SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
“Chakai” has come to the White Dragon Tea Room, a corner of calm tucked neatly into the rear of the No Place Like Home retail shop at 820 Main Ave. in downtown Durango.
The tea room recently introduced chakai, a form of tea-drinking “edutainment,” to Durangoans eager to learn the rituals and celebration associated with drinking tea.
Chakai, meaning “the way of tea,” is a less-formal version of Cha-no-yu, the centuries-old traditional Japanese tea ceremony. In addition to tea ceremonies, White Dragon offers a selection of teas and the porcelain, ceramic and iron vessels associated with tea service.
White Dragon started seven months ago when No Place Like Home owners Debra Demme and Michael Thunder ditched a former dressing room and storage area at the rear of their shop for a “media-free, protected space,” where Durangoans could relax over a cup of tea, Thunder said.
“For me it was really about building community one cup of tea at a time,” he said. “More than 30 percent of our tea room customers are youth under the age of 16,” Thunder said, pleased that kids too young for drivers’ licenses have found White Dragon.
In the tea room, screens, scrolls and clean lines of furnishings set a balanced stage for nearly 50 teas and tea blends. Chawan, or tea bowls, created by local ceramic artists, are as carefully arranged as the ikebana style floral arrangement that anchors one end of the orderly 20-by-25-foot space.
During a tea ceremony on Jan. 4, Durango residents Marcelina Chavira and Sam Kuenzel cradled bowls made by local potter Joe Kroenung, rotating them in three-quarter turns as directed by Thunder, the tea master.
The couple sipped matcha – ground green tea – as Thunder gestured toward a 150-year-old scroll “about spring and the awakening of the earth.”
Beauty, simplicity, calmness and refinement describe the surroundings in which the ceremony typically takes place.
Even the choice of clothes worn by the tea master is to enhance his “performance” in the ceremony. Myths and tales of ancient monks, emperors and concubines flowed freely as participants quietly interacted with the tea master and each other.
This is a place where chartreuse walls close out clutter to enhance a body-centering experience, true to the many schools of tea ceremonies practiced by Buddhist monks, royalty and samurai warriors that set forth the “way of tea” tradition still practiced today, Thunder said.
The matcha ceremony is conducted in a precise order with prescribed rituals and motions emphasizing cleanliness and respect between the tea master and guests.
Time, place and season are reflected in the art displayed, the food served and the utensils selected for each ceremony.
White Dragon’s chakai is an East-meets-West version of the more formal ceremony of artistry and grace. There’s no ritual purification, removal of footwear or solemn bows, nor do guests wear kimonos or kneel on a tatami mat.
Guests are greeted quietly and seated where they can observe at eye level the ritual of bowl turns, pauses and whisking of the ground matcha, made from the tiniest of select green tea leaves, ground to a powder and ideal for awakening the senses and encouraging meditation, Thunder said.
Macaroons, or kaiseki, sweet snacks displayed in a gold-veined, 18th-century serving bowl, were passed at the very moment the tea master picked up the whisk. Sweets sometimes are offered before the tea is sipped, to balance bitterness, Thunder said.
Timing is critical to the brewing and steeping of the tea. The tea master listens for the water to be heated “until it sounds like wind through pine boughs.” Then, the hot water is poured into a cooling vessel before being whisked into the matcha. The tea master samples before serving tea, explaining that each tea has its unique characteristics that dictate portions, steeping times and temperatures.
Chavira savored each sip, describing the sensation as a “different mouthful.” She called the matcha “vegetal” and “very green.”
Kuenzel, an Animas High School student in training at White Dragon as an apprentice tea master, sought affirmation from Thunder as he spoke of the matcha’s “chalkiness.”
Kuenzel went on to use adjectives including “fresh-vegetable-like” and “herbaceous” to describe the matcha’s fragrance and feel on the tongue.
“You are having a salad!” Chavira offered. “You are consuming the whole leaf.”
Thunder spoke of the matcha taste as “an awakening” but noted that most folks are more familiar with blended teas, such as Persian Delight, a fragrant beverage featuring rose petals.
“My first was Dragon Well,” Kuenzel said, referencing his inaugural cup of a best-selling White Dragon artisanal tea that is grown in a popular lake region of China.
“I chose it because I thought it had the coolest Chinese name.”
Thunder, whose love for tea was awakened while on a transformational quest in a temple in Beppu, Japan, and during instruction at a Kyoto-area monastery 25 years ago, said attending the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas in June 2011 was the “boot camp” of tea education that helped refine his knowledge.
Popular sellers such as Dragon Well taste like a classic green tea, Thunder said. White Dragon’s version of Earl Grey is a blend of bergamot and lavender. Iron Goddess, an oolong from China, has “big, strong orchid (flavors) with a flowery finish.”
As for knowing how a tea really tastes?
“This is the truth: Whatever you think it is, it is,” Thunder said.