Japan Part 12: Tea Ceremony

This morning’s breakfast was simply some watermelon bread that I’d picked up at a conbini – our final moments in Nara were upon us, and we couldn’t be bothered to go somewhere for breakfast.

It was certainly sad to say goodbye to our hostel owner, as he was very kind and helpful. However, our train was leaving soon, so we had to get our farewells out and drag our suitcases to the train station.

We were on trains from around 10 in the morning until about 4 in the afternoon.  As Nara sped away behind us, I couldn’t help but feel a little apprehension at our next destination – Hikone. There are many things in Hikone that I want to see and do (my future college JCMU, the Japan Center for Michigan Universities, being one of them), but the negative?

Another host family.

Believe me, it’s not that I disliked my first host family. That’s far from the truth. The truth is, however, that I’m more of a loner. When I’m put in a situation where I have to socialize for the whole day with a large family, I just get very tired and sleepy. That’s not to say I’m antisocial; I’m only saying that the efforts required for speaking to a large host family all day in a foreign language and maintaining the same level of excited energy that they are giving out is very exhausting.

Because of my apprehension at meeting my new host family, I was a little reluctant to leap joyously out of the train when we arrived in Hikone. We met up with a helpful Japanese woman who is one of the leaders of the international exchange department of the town, and she took us into her office and gave us a place to rest before our tour of the new town. I went next door and got a bag of fruit for lunch, but I also made sure to snag a pre-packaged ice cream cone.

Seriously. A pre-packaged swirly soft-serve ice cream cone. How do Japanese people do these things?

After we’d had some time to rest, we went to visit Hikone Castle and stroll through a beautiful garden nearby. In a small, temple-like building in that garden, we took part in a tea ceremony.

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Each tea ceremony is overshadowed by the consciousness of what the Japanese call 一期一会, or ichigo ichie, which means “one time” or “one meeting.” Another traveler explains this concept better than I:

“Even though the same series of tasks is performed at every tea ceremony, there is an awareness of the fact that every moment that the host and guests spend together is a unique one that can’t be duplicated. Understanding this concept forces participants to slow down and focus on each second, appreciating it for its distinctiveness and it also forces the host to put on a special, meaningful event.”

I sat in seiza, the traditional Japanese way of sitting on the legs. I was surprised to find that it didn’t cause me any pain…until I stood up. Regardless, it was worth it for the few minutes of achiness afterward. The tea, which was obviously a very rich and fresh kind, tasted horrible – then again, I despise tea. It was still an honor to get to drink it, even if I had to choke it down. We also got a very sweet mochi that one of our servers referred to as “rotten wood,” that is the  mochi was flavored with the inside of bamboo stalks. It was SO UTTERLY SWEET. We were told to put the entire thing in our mouth at once during the ceremony.

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For perspective, said mochi was roughly the size of a deck of cards. So I managed to fit, chew, and swallow a mushy ball the size of a deck of cards. And it was good.

The tea ceremony is complex, both for the preparer and also for the participant. Before entering the tea room, it is important to bow, both to the server and also toward the wall scroll. This wall scroll and its accompanying flower arrangement should be admired — each tea ceremony is themed, and these scrolls and arrangements were made by the host to suit the theme she has chosen.

When drinking the tea, take the tea bowl in the right hand and then transfer it to the left. The right hand supports the bowl lightly. Turn the bowl clockwise twice using the right hand, then drink. It is best to drink all of the tea at once if possible. When the tea is gone, wipe the lip of the bowl with the right hand and first finger. Then, turn the bowl two times again (toward the server), admire the bowl, and return it to the tea master (or, in our case, return it to its place on the tatami setting).

After our ceremony, we were given permission to walk around the garden. The garden itself, which was a garden specifically dedicated to cranes and turtles, emphasized longevity for its lord; cranes were said to live 1,000 years and turtles 10,000 years. I was fortunate, then, to see a turtle in such a place.

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After the garden, it was a short walk to another castle. This one was more than 400 years old, and was still the original, not a replica. Surrounding it were trenches to make invasion difficult and to squish incoming enemies with boulders.

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At this point, it dawned on me – this castle is nearly twice as old as America. What?

Once we’d seen the castle and its museum, we returned to the tourist center and my fate was decided – my host family arrived. The Sugimotos, at first impression, were much younger than I’d expected my host family to be. The mother and father waved hello to me, but the two daughters (whom I later discovered were named Asuka and Ayane) seemed quite shy. They had a family friend, Yuma, with them. Bidding farewell to my friends, I joined my family in the van and prepared myself for another exhausting but worthwhile homestay.

As soon as the van got moving, my host mother decided that it would be a great idea for all of us to go shopping together. We ended up in a discount store where I couldn’t read anything, so my host family piled some foods into my basket and said, “Challenji! Challenji!” [I challenge you to try this food!] I’m more than happy to try strange foods, so I let them give me whatever they wanted. I did, however, see a few things that I knew I liked (like sugared dango balls and Hi-Chews), so I grabbed those as well.

When we got home, the family wasted no time in getting me to play with them. Ayane, the younger sister, handed me an inflatable paper ball and we started smacking it around at each other. I met Anzu, more affectionately known as An-chan the American pit bull, and Ayane and Asuka taught me how to play a Japanese card game called Hyakunin Isshu, which I was unfamiliar with.

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Hyakunin was very simple (thankfully, as I didn’t think I could follow complex instructions in Japanese just yet). If you drew a samurai, you got to keep that card. If you drew a princess,  you got to draw again. If you drew a monk,  you had to discard all of your cards. If someone drew a princess after that, she got the whole discard pile. The person with the most cards once the draw pile runs out wins.

I lost all three times – once with no cards at all.

I did enjoy playing games with my host sisters, and already I was warming up to the family. The host mother was incredibly patient and gentle, and she was very involved in her children’s lives; she would lay on her stomach on the floor playing games with the kids. The father, Tetsu, was also very nice and similarly engaging, though his ability to communicate with me was much more limited (though just as determined) as his wife’s. He resorted to his smartphone translator whenever he got stuck (which was almost always, as he tried speaking in English as often as possible in order to practice).

For dinner, host mama invited me to help. She taught me to make onigiri, the flavored rice balls; they’re supposed to be triangular shaped. When Tetsu saw the bowl of them and asked which ones I’d made, I replied, “丸.” [Maru, circle; i.e. the ones that are circular instead of what they’re supposed to look like.]

He laughed and ate those first as a gesture of kindness.

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My host mother also had me stirring the yakisoba and flipping the takoyaki balls as they cooked, so by the time dinner was ready, I was quite the chef in the house.

The dinner that we made together was delicious, particularly the yakisoba. From across the table, Ayane seemed completely incapable of peeling her eyes from me. Whether that’s because she enjoyed my company or because I was a weird foreigner, I’m unsure.

After dinner, Tetsu got out a map of America and asked me to point out where my college is and where I live. I explained what Michigan is like and how my home compares — how at home we have weather that comes across the lake or over the mountains, where my friends are from, and how long it takes all of us to travel to college each year. I explained that some of my friends had studied Japanese longer than I had, especially Josh, who was, as I explained it, an 8th year student in Japanese. I made them laugh with my stories of Brian’s love of YAKYUU! [baseball] and birds and pictures of rocks, and I felt satisfied that I could communicate so much. The smartphone translator sat unused on the tabletop.

Despite how full I was after dinner, host mama insisted that I have a small bowl of ice cream. Everyone has room for dessert, right?

As I was slowly but surely making my ice cream disappear, host mama turned on the TV to, you guessed it, another Japanese game show. I was prepared to be a little weirded out by just exactly what the Japanese consider as “game show material,” but nothing prepared me for the strangeness (or the hilarity) of what I was about to watch.

The purpose of the game was to make animal noises. Six people stood on platforms that rotated in a circle counterclockwise. When each person reached 12 o’clock, he’d make an animal noise. If it was judged as the correct noise for the animal, the circle would keep going and he’d come up with another animal for the next person to imitate. However, if his animal imitation was judged not good enough (such as the man who had to say what noise a gorilla makes), the person gets removed from the circle and shoved into a fake, smiley train car filled with really fat Japanese people. These people then make it their goal to squish the poor victim into their fatness as much as possible until the unfortunate man is expelled out the back door of the train, only to return and continue to participate in the game.

The people’s faces afterward are always, without fail, like “Oh dear Jesus don’t ever make me do that again.”

I laughed. A lot. And so did my family.

Once that show had ended, I helped my host mother to make my futon and was just preparing to go to bed when Tetsu stopped me and called me to the kitchen. Over on the countertop, he had been working away on making some pudding, but he wanted my help. He gave me a hot cup of what appeared to be chocolate and told me to pour the first half of it into the pudding quickly, then pour the second half slowly. After I did, he just sealed it up and stuck in the fridge.

Oh dear. We’ll see what that conglomeration turns out to be in the morning.

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