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.
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