Tea Ceremonies

I woke up early so that I could travel into Osaka to check out the church we planned to attend when the family returned to Japan. It was very important to us to have a church family in Osaka during our stay, so I had previously sent out some emails until I was put in touch with a member of the Osaka Central Church of Christ. The brother that I contacted was known simply as “Bond” and was actually a Thai immigrant who was living in Osaka. He had agreed to meet me at the main Osaka bullet train, or shinkansen, station at 10 am. Since I was up before anyone else in the group, I ate breakfast alone on the hotel’s main floor buffet. There, I had a mixture of Eastern and Western fare and had a nice breakfast overall, but for my exposure to the only entree in Japanese cuisine that I ever found to be completely inedible: natto. Natto is made of fermented soy beans and is sticky, as if the beans were bathed in honey, but with a taste that says otherwise, one that was not completely acceptable to my Western palate. With the taste of natto still in my mouth, I proceeded to walk the 20 minutes to Kyoto Station in order to board the shinkansen. We had purchased week-long passes for all Japan Rail, or JR, trains as a group and I would become the first to put them to use. Without the passes, it would not have been economical, at over 5 times the price, to take the shinkansen to Osaka, but with them there was no reason not to. It didn’t take me long to figure out how to use the train, and I was soon headed to my destination at nearly 150 miles per hour. Because of this high speed, and since I had allowed extra time to get to the train station as well as to figure out the trains, I arrived in Osaka about an hour early. I therefore had plenty of time to explore the area, buy a hot milk tea out of a vending machine, and engage in some people watching. Within the hour, I estimated that had seen perhaps a thousand people go by, none of which resembled me in skin color. It occurred to me that Bond should have no trouble whatsoever picking me out in the crowd. Sure enough, I was soon approached by a young man with a crew cut who introduced himself as Bond.

Bond directed me to the building in which the church met via two different sets of trains, followed by a 15 minute walk. We still arrived at the building plenty early, which gave me a chance to meet the people who were coming in the door, about a quarter of which seemed to be able to speak some English. A brother named Takateru preached that day, I assumed at the time that he was the minister of the church, but later found out that he was simply acting as a lay preacher during my visit, since the church had no full-time staff to speak of. I met a number of brothers (Takashi, Tadashi, and Nori) at the service who befriended me and tried to make me feel at home, the latter of which translated for me during the proceedings, which were completely in Japanese. After the service, I found myself talking to Takateru’s 6 year old daughter, Itsumi, since her Japanese was a better match for my own. Since a congregational meeting had been scheduled for after the worship service, everyone ordered a bento, the traditional Japanese boxed lunch, and had them delivered to the building. The church made sure to order one for me as well and had me pick which one I wanted after they had all arrived. The meeting began about 1 pm, but I had told Bond that I probably needed to leave in the middle of it in order to make it back to Kyoto on time. I had agreed to meet Mitch at his house around 3 pm. Nearly an hour into the meeting, which I didn’t understand anyway, Bond and I retraced our steps from that morning so I could board the shinkansen once again.

Mitch had given me his business card with directions to his house hand-written on it. He had also given me a voucher to cover the taxi ride from Kyoto station and had instructed me to find a cab with a clover leaf displayed on the top of it, the sign of the Yasaka Company, and to then show the driver Mitch’s card. A taxi of that description ended up being quite easy to find in the dozens of cabs that were waiting at the train station. The driver, who spoke no English at all, delivered me to Mitch’s with no problem, offering up small talk in Japanese about the weather along the way. I arrived at Mitch’s house just as he was returning with Don and Kristin, who had gone to visit a temple in Ohara, a small town north of Kyoto. Although it was not much bigger than my own ranch-style house in America, I imagined that Mitch’s home would be considered a very large house in Japan. We all gathered in Mitch’s living room, along with Hillary and Lauren, two students who had been lucky enough to be chosen to have the Kumedas serve as their host family. There, we were introduced to Bruce and his wife, who were friends of the family. Bruce was a Japanese-American who was born in Hawaii and had studied the art of Japanese tea ceremony, a ritual once practiced exclusively by men when the custom was brought over from China in the 9th century but had more recently been performed predominantly by women.

Soon, we were all invited into Mitch’s tea room for a ceremony. Although its practice had become less prevalent during modern times, traditional Japanese homes still contain a separate room for performing the tea ceremony, the floors of which are covered with reed mats called tatami. I had read that one of the most personal and intimate experiences that one can share with a Japanese person was being invited into their tea room for such a ceremony. We all sat around the edges of the small room, and were served mochi, a dessert consisting of a flavored ball of pulverized rice, while Bruce ritualistically washed and arranged the materials that we would be using. We were then all served, in turn, a bowl of frothy green tea which Bruce whipped for us using hot water and green tea powder. Upon receiving the bowl, we would bow to Bruce and then place the bowl in front of the person sitting to our left. Bruce taught us to say the equivalent of “sorry for going before you” in the Kansai dialect of Japanese which was traditionally used in Kyoto and Osaka, before taking the bowl back, raising it in a toast to the tea master, and then rotating it in the palm of our hand to avoid drinking from the front of the bowl. After repeating another Japanese phrase, we drank the tea and then handed the bowl back to Bruce, who repeated this process until everyone had enjoyed their tea. It was very enjoyable taking part in such a peaceful and relaxing experience among friends.

Afterward, the students excused themselves and left to go shopping with Mitch’s daughter Kahoe, herself a student at Monmouth College, while the adults prepared to go out for yet another foray into Japanese culture. Mitch had arranged for all of us to visit a Geisha House in Gion, the neighborhood of Kyoto known for its geisha. It was a common misconception in America that geisha were synonymous with prostitutes in Japan, this stemmed from the fact that prostitutes often dressed as geisha during WWII in order to appear more exotic to American GIs. Geishas actually hold respectable positions in Japan as high class entertainers and conversationalists at dinner, and the word geisha is best translated as “artist”. The art of geisha, however, like that of the tea ceremony, had been on the decline in modern Japan. Although it is estimated that there were about 80,000 geisha in Japan in the 1920s, this number is estimated to have dropped to one or two thousand by the turn of the century. It has been proposed that the main reason for this decline was a general waning interest in Japanese traditional arts, coupled with a slowed economy that didn’t allow for businessmen to take part in this expensive form of entertainment as much as they used to.

When we arrived at the Geisha House, we were greeted by the proprietor, who was herself a geisha. Contrary to what I had pictured, she was not dressed in a lavish kimono or made up the white makeup and elaborate hairdo, as this look was more commonly exhibited by the maiko-san, the younger geishas in training, who were responsible for much of the hospitality and entertainment that evening. First, we were treated to yet another tea ceremony on the ground floor of the ancient wooden building which made up the Geisha House, during which the maiko did not say a word and remained kneeling for almost the entire ceremony, even scooting along on her knees as she entered and left the room. Then, we were led to an upstairs room where an elaborate dinner was served to the seven of us: the three professors, along with Mitch and Bruce and their wives. A card was placed at each of our table settings describing the 14-course dinner that would ensue. We started by toasting the new year that had recently begun, the Year of the Dog, by drinking a seasonal sake with flecks of real gold scattered in it out of gold-rimmed dishes which had been decorated with an image of a dog. The food which followed was amazing, easily the best I had ever had, and included vegetables, tofu, soups, sushi, tempura, as well as thinly sliced beef called shabu shabu that we basted in a bowl of hot broth before eating. The sushi was presented to us by two sushi chefs who had brought it into our room on a cart.

Throughout dinner, the maiko poured us drinks (Asahi Super Dry!), and engaged in conversation, as was their specialty. Although it was apparent that the girls were most accustomed to conversations involving Japanese, they did their best to talk to us in English. After dinner, one maiko played a traditional guitar-like instrument, while the other did a ritualistic dance to represent the four seasons that would come with the new year. As we left, we were each presented with our sake dish, which had been washed and gift wrapped, along with a supply of buckwheat tea. It had been a perfect evening! I commented to Mitch that I felt like I fit an entire lifetime of amazing experiences into three days in Japan. As we left, I couldn’t help but wonder how much the evening had cost him. My best guess was somewhere in the thousands of dollars. It was unlikely that I would ever have such an experience again. Mitch’s driver then took us back to our hotel, where we went to bed feeling quite content indeed.

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