Steeped in tra­di­tion

The in­ef­fa­ble prin­ci­ples of the clas­sic tea cer­e­mony

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Japan - JANE LAW­SON

IT was a short and fas­ci­nat­ing walk from the sta­tion through the streets of an­cient Nara to Seki­gawa-san’s hum­ble abode. The in­ter­nal walls of his home were frag­ile and the floor­boards grunted and groaned.

The monk’s wife, neatly bound in a ki­mono, proudly af­forded my­self and five of my new­found friends (My­ong Hee, Kikuko, Misako, Mayumi and Yukari) a palace-sized wel­come as she knelt in the genkan (en­trance), bow­ing deeply as we re­moved our footwear.

Once we were set­tled on the tatami up­stairs, our host pre­pared the tea cer­e­mony that would mark the start of our les­son in sho­jin ry­ori (Bud­dhist veg­e­tar­ian cui­sine — or, more lit­er­ally, ‘ ‘ ded­i­cated per­son’s food’’) and our for­mal kaiseki meal.

The tea cer­e­mony was orig­i­nally a monas­tic dis­ci­pline, in keep­ing with the fun­da­men­tal Zen phi­los­o­phy of wa kei sei jaku, or har­mony, re­spect, pu­rity, tran­quil­lity. It was de­vel­oped, with the help of tea mas­ter Sen Rikyu, into an art form, and has be­come an im­por­tant cus­tom through which pa­tri­otic Ja­panese are able to demon­strate their un­der­stand­ing of the cul­tural ‘‘code’’.

Be­fore im­bib­ing matcha (a brew made from pow­dered green tea), one must first con­sume a tra­di­tional Ja­panese sweet — of­ten made with beans and flavoured with sugar. A tum­ble of pleas­antly chewy lit­tle spheres made from rice pow­der, coated in ki­nako (roasted soy bean pow­der) and sugar, were not as sweet as some of the bean­based wa­gashi (tea cer­e­mony sweets) I have con­sumed pre­vi­ously, and were de­li­ciously mor­eish.

This im­por­tant step, on the phys­i­cal level, helps mel­low any bit­ter­ness in the tea that fol­lows, but on a spir­i­tual level it en­ables one to taste both the sweet and bit­ter in life.

Look­ing of­fi­cial in his blue robes, Seki­gawa-san slowly low­ered him­self into a kneel­ing po­si­tion op­po­site me. With a slen­der bam­boo tea scoop he trans­ferred two dabs of matcha into a ce­ramic tea bowl, then poured boiled and slightly cooled wa­ter on to it. He ag­i­tated the mix­ture with a fine bam­boo whisk un­til the opaque green liq­uid was pale, thick and foamy on the sur- face. He rose, walked qui­etly to me and care­fully placed the bowl, with the ‘‘face’’ (the most dec­o­ra­tive side) turned to­wards me, on to the ta­ble.

As is cus­tom­ary, I ad­mired the bowl, then placed it on the palm of my left hand, be­fore ro­tat­ing it three small clock­wise turns so that the face was re­spect­fully di­rected away from me while I con­sumed its contents.

Al­though it was daunt­ing to have all eyes on me, I ex­cused my­self, then drank in three large in­doc­tri­nated slurps, en­sur­ing the tea was emp­tied on the last long sip. The ves­sel is com­mu­nal, so the re­quired eti­quette is to then grace­fully wipe once, with your thumb, where your lips have ca­ressed the bowl. I re­turned the bowl counter-clock­wise three times to its orig­i­nal po­si­tion, be­fore gen­tly re­plac­ing it for col­lec­tion. Boiled wa­ter was then poured over the whisk into the bowl, cleans­ing it for the next guest.

The cer­e­mony over, our host gave a long talk on sho­jin ry­ori. Within the small, hushed room it would have been dif­fi­cult for any­one to have trans­lated for me, even at a whis­per, but I did grasp the cru­cial bit: when he in­vited us to lift the pa­per cov­er­ings off our place set­tings to re­veal our food trays.

In front of us were in­di­vid­ual dishes con­tain­ing three of the ba­sic meal com­po­nents and cook­ing styles: ni­mono (a sim­mered food) of kyo-ya­sai (Ky­oto veg­eta­bles); ae­mono (dressed food); and tsuke­mono (pick­les), of which you must re­tain at least one piece for clean­ing your bowl at the end of the meal. The com­bi­na­tion of sev­eral cook­ing meth­ods is re­quired for a bal­ance of tex­tures, flavours and colours, and it is com­mon to serve three, five and some­times seven dishes with rice.

Sake was poured while we ate, and I was taught the cup should be placed upon your left hand with your right un­derneath, slid­ing out and up­wards in a slightly cupped po­si­tion to say ‘‘when’’ — so sub­tle and re­fined.

Rice was brought to the ta­ble and placed on our left, while shi­itake dashibased miso, laden with chunks of kon­nyaku ( j elly from the devil’s tongue root) and lots of veg­etable peel­ings (as noth­ing is wasted), was placed on our right, pro­vid­ing the fourth shiru­mono/ sui­mono (soup) com­po­nent of the meal. A fifth, age­mono (fried food), came in the form of kaki­age (shred­ded veg­eta­bles in tem­pura bat­ter), which was placed in front of us on small plates lined with pat­terned rice pa­per. The left­over kombu from the dashi was also used in the kaki­age in very fine sliv­ers — adding an ex­tra di­men­sion of flavour and tex­ture. Zen Bud­dhist monks in train­ing start the day sim­ply with tea and rice. Lunch pro­vides their one full meal. Kaiseki loosely trans­lates as ‘‘pocket or bo­som stone’’ — it was be­lieved the monks would carry around warmed stones in their ki­mono over their stom­achs to stave off hunger be­tween the main meals.

Be­fore the kaiseki could com­mence, we each re­moved seven grains of rice from our bowl us­ing our ohashi (chop­sticks) and placed them on our left palms, be­fore trans­fer­ring them to one side of our pickle dish — an of­fer­ing in hon­our of those with lit­tle or no food.

Of­fi­cially, one should eat in an an­ti­clock­wise di­rec­tion — you can start with what­ever dish you choose, but you must fin­ish ev­ery­thing in that bowl be­fore mov­ing on to the next. It is also cour­te­ous to eat ev­ery­thing pre­sented.

Sym­bol­i­cally, tea was poured into our rice bowls to mark the end of the meal. We then wiped around the sides of the dish with our re­served pickle, which was trapped be­tween the tips of two chop­sticks, be­fore scraping any rem­nants into the next, anti-clock­wise, dish. This con­tin­ued un­til we made it back to our rice bowl, which we cleansed as best we could un­til all the sed­i­ment was sit­ting in the tea. We then drank the liq­uid and fi­nally ate the pickle slice. Our seven grains of rice were then tipped on to a cen­tral plate and fed to birds or fish in the lo­cal koi pond. This is an edited ex­tract from Zenbu Zen by Jane Law­son (Mur­doch Books, $69.99)

ALAMY

The Ja­panese tea cer­e­mony was orig­i­nally a monas­tic dis­ci­pline

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