Honouring the Forest - a fresh take on a Japanese Tea Ceremony

Emma Swann

It was a stand out moment.

I was on a training course to become a Forest Therapy Guide, and had just spent 2 hours experiencing a guided forest therapy walk. All of us ‘guides to be’ were emerging from the tree ferns into a large clearing on top of a hill, with a stunning view of the city below. It was evident that the walk was coming to an end, but to my delight I spotted our guide Susan sitting at a picnic rug, pouring cups of tea.

“The Japanese influence on Forest Therapy” smiled Susan, as she looked up from her ornate cast iron teapot. “Take a seat.” We all huddled around and watched as hot tea bubbled out of the teapot into delicate Japanese tea-cups.  “Don’t drink just yet. Wait until everyone is served. We take our first sip together.”  We all sat in silence while teacups were passed around, and I felt the warmth of the cup permeate my fingers then run down my hands. The tea was honey coloured and in the rising steam wafted hints of eucalyptus and citrus. 

A Japanese Teacup with Steam Rising

“We’ve experienced the forest today with all our senses - with our sense of sight, sound, touch and smell. Now it’s time to taste the forest. This tea is made from the leaves of local plants.” 

Everyone in the circle now had a cup. I looked hopefully at Susan to give us the signal that we could drink. Instead, Susan started pouring another cup of tea. She held this cup up to the sky, reverently, and then to the 4 directions around us. She then did something I wasn’t expecting - poured the entire cup’s contents onto the ground. “The first cup of tea is for the forest. To honour the forest and this land for giving so much to us over the last 2 hours. To show our respect and to give back.” 

Wow. That was out of the ordinary. It reminded me of a trip to Broome in Western Australia when I was 15.  Some local Aboriginal people took me out to collect mudcrabs in the mangroves. As we were leaving after cooking and eating our catch, the biggest crab was left whole and untouched next to the fireplace. I went to take it and was told “Leave that there. That’s for the ancestors.”

I didn’t quite get it when I was 15, but I think I do now. Offering the forest the first cup of tea, leaving the best mud crab for the ancestors - these are rituals. They are symbolic. It doesn’t really matter whether the forest likes to drink a cup of tea, or if the ancestors actually eat the mud crab. Rituals like these force us to think beyond ourselves. To be aware of what other humans and non-humans provide for us and be grateful. To be less self absorbed and more respectful of all that has gone on before us, and all that supports us. 

In that moment, seeing that first cup of tea offered to the forest, I immediately felt a sense of warmth and gratitude to the forest. And I saw it as a living, breathing entity - all of it, the beautiful trees I’d laid  under, the birdsong I’d listened to, the smooth rocks I’d touched in the cold stream, the clouds I’d watched pass overhead, the fresh air I’d breathed in - all of it was the forest. And all of it deserved my respect and appreciation for what it had just given me. 

I now guide forest therapy groups and conduct tea ceremonies at the end, and that small ritual of offering the first cup of tea to the forest consistently has the same effect. It’s an act of reciprocity - I’m not just taking and expecting the forest to give me what I want. Honouring this entity that is much larger than ourselves reminds me to be humble and thankful for the abundant gifts that nature is always offering us, whether we notice it or not. 

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