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Tranquility in a tea cup

Chanoyu—the Japanese art of tea—steeps banker in tradition. 

Tranquility in a tea cup

 Portland, Ore., bank CEO Jodi Delahunt Hubbell (right) takes part in a Urasenke tea ceremony, for which she has been training for several years.

"A tea ceremony is never a quick cup of coffee," says Oregon banker Jodi Delahunt Hubbell, whose interest in the Urasenke form of the Japanese tea ceremony began several years ago when touring Japan with her father. "A tea ceremony is about your guest, and serving tea to your guest." A full kaiseki (light meal) ceremony can last four hours. It can be as much about a meeting of minds as the meeting of powdered green tea leaves and boiling water.

During their trip, father and daughter attended a tea ceremony class. Later, she read Untangling My Chopsticks, Victoria Riccardi's story of learning kaiseki culinary skills, and her interest grew. She joined the Portland branch of the Urasenke school of tea ceremony training several years ago and has been learning from a qualified sensei (teacher). Since becoming CEO at Commerce Bank of Oregon Delahunt Hubbell isn't able to train weekly anymore, but she continues to take lessons and practice at home.

"You never really completely learn tea," she explains. Her sensei has been studying for 40 years. Nuances of technique and form to be mastered keep the student busy. There are differences in method and utensils, according to the season. The art of brewing tea is vastly different from a few quick dips of a tea bag. The host whisks loose tea with a bamboo chasen, a tool resembling a shaving brush, and the tea remains in the bowl. Kociha (thin tea) and usucha (thick tea) preparation differ. The sweets served are a mandatory part of the tradition, and training also involves flower arranging, ceramics, incense, and calligraphy.

"It is a very beautiful ceremony," says Delahunt Hubbell. Students learn to host tea and be a proper guest, with etiquette for each role. Part of the traditional discussion concerns the makers of the tools, such as the chashaku (tea scoop). Methods vary according to whether the ceremony takes place traditionally, seated on the floor on tatami mats, or seated as westernized for "table tea."

"The tea ceremony gives you insight into the Japanese culture," says Delahunt Hubbell. Extreme care in body language and attitude is a cultural characteristic. Japanese business people, she notes, accept a business card with both hands, and make it clear they are reading it. To merely dash the card into one's pocket represents a callous act.

The ceremonies always proceed in Japanese. "I have had to learn Japanese along the way, and that's the hardest part," says Delahunt Hubbell. "Sometimes I am saying things I don't fully understand." Also, ceremonies commence in traditional costume. Delahunt Hubbell owns several kimonos, and notes that they are not cut for Western bodies. Simply putting one on properly takes a knack.

Tea ceremony foundations are traced to latter day Taoism and Zen Buddhism, Delahunt Hubbell says, but the ancient samurai practiced the art. This warrior caste knew that to perform the ceremony, one had to drop one's weapons. This made the ceremony a sign of nonaggression, much as the Western right-hand handshake is said to have originated as a way of showing that one wasn't carrying an unsheathed blade. Today, host and guest bearing fans place them behind themselves, commemorating the dropping of weapons.

What appeals to Delahunt Hubbell about the ceremony is the detail. "It's very process-oriented, and it forces you to think about what you are doing," she explains. While "there is a drive for perfection," she adds, the host is taught to be forgiving should someone commit a faux pas.

 

Steve Cocheo

Steve Cocheo’s career in business journalism has taken him to all 50 states and nearly every corner of banking in institutions of all sizes. He is executive editor of ABA Banking Journal, digital content manager of ababj.com, and editor of ABA Bank Directors Briefing. He coordinates the popular Pass the Aspirin and First Person features and wrote the booklet series Focus On The Bank Director. He is the only journalist to have sat in on three federal banking exams, was a finalist for the Jesse H. Neal national business journalism awards, and a winner of multiple awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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