Ellis Avery first saw the tea ceremony performed in 1998 at a teahouse by the Shishigatani canal in Kyoto. “I was seated upstairs in an exquisite room built, I later learned in the early 20th century, whose architects had incorporated an exotic western element – glass – onto the geometric harmony of shoji, tatami, and wood.”
When Avery returned to New York she began studying the tea ceremony. One question that puzzled her was, why were all the tea masters men? She learned that for close to its 400-year history, “The Way of the Tea” was the province of warriors and wealthy men who would gather for the ritual in teahouses where women were not welcomed. When researching that question she discovered a 19th century woman who did involve herself in the tea ceremony. She based the character Yukako Shin on this woman. Avery spent her time studying the tea ceremony and the Japanese language and lived in Kyoto while researching and writing the book.
When I was nine, in the city now called Kyoto, I changed my fate. I walked into the shrine through the red arch and struck the bell. I bowed twice. I clapped twice. I whispered to the foreign goddess and bowed again. And then I heard the shouts and the fire. What I asked for? Any life but this one.
This is how the book The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery begins. It tells the story of nine-year-old Aurelia Bernard, born in Paris, orphaned in New York and brought to Kyoto by her missionary uncle. She takes shelter from a fire in the teahouse of the family Shin. The daughter of the tea master discovers her. A whole new world opens for her when the family takes her in, rename her Urako and she becomes Yukako’s assistant and surrogate little sister.
Avery has written a lushly rendered story of Japan in the midst of great changes and modernization. I definitely recommend you read it before visiting Kyoto.
The building where Avery witnessed a tea ceremony is still standing, although it is no longer a teahouse. It is a café on the Philosopher’s Walk.