A special tea ceremony to remember. This post is dedicated to my beautiful Grandmother who taught me to enjoy tea and the finer things in life. RIP Jan Staley 1937 – 2015.
I started to write this post on a tiny local train, heading south down from the mountains and into Okayama city finally finishing it weeks later, back at home after another jam packed month.
I’m on my way to visit a friend who lives in a picturesque little town on the other side of Okayama city called Kurashiki. I’ve stationed myself in a seat opposite a man wearing an extremely bright pair of checked trousers and hair that’s much better kept than my own. It’s ok to steal the odd glance at him though, as like many of the people on this train, he’s slumped over in what looks like a neck crippling position, ‘sleeping’. I’ve also noted an elderly couple working their way through thick sudoku puzzle books which has made me smile. Many Japanese people I’ve talked to about sudoku when they’ve caught me puzzling have never heard of it!
I know I won’t get to finish this and physically post this until I’m home next week but wanted to enjoy the free hour or so the journey has given me to focus. I’m finding it hard to make the time to share all of my exciting adventures. Something wonderful happens and I think ‘I must write about this ASAP!’ Then time runs away with me and before too long I’ve witnessed another fascinating occurrence or eaten another amazing looking and tasting meal and another moment gets added to the list of things to share with you. Anyway, on with this post…
When I was in Japan last year I was fortunate enough to attend a tea ceremony, not far from where I’m living again, in a small traditional style building, purpose built for such occasions. Back then I marked the afternoon down as one of my most favourite experiences in Japan and treasured every minute of it. I didn’t know it at the time but I was to return to this tranquil place and be part of a ceremony even more special than the last, feeling much more a part of it this time and not at all like a tourist marvelling and taking sneaky photos.
I’m lucky to know a wonderful person called Mariko. As well as her increasingly rare ability of knowing the ins and outs of wearing a Kimono correctly, Mariko is learning and practicing the traditional art of Japanese tea ceremony. Last night’s ceremony was a very special and intimate one, one which only our host’s most closet acquaintances were invited to. Me being eager to learn everything there is to learn, Mariko, who played a crucial role in the evenings proceedings, invited Toyomi and I along.
Unfortunately Mariko wasn’t able to help Toyomi and I into our complex Kimonos that afternoon but after a few hours of sweating, wrapping, unwrapping and then wrapping again we were in! I wore my new Kimono (purchased at a bargain price too good to resist) along with, two under garments, two securing tie belts, one waist cincher, one stiff waist board, a very long decorative waist belt called an Obi, one back pad, one decorative scarf, another decorative belt, one pair of white socks called Tabi and a few safety pins to stop me flashing my ill fitting under garments through my sleeves. Once my hair was pinned up and I’d applied a little bit of make-up, I was ready! We were very behind schedule due to our struggles but arrived only a few minutes late in the end. My wide western feet were too big to squeeze into the tiny shoes Toyomi lent me to wear so I made do with something a little less traditional. It was my first occasion to wear a proper Kimono, other than the practice lesson from Mariko the week before (when I was too exhausted to pay much attention to how to get Toyomi in to hers, oops) and it felt wonderful. Learning from Mariko how to move with grace and behave modestly when wearing a Kimono made me feel a lot less like a fraud and much more like a Japanese lady, honoured to be playing a part in keeping a tradition alive.
There were 12 of us in total for the ceremony, the first part was performed in a very simple (but very beautiful) room with a tatami mat floor and a specially selected wall hanging and flower arrangement for the occasion. The ceremony marked the coming of the full September moon, arguably the most beautiful of the year. We left our shoes at the door, as is customary in all Japanese homes, and gathered first in an adjacent room, making our way in one by one to the main room. Kneeling at the doorway and bowing to the ground before standing again, we all entered delicately in, sliding our feet along in our crisp white socks. I’d been practicing how to get into a kneeling position, bow and get up again with as much grace as possible, when bending at the middle is difficult and when having knees which are in no way accustomed to such a position is a curse. I was very nervous and a little embarrassed but I didn’t slip or stagger upon heaving myself up again so I think it went ok! Once we were all in and introductions had been made the ceremony began.
The ceremony was in three parts. Starting inside we each had a beautiful Wagashi sweet shaped like an autumnal chestnut. It was squidgy motchi filled with sweetened chestnut purée, it was delicious! I seem to remember they were made by Mariko, she’s so clever!! We then shared a bowl of whisked, super strong green called matcha. I’ve had matcha before and have become accustomed to the strong bitter taste, quite unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. It’s used to flavour many things in Japan, ice cream, sweets, chocolate, cakes etc. I noticed before I left the UK that it was starting to become quite fashionable to drink matcha, with the western world praising the wonderful health benefits of matcha, which the Japanese have been taking advantage of for years. The cups we were sharing were made much stronger than normal so I found drinking it a little difficult. I just about managed my customary 3 sips before passing it to my neighbour, trying to subtly lick my lips to remove the green moustache I could feel stuck to my top lip. The texture was how it might be to drink powdered charcoal or chalk mixed with a little warm water…
Keeling and sitting back on my feet for a minute or two was manageable but as the ceremony went on I’m sorry to say, the pain became too much to bear. Our host was very kind and recognised that I was finding the keeling part difficult so said it was ok to shift my position every now and then. I just needed to make sure I kept the bottom of my kimono perfectly closed and not flash my undergarments! Slid to one side though it was hard to bow straight and hold the correct pose. There are lots of ‘rules’ if you like, for wearing a kimono and how things are done at a tea ceremony so I really wanted to make a good impression. I was then offered a stool but I didn’t want to be up higher then everyone else so managed in the end with a small raised rest which I slid between my ankles and rested my bottom on! The rest itself was so tiny it looked like an ironing board that might belong to Miss Tiggywinkle. The blood flew more easily to my legs after that and the pain eased but it wasn’t long before my bottom half was totally numb! The numbness I could bear so I was a lot more comfortable… It may not sound very enjoyable so far, but other than this small issue, it really was!
Next out came the most glorious trays. Food isn’t often served at tea ceremonies so I felt especially lucky as I feasted my eyes and my tastebuds upon the tray that was set before me. Our host had prepared each item to reflect the season and the full moon for which we were gathering. The trays were left on the floor and my Japanese eating etiquette put to the ultimate test. I broke off and lifted up each piece with so much care and attention not to drop it I forgot to breathe at times. I think passing out may have been more acceptable than dropping my soup bowl or letting my sweet moon shaped, sugar soaked chestnut role across the tatami floor. I soon relaxed into it as conversation began to flow. The ladies who I remembered seeing at the ceremony I attended last year remembered me too and were curious to know what I was up to now. They were very complimentary of my new kimono and made me immensely proud when they remarked how natural my movement and behaviours were, and commented that I could have been a Japanese lady in a past life! I blushed heavily and soon forgot the numbness in the lower part of my body.
For the third and final part of the ceremony (after some stretching and heavy breathing from me coming up the rear) we slipped our socked feet back into our shoes and shuffled outside to the garden just after sunset. A low platform had been erected and wooden frames with thick paper tacked to their sides had candles burning inside them. We were ushered to sit on benches around the platform were Mariko was to perform the last part of the ceremony. Being under the night sky with only the light of the candles was truly magical. The setting made me overcome with emotion, the sight of Mariko kneeling and expertly making the next rounds of tea, her every movement with beauty and purpose. Only the sounds of the evening insects chirruping, the sleeves of her Kimono moving and hot water being poured could be heard. I tried hard to capture it on film but gave up on my attempts and settled in to enjoy every wonderous moment, composing myself so not to shed a tear. Writing this I’m not doing so well on the crying front, brimming with the beautiful memories, often overwhelming realisation of where I am and the memory of my Grandmother who passed away last week, who I know would have enjoyed it and loved it just as much as I did.
We enjoyed two more beautiful wagashi sweets and a further two cups of delicious matcha tea. Each one presented, thanked and enjoyed with poise and delight. We sat a while longer and then bid each other goodbye, taking our presents of more sweets and pausing for some photos back inside before it was time to head home and unwrap ourselves from our silk cocoons. Unfortunately that big moon didn’t make an appearance that night as we were a little early and the clouds decided to come out to play. It didn’t matter though, I marvelled at the biggest moon I think I’ve ever seen a few days later and remembered with warmth the magical evening that further cemented my love for the Japan that’s still clinging on in there.