What does the Japanese Tea Ceremony have to do with Magic?

One sunny afternoon in a small rural town in northern Japan, a group of American students and adults were partaking in the Japanese Tea Ceremony. The host, an older Japanese gentlemen, quietly prepared the sweets and tea with a precise choreography that has been refined over years of rehearsal. He explained to his guests the various segments of the ceremony and it’s uses in classical Japanese hospitality. The Americans smiled, bowed awkwardly and did their best to follow the ritual and politely enjoy the tea.
I was the link between the Tea Master and his guests that day. I served as interpreter for the occasion. Before the guests were invited in, I sat with the host and discussed the finer points of what would be taking place. He explained to me that the tea ceremony is so much more than simply making a cup of tea, it's an event. My challenge was to clearly communicate all these nuances to the Americans, without disrupting the atmosphere of the room too much.
The small, mostly empty room was in line with the traditions of the Japanese ritual. On one wall hung a painting with poetry in an old handwritten style. Perched on a small table in the corner was a fresh lily blossom, still closed. In the center of the room were all of the tools for the ceremony: caste iron kettle, bamboo ladle and whisk, large ceramic tea cups along with several other items organized on a small table.
In the few minutes before the guest arrived, the host told me that the decorations and everything was very carefully selected in the days leading up to the event. The poem was about a journey, reflecting on the distance that the Americans had traveled to be there that day. The closed lily signified potential. The power of the blossom had yet to be released, and the same was true for the new friendship. The tea cups selected had a rare design on them, showing the importance he was putting on hosting these international guest.
After we had finished that day, I reflected on all the details about the Tea Ceremony I’d learned that afternoon. That was almost 5 years ago. Today, I take those lessons with me as I work in magic. What do the Japanese Tea Ceremony and Magic have in common? Everything! Well, almost everything.
Just a few days ago, I was performing for a very large group (around 550 people) doing close-up magic. I mingle through the room and perform for a few minutes for each small group I encounter. As I walked up to a table of boisterous guys drinking beer, my mind raced to organized the next few minutes into a set of magic that these guys would enjoy. I pulled up a chair and proceeded to demonstrate how to cheat at poker and other games of chance.
The next group was women mostly over the age of 40, sipping red wine. I put my cards away, sat down and did a full set of thought reading. We talked about body language, wishes and chocolate cake. They asked me about reading eyes and what it’s like to go on a date with me.
After that, a small group flagged me down. Most of them had already seen me perform earlier that evening. I asked if any of them had some change in their pockets. One of the guys pulled a handful of quarters out, I borrowed one, put it in his wife’s hand and proceeded to bend the metal in her hand. Jaws dropped and moved onto the next group.
The selection of material that matches the audience is crucial to the close-up magician. Many magicians talk about style. I firmly believe that it is vital to my success that I be versatile. Inside of my performance style, I need to be able to be all-things-to-all-people. By matching the content of my magic to the group in front of me, it’s possible to please everyone. It gives the guests something to talk about afterward, as many of them saw different sides of me.
If I had talked poker and gambling with the ladies, they would have enjoyed it, but not entirely. They would have smiled and played along, but ultimately not remember their encounter with me. If I had asked one of the beer drinking guys to make a wish, it would have seemed petty and childish.

The American guests at the tea ceremony will never forget that occasion. They will reflect on it when they talk about their journey to Japan. After all, it wasn’t just another cup of tea, it was an event.

In the end, it’s not enough to perform a bunch of tricks, it’s an event in the lives of those guest. Make it memorable. Make it magical. Part of the recipe for that is to carefully select the material that I perform. I want my magic to make an impression on them that lasts the rest of their lives. After the party, those people will go back to work and talk about the evening. I want to be part of that conversation. The next time they see a magician perform, I want them to think of me.

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