On February 25th, visitors to Kyoto have the chance to have Japanese green tea made and served to them by Geisha. At Kitano Tenmangu Shrine for their annual plum blossom festival, geisha from the local area come to perform an outdoor tea ceremony known as Baika-sai.
Although the actual event is relatively recent having started in the 1950s the roots go deep. There are three overlapping historical and cultural traditions at Baikasai.
First and foremost is the god of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine for whom the festival is held. Tenjin is the Shinto god of Education and to his shrine many students come to pray for success on their exams. Tenjin was originally a mortal man of the late 9th century, a scholar and government minister known as Sugawara no Michizane. He fell afoul political plotting and was exiled where he died broken-hearted. Later, a number of calamities hit the land and were blamed on his restless spirit. To appease his spirit, Sugawara was elevated to a god and shrines were made in his honor. Sugawara's favorite tree was the plum blossom tree and his shrines always have some. The plum blossom blooms in late February through early March which is also the time when school exams and entrance exams to university are held. Thousands upon thousands of wooden prayer boards known as ema are left at Tenjin shrines during this time throughout the country by students praying for good luck in passing those tests.
The tea ceremony part of the festival comes from several centuries later after Sugawara’s death. Although tea had come to Japan before Sugawara’s time, it was not until the late 15th Century that tea began to take on an aesthetic ceremonial aspect. A century later, skill in the tea ceremony was all the rage. In 1587 a great warlord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, held a grand outdoor tea ceremony at Kitano Tenmangu where both the high and low born were invited. By this time the Japanese Tea Ceremony known as Chado/Sado as we know it today had been developed particularly under the guidance of famed Tea Master Sen no Rikyu who was in attendance.
Today the tea is made and served by Geisha (Geiko in the Kansai dialect) and Maiko (Geisha apprentice). The Geisha tradition evolved during Japan's isolation period, the Edo Era (1603-1867). They became highly-trained performers of traditional arts such as the tea ceremony. The Geisha at Kitano Tenmangu are from the nearby Kamishichiken district. In April they hold a public dance, Kitano Odori, and in the summer they have a beer garden where one can drink beer and chat with Geisha and Maiko.
The tea served is matcha which is powder green tea. Along with the tea, a sweet usually of sweet-bean paste is served to counterbalance the tea's bitterness. For 1500 Yen ($13-15 US dollars) visitors can either sit at a table or take their shoes off and sit on a makeshift floor. Geisha and Maiko serve the tea directly to each person. On the floor, they will assume a kneeling position and bow to the visitor. While drinking one can watch the tea ceremony being performed in front of them.
Kitano Tenmangu is easily reached by bus from Kyoto station about 20-30 minutes away. Official website: http://kitanotenmangu.or.jp/english/
Baika-sai runs from 10:00 to 15:00. For a look at the ceremony, please check: