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JanuaryInJapan Book Club 2024 Review: The Wisdom of Tea


Kiyomizudera temple, Kyoto

Thank you so much to everyone who joined us this year for our online JanuaryInJapan Book Club event!


We meet once a year and we're very happy that this was our third book club.


We began our first book club with the foundational text of Kyoto, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, and last year we were swept away by Kawabata Yasunari’s love letter to the city, The Old Capital.


This year, we read a book recommended to us by our dear friend Mai. It’s a wonderful introduction to Tea, and it’s called The Wisdom of Tea by Morishita Noriko.


Introducing our annual book club with me was Yukki, who helps me run Zusetsu and is soon to be my daughter-in-law, hooray!


We were hugely grateful to have been joined by two very special guests:


Akira san, who is Visiting Researcher at Utrecht University, JSPS, Research Fellow affiliated with Hokkaido University.


And Mai, who has taken me on the most wonderful adventures around Kyoto.

Mai is passionate about Kyoto arts and is studying Urasenke tea ceremony at an advanced level. We were thrilled that Mai was able to join us live from Kyoto and answer your fascinating questions.  



JanuaryInJapan Book Club poster

 

Beginnings

We  began with a 17th century haiku by Matsuo Basho, chosen because it references the foundations of Tea and the history of Tea in Japan:

 

For his morning tea

A monk sits down in utter silence.

Confronted by chrysanthemums.

 

The monk sits with the tea: this expresses very well the foundation of Tea in Japan because it was the Zen monks who began to use tea for different devotional and meditational practices.

 

And the last line: ‘confronted by chrysanthemums’ suggests how revolutionary the founder of Tea in Japan, Sen no Rikyu was in making Tea accessible for everyone. His aim was to make tea for all people and not just exclusively for the aristocracy and the Samurai.

The chrysanthemum is well-known as a symbol of the imperial court, and the confrontation evokes the challenge by Sen no Rikyu to the established social order.


The Wisdom of Tea by Noriko Morishita

 

The Wisdom of Tea by Noriko Morishita

We now turn to our book and find Noriko as a young girl beginning on a long path where the practice of Tea opens up far more than this beautiful Japanese tradition.

Tea appears to teach Noriko fortitude, and strength during the winds of change in her life. It appears to teach her endurance, patience, resilience, and calm.

 

My question to all of you is, what did you think of the book? What did you take away from it and what stood out to you?

 

Our first book club guest loved the book, and thought it was beautiful. Lots of things resonated including the way that the writing makes you feel calm. What was sad was Noriko’s reference of being too busy to see her dear father, not knowing it would be the last time, and then wishing she had made time for that person.

 

Our book club started off with a comment that went right to the heart of what I understand about Tea.

I remember being with Mai on a tube train going through Kyoto, explaining to me about ichigo ichie, saying that every meeting at tea ceremony is a one-time experience. It's to be treasured and cherished because it will never happen in that same way again.

It's a very different mindset to us in the West as we rush through life.

It reminds us that it's important to slow down and cherish the simple things that are happening around us.



Our second book club guest drew our attention to the haiku that we began with.  She practises in Urasenke tea too and mentioned how when she originally read The Wisdom of Tea a long time ago, she hadn’t experienced many of the things that Noriko writes about.

Now, having read the book again, many of the things that Noriko writes about have taken on an entirely new quality because she has experienced them.


The book teaches you about being present in the moment, and about the importance of being present in every moment, and in everything that we do - not just during tea ceremony, but also in our interactions with our friends and our loved ones.

To be wholly present is important, not just because these moments are unrepeatable. Whether they take place in the tea room or outside the tea room in our daily lives, they can never be repeated.


The book also portrays how tea ceremony grounds you in seasonal time.

The opening haiku refers to chrysanthemums, and this grounds us specifically in the month of September, which is when the Chrysanthemum festival takes place. It grounds us beautifully in autumnal Japan when chrysanthemums are everywhere. You see them, you eat them, you drink them: they're an iconic, autumnal flower, and an iconic autumnal image.


One of the things that Noriko san beautifully communicates throughout the book is the flow of seasonal time, throughout the practice of Tea, whether she talks about snowflakes, or the summer's heat throughout the years, we are seeing delicate, ethereal reminders of the changing of the seasons in the tea room.

 

What comes through in the book is the concept of the micro seasons: from week to week the flowers and the sweets and the tokonoma are changing.

I love nature and I’ve always felt connected with nature, but it surprised me that Noriko is so aware of all the incidental movements in the seasons as they subtly change.

Throughout the book you become aware of the security of the repetition of these seasonal changes. Particularly at the end of the book when she writes about the Zodiac tea bowl, and they’re astonished that the one that represents the Year of the Dog is only going to be seen maybe three or four times in their lifetime.

 

Our next book club guest equated the discipline of learning Tea over many years to learning the Japanese language, recognising a similarity in the necessity of practise to learn it well.

They too, responded to the idea of presence, paying attention to the sounds of the tea room as well: the sound of the rain, and the matsukaze - the sound of the wind through the pine trees that is recreated in the bubbling tea room kettle.

 

On the occasions that Mai has so kindly invited me to tea ceremony, I remember most vividly the sounds and the light. In the summer, we sat in a temple with the rain falling behind us. It was warm summer rain and it was falling like a sheet, and I remember turning briefly to see it because I did not want to forget it, or forget the sound.  

In tea ceremony, the drops of water that fall from the hishaku, the bamboo ladle, shine, and the sunlight sparkles through them as they slowly drop.

It feels like time stills in the tea room, and it feels like nothing is happening beyond that space. The world is where you are, time stilled in that moment, senses sharpened. It’s about being totally present, and there's something about this graceful procedure that allows you to be entirely in the moment.

 

Our next book club guest said that it is important to get the sense of a feeling of something, like when Noriko looks at the scroll, and feels almost like the cool waterfall is spraying on her face.

The Japanese micro seasons relate to the colours of the kimono. Every seasonal change has a lot of meaning and is embraced in the tea ceremony.

 

Another book club guest enjoyed the writing about the Japanese sweets, the wagashi

The learning process could appear to us to be frustrating, as it’s very different from the way we learn, which is to read a book or research, maybe be taught something and then go and read a book and question it.

In The Wisdom of Tea, Noriko describes a completely different learning process, which is about the repetition of micro manoeuvres, until it is correct. The sudden change of seasonal procedure appears to be difficult, too.

It appears to be like sport, where something like a tennis shot is repeated over and over again.

 


The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura

It is now time for us to welcome Akira san - thank you so much for joining us today. We're looking forward to your presentation.


Akira san’s Presentation

Thanks so much for the kind introduction, and thanks so much for inviting me and including me here.

Because I’m a specialist in ancient Greek philosophy, my presentation is about Tea and philosophy.

The Wisdom of Tea provided me with a lot of food for thought, and especially I would like to focus on its concluding chapter, chapter 15. Here, Morishita Noriko the author, interestingly remarks that what she considered to be the Tea ceremony is only an aspect of it, and that she's not yet able to grasp its entire picture.


Teaism and Platonic Philosophy

Teaism and Platonic Philosophy

Teaism and Platonic Philosophy

Teaism and Platonic Philosophy

Teaism and Platonic Philosophy

Teaism and Platonic Philosophy

Teaism and Platonic Philosophy

Teaism and Platonic Philosophy

Teaism and Platonic Philosophy

Teaism and Platonic Philosophy

Teaism and Platonic Philosophy

Teaism and Platonic Philosophy

Teaism and Platonic Philosophy

Teaism and Platonic Philosophy

Teaism and Platonic Philosophy

Thank you so much to Akira san for such a thought-provoking and fascinating presentation.

We now move to opening up questions about Urasenke tea practice with Mai from Kyoto.

 

Mai is struck by joining our book club session how many people around the world are interested in Tea. She is amazed by it because in Japan, people are becoming less and less interested in Japanese tea culture.

There aren’t many people in her age group who practice Tea, and it isn’t part of education in Japan either.

Because of that it's refreshing to see that there is a community of people outside of Japan who are fascinated and interested in this topic that Mai is so very passionate about.

She wanted to comment about how we were discussing the micro seasons and Tea, and about being present in the moment. This, from her experience of practicing Tea, truly is the essence of Japanese Tea culture.

 

I wanted to ask Mai if her background in learning Tea is similar to the book - did Mai begin when she was quite young as well?

 

Mai says that her grandmother and her mother practised Tea and she then joined too.

She officially began to practise Tea ceremony when she was in high school, but originally for her it was all about the wagashi sweets!

She couldn't understand the practice of Tea in those early days, it was then all about tasting those really lovely sweets!

In the beginning it was about getting the movements right. It felt like a memory game when she was trying to remember the movements.


There's a lot of difference between the summer ceremony and the winter rituals - whether to put your right foot first or your left foot first, and all of these different variations that she wondered if she would be able to remember every single detail.

It was difficult and challenging and quite frustrating in the beginning.


But as she continued to repeat the movements over and over again, it became more natural and intuitive. And it happened for Mai in a similar way to how it happened for Noriko san in the book. Once she got to that place where it was natural and intuitive she was able to enjoy the tea practice.

Over the years, the movements become more natural.

But it's not about remembering the movements, it’s about doing the process in the flow.


It became a lot more for Mai about the relationship between the person who serves the tea and the person who receives the tea. It is possible to understand, simply from the movements, perhaps what the person who is serving the tea is thinking or their thoughtfulness. You can read their thoughtfulness and their feelings through their movements.

And that's what made her fall in love with tea and appreciate the practice even more.

 

In Japan, there was an awful earthquake on January the 1st of this year. This news was not a good way to start the year for Japanese people.

But, in the beginning of January in the world of Tea there is a special ceremony called Hatsugama, which is a new year tea practice. And Mai saw at the Hatsugama ceremony this year, that the word chosen for the scroll was buji 無事.

The direct translation means ‘nothing happened’.  

‘Bu’ means ‘nothing’ and ‘ji’ means ‘happening’.

Together, the kanji mean ‘safety’, but in direct translation it means ‘nothing happened’.


You could sense from the chosen scroll, that the person who was running the tea ceremony wanted to make sure that people could continue to experience tea as if none of these sad happenings had happened. It was like a wish, a hope that everyone could continue to practice Tea.


She felt very appreciative of the choice of words. The thing about Tea is, it tries to capture what the general sentiment of the people in the community are feeling and tries to then turn it into a more uplifting positive meaning.

 

Our next book club guest was delighted that we were reading The Wisdom of Tea as she had just started reading the book when it was announced! Good timing!

She was curious to see if Mai’s experience of the teaching was at all similar to the author’s experience, where Noriko san’s sensei did not explain anything, and she repeated the same movement over and over again until it became intuitive. Noriko's sensei did not point out the little changes around her that occurred on a week to week basis, which might have made her life different and meaningful.

It took Noriko san a long time to begin to appreciate everything around her.

The question was, is that atypical? Do they not share? Do they only focus on the form when they teach you Tea?

 

Apparently, it is quite a normal experience. Mai, too, was given no explanation and had to watch to see why it is done in a particular way, and she thinks that's quite a common experience.

The reason is because the tea room is very quiet, and the expectation is that it should be quiet. You should learn through your eyes - it's not going to be verbally explained.

You learn through your eyes, remember the movements, and don't ask questions. That's how it is. It is quite normal for the world of Tea.


Akira san asks: In Tea ceremony you make matcha. This is a special tea even to Japanese people, and I’m asking if you practice Sadou Teaism occasionally, and while studying do you sometimes make this matcha tea for yourself, by yourself, or is this only drunk on special occasions?

  

And Mai says, yes, she likes to drink matcha casually all the time.

Just like many places have different coffee shops, in Kyoto there are a lot of tea shops that sell different types of tea and different types of wagashi. They vary season by season.

There's a lot of seasonality in the different types of tea and wagashi that are served. It's fun to casually drop in somewhere and enjoy tea and wagashi.


Mai gives an example: in autumn, there is the moon viewing season called tsukimi, and around that time it's common to have moon-viewing tsukimi-related wagashi and to enjoy tea in that very specific way. It’s a way to enjoy the season.

 

Our next book club guest was interested to know about the impact that practising Tea had on her life, and in what way her life has changed since practicing Tea?

 

Mai noted that at the beginning of our book club session, I had mentioned ichigo-ichie. Mai resonates with that, and it is possibly something that she feels and appreciates even more now.

It's about being present with the people that are there, and appreciating the miracle that we are able to be there together, and have this tea together at this place.


At this time in the world, we don't know what may happen. It almost feels like the time when Tea practice began with Sen no Rikyu and the samurai.

At that time, wars were on-going, but the samurai still came together, of any rank, and went to tea rooms and enjoyed tea, and appreciated that they were there.


It’s the miracle that we're present here together at this time, in this space, and in this very moment - and that we're sharing this moment together.

 Mai feels like she might understand where that was coming from when she goes to Tea ceremony now with the people that she practices tea with.


A topic that she has had conversations about quite frequently, recently, is about being present. She feels that through the practice of Tea, it makes her feel appreciative of being here and being now.

 

Thank you, Yukki, for your amazing translation on the day.

Thank you, Akira san, for your wonderful presentation introducing us to Teaism and Platonic Philosophy.

And thank you to Mai for joining us from Kyoto and sharing your very own Wisdom of Tea.

 

We hope to see you all next year! Let's think about another great book or movie to talk about – let us know your suggestions!


Cathy and Yukki x


ikebana tea ceremony Kyoto


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