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

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

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