Tea for Two

Japanese Tea Bowl, visipix.com

She was a gentle teacher.

We did not share a language, so she took my hands in hers…  But first we crawled through the small entrance, one after the other. Me, in my skirt. She, in her kimono. With sandals. And toe socks.

There were no others. I had walked the streets of Kyoto until Fukujuen opened its doors. I did not have the courage to call ahead to make reservations. (How does one pantomime on the phone?)

“4th floor,” I was told; so I stepped inside the glass elevator; hushing the women from the tea house novel who couldn’t believe that their ancient ceremony was taking place in a store.

I arrived at a classroom with a little house built inside, and within moments the woman in the kimono led me around a path to the special door where we carefully climbed inside.

She motioned for me to sit, and I turned round and round like a puppy, until I had it right–kneeling on the tatami mats next to the place where she would prepare the tea. For me.

Furuhashi, Toko, Japan; Kimono design; visipix.com

In measured English, she explained each step. The silk cloth to wipe the ceramic bowl. The bamboo whisk to stir the powdered tea. The traditional sweet that was fashioned after the season. Sakura. Cherry blossoms.

This she presented to me first. A translucent confection with a pink mound of sweet bean paste inside–served with a tiny pick–which I later discovered was meant for skewing, not slicing.

I remembered from the novel that such delicacies were reserved for “special” guests; which historically wouldn’t include me; a fact punctuated by the ceremonial smoking box at my side.

But still the woman in the kimono bowed and left the room many times to enact the ceremony just so, always returning to her knees.

I tried not to see the plastic pitcher of filtered water in the alcove, and restrained myself from asking if there was another rice paper wall to close off the tea room from the empty classroom where those foreigners who could not crawl or kneel might be served at another time.

She brought my attention to the scroll and the vase. The incense. The single flower. The calligraphy.

I watched as she poured the water, measured the powder, and vigorously whisked without splashing a bit of the frothy green matcha onto her knees; or mine.

She must have exhausted her English for the next step, because she did something I rarely felt the Japanese do. She touched me. She took my hands in hers, turning my left palm up, into which she placed the warm bowl, caressing my right hand around its belly.

“Bitter,” she said, “No sugar.” But I didn’t mind. It’s what I liked best about tea. Besides the warmth. And the connection.

“First time?” she asked, as she gestured toward my camera.

I smiled as this kimono clad woman reached across the centuries, with not only touch, but technology.

I wondered if she’d rather offer her craft in the historic Gion district which at least would lend a greater feeling of authenticity than here in downtown Kyoto. But maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe the art was everything.

If this were my kitchen, she would have a cup too, and I would ask how she came to this skill. What she loved about tea. How she walked in those wooden wedged shoes.

As I took my last sips of the usucha, I smiled. Here I was, inside the tea house novel.

Just then, she bowed, and said, “Tea ceremony is over.”

But not for me…

Kelly Salasin, May 2012

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The Magic of Travel

Do you know the scene from the film, Mary Poppins, where they all jump into one of Bert’s chalk drawings on the sidewalks of London?

This is exactly how I felt when I found myself inside one of the photographs from a travel book that has sits on my coffee table.

The family and I have drooled over the pages in this volume ever since we received it two Christmases ago. When I found out that I would be spending a week in Japan for work, my youngest insisted I search out his favorite–the Golden Pavilion; while I had long been intrigued by a red-gated shrine.

To my surprise, both of these treasured locations were in the town that I visited after my work in Japan was finished.

On my second day in Kyoto, I headed out early to make the long journey to the outskirts of the city to find Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine.

Once off the train, I followed others up a steep hill, past tiny shops, and homes, until I saw a single red gated entrance ahead.

That’s not how it’s supposed to look, I thought; but soon I came to the place that I had seen in my book, and I felt a bubbling up inside.

I began my stroll through the gates, tentatively, giddily, in absolute awe of my surroundings and good fortune; and shortly discovered there were more gates than I ever imagined.

Some travelers quickly turned around and headed back, but I continued, and continued and continued–drawn forward by the embrace of the gates and what lie ahead.

But what I hadn’t seen in my coffee table book was this: these beautiful red gates went on for miles, eventually winding up a steep mountainside.  So I climbed, and climbed, and climbed, certain to reach the top at any moment, but only to find another turn, another set of steep stairs, and another stretch of gates–which were beginning to loose their charm.

One post was being repainted and another repaired. There were buckets of paint, and drop cloths, and tools. These aren’t so special after all, I thought.

But still, I continued.

Up and up and up I huffed, cursing myself for skipping breakfast. Suddenly I came to a landing, and to my disbelief, there where two small shops, here in the middle of nowhere.

I dismissed these as overpriced concession stands, until I heard the cry of a baby overhead and realized that these were homes to families who served meals to travelers like me.

Soon after I caught sight of a delivery boy running up and down the steep steps with packages in hand, and later I saw more than one sweat-soaked man carrying propane tanks on their backs.

I continued on, dismissing food, suspecting that the end would come soon, but just like my childhood climb of the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, the “end” was a constant illusion.

By the time I made the final approach to the last set of stairs which led to a mountain top shrine, I resented Mary Poppins for ever suggesting that I jump into a picture.

I begrudgingly climbed the last bit, dismissed the garden of relics, and dragged myself around the top of the mountain for a unique view of the city; which I quickly deemed unworthy of such a climb.

To salvage the journey, I decided to take another route down the mountain, instead of returning the way I’d come as I had seen others endure.

The backside of the mountain, though very wooded, had its own set of gates which definitely headed down; and I quickly applauded myself for such cleverness.

On the way down, I only passed one other pair of hikers, and they were unlikely tourists; but this was an adventure, and I was eager for the challenge.

Soon I left the gates behind me, but I needn’t have worried because there was yet another small shop up ahead, beside another shrine; though when I looked inside, it was eerily empty.

After this, the path, turned into just that, a path, and a dirt one at that, which grew narrower and narrower, until I was surrounded by wildness and woods.

This is so cool, I thought; so much better than the gated stairs and all the other tourists.

Maybe I would even see one of those wild monkeys that they took the trouble to translate about.

Should I look for them?

Should I not?

Is that what I was hearing in the trees?

Should I be worried?

Should I really be hiking down this mountain alone?

Forget wild monkeys, did Japan have snakes?

Just as winded my way down steep hill and considered turning around, a long golden brown serpent slithered in front of my feet and I yelped; turned on my sandals, and ran–all the way up the path, past the empty shop, up the steep stairs and the winding gates on the back side of the shrine, past the sweaty men hoisting propane tanks, and back to the top; and down the gated path I had come.

My shortcut cost me another hour of hiking, particularly as I took a few wrong turns along my pioneering way.

I sat down at the first restaurant for ice cream cone, forgoing breakfast.  I made myself sit until the cone was almost finished, (as the Japanese are rarely seen walking with food), and then I began the trek down the mountain; which surprisingly was much harder on my trembling legs than climbing had been.

Toward the bottom, I met up with some traveling friends from New Zealand; who I had met earlier in the week at the market.  They asked how far it was to the top and whether it was worth it, and I don’t remember exactly how I replied; except that I felt triumphant and satisfied, and this may have encouraged them to go on.

Along the way up and down this journey, I had made other friends too, or at least said, Konnichiwa or Ohayou Gozaimasu, or simply smiled at:

Small groups of young men in sports uniforms running the gates for training.

A middle-aged man in a head band, stretching, with whom I shared the mountaintop view of the city.

A well prepared group of businessmen–on vacation–who passed me with sturdy packs on their backs and hiking boots on their feet.

A retired couple from England with whom I shared a bench beside a pond. (They had seen more of my country than I had.)

Couples. Holding hands. Giggling. With young women hiking the steps in shockingly spiked heels–without complaint. (Maybe they hadn’t known about the climb either.)

From time to time, the gates would grow hushed, and I’d come upon lone photographers, pausing in the stillness, waiting to capture the magic of this stunning creation–into which we had miraculously fallen.

Kelly Salasin, May 2012

 

Breakfast in Japan

The un-celebrated view of the Seto Inland Sea, Kobe, Japan; Copyright: Stardust

On my first morning in Japan, on my first trip ever to Asia, I carefully studied my options for breakfast.  It appeared as if the hotel where I was staying had several restaurants–with at least 4 choices for the morning meal:

The lobby of the Portopia Hotel, Kobe.

There was the highly touted Plein d’ Etoiles, on the 30th floor, with a panoramic floor to ceiling view of the downtown Kobe, the port, and the inland sea.

There was Soco, a lively cafe on the second floor, overlooking the palatial lobby, which offered as many choices as the Sky restaurant above:

Tiny pancakes and petite french toast and other Western breakfast standards, in Japanese fashion. There was fruit and salads and dim sum and fish and tea and coffee and Danish.  There were things I had never seen. There were omelettes made to order. There were meats. There was a bounty of food overflowing from as many as 4 different silver-trayed food stations.

Downstairs in the South Wing, there was the Garden Terrace Restaurant, which I suspected served as an overflow restaurant on busy weekends, like this–Golden Week. It too had an entire station devoted to a traditional Japanese breakfast, as well as tables laden with Western favorites. Outside was the hotel “Chapel” where several weddings took place during my stay.

Down the hall and around a corner from the Garden Terrace,  there was some place altogether different…

Hushed.

Tranquil.

With smells I’ve never experienced at breakfast before.

I tentatively followed a gently lit, curving path, lined with plants and ponds, and then stepped across a small bridge into an almost silent room where a woman in a kimono led me to table with a smile, even though it was evident that I didn’t understand a word she was saying.

Several other tables were filled with families. All Japanese. All facing the sand garden out the window. All silently enjoying their meals. Even the toddlers.

One baby took a liking to me, and I flirted back, and watched as she and her older brother ate earnestly from the bowls of food that each of us received on a tray.

My token use of chopsticks at the Chinese restaurant back home was quickly put to the test as I looked at the meal before me:

A small tray of fish.

A tiny bowl with Kobe beef.

Delicate pickled items and radishes.

Some sort of relish and sauce.

A custardy kind of dish.

A broth with a tiny rolled egg thing…

Japanese Breakfast, Kelly Salasin, 2012

I had no idea what I was eating or how to combine it, and there was no one to ask (in English) so I followed what cues I could from the toddler and then simply sensed my way through this most perfect of meals, while sipping green tea, and exploring tastes I have never known–bean paste and and seaweeds and Japanese porridge.

This was a breakfast that I had never imagined, and one that I will always treasure as my introduction to the stillness and beauty of Japan.

Kelly Salasin, May 2012

Japan, you had me at Toilet

Japan, come on now. Stop it!  You don’t need to offer those gracious bows.Or your incessantly impressive food with simply stunning presentation. You don’t need to lure me with seven varieties of breakfast rolls, or 4 kinds of salt or the myriad of ways in which you offer health to every meal–with fish or seaweed or pickles or miso.  There’s no need for the delectable Kobe sweets or even its orgasmic beef–although that is a meal that I never, ever want to forget.

Truly, Japan, you had me a Toilet; and that was while I was in the air over my own country; before I discovered your in-country toilets.

For the restroom in JAL’s 787 flight from Boston to Tokyo was a surprise. Streamlined. Crisp. High functioning. You gave limited space a feeling of spaciousness and even understood the sublime relevance of place on the counter for a folded paper flower in the morning after 11 hours in the air.

But it was when I arrived in the airport in Tokyo that my world view was shifted. There, I encountered my first toilet– with a control panel of choices (which I was afraid to use until the comfort of my own hotel); and I was hooked–line & sinker.

It did take me awhile to figure out how to flush and another day to figure how to turn down the temperature on the seat once I had turned it up; but I caught on quickly with the bidet and “posterior” rinse, and regretted that my hotel room did not offer some of the features I experienced in public restrooms: the “powerful deodorizer,” the air dryer, the variety of sprays, the music, the flushing “sound” (for enhanced discreetness.)

Kobe Convention Center

No matter where I encountered your toilets, even your terribly frightening traditional ones on the floor, there was always one feature upon which I could rely: Privacy. Floor to ceiling doors enclosed each toilet space for that most intimate of needs. Sometimes, even a tiny sink was included.

I’m sorry, but it just isn’t enough to list Toilets at the top of the 10 Things I’ll Miss Most About Japan, I have to elaborate, even if my friends have grown tired of my gushing.

I will restrain myself from talking about anything beyond the toilets–like the round ball that served as the most perfect and easy to use tub stopper that I have ever encountered.Or the slot inside the door of my hotel room, where the key card is placed, which results in the lights and the air condition turning on–or off, when you depart. Or the tiny apartment where I stayed in Kyoto, where the faucet for the sink pivoted to serve as faucet for the bath; or the toilet which had a sink built into it–where hands were washed before the water traveled into the tank for flushing.

Space & resource efficient sink/toilet combo. Kyoto apartment.

The truth is that I don’t typically get excited about mechanics and technology, but you hit me where it counts–in the place where we all crave comfort and privacy and efficiency.

Before you, I never gave much thought to restrooms. I never compared one country to another over it. I certainly never fell in love with a place because of it. But like a lovesick teenager, I can’t sing enough of your praises.

My resident therapist (aka. my husband) suspects that years of toileting trauma at the hands of my grandmother may have been healed in my two week visit to your country.

Did I mention the fold-out seats in bathrooms stalls–even on the plane? (You know, where you can put down your toddler, instead of trying to juggle him on your lap while you wipe.)

…And what about the fold-out shelves? A clean place to put your things, like backpacks or shopping bags,  instead of on the floor?

Seriously, Japan, set aside your stunning temples and shrines, you had us at Toilet.

Kelly Salasin, May 2012

ps. One question though. What was this contraption for?

pps. For those who are wondering, here’s a photo of the traditional toilet, still apparently preferred by many (Japanese) women–of all ages. Practice those squats ladies! Some of these don’t come with balance bars.

Public toilet

10 Things I’ll Miss Most About Japan

Of all the things I’ll miss about Japan, I embarrassed to admit that number one is their exceptional:

1. Toilet

I’ll never forget the welcoming embrace of a heated seat; nor the myriad of options available to the user while seated: rinsing, spraying, drying, deodorizing and sound.  Some toilets had temperature controls, not only for the seat, but also for the bidet or “posterior” rinse; while the speed of the spray and the manner of spray could also be adjusted; as well as the volume of the “buffering” sound.

Whether I was in the airport or in a hotel or in a public restroom on a street corner, one feature was ubiquitous: privacy.  Instead of “stalls” the Japanese provided “rooms” with floor to ceiling doors to support that most intimate of needs; and for that, they have my undying admiration.

2. Consideration of Children

I was dismayed to see that several infants and toddlers were to share the same cabin on my overnight flight to Tokyo. Instead of fussing, however, my attention was directed to how carefully these young families were nurtured by the flight attendants who could be seen heating up milk, providing pillows and blankets, delighting babies in their arms and frequently checking in on their mothers.

In the airport, there were mini-playgrounds to be found and specially equipped nursing rooms with cribs and rocking chairs and even cots. Well done Japan!

3. Passion for Detail

There are countless testimonies to the Japanese aesthetic, but one unexpected consideration stands out for me: the welcoming morning sight of a beautifully folded pink paper flower placed on the corner counter of the JAL airline bathroom after 200 of us shared its use for 12+ hours. (And check out the fresh flowers that line the walkway in the airport terminal.)

4. Containers

Breakfast in Japan, Kelly Salasin, 2012

A box and bag and all kind of container lover like me is in heaven in Japan. The box lunches that I’ve experienced at Chinese restaurants only approximate the creative way in which the Japanese contain and present almost everything, especially food!

5. VARIETY!

Every Japanese meal was a feast for attention–from the ceramic bowls, to the miniature spoons, to the varieties of pickles and rice and even salts.  Breakfast included!  Check out these rolls (the black ones are charcoal; the orange pumpkin.)

6. Diet

As I ate my way through Kobe, and Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo, I kept thinking, my doctor will be so proud of me: seaweeds, fermented foods, miso, rice and always–vegetables.

Even when ordering a decidedly Western breakfast of eggs and toast, they can’t help but draw our attention to better balance: adding a large salad to the plate of only a single egg.

Every Japanese meal was finished by miso broth–to enhance digestion. Even on the plane.  On the return flight, they served us Clam Chowder to better prepare us for Boston; but along with it came a mustard green salad, pickles and bean paste (and miso broth.)  Most notable were two delicate pink rice crackers shaped like flowers–with directions given to each passenger to crumble them into the soup.  (Step aside, oyster cracker.)

7. Language & Kindness

I went to Japan (ashamedly) without any language; but even so I was able to travel on my own with the generous help of so many Japanese–who went so far as to leave their shops or offices to show me the way to another market or to a shrine or to point me toward home.

Of the few phrases I picked up there, my favorite was what they said as they answered their phones: “Moshi, moshi.”

8. One-ness

Kyoto Subway Kimono, Kelly Salasin, 2012

I was only in Japan for two weeks and mostly for business so I’m sure to make many assumptions that may not prove to be entirely true, but what I witnessed in the Japanese was a consolidation of living instead of a separation of it.

While traveling on the subway, for instance, many (of all ages) used the minutes to catch up on sleep (respectfully using only the space beneath their chin instead of drooling on a neighbor’s shoulder.)

Even when working, intensely, most seemed to allow room for humor, for kindness, and for moments of connection; even in the most demanding situations.

It’s difficult to capture this orientation toward life, and it’s foolish to assign a glimpse to an entire nation, but there was something about the people, from all walks, which was precious to me–in their willingness to be available to so much more in each moment.

9.  One-ness, continued

Perhaps another illustration of the above is this: in my explorations of Kyoto, for instance, I would stumble upon ancient shrines and temples smack in the middle of shopping streets or back alleyways or intersections.

The Japanese seemed able to evoke reverence no matter what the surroundings–even in a bar where they shoes were to be removed.

10.  Kelly san

Imagine a world where everyone bows to one another; and what it feels like the first time your Japanese colleague calls you, not just “Kelly”–but “Kelly san.”

Kelly Salasin, May 2012