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Date: 15 October, 2003
Time: 00:33
Subject:  Quintessential Japan.

A Tea Ceremony

Sunday I attended a Tea Ceremony.  Sado, the way of Tea.  My friend Chu has been studying the Tea Ceremony for several years; her parents teach Tea Ceremony as well, they are of the Omotesenke School.   Interestingly, Chu doesn't study with her parents, a fact she chalks up as "too much quality time" with the folks.  She studies the same tradition, but outside the home...  She lives with her parents in a very nice home in Seta.  Of course, there's very little yard to speak of, this being Japan.  Even in the wealthier neighborhoods, postage-stamp lots are the norm.  Nevertheless, Her house includes a Tea House.  There is a small gap separating the Tea House from the residence. 

I had to beg a bit, to encourage Chu to invite us to Tea.   But after a couple of months of gentle nagging, she relented.  Besides, I wanted to meet her parents, see her house, and have a foundation for future discussions.  So Chu invited two of her good friends and myself to Tea.  One of the other guests, being the elder, was considered the "primary guest," and hence the onus of etiquette fell to her.

It all began with a greeting at the door.  Her mother welcomed us into the house, and served us warm water.  We all signed the guest book; a most formal document.  We were given paper to practice the signing of our name.  A Caligraphy brush-pen was provided.  Now for those non-left handed, you have no way of knowing just how difficult signing one's name can possibly be when presented with a brush.  I practiced, and in the end, conjured up a vague semblance of my signature...  Warm water was served to all us guests, on edge, nervous, taking in the opulence of a wealthy household (which by American standards is quite small, but ornate).  After a short while, the tea house was prepared.  We were led to the garden, a narrow plot beside the house, intricately adorned in moss and minimalist flowers.  A fountain, gurgled, and trees invited contemplation.  If you approach the house by the main walk, the entrance is to the left.  Were one to go straight, there is a simple bamboo gate and a cobblestone path.

As the pressure is on the eldest, the others of us were free to screw up the formality, so long as we did as the main guest does.  Chu met the eldest at the gate to the tea room.  A low bow, on the cobblestone path, then proceeding to the fountain.   Twice we wash our hands with a ladle of water (have your own hankerchief handy as I did not).  Then to the entrance of the tea room.  

The door is a full half a meter above ground level, and perhaps a meter square.  Everyone bows low entering the tea room.  Never did I have occasion to stand up tall inside.   This actually does a lot to make the space seem much larger than it really is.  From entering until leaving I was seated in Seiza (kneeling).  We arrange ourselves on one of the four and a half tatami mats that define the space.  This one mat, immediately led to by the door, is the guest's domain.  The middle mat has a hole cut into it for the winter hearth which, since its still autumn, was covered and a hibachi was present in the corner for boiling the tea water.  Shortly after we enter, Chu opens a separate door, and bowing low to the room, forehead to the ground, enters with the Charcoal.  She removes the kettle, stokes the fire and applies the incense.  Replacing the Kettle, she ladles water into the pot.  Her father enters behind her to explain the actions.  We are invited to inspect the charcoal, arranged in a circle about the consumed embers.  The Hibachi is described and explained, and we return to our turf, the one mat that is our domain.  After the preparation of the kettle and flame,  her father explains the scroll which is hung from the wall, in the alcove (present in all tea rooms).  It was written by such and such a poet about Seta River (which is near) and the surrounding mountains.  All tea rooms have a name; this one's name translates approximately as "to maintain traditions."

We are served a light meal.  Sashimi, and a bowl of soup, with dumplings and vegetables.  Only three elements in a light broth.  Three slices of raw mackerel, and a small piece of potato.  Served with Sake.  We eat and drink, engaging in meaningful conversation with our hostess.  After the meal, we all drop our chopsticks simultaneously, the sound of which summons our hostess (who retired specifically for that moment).  The trays our removed, and we retire to the garden while we await the tea ceremony, proper.

In the garden we are invited to use the restroom, to relax and contemplate, while the Tea Room is prepared for the ceremony.  I indulge in the facilities, and experience the most sophisticated toilet I have ever encountered.  It has a wall-mounted control panel.  Chu explains the controls to me, or else I would be at a loss.  This is the button that flushes she says, and she presses the button that raises the seat for me...  Then she leaves.  I spend about five minutes marvelling at just how many buttons a toilet can possibly involve.  Apparently there's water and flow controls for bidet functions, mechanized lid opening and closing, seat raising and lowering, possibly jet flow and control, not to mention temperature control for the bidet and toilet seat itself.  It of course has a digital display.  And as I'm leaving, I cannot figure out how to lower the lid, though I flush the toilet twice in my explorations.  I am informed later that a motion sensor detects my absence and does that for me...  But back to the tea ceremony. 

When all are ready for the continuation of the proceedings, Chu informs her parents.  Her father opens the door to the tea house, and makes a demonstration of sweeping the floor.  For this purpose a giant feather broom is used.  I don't know what bird produces white feathers of this magnitude offhand.   Having only studied for five years, Chu is not qualified to prepare the "thick tea."  For this, her father enters.   He draws our attention first to the Alcove where we appreciate that the Hanging scroll has been replaced with a flower arrangement.  I comment that since there are seven flowers, Chu clearly could not have produced it.  She is only certified to arrange five flowers, having only studied ikebana for four years.  She explains that her mother did the arrangement.   Her father arranges himself before the hibachi, arranges the utensils, and apologizes.  Due to knee problems, he must sit cross-legged, in the posture of a Shogun or Samurai, hence, breaking from caste.  He then asks whether we'd like the tea strong or weak.  The question falls to me.  I explain, that I am an American, and I can only answer that question one way.    Enough said, he prepares the thick tea thickly.  A half a ladle of water (half a cup?) and three scoops of macha (powdered green tea) per guest.  That means, four ounces of water and maybe six teaspoons of tea powder.  It has the consistency of milk of magnesia and twice the efficacy of espresso.  The Large, heavy, black bowl is passed first to Chu, who has joined the ranks of the guests for this stage, then to the main guest, then to myself, and I in turn pass it to the tertiary.  We each take two sips.  Four drinkers, twelve scoops of tea.  And an immediate buzz.  The bowl is passed with the right hand to the left, the Tea Master's hankerchief is passed as well, and placed beside the bowl.  One first picks up the handkerchief, arranges it in the left hand.  The bowl is then raised and placed atop the handkerchief.  With two quarter turns, the bowl is situated in one's hand, and one drinks from the back of the bowl (a subtle ornament dictates which is the front).  After two swigs of the foul liquor, it is lowered to the ground.  The handkerchief is placed beside it.  With a paper (provided), one wipes the rim four times, once with each corner of the paper.  The handkerchief and bowl are then passed to the left, using the right hand.  The next guest follows suit. 

It should be noted, that the lines of the tatami mat are very important in defining space.  A tea room is four and a half mats or less.  Sometimes, two mats.  The one mat upon which one sits takes on supreme importance as the rest of the space is imbued with such seriousness that one feels paralysed.  Three guests on one mat, all feeling inadequate and ill-prepared; all suffering throughout the whole proceedings knowing the inadequacy of ones manners.  All feeling guilt beyond measure for offending this space with their thoughtless blundering.  And that one mat is a refuge for their errors.  It takes on the feeling of an island in a sea of uncertainty.

After the last guest sips the tea, the bowl is pushed across the line separating the guest's island from the tea room proper.  The host withdraws the bowl, rinses it, and it is presented to the room.  It is explained that this bowl was made by the nineth Raku Master of Japan.  The current master is number 15.  This bowl is at least two hundred years old.  The Tea scoop is as least as old, and signed by so and so of such and such lineage.  The Kettle is over four hundred years old, and was owned by a very famous man who invented the Japanese lunch box; the ornamental, raised kanji on the side of the cast-iron kettle implores that only "right speech" be spoken within the tea house; no idle chatter.   A lot of the time in the tea ceremony is spent "appreciating" the implements of the ceremony.  It comes off seemings somewhat ostentatious to me, however...

After the thick tea, the most formal part of the ceremony is over.  The denouement is the Thin Tea.  First we are presented japanese cookies, biscuits in the british sense, though.  Macha, being the order of the day, is always whisked into a suspension.  The powder is, in fact, drunk with the liquid.  Hence, its unpopularity in popular culture.  The thin tea is something on the order of a couple of scoops to a ladle and a half of water.    I felt bold and made the weak joke of asking for cream and sugar (Chu's father clearly was not around when I said that).  Although he never spoke a word of English to me, as the owner and President of an Import/Export textile company, I could be sure he would understand all too well whatever I said, and was on guard the whole time.   This was one time in my life, where I kept my fucking mouth shut all day, without even the slightest prompting...

After the weak tea, it was over, we were invited to leave, and back into the house.  Amusingly, Chu offered us tea when we got inside; also coffee or wine.  The irony was not lost on anyone; we all politely declined, however her mom served us all red tea (err... black tea) anyway.  Were I not the nervous wreck that I was at the time, I would have requested sake to calm my nerves... 

It wasn't until we were away from the parents, away from Chu's house, shopping for dinner that I realized just how on edge I'd been all day.  It was like when you cut yourself badly, but don't feel the pain until it starts to heal. 

Later on that day, my homey Dr Dre came through with a gang of Tanquerey. And a party ensued, and there was much rejoicing and delicious food.  ("delicious food" being an Aussie euphemism ("Much Rejoicing" being British/Monty Python now that I think about it... (oh, What will become of this Californian???)))

My impression:  Definitely interesting.  I, however, am an Anarchist.  Formalized ritual and routines are anathematic to my personality.  What was most unexpected was the strength of the thick tea.  Consider a day five hundred years ago.  Tea is exceptionally expensive, and imported from China, as are all the implements of the tea ceremony.  The Thick tea is therefore, I can only guess, a 50 dollar cup of tea?  Served in nearly priceless and irreplacable china.  Two sips knocks you on your ass, and you are buzzing like there's no tomorrow.  A caffeine high.  Yes, I think you're starting to see my point.  The tea ceremony is a drug ritual where men (only men were allowed in the tea room until a couple hundred years ago) met to discuss business ventures, military conquests, treaties, and such.  It was a ritualized meeting of the wealthy and powerful.  As such, it is an institution that an anarchosyndicalist would naturally oppose.  It is the home of the "good-ole'-boy's network" in Japan.  An institution of power.  The irony now is that the tradition is preserved mostly by the women who study it; men, on average being too busy with work for outside hobbies.  Women study Japanese traditional arts.  Men study paccinko, karaoke, and hostess bars. 

A contemplative meal, and a thoroughly appreciated cup of tea.  Really the cult of ettiquite surrounding the ceremony is the source of the contemplation, rather than any object within the tea ceremony.  Traditionally, in Buddhism, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness are recited as 'mindfulness of the body as body, feelings as feelings, mind as mind, thoughts as thoughts.'  Add to this "Mindfulness of Etiquette as Etiquette" and you may grasp the spiritual component of the Tea Ceremony.


This week has been a beautiful study in contrasts.  As a perfect balance to the Tea Ceremony,  Ishiyama School's new teacher and my new friend, Ian, organized a Karaoke party.  Four of us, Ian, Scott, Myself, and Liem went to one of the many Karaoke palaces in town, and rented a room.  Its bizarre how large these places are.  This one was three floors.  And on a monday night, nearly every room seemed packed.  As you approach the front desk, you get the impression that this must be a den of ill-repute.  It looks like a brothel, or something nefarious.  But no, only singing... all the doors have glass windows clouded, but not private.  The rooms have the smell of cigarettes and disinfectant, however, and the yellow vinyl sofa is overstuffed, and invites speculation.  Besides that, there are controls to turn the lights down low, and and a intercom/phone to order drinks and food (room service?).  I didn't check to see if the door would actually lock, though...

A brief aside: the Japanese do not usually entertain in their own houses.  Usually, one holds a party at a bar, or some such public venue.  It was not common until recently for people to live apart from their family.  A newlywed couple returns to the home of the son, and the daughter lives at home until she is married and dispatched to the inlaws, to be despised and treated like an outcaste.  Likewise, the children live with the parents, occasionally ad infinitum.  So, there is a tremendous market in Japan for social gathering spaces such as we do not have in America.  Hence, the popularity of Karaoke rooms, Love Hotels, Pachinko Parlors, Onsen, Holiday Resorts, Tea Houses, Bowling Alleys, Multi-use facilities (e.g. "J.J. Club 100," for 100yen per fifteen minutes, you have access to nine floors of entertainment... I have the broshure in front of me.  Let's see, a dance club, karaoke rooms, pinball, a waterfall on the roof, a bar I assume?, table tennis, bowling alleys, internet access, jacuzi rooms???, video arcades, basketball coursts...) etc, etc, etc.  The proper venue for a gathering is a public location, not to compromise the privacy of one's own home.  So,

On a monday night, the Karaoke hotel was packed.  We rented a room, and ordered beer.  After much confusion, we sorted out the machine, found the foreign songs list, and loaded up the inevitable Queen,  Red Hot Chili Peppers, Frank Sinatra et. al.   We ordered beer.  Much beer.  In all, it was quite confusing, but super entertaining.  Our bill for two hours, however, topped a ten thousand yen.  There was that much confusion.  But we worked it all out, and I'll definitely do it again. 

I sang (attempted to sing) one of my favorite songs, Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross."  Two things always shock me at Karaoke;  how few of the words one can know of one's favorite songs, and JUST HOW HIGH so many of them are sung.  I nearly burst a lung trying to sing Many Rivers... But, I actually could hit most of the notes (except the bridge: "and this loneliness won't leave me alone..." even at full steam I couldn't hit that without falsetto.)  Karma Chamelion and Bon Jovi had to be sung almost entirely in falsetto; 

So there we were, four grown men, in a small room, singing (badly), drinking (strongly) and bonding in the most Japanese of possible ways; stumbling through Bohemian Rhapsody (am I revealing too many dirty secrets?).  Two microphones and a Bose Speaker system.  Dim lighting, and, of course, amazing compression and reverb effects.  

"many rivers to cro-o-oss, and I can't seem to find... my way over...."


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