Sip a spell

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Sip a spell

At 3 p.m. on a spring day, several middle-aged women walk up three flights of stairs in a building in Insa-dong, northern Seoul, a traditional tourism area. They take off their shoes, slide open a rice paper covered door, bow to the tea master, Chae Won-hwa, and step into a cozy room.

Master Chae, 54, begins her class with a simple, elegant ceremony. The five students stand, holding their palms together at chest level. They nod their heads, kneel into a deep bow, stand up and nod again, then sit crossed-legged on floor cushions.

Using a bamboo stick, Master Chae slowly strikes her left hand three times. All five students close their eyes to meditate. After a couple moments, the hum of a heater in the room and the distant sound of hammering across the street fade into pleasant background buzz.

Jarringly, Master Chae raps the bamboo stick against her palm three more times.

"Let's drink tea," she says.

For most people, tea is just one of the simple pleasures in life. At the Panyaro Institute for the Promotion of the Way of Tea, however, tea is much more - it's a means to inner tranquility.

"We live in such a crazy complicated world," said one of the students, who asked to be identified only as Ms. Youn. "I started studying tea as a way to find peace."

The students pass around a teapot and pour warm green tea into small cups. They sip while catching up with each other and and talking about class schedules. "We live in the real world, not in old texts," Ms. Chae explains to her class. "We talk about life and all things relating back to tea. To become a tea expert, you have to learn everything about tea, from growing to harvesting to appreciating the taste."

The best brew of green tea comes from the first tea crop yield, which will be ready for picking in April. This tea has a mild flavor and a clean, lingering aftertaste. The class will be participating in harvesting and drying tea this spring. "The tea ceremony is important," Ms. Chae says, "but the best tea masters are the ones who cannot get enough of the taste."

A folding screen covered with Buddhist scripture, banyasimgyeong, is propped against one wall at the Institute. Trays of tea pottery are set on top of a row of chests. Each tray is covered with a white cloth. A black and white photograph of Dasol Temple in South Gyeongsang province hangs from another wall. After reciting the words of Wonhyo, a monk from the Silla Dynasty, the students drink more tea.

According to some historians, Buddhist monks returning to Korea from China introduced the peninsula to tea culture in the sixth or seventh century. Tea was part of ceremonial offerings, and it was also drunk to clear the mind. The tea culture was so deeply identified with Buddhism that when Confucianism took hold and Buddhist temples were destroyed, tea drinking was also suppressed.

But tea plants continued to grow wild in the southern regions of Korea. A tea revival began at the start of the 19th century, spurred on by a Buddhist monk. A century later, Choi Pom-sul, at the age of 12, visited a nearby temple and saw a monk reading tea-related books. Mr. Choi left home to study at with the monk. Mr. Choi is considered the great tea revivalist of the 20th century. He published a study of tea, established the Panyaro way and developed a tea-making technique called jaechabeop. He died in 1979.

The survival of Panyaro is a love story. In the winter of 1968, a slight - 154 centimeters - and sickly Yonsei University student started working on her graduation thesis. Chae Won-hwa's adviser told Ms. Chae, a third-year student, to enhance her research on the monk Wonhyo by studying with the monk Choi Bum-sol at Dasol Temple.

"I fell in love with him," Ms. Chae says. Mr. Choi was 42 years her senior. "He was dashing, wise and had a clear aura." She turned in her thesis, gave up her plans to study in Japan, and married Mr. Choi, who was older than her parents.

The Buddhist community was in an uproar, but that eventually died down. Ms. Chae grew healthy. The couple had a son and daughter and lived in the temple for 11 years. In 1977, they started codifying the tea ceremony, came up with a new method of drying tea leaves, and started teaching others.

When Mr. Choi died, Ms. Chae grieved and fell sick again. During the summer of 1983, she fasted for 100 days, which further hurt her health. She prayed to Buddha, "If you let me live, I promise to help others."

Soon after, Ms. Chae met Cho Eun-ja, who was about to start a flower arrangement school in Insa-dong. Ms. Cho asked Ms. Chae to teach tea ceremony classes on Saturdays. After much deliberation, Ms. Chae acceded, and eventually moved into her current location. Ever since she started teaching, her promise to help others keeps her going. Ms. Chae has taught the Korean tea ceremony to thousands - tea connoisseurs, tourists and Buddhist disciples.

On this day, Ms. Chae wears a long jeogori, traditional coat, and pants. Her hair is pulled back in a bun and her face graceful, without makeup. After studying more texts, the students bow some more, then return to the outside world.

Green tea connoisseurs say the taste of green tea reflects the emotions of life. Green tea has six tastes: bitter, astringent, sour, salty, peppery and sweet. After her adventures in life, Ms. Chae says, "Life is a cup of green tea."

Chae Won-hwa teaches tea ceremony classes to expatriates on Saturdays. For more information, call 02-737-8976.

By the numbers: the gentle art of drinking tea

The most casual way of drinking tea is to dip a tea bag into hot water. That method is quick and simple - but anathema to purists. Drinking tea can be an art form. The Korean tradition of tea preparation is not as formal as Japan, nor as casual as China.

Traditionally, water is heated in a kettle on a charcoal fire. The sound of boiling water is sometimes compared to the sound of rustling pine trees. These days, most people boil water in an electric pot or over the stove. Oolong tea uses hot water, black tea uses just boiling water, green tea water should never be more than 70 degrees centigrade. The first cup of green tea can be made with water as low as 30 degrees.

The Korean tea set, chagi, is made up of three of five cups, chajan, a teapot, chagjujeonja, a large bowl, a lipped bowl and a stack of wooden saucers.

One person presides over the ceremony.

1. Pour hot water into the lipped bowl. Pour that water into the empty pot to warm it. Pour that water into the cups to warm them. Throw out the used water.

2. Pour new water into the lipped bowl and let it cool. Scoop tea into the pot. When the water has cooled, pour the water into the pot. Let the tea steep for two or three minutes. Pour all of the first batch of tea into the cups. Use all the water, as the remaining water will develop a harsh taste. Place the cups on the saucers, and pass them around.

3. Holding the cup with both hands, view the color, inhale its fragrance, taste the tea on the tongue, taste it in the throat, and enjoy the aftertaste.

4. The water for the next couple of servings can be more hot and the tea steeped for less time. This time, after steeping the tea, pour the tea into the lipped bowl. Pass the bowl around.

Take a tea train: For the rail traveler, plantations provide abundant sights

By Chun Su-jin

Staff Writer

What's the most popular beverage in the world? If you said coffee or Coca-Cola, sorry, but you're wrong.

According to the Doosan Encyclopedia, it's tea.

In the southern part of the Korean Peninsula this spring, you can see verdant fields covered with tea trees. Humidity is essential to growing tea plants, which is why tea farms are often near the sea. Fog and breeze from the sea keep the young tea leaves moist.

There are now more than 10 tea plantations in Korea and each has a variety of methods to grow tea plants. Boseong in South Jeolla province is one such place.

The Korean National Railroad arranges tours to Boseong every spring, the best time to appreciate the scenic view of young tea leaves. Early April is when the first and the best tea crop of the year, called ujeon, is harvested. The second crop, named sejak, gathered on May 5 and 6, followed by the third crop called cheongjak. The bus departs for Boseong at 11 p.m. and takes six hours. The tour starts the next morning at 5 a.m., beginning with a hot springs bath of "green tea mixed with a sea water sauna." After a walk on the beach by the tea farm, tourists visit Daehan Dawon tea farm, the largest tea farm in Korea. Visitors can drink green tea along with green tea ice cream.

After the tea farm, visitors can go to Seo-namsa temple and Nakan Folk Village, until they catch the 4:54 p.m. train back to Seoul from Namwon Station. The tour is available every Saturday from the end of March to April for 67,000 won ($50). For more information, call 02-558-6200 (extension 305).

Another famed tea plantation site is Hadong in South Gyeongsang province, the first place in Korea where tea was cultivated in the 9th century. The Korean National Railroad has not scheduled tours to Hadong's tea farms, but if you go on a cherry blossom tour to Hadong, you can stop by some famed teahouses, such as Jotaeyeonga (055-884-1525) and Muhyang (055-884-0496). For more information about the cherry blossom tour, which costs 69,000 won, call 02-558-6200 (extension 304).

by Joe Yong-hee

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