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Sitting in the new Harney and Sons tea shop in New York City's SoHo neighborhood, Professor Takeshi Watanabe explains to a CBS Sunday Morning reporter that tea is the most popular beverage in the world, next to water.
"Tea actually is drunk all over the world," Takeshi says in the segment, which aired Nov. 21. "And it's so interesting because it really, I think, symbolizes the common elements of human civilization … however, what's so interesting is that while it unifies different human populations, it also distinguishes them."
Watanabe, a visiting assistant professor of Japanese and East Asian Studies, is an expert in Japanese literature and culture. He has explored Japanese tea culture and, more recently, food culture in general, researching and writing on the history of the Japanese tea ceremony and Japanese cuisine in the 10th and 11th centuries.
As a graduate student researching in Kyoto, Japan, Watanabe found himself living next to an esteemed master of Chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony. His interest was piqued, and he began taking lessons.
"In Japan, one of the teachings associated with tea is ichigo ichie - one moment, one meeting. Much of Japanese tea culture is steeped in Zen, as is this saying. To treasure the moment, to seize each day, each meeting as a unique and special opportunity never to be encountered again - this is a profound teaching that I have taken to heart, and I think my students sense that about me in my teaching and my interactions with them," he said.
At Connecticut College, Watanabe has taught "Warriors, Merchants and Monks: The Japanese Tea Ceremony," a popular class that explores the history of tea in Japan, its political and social implications and the aesthetics associated with the drinking of tea. In 2009, he helped organize Yale University Art Gallery's "Tea Culture of Japan: Chanoyu Past and Present," an art exhibit and international symposium.
Watanabe's students participated in the symposium, which brought together scholars, curators and international tea practitioners to explore Japanese tea culture and its rich history. And his students will soon have an opportunity to explore the role tea played in the history of Connecticut College: As part of Centennial celebration in 2011, the College is planning a series of Centennial Teas, a throwback to the tea parties held regularly in the College's early days. And while today's college students are more likely to grab a grande latte at Starbucks, Watanabe says a tea party is entirely appropriate.
"Tea fosters a discussion and perhaps a slower tempo than coffee, and we can all use a little moment for tea in our fast-paced lives," he said. "And students should treasure their time at Connecticut College, for their limited time here is indeed precious. It may be akin to one long tea party punctuated by lively discourse, by all sorts of experiences positive and negative, but all culminating in a sense of learning something deeper about the other person, as well as oneself, all while giving and receiving a cup of tea."