Urasenke Chanoyu Center
153 East 69th Street
New York, NY 10021
(212) 988-6161
Hours: Tues.-Fri., 10:00 am -5:00 pm;
Sat., 10:00 am -12:00 pm

Who would think that nestled in the heart of an unremarkable block on the Upper East Side is a door to another universe? Walk inside the Urasenke Chanoyu Center and you’ll immediately notice that the air has a different quality. It’s dramatically quieter than the outside world, and astonishingly calm. Walk past the waiting area and library, through a mazelike series of hallways, and emerge in the heart of the operation, a tree-filled courtyard and Japanese rock garden surrounded by a ring of small bamboo rooms. Rumor has it that if you’re still enough, the garden fills with crickets on certain summer evenings.

The Chanoyu Center is New York’s premier tea master training ground. It is part of a global network of teahouses, Urasenke being one of the largest schools of tea in the world. The school is highly regarded, so students often have to sit on a waiting list for several years in order to enroll. Once you’re in, you can literally be a student for life, taking an endless series of courses in which they learn every aspect of how to host a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. But you don’t have to take lessons to experience a ceremony – the center offers a monthly tea lecture and demonstration, consisting of a brief talk, a tea ceremony, and a question and answer session.

The demonstration is as much about learning the prescribed movements and etiquette of serving tea than it is about tasting matcha (powdered green tea) or checking out the architecture for which Japanese teahouses are so famous. The center aims to present as genuine an experience as possible, but the ceremony is inauthentic in one respect: the lecturer gives a running commentary, explaining each of the host’s movements in great detail. The host, meanwhile, serves tea in what feels like a dance of precision and grace, etiquette and concentration. The props consist of a wrought-iron teakettle, ceramic teacups, various trays and utensils, and of course, the tea itself. Your host is both star performer and director, and your lecturer is your guide, like program notes personified. You are a member of the cast, taking part in a tradition that goes back for centuries.

According to legend, the genkan, or doorway to the tearoom area, is a gateway to another world, one in which the “world of delusion” is abandoned for the “enlightenment” that awaits you on the other side. Whether or not you subscribe to this belief, the Urasenke Chanoyu Center offers a respite from the craziness that is New York City, and a rare opportunity to learn about the time-honored tradition of Japanese tea.