MY FIRST TRADITIONAL teahouse experience came half a block off the tourist trail, down a cobblestone path in Jeonju, South Korea. I was immediately hooked and have returned several times. On my last trip, I decided to close my eyes. I wanted to see what would happen.
The sweet, warm musk of smoldering sandalwood. A deep breath stings, but only slightly. I detect other aromas like sniffing a fine wine. It lingers. Always. As if this were the natural state of the air. Brown sugar. Drought. Marijuana.
A humid whiff of steeping tea inhaled in sporadic wafts. The smell of calm and an elusive floral bouquet concealed in the plumes. It’s there. It exists. But just on the tip of my nose before it evaporates into ambiance. It’s an essence. It’s a myth.
The residue of dryness. The composition of teas. Fruits. Flowers. Herbs. Parched particles carried — by the sandalwood smoke and the tea steam, my host’s clean perfume and the odor of my socks — to my nose. It reminds me of home.
That smell when I used to open the pantry.
Music. Faint, but distinct. Shamefully, I think of Kung-Fu movies. The deep, resonating grumble of a gong directing a misty fog. The high-pitched wind from a bamboo pipe slowly ushers it away revealing a sleepy remote monastery just awakening to the delicate vibrations of plucked strings.
And then the movement of air. Wind-chimes. Water ripples. Bodies shiver. I could be anywhere…
But perhaps most important is what I can’t hear. Not far from the main avenue, there are no honking taxis. No language that isn’t my own. No overwhelming crowds. No crinkly maps, no hawkers, no camera clicks. The sound here is organic. Born from a breath, a beat, a breeze. Out there it invades, but in here it’s invited — and the guest list is exclusive.
Despite all that, if I listen very closely, I can hear…quiet.
The smooth sanded surface of the maple tables. Its flaws. Islands of rough. Divots. A hole in the trunk. The winding edge feels like a coastline, beautiful in its imperfections.
The small ceramic serving bowl. (Surprisingly small.) I’m a giant at tea-time. Though it still holds power over me. I warm my hands on it. (Curse the slowly waning heat. Nothing lasts.)
With my shoes off and my senses honed, I can actually feel my socks. Feel the breeze flowing through them and between my toes that rest rigidly on the hard floor.
I take a sip. It’s almost too hot…but that’s just right. Otherwise there wouldn’t be that jolt of heat. A shot of whiskey. An electric shock. One more sip. One more feeling.
My sinuses clearing.
The air has a flavor. Similar to the taste of pine needles or cinnamon, it is the savory embodiment of its smell. Deciduous. Terrestrial. Crisp. I sense a certain astringency. The hollow flavor of dryness — only quenched by what I supposedly came here for.
It tastes oddly of steamed vegetables, though with an abridged flavor. Like licking the waxy surface of a pepper instead of biting it. Or bubble gum moments before the flavor expires. Subdued by dilution yet enhanced by heat, it’s at one moment unwelcome but the next intriguing in its unexpectedness.
I wouldn’t order this cup again, but right now…it’s perfect.
Heading to South Korea? Make sure you brush up on the 10 Korean Customs to Know Before You Visit. And there’s so much more than Seoul; find out what at South Korea, Beyond Seoul.