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"Repeat four times and you have a class—a class, very sore knees, feet you can't feel, and a wicked caffeine and sugar high. It was a great experience— except for the lengthy discussion of the size of my feet and thighs..."

December 6 , 2002: the Art of Tea

Well, it's happened again. I'm alone in the staff room. There are times that it's clear that there is an impending meeting or assembly and then there are other times when I look up and realize everyone is somewhere else. Probably all together. So I'm left in the staff room with a student who comes in after school every day to study for college entrance exams. He was unable to pass them last year so he's studying to challenge them this winter. Gambatte!

Last night I could barely sleep. It could have been because it has been a long and intense week at work, or excitement over the upcoming holidays (and a special visitor!), or it could have been because I had drank four huge cups of tea earlier in the evening. I was wound.

Last night I began my formal education in the traditional Japanese art of tea ceremony. I have been very interested in studying Japanese traditions, but in my small town I had been unable to connect with the proper resources. I had intended on studying shodo (calligraphy) only to find there weren't any senseis . Then last week on the ferry to Nagasaki, I was chatting with my friend Hisako (the school nurse,) and she said she was in tea ceremony class, and that I should come along. She also said she would teach me some calligraphy, and that she often teaches elementary students in Naru. (As my Japanese is almost on par with young children I thought she would suit me just fine.)

Half-forgetting about our conversation, I was surprised when yesterday morning in the staff room Hisako approached me as said, "Ocha (tea). This. Today." Then she made some whisking motions with her hands. After determining when and where we'd meet and that I'd need to bring my "pants belt," I was set to start learning how to serve tea in the old Japanese style.

Class was great. It was taught by a woman wearing a beautiful silk kimono who looked as if she was 100 years old. We sat seiza-style (on our knees with our feet tucked under ourselves) and bowed. "Onegai-simasu!" Then Hisako and I were told to sit (still seiza-style) on a red felt mat. We would be the customers. We were flanked by two women and we sat and watched a woman slowly bring in each necessary implement. Very, very slowly—barely lifting her feet from the ground.

We were first served sweets that were bright colors and covered with sugar, the consistency of a soft gumdrop. We bowed; we positioned our napkins, bowed again, and then placed our left hand in a precise way on the dish and gently plucked a candy with our right thumb and forefinger placing it on the napkin in front of us. I was gently corrected that there was to be no biting of the sweet; it was to go in all at once and there shouldn't be a lot of chewing. After the sweet was in our mouth, we were to place the napkin to our left and move the dish to the next person.

While we were eating the sweet a woman prepared the tea: folding a handkerchief just the right way, washing the tea bowl, looking at the bowl, mixing the tea, tapping the ladle precisely. We were to accept the tea, bow the tea-mistress, bow to our neighbor, apologize for going first, and then pick up the bowl. Then we bow to the tea (without moving the cup), turn the bowl twice towards us with our right hand with the bowl resting in the palm of our left and then put the bowl to our lips.

We drink all of it in three gulps. The thick, hot, bright green tea does not go down that easily on the first try. On the forth sip you slurp loudly to signal your appreciation. Then you use your thumb and forefinger to wipe the area you drank from, brush those fingers across the napkin on your left and turn the bowl twice away from you. Placing the bowl on the ground you bow again to the trailings of the tea, and place your elbows on your knees (yes, you're still sitting seiza-style) to inspect the bowl. After carefully looking at all sides of the bowl, you pick it up again, turn it twice towards you and then place it back on the ground. Bow again to the server and watch as she cleans the bowl and returns everything (very slowly) to the back room.

Repeat four times and you have a class—a class, very sore knees, feet you can't feel, and a wicked caffeine and sugar high. It was a great experience—except for the lengthy discussion of the size of my feet and thighs—important to costuming me in the proper apparel. I was also asked if my parents were Japanese because I was able to sit seiza for so long. I just had to laugh. I then did my best to conceal the fact that I couldn't straighten my legs all the way when I was finally allowed to stand up.

It was a really interesting experience to be in a situation with absolutely no English speakers and try to learn this intricate tradition. Hisako and I get on alright in conversation but she is no translator. In fact, we often require one. So as far as understanding the nuances of the ceremony it was up to me to make sense of it. It was a challenge, but I'm looking forward to next class. Maybe then I will start learning to serve and not have to drink as much. While the tea and sweets are very tasty, by the forth time around I felt a little like I was being hazed.

Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed your 33 kilo turkeys last week. I finished my Christmas shopping in Nagasaki last weekend. The most interesting scene involved me wandering through an open air shopping plaza filled with Christmas trees and other decorations and having Christmas music playing overhead as a troupe performed a traditional dragon dance. It was a little bizarre.

Be well!

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2002 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617—1475