Tea Ceremony, Sake and Karaoke

From Japan 10.15.09

Like a mother ushering her child off to kindergarten for the first day of school, Yuki says goodbye to me at the front door. I’m armed with a custom train schedule courtesy of Yuki, keys to the house and a note in Kanji that I’m supposed to show the coffee shop clerk so I can purchase espresso roast with beans ground to a number three.

To travel the train you have to purchase a ticket at the kiosk. Above the kiosk is a map of that particular train line, it’s stops and corresponding fares. It costs 180 yen to get from the Suma station where I change trains and hop on the JR line. Ten stops later I will change trains again – this one will take me to Rokko Island, which is where I was heading for the Tea Ceremony. The train sounds like it should be easy, but with five different lines plus the subway the chances of me getting my lines crossed, literally, are pretty good. I’ve given myself no room for error and one misstep would make me late to the Kimono talk. The whole evolution takes me just over an hour and I miraculously manage without incident.

I make it just in time and after being introduced to the teacher, Mizushima-san, we are invited to select one of the ten beautifully wrapped Kimonos displayed in front of us. Orchid-colored silk delicately wraps kimonos that have been carefully paired with coordinating obis, sashes, and cords. Kimonos in all colors with elegant designs and embroideries are revealed one by one. Rich reds, lustrous golds, and deep blues are accented by butterflies, flowers and beautiful details.

The first layer is a simple robe with a thick white color that will later just peak out from under the fine silk kimono. The kimono is next and Mizushima-san expertly pulls, tucks, cinches and ties in what seems like elaborate origami.

Tea Ceremony is a very meditative experience for both the guests and the performer. Contrary to what I had previously believed, Tea Ceremony was performed almost exclusively by men and even Samurai up until WWII. This act of service was done for guests to demonstrate the utmost humility. After the war, Mizushima-san explains tongue-in-cheek, “the women and the stockings got stronger in Japan.”

Hidden in this otherwise modern building is a traditional Japanese tea house and small garden. As if you were entering a secret hideaway, you duck through a small square door on the floor. The small door was intentionally designed so that everyone must lower their head upon entering, leaving all rank behind and entering all as equal. “The tea room is an equalizer”, she explains. Here we arrange ourselves in a semi-circle, all trying desperately to be even a tenth as graceful in our kimonos as our host.

Mizushima-san is not performing the ceremony herself today but rather her assistant, an elegant, beautiful woman who I imagine is in her early 40′s. We are served Japanese sweets and Mizushima-san encourages us to watch all the subtle movements. She cleanses the tea making tools, prepares the tea and gracefully serves – every movement with a purpose. She prepares tea for one person at a time, each time repeating the process with the same dedication. Watching her graceful movements is hypnotic, not too unlike the feeling you get when someone is playing with your hair. Every movement is careful, giving the ceremony the air of a performance. And it was over all too quickly.

Friday I had my first Japanese lesson. Sensei explained to me that to understand English you must have a vocabulary of at least 1,000 words. To understand Japanese, one must have a vocabulary of 5,000 words. Even she admits that this is a difficult task, and I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder for a moment just why I had chosen probably one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. It doesn’t matter though. I’m committed to the task and will do my best in the time that I have.

After my lesson I opened my Kobe guidebook and discovered that not far from where I was there was a sake producing area. A short train ride and I was out exploring. Only once did I have to accost a perfect stranger with, “Sumimasen, (enter the name of a place here) wa doko desu ka?” (Excuse me, where is such and such?) I explore the sake museum and one of the breweries where you can see each part of the process in action from behind plate glass. Of course, I got to taste some sake too.

At four I met Yuki, Ta Chan and Hazu – we had a date for Karaoke and dinner. Karaoke in Japan is so different from in the states. In the states, most people wouldn’t be caught dead signing Karaoke, but here in Japan it’s the hot thing to do as evidenced by the numerous Karaoke bars all around town. Unlike in the states where there is one stage and only brave or really drunk souls venture up, in Japan you go with a group of friends and get a private room with a various array of high-tech equipment. Is the pitch of the song you are singing too high for your voice? No problem, with the click of the remote you can bring it down an octave. Choose from thousands of songs. Make the mic have an echo. You name it, they’ve got it. In short, we rocked out in true Japanese karaoke fashion.

Yuki and I are heading to Osaka tonight after our work out. I’m looking forward to that and will share an update later.

From Japan 10.15.09

1 Comment

Leave a Reply