Date: 15 October, 2003
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
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,
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
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.
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...."