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The ceremonious preparation and drinking of tea has roots which extend deep into our history, and survive as a living example of mindfulness in action. To celebrate our month of travel, we asked our friends at Dachi tea to give us an insight into the background of the tea ritual, and share their five favorite tea experiences in Taiwan.
The history of tea is fascinating, filled with missions to distant lands, vast fortunes gained or lost, embargoes, smuggling, wars and revolutions. But there is also a transcendental element to this simple brew. Since ancient times the hallowed link between tea and the noblest aspirations of humanity – gratitude, friendship, simplicity, peace and harmony – have been explored.
The literati of the Tang Dynasty wove principles of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism into their musings on tea. The most famous of such scholars was the eminent Chinese Father of Tea Lu Yu, writer of the seminal 8th century text The Book of Tea. Brought up in the Buddhist and Confucian traditions, Lu Yu said that “tea liquor is like the sweetest dew of Heaven.” He regarded the tea ceremony as a means for attaining inner harmony through the expression of careful, attentive preparation and mindful tasting. Despite the range of ceremonial tools he recommended, he maintained that tea does not lend itself well to extravagance, and emphasized the importance of savouring the flavour and drinking only in moderation.
When tea culture began to spread to Japan in the 8th century, poets and philosophers waxed lyrical about the ephemeral nature of the world as symbolically reflected in tea, finding meaning in the purity, harmony and clarity of the tea ceremony experience. Zen Buddhist monks, too, realized that the slow-burning mindful state of alertness induced by tea drinking helped them to focus through long meditation sessions. We now know this effect is due to the combination of L-theanine, an amino acid which increases your Alpha brain waves and relaxes the mind, and a gentle dose of caffeine. The monks incorporated tea into their daily prayers and rituals, considering the tea ceremony a means to practice the principles of living within the moment while on their path to enlightenment. Echoing the wisdom of the ancients, the contemporary Vietnamese spiritual leader and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, implores us to “drink [our] tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.”
We started Dachi Tea Company from our base in Taiwan, amidst one of the richest tea cultures on the planet. During our full immersion into the world of tea, we’ve shared many a cup with experienced tea masters who enchant us with flashes of wisdom, light-hearted cordiality and sincere devotion to the art of tea. And we’ve noticed they all share a common bond in their commitment to good living, a dedication to appreciating the simple joys of life: family, community, health, and their intimate connection the the natural world. Learning the art of tea-making beside such masters is as much a study in gratitude and living in the moment as it is a lesson in an ancient human craft.
If you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in this small island amidst the drifts of the Pacific, here are the five teahouse experiences which will transport you to that unparalleled place of mindful contemplation and peace.
1. WISTERIA TEAHOUSE, TAIPEI
One of Taipei’s most famous teahouses, this cultural landmark feels like stepping into living history. The Japanese built the structure in the 1920s, and it was converted into a teahouse in the 1970s when revolutionary artists, intellectuals and political dissidents would covertly hold their meetings during the era of martial law. Today it’s still buzzing with that intellectual vibe, and regularly holds art exhibitions, discussions, tea culture classes and performances of ancient musical instruments. Expect serenity as soon as you step into the leafy yard, don a pair of wooden sandals, enjoy their poetic descriptions of teas, and settle into the tatami for a few hours.
2. SANXITANG TEAHOUSE AT THE NATIONAL PALACE MUSEUM
If you want to dive straight into history, the National Palace Museum is the place to go. Loaded up with year-round exhibits of treasures once lifted from Beijing’s Summer Palace by the Guomindang (KMT), this museum has more trinkets and artifacts than it can display at once, so they are constantly on rotation. Head to the grandiose teahouse on the top floor, and you’ll not only be treated to delicious tea, dim sum snacks and Chinese food and desserts (go hungry, it’s a good menu!), but they also host regular performances of traditional instruments by beautifully adorned women and stunning panoramic views of the nearby mountain scenery and architecture of the National Palace Museum. The teahouse is named after the wing of the Forbidden Palace where Emperor Qianlong kept three ancient scrolls.
3. YAOYUE TEAHOUSE, MAOKONG
No Taiwanese teahouse excursion would be complete without a foray up the gondola to the Maokong mountains south of the city. It’s become a tourist trap and weekends can be quite frantic, but head up on a warm weekday and you’ll not only find beautiful views overlooking the city skyline, but bustling teahouses filled with older generations of locals relaxing over a steaming pot and fragrant lunch. Yaoyue Teahouse is famous for its creative menu which offers several dishes cooked with tea leaves and bitter teaseed oil (oolong-infused dumplings, anyone?). Remember to bring your mosquito repellent if you plan to sit on the covered verandas, surrounded by verdant mountain scenery.
4. JIUFEN TEAHOUSE, JIUFEN
Just an hour drive from Taipei, this beautiful hilltop coastal town is famous for inspiring many of the street scenes in Studio Ghibli’s anime hit Spirited Away. Often cloaked in rainy mists, its romantic atmosphere belies a sad history. From the mountainside vantage point that overlooks the ocean you can spot the vast tunnel system constructed by the Japanese to vent toxic fumes away from the gold mines, where many locals lost their lives. Jiufen Teahouse, nestled among the lively market lanes, is the perfect place to soak up the poetic vistas and enjoy an authentic tea ceremony in a converted residence with hundreds of years of history. Nibble on their Five Tael Pineapple Cake and Oolong Cheese Cake while you sip tea on the balcony (weather permitting), then head to the adjacent art gallery or book a class at the ceramics workshop if your new passion for expensive tea ware becomes too strong to ignore.
5. ZEN ZOO TEAHOUSE, TAIPEI
Zen Zoo is one of our favorite spots after a stroll around the nearby lake on a sunny day. Tea is served in a beautiful hodge-podge of handmade Japanese ceramics with the wabisabi feeling of deliberate imperfection. Their Japanese-inspired desserts are impressively made from scratch, including matcha ice cream with red bean paste and handmade mochi. Set meals are also divine, with a focus on local ingredients and traditional Taiwanese cooking styles. The decor is quintessentially Zen with tatami mats, antique furniture and calming outdoor spaces. You can also treat yourself to some ceramic tea ware sets and tea to take home.
If you’d like to create your own mindful tea experience at home, Dachi Tea has generously extended a special discount for 20% off of their Sky High Oolong. Just enter the code GETSOMEHEADSPACE upon checkout. Brew a cup with our tea drinking meditation.