Tsuruko Hanzawa: the Japanese tea ceremony master living like a single flower

Tsuruko Hanzawa performs chaji in Singapore

It all started with an NHK documentary titled “Tsuruko’s Tea Journey,” a 50-minute program I watched on YouTube one weary evening when I just wanted something frivolous. The documentary followed Tsuruko Hanzawa, a chaji (tea ceremony) caterer in her 70s who took a road trip around Japan serving ceremonial food and tea to people she met along the way.

“What great skin she has,” I thought to myself when Tsuruko first appears on screen tending to her garden like a gentle Mother Nature.

But as the program chronicles the highs and lows of her personal pilgrimage, I begin to see a woman who is not just a poster girl for graceful ageing. She is also incredibly authentic and present with every person that she meets. One scene in particular stuck. Tsuruko visits a Buddhist high priest after being discouraged by her physical limitations doing this form of “travelling chaji,” and tearfully confides to the priest that she is “a complete wreck.” She wonders how she would do chaji in the spirit of Sen no Rikyu (an influential 16th century Japanese tea master), and the priest gently tells her, “You can learn from Rikyu’s life, but think more about how you should live your own life. Think of being a single flower and live like that. Embrace what each situation, what each place, has to offer.”

Tsuruko beams at his advice. It is a light bulb moment for her, and as for me, a viewer who was initially more interested in just admiring aesthetically-pleasing footage of food and tea.

“If I think how beautiful a flower is, just as it is, I should be able to travel with a light heart,” she muses.

Tsuruko's Tea Journey

Explore the story of Tsuruko Hanzawa, a rare catering chef of tea ceremonies who has devoted herself to tea. Watch a unique nationwide pilgrimage of this amazing woman here.

Posted by NHK WORLD-JAPAN on Thursday, 29 March 2018

After the show, I promptly share the link to “Tsuruko’s Tea Journey” on my Facebook page.

“What a lovely documentary ruminating on life and nature. You don’t have to be a tea drinker for this!” I write in the post.

A few months later, a friend who had clicked on that Facebook link told me that he was so moved by the documentary that he and another friend had actually gone to Japan to ask her to come to Singapore to hold two chaji events here.

“Would you like to meet her?” he asked.

This is how I end up accompanying Tsuruko Hanzawa around Singapore for a week last month.

Singapore is the first Asian country that Tsuruko has traveled to and everything to her is something to be savored. Every meal is full of her declarations of “Oishi!” (delicious), but not before she astutely dissects all the ingredients used in the dish and the preparation method.

Tsuruko Hanzawa at a local market in Singapore (photo by Clarence Aw)

While going around Singapore to shop for ingredients for the chaji events, she walks briskly and purposefully, nodding her head every so often. While at a local wet market, however, she lingers at the fish stall, cooing over the rows of fish laid out on ice.

“I prefer fish to men. They call out lovingly to me,” and then she winks.

There are other endearing moments, like when she advises us in the Ladies to reapply lipstick after every meal (“Don’t give up looking pretty even when your skin is drooping!”), or when she wants to show off how she can balance a water bottle on her head standing on one leg. After a fishmonger of a Japanese supermarket tells her he can supply her the sashimi cuts she has requested for, she clasps both his hands and gleefully jumps up and down like a little girl. And whenever someone gives her a present, she bows to receive it, and wipes away tears of joy. Her heart is like an open book, and I wonder if it’s this unquestioning child-like delight that keeps her so energetic and youthful.

Chaji Tsuruko balancing water Singapore
Tsuruko balancing a bottle of water in the market (photo by Clarence Aw)

As the chaji events near, Tsuruko’s mood shifts. She still smiles and slaps us playfully, but often whips out her notebook to quietly scribble. Though it is just two dinners with 15 guests per session, the elaborate nature of chaji means that there is much to consider when it comes to ingredients and equipment. She is constantly adjusting the menu as she comes to term with Singapore’s hot and humid weather. Tsuruko does not know how rapidly certain foods go bad here and about 20% of what she and her team buy at the markets has to be trashed just a day before the events. She holds early morning meetings with her staff and students to present new menu ideas and tells us they are complaining to her about these last-minute changes.

“But you have to be flexible with chaji. Accidents are not something you should be upset or sad about. They are challenges given by the gods, and these experiences make us more knowledgeable. It is, in a way, a blessing in disguise,” she says.

food preparation for a chaji (photo by Clarence Aw)

I attend Tsuruko’s second chaji dinner in Singapore. The eight-course meal is a resplendent affair with delicate Japanese autumn cuisine fused with local ingredients served on ornate lacquerware from her personal collection.

The highlight of the evening, however, is the tea ceremony itself, and it is here where Tsuruko, though slightly worn at this point after several long days and sleepless nights of preparation, truly shines.

“All the food you’ve had before this is just meant to pass the time while waiting for the water for the tea to heat up. It is the tea that is the most important part of the chaji,” she explains as she elegantly lifts the long wooden ladle to scoop water into her tea bowl. From there, she whisks up koi cha – thick green tea – into a rich emerald froth before serving it to the guests.

“The most important part about tea is the water,” she continues, “and without water, there would be no life. Tea reminds us of this miracle about being able to live in this moment, and how we are all connected and should take nothing for granted. Through tea, we are thankful.”

Tsuruko Hanzawa preparing for a chaji (photo by Clarence Aw)

On her last day in Singapore Tsuruko is busy packing with her team but because a documentary crew is also filming her during this trip to Singapore, she politely obliges with an interview which I sit in for. When asked about her thoughts about the chaji events in Singapore, she becomes serious and talks in detail about the many ways she feel she could have done better.

“There were new challenges I faced doing chaji in Singapore. But I cannot make excuses. Perhaps this is why I have been doing chaji for over thirty years – it always reveals my imperfections. I am always humbled.”

Likewise, I am humbled to have been able to witness this remarkable 75-year-old woman working so joyously and diligently at her craft. It’s not often that someone who touches you on screen is actually someone you meet in real life who leaves a transformative touch. The week with Tsuruko may have been a fleeting moment in time, but she remains, to me, an unforgettable blossom.

Melanie Lee

Melanie Lee

Melanie is a writer and lecturer from Singapore. She mostly writes about the arts and heritage, and has also published an award-winning picture book series, “The Adventures of Squirky the Alien”.