Aug. 28, 2006: Tea and Shaolin

Okay, we know. This is the 15th day of our trip, and also a Monday; so technically, we should be starting another week, right? Aha, gotcha! If you’ll look back to Day 1 and Day 2, you’ll see that for all practical purposes, they were the same day. And since we arrived on a Tuesday, then today, Monday, is the last day of our second week in Japan. So there.

However you label it, today was a day when we were treated to a rare opportunity for cultural enrichment that we had hoped for but hadn’t banked on. We’d expressed an interest in witnessing a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Well, it turns out that Yukari knows a woman who is versed in this exacting ritual, and she came to this very house on this very day, our last full day in Japan, to give us a demonstration. In fact, it was more than a demonstration; it was also a private lesson, as we shall see.

She arrived carrying a slender wooden case full of her paraphernalia, including the bowls the tea was to be served in, some of which can be quite expensive. The little urn that holds the tea (as well as the embroidered bag that holds the urn) also can be quite elaborate, and quite costly – we were told that some of these containers can cost as much as a new car!

She wore a blue kimono, and produced a similar garment that Kimberly could put on, which she did. (Ayaka, who as we already know is quite striking in a kimono herself, told her, “You look beautiful.”)

Kimberly’s not exactly a stranger to blue kimonos; in high school, she and her best friend decided for some reason they were going to wear kimonos to their prom, and hers was rather similar to this one. And three years later, she resurrected it to use as a costume piece when Dennis cast her in his first play. Still, she doesn’t wear this particular attire every day, so it was a bit awkward for her to get up and down. Dennis stood by with the camera whenever possible and tried his best to capture a candid shot of her stumbling.

Before we partook of our tea, we’d already been served some particularly exquisite mochi to wash down with the beverage.

And we’d taken our positions kneeling on suitable cushions for the occasion – in our case, we knelt on genuine authentic antique Nipponese Mickey Mouse cushions.

The tea used in the ceremony was a special type of green tea, known as matcha, that is darker than regular green tea and ground into a powder. It’s scooped sparingly into the bowl into which a dash of hot water is ladled, and then stirred with a special bamboo whisk.

All of this, of course, is enacted with strictly prescribed motions, procedures and tools. The tea is served in individual bowls, although traditionally it was more common for everyone to use the same bowl. These vessels are unique works of art, and some of them are designed to be used only at specified times of the year.

Each bowl in turn was placed to the right of the recipient on the far right, with an exchange of low bows. In like manner, this participant would pass bowls to each of the other participants. The side of the bowl with the artwork was turned toward us, but after we’d had an opportunity to appreciate it, we respected it by turning it away from us to sip from the plain side of the bowl instead. We held the vessel with our right hand cupped underneath and our left hand curved around the side. Got all of that?

There is, indeed, a specific manner of doing EVERYTHING associated with a tea ceremony (although the details will vary depending upon which school of tea ceremony you’re talking about), down to how the dishes are rinsed and wiped, and how the dirty water is carried out – it’s the only time the server ever turns her back on her guests, but the backside apparently is considered less gauche than the bowl of soiled water. There is even a prescribed number of steps, a specified foot to start them on, and a number of times to turn around and in which direction.

Very well, so after we’d savored our tea and mochi and the webwork of ritual in which they were presented, we were all done, right? Not quite. It looked as if our server was about to pack up her goods and exit, but if so, she changed her mind. Maybe she intended to go on to the next phase already; maybe she was just pleased with the little gift of appreciation we presented her with; maybe she noticed that our interest level was higher than she’d anticipated; maybe she just liked the way Kimberly looked in her kimono. But in any case, she announced that she would now give Kimu-san her own private class in conducting a tea ceremony.

And so, as Toshihide, Keisuke and Ayaka took their places on the authentic traditional Mickey Mouse cushions, Dennis and Yukari aimed their cameras and assumed their posts as chroniclers of history in the making – Kimu-san earning her wings as a provider of ceremonial tea.

Although her teacher didn’t utter a syllable of English, she was able to communicate through gesture and movement, as well as her protégé’s knowledge of Japanese, resorting only occasionally to the aid of an interpreter. For Kimu-san, this was the most memorable experience of the entire trip.

This afternoon was our last chance to attempt returning the camera, which has made us less than ecstatic, to the department store from whence it came. So we all went back there, and our translators patiently explained the nightmares we were having with it, and discussed the situation with a manager for at least 15 minutes. And then they gave us the Cliff’s Notes version of his response: that’s just the way these cameras are – they do gobble batteries rapidly, so you should use rechargeables, which they’d be happy to sell us; and as for its failure to function at times, he couldn’t tell us anything because it’s functioning fine at the moment. That was all that came out of the lengthy discussion, and we felt like Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation”. But when he saw our disgruntlement, he did present us with a free case so we’d have something to hide it in when we got too frustrated to look at it. [Note; after we returned to the States, Kimberly’s aunt in Oregon bought the camera from us and even paid more than we asked for, and almost as much as we paid. So far as we know, she hasn’t yet thrown it under a train.]

While we were out, we also did some more gift shopping, and we couldn’t pass up some purple soft-serve ice cream we saw at a snack bar in one of the stores. Turned out to be grape flavored, apparently a more popular flavor here than at home.

This evening, Toshihide took us to a shaolin class in a large gym. He used to take shaolin himself, and so did Dennis, although it was a very different species. This was a class for kids (ages about 6 to 12, it appeared), but after Toshihide spoke to the sensei (teacher), we were invited to join in the group exercises and try to keep up as best we dared. So for the next half hour or so, we stretched, kicked, punched, blocked and pretzeled with the best of them.

Kimberly and Toshihide were feeling it in their bones before it was over, and knew they’d be sore tomorrow; but Dennis, who does yoga and other exercises on a daily basis, was having no problems except for his ingrained habit of mirroring the sensei (i.e., doing the exercise on the left side when teacher is doing right side and vice versa) rather than reversing the image so as to be doing the same side, thereby almost getting accidentally smacked by someone doing it correctly. [Nowadays Kimberly is the yoga master, and can asana circles around us all.]

During the second phase of the class, the students executed (oops, we won’t use that word, since it was more playful than deadly) or rather performed drills with partners and small groups, so we sat it out. We were quite impressed by how well these youngsters performed these disciplined maneuvers, especially one little girl who seemed to be among the youngest of the lot.

The final third (or so) was taken up by chanting. The sensei sat on the stage and the students sat cross-legged on the gym floor. He would recite passages – apparently from the significant scrolls displayed before him – and they in turn would intone responses in unison. If they were going through their credo, it was a very detailed one indeed.

Finally, an assistant instructor walked through the ranks carrying a wooden staff, with which he gauged the uprightness of the sitting students. Once satisfied, he stepped aside to a spot out of their line of vision and suddenly whacked the staff against the floor quite audibly to see if any of them flinched. None did.

At the conclusion of the class, Toshihide introduced us to the sensei, who greeted us with a bow. We bowed back, of course, but then realized we’d probably committed a faux pas by not bowing first. We understand that according to Japanese custom, it’s the person of lower status who bows first (which would include neophytes as opposed to masters of the art). He seemed to understand that we were clueless gaijin, but we made a mental note to be more careful in the future. Especially with someone who could rip us to shreds.

Back at home, we were forced to start the thing we’d been dreading for several days now: packing and preparing for tomorrow’s return flight. This included, as usual, working out the schedule for everyone in the house to get a shower. We quickly discovered when we came here that our hosts, like us (and unlike most Americans) prefer to shower in the evening rather than the morning; and legendary Japanese politeness requires making certain your guests have had the opportunity to bathe before doing so yourself. So we’ve learned to shower earlier than we normally would so that nobody would stay up until the wee hours waiting for us to finish. It isn’t a chore to do so, since the showers here are rather fun; they’re situated in a room as big as the average American bathroom, but the toilet is separate. One side of the room features a large tub, and the entire remainder of the room is the shower. It’s customary to clean off in the shower, and then use the tub just to soak in afterward. But we never used it, because our showers took up quite enough time.

In the course of packing, we discovered that we just didn’t have enough room in our luggage for everything we were taking back, despite having unloaded quite a few gifts here, and despite the careful planning and organizing by official resident non-testosterone Libra Kimberly. So, at about 8:30 we found ourselves scrambling to get to a sporting goods store before it closed in search of a small (and cheap) travel bag. At first, we only saw gym bags at around 100 bucks, and really a little larger than we needed. But just when we were about to reign ourselves to carrying a bundle on a stick, we found one just about the right size for less than 20 dollars.