L, however, she did not like the tea practice . She was puzzled when she saw so many strange-looking tea utensils in front of her. She felt even more frustrated when she learned that they would not start by entering the tearoom, with its fragile paper walls traditionally made of Japanese mulberry trees and spare beauty. Instead, Ikeda seated the students at a table in another part of Watson Pavilion, having each other fold a silk cloth many times. At the end of the first lab, Ikeda gave each student a bowl of tea.

A guest who participates in a Japanese tea ceremony eats the sweet first. Then the guest drinks the bowl of powdered green tea. Tremo loves the taste of this green tea, and that was the moment she became really interested in the Japanese tea ceremony. It is a stimulant, more intense than coffee in its effect. “As soon as you drink it, you just feel the tea at work,” she says.

At the tea ceremonies on Saturday, the public is invited to enjoy traditional Japanese sweets and a bowl of whisked green tea.

The practice of focusing

Tremo thinks it was a special coincidence that she took Ikeda’s tea class. When she went to the Academic Fair in W&L’s Leyburn Library her freshman year, the first thing she saw was Ikeda’s
table. Tremo ended up majoring in Japanese and computer science.

“The right person at the right moment can completely impact your life in totally different ways.”

Tremo practiced “tea” throughout her college life, and she continues now, back in Lexington. Her favorite part is focusing on one thing. The Japanese tea ceremony is a highly concentrated and prescribed practice. Practitioners must stay in the moment with every single action . At the tea demonstration, it may seem easy from the audience’s perspective, but it actually requires much time and effort on the part of practitioners. A tea practitioner is usually trained for years before becoming a master of tea.

“There are so many things in this world today right now that just grab our attention,” Tremo
says. “Social media, reading the news, and hanging out with friends. It all kind of tears us away from ourselves. But being in the tearoom, that’s all you do. You just focus on one thing.”