Kamakura, Kanagawa Pref. – I kneel on a tatami mat as my host silently performs a centuries-old ritual: After bowing, folding, wiping, scooping and whisking, she eventually lifts up a delicate tea bowl filled with forest-green matcha and places it before me.
This may sound like a pretty typical Japanese tea ceremony — except for one key detail. My “host” is not a kimono-clad tea master who has honed her skills following decades of dedicated practice. It’s my 8-year-old daughter, albeit with a very grown-up face as she tries not to spill anything (and her unusually still little sister, aged 6, is doing the same thing just next to her).
The words “kids” and “tea ceremony” don’t often appear in the same sentence. There are a myriad of obvious reasons why, from the handling of invaluable ceramics to the scooping of hot water, not to mention the necessity of sitting still — yes, in silence — for extended periods of time.
These apparent obstacles, however, are cast aside at Modern Ryokan Kishi-ke, a serene seafront retreat in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, run by a friendly and design-savvy young couple: Nobuyuki Kishi, 16th-generation head of an Okayama samurai family, and his wife, Hitomi.
Their one-bedroom retreat offers an in-depth collection of curated cultural experiences for day visitors and staying guests inspired by the Zen concept of chisoku, which loosely translates as “a mindful sense of fulfillment.”
Among them are zazen (seated meditation), katana (sword) practice, shōjin ryōri (plant-based Buddhist cuisine) and countless tea experiences — plus, unusually, a Kids Cultural Experience that includes tea ceremony.
One recent Saturday morning, my children and I arrive to put the experience to the test, and the moment the gate swings open, the outside world is left behind.
Designed by architect Ryohei Tanaka, the retreat is a tranquil, modern take on traditional ryokan inns. Behind a lattice wood facade, a Zen rock garden connects two buildings; sliding screens, tatami and exquisite ceramics are expertly paired with modern design touches in minimalist spaces.
A smiling, black-clad Nobuyuki greets us — and after introductions over tiny glasses of sudachi– (citrus) infused water, my daughters immediately liven up when they’re led to a mini summer matsuri (festival) set up just for them in the garden, complete with a shooting range, retro sweets and toy fishing games.
Lunch follows in the washitsu (Japanese room), a peaceful tatami mat space with a cut-out window framing sea views and a sunken counter. Here, a delicate and refreshing shōjin ryōri lunch by Hitomi, served in rusty red Bizen-yaki dishes, is paired with curated teas by Nobuyuki.
And then: The tea ceremony event begins. Step forward Kimihisa Meguro, a respected tea master and director of a children’s culture school, dressed in a white summer kimono, complete with glasses and facemask.
The girls kneel at two low wooden desks on the tatami as Meguro begins. Immediately striking the perfect balance between playful and informative, he briefly explains the word sadō (tea ceremony) before the time passes quickly with a string of fun preparations.
First, the girls draw on paper sensu folding fans (dreaming up rabbits, flowers and rainbows) before decorating the delicate papers upon which tea sweets will later be presented.
Next? Meguro produces cards with hand-drawn pictures of six key tea tools — a chabon (tea tray), natsume (tea container), chakin (linen cloth), chasen (tea whisk), chashaku (bamboo scoop) and, of course, chawan (tea bowl). A treasure hunt ensues: The girls race around the room choosing one of each of the six items for their own tea ceremony from shelves, counters, corners and alcoves.
Against an incongruous soundtrack of “Ghostbusters,” the kids giggle as they follow Meguro in walking around the room like a sumo wrestler, a human or a foot-shuffling tea ceremony master.
The ikebana flower arranging that follows is a clear highlight. The children, feeling very mature, select vases, inside which they arrange seasonal blooms — Chinese lanterns, chestnuts, lotus roots — before displaying them next to a calligraphy scroll.
Following the ikebana lesson, the children, unusually quiet as they concentrate, kneel on the floor practicing what seems to be a very complicated memory game involving tea tools, but quickly copy Meguro in picking up and moving items in a very precise tea ceremony routine.
And finally, they’re ready to make tea. I kneel at the far end of the room and eat a pretty wagashi (tea sweet) as two hot water pots are laid out alongside their tea tools. An unexpected lull descends as the girls shuffle forward, kneel and bow.
With Meguro gently (and masterfully) guiding them, the girls navigate the tea ceremony with a surprising sense of calm. After wiping the tools with tea cloths, they calmly clean out their tea bowls with steaming hot water.
Then, it’s time to scoop the matcha powder into the bowl, add more hot water and start whisking, finishing with a swirl in the shape of the hiragana “no” character.
When it’s time for me to take a sip, it’s delicious, and I’m as relieved they’ve survived without spillages or breakages in the exquisite setting as I am proud of them for performing their first tea ceremony.
As Meguro later explains, “To experience the way of tea stimulates inspiration, sensibility and curiosity in kids. In the future, for sure, the experience will be an asset to them.”
Modern Ryokan Kishi-ke (kishi-ke.co.jp) offers a one-day Kids Cultural Experience with a range of activities, including shōjin ryōri lunch; flower arranging; and tea ceremony. For non-staying visitors, it costs ¥195,000 for four people — two children from age 6 (elementary school), and two adults. Ryokan staff speak English, but the tea ceremony class is in Japanese. A translator can be arranged for an additional ¥15,000. The experience costs ¥80,000 for staying guests, including translator and bento box lunch. Kimihisa Meguro also teaches children’s classes in Japanese in Tokyo at Sens Meguroshiki Kodomo Bunka School (sens-meguroshiki.amebaownd.com).