The ladle (hishaku) is always held with the right hand

Hello – and yes, I’ve been absent for a month! The reason is that I developed a nasty case of Repetitive Strain Syndrome (the not-so-fun version of RSS). The culprit? Too much time spent on the computer at work and at home. Since the pain that radiated through my neck, shoulder and right arm was pretty intense (sometimes it felt like a Doberman was gnawing through my shoulderblade), I didn’t find it too hard to take the doctor’s advice: avoid going anywhere near your computer keyboard and mouse!

But the shoulder and arm pain also presented certain… challenges when it came to tea practice. Right is right when it comes to the Way of Tea. When you’re in the tearoom, there are certain actions you must always perform with your right hand. For the first time in my tea life, I actually felt grateful for the pain that arose in my legs and feet when sitting seiza. It was a welcome distraction from the shoulder pain I felt when ladling hot water into the teabowl!

No place for lefties

The tearoom, and the way we move about in it when performing the Way of Tea, was constructed with right-handed persons in mind. That is the simple truth – unpalatable though it may be to southpaws! The position of the ro (sunken hearth), the placement of the fukusa (silken cleansing cloth) in the obi, the alignment of the various tea utensils on the tatami: all these and more are arranged under the matter-of-fact assumption that all tea people use their right hand as their dominant hand. In fact, you could argue that the left side is slightly taboo, since that is the side used for pouring away waste water and to “hide” the waste water vessel (kensui) from the guests. In general, the right hand is the hand of activity, of purposefulness; the left hand functions as a support, an auxiliary, only. It is the hand that does the cleaning up.

It is literally impossible to consider reordering the tearoom so that the positioning of the equipment and utensils could better suit a left-handed person. It would be like moving into Alice’s looking-glass world, or possibly a tea version of Bizarro World, where everything is done backwards or in reverse (“Us do opposite of all Earthly things!”). It is that unthinkable. I suppose that someone might design a mirror-image tearoom at home, for personal use, but any traditional Japanese tea person who saw it would likely be both amused and shocked at the idea.

I have often wondered what it must be like for left-handed tea students. Is it seriously challenging, when you’re a lefty, to perform movements that require higher-than-normal dexterity (sorry) such as hiki-bishaku?* Or do such things become second nature when you’ve done them frequently enough? None of my fellow tea students has shown signs of left-handedness outside the tearoom, so there is no one in my tea community that I can ask. I’ve even tried playing at “reverse tea” at home, just to see what it was like. The effect was most disconcerting.

If you are a left-handed student of tea, how do you feel about the right-handedness of the tearoom? Has it been difficult for you? Have there been any rewards – for example, an increase in mindfulness because it is not possible to perform such movements unthinkingly with the non-dominant hand? Please share your thoughts!

*This is the series of movements that you use, in the summer season, to return the ladle to the kettle after pouring cold rinse-water into the teabowl. Hiki-bishaku is said to emulate an archer as she draws her bow. Of all the ways in which the ladle (hishaku) is handled, this is the one that tea students find to be most challenging.