Tag Archives: Experience

Three Faces of Nature

The temperatures in Kyoto are at a rise. June, extending into July, is typically the rainy-season. The continuous downpours raise the humidity in the country, adding to the allover heat. This year, for a change, June hasn’t been very wet, and temperatures have been at an average of about 30 degrees Celsius in the Kansai region, which is still manageable. It is only since the past few weeks that weather conditions have begun to transition into a standard ‘tsuyu’- season.

Murinan is a traditional Japanese garden in Kyoto, selected as one of the few registered cultural landscape heritages by the city. The garden was constructed in the 19th Century by an elite government official, and today the care-taking company of the garden is endeavoring to not only open the garden for sightseeing, but also to allow visitors to partake in cultural activities, in a similar way as was envisioned by its original founders. As one of the first activities held in this fashion, I was invited to teach a 5-section course on Japanese tea, which is held in the main building, gazing out over the garden itself.

Not only is it an honor to share my knowledge and vision on Japanese tea in such a traditional environment, it is also the most suitable atmosphere to speak about one of Japan’s oldest cultural heritages, tea, while in a relaxed way savoring tea and a moment with different people in a way that is likely to be similar to how the facilities were used after their initial construction.

When yesterday’s session commenced, the mid-day sun was strong. The previous days too had been dry, and the moss in the garden was about to turn crisp showing signs of dehydration. It was indicative of the heat that we all had to endure, and thus the perfect atmosphere to begin the lesson with a cup of cold-brew Japanese ‘wa-kocha’ black tea. The session was themed around Japanese ‘fragrant’ teas with a focus on Oolong-type and black teas manufactured in Japan. By the time we had reached a second kind of oolong, suddenly lightning and thunder struck, followed by a long awaited intense squall.

The rain was a gift from the heavens. For an instant, it cooled the air, but what was more important, was that it provided the nourishment that the garden was in sore need of. With all participants standing perplexed at the mystical appearance of the garden in this heavy summer rain, we paused the lesson briefly to gaze out. The care-keepers of the garden complementarily explained that the originator of the garden, Yamagata Aritomo, too enjoyed looking at his garden most when it was raining. In this sense, it was one of the most unique experiences, and a valuable addition to our cultured afternoon.

After approximately an hour, the air had cleared. The garden, bathing in a revitalized green with thick raindrops on the surface of the leaves, sent a scent of wet but warm plants upward into our classroom; a pleasant addition to the delicious aromas of the teas we at the time tasted. This made me realize that the aromas and flavors we experience with a cup of tea are not always strictly from the brew itself. The scents of the surroundings do too play a large role in how we taste an experience a tea, and in addition, make it only possible to have the same cup of tea once.

In just two hours, we had tasted 5 teas, and watched 3 different gardens. I couldn’t have thought of a more unique tea tasting myself. The taste of the teas we savored may never be the same again; and the occasion, shared with all attendees, will never return. This afternoon has turned into a treasure to be kept in our hearts forever.

About ‘Buji’

Proverbs that originate in Zen Buddhism play a significant role in the rite of tea as well. Some of these proverbs have been adapted in secular circumstances, and in most cases their meaning has been altered to our immediate contemporary needs.

‘Buji’ [無事] for example is one such proverb. The word is formed of two characters of which the first (‘mu’ [無]) means ‘none’, and the second (‘ji’ or ‘koto’ [事]) means ‘thing’ or ‘matter’. In its secular meaning, the word ‘buji’ is most frequently used to indicate that everything is all right, or that nothing is untoward; ‘Nothing’ is amiss. But the spiritual meaning in relation to its origins in Zen Buddhism requires a bit more consideration to be understood.

The highest achievement for a Zen monk in training is to reach enlightenment. His spiritual journey guides him on the way to achieve this ultimate state. However, enlightenment must not be treated as a goal one has to work towards in order to be obtained. The practice of the monk is in the conduct of everyday affairs, maintaining a steady state of mind. He who pursues enlightenment is unlikely to ever reach it, but he who abandons this perception, and halts his pursuit of the ideal, will eventually obtain full comprehension.

It is this knowledge that is recognized in the above proverb. ‘Buji’ in its purest form means that there is ‘not a thing’ one can do to obtain enlightenment; Comprehension of our being cannot be forced, it will come when it comes.

This belief applies not only to Zen monks, but also to every aspect of our spiritual, private and professional lives. Whatever we pursue or attempt to master demands effort, patience and perseverance. When we take up a new hobby, commence learning a new skill, or even start a new business, we can’t expect to grasp the essence of whatever endeavor we engage with in a matter of mere months, or even years.

Every time we engage in our undertaking, we gain new insights. Every insight adds to our understanding of our pursuit, and eventually will contribute to mastery of the art. But it is only through continuous study and engagement that these insights can be obtained, and regardless of how strongly we wish to achieve something, it is only through ‘doing’, and by taking step by step that someday we will reach that level of full comprehension.

In addition, from my perspective as an adept and instructor in the art of tea, I have come to understand that ‘mastery’ is not something that is obtained after a certain amount of lessons, or a period of years, but that true mastery lies within engagement in the art for as long eternity lasts. Every occasion, every person we interact with is different, and continuously allows us access to new insights. Becoming able to perfectly execute an art is not where our realization of mastery ends, it is where the journey towards true mastery begins.

rikyu-plum-design

Thoughts on taking pictures

Photography allows us to do a whole lot more than what we were able to before its invention. Taking pictures allows us to recount moments in the past of which we would otherwise only have a faint memory. Taking pictures of children when they grow up for instance helps us to at a later stage in their lives remember how they looked, and what they were like. It also enables us to show other people an image of what we have seen or done. One example of this is our travel photography, which we use as an illustrative tool when we tell our stories to those that stayed home.

But sometimes we take so many pictures, or become so preoccupied with making photographs that we forget to also register our impressions and emotions at a given site or occasion. When I return home to Belgium, I very often hear people make reference to the stereotype of the Asian tourist who has visited every European capital in just one week. This stereotype traveler is usually so busy with taking pictures that he/she has merely seen these cities through the eye of their camera lens, and that memories of this visit are likely to be only made upon return to their home country during a review of the photos collected.

I believe that taking pictures is a nice to have, but should not go at the cost of first having had a genuine experience of what is going to be registered for later use. At our tea ceremony workshops we have at almost every occasion received the question whether or not our visitors are allowed to take pictures. And while I believe that taking a photograph or two may be useful to later on recount the experience, we have been kindly requesting our visitors to take pictures with their ‘camera of the heart’.

Gradually we have changed our policy however and now more often do allow guests to take a few pictures in the course of a service, and afterward. And, interestingly enough, the majority of participants did take a few shots, but eventually forgot to take pictures of the parts they actually were looking forward to capture, as they naturally became engaged in our activities.

Now, we give the opportunity to take pictures, but at certain times request to place cameras aside and focus on what is going on. Especially during the progression of a service of tea, it is more important to become part of the service and to actually feel and experience what the atmosphere of such an occasion is like. You can find several demonstrations of traditional Tea services on Youtube — we have even uploaded our own. But, you will never be able to gain the same understanding by just watching it, as opposed to actually having been part of one such moment.

That is why we feel that rather than taking images of every motion we make, it is more important to register the atmosphere, the sounds, and the feelings you have during such a service. Two or three pictures may help you recall these emotions, but they will never be a genuine replacement for this once-in-a-lifetime-only experience.

I don’t think that this is only the case with similar experiences, but also with taking pictures of children or sites you visit during travel. An image can only be an aid in recounting an experience if you have actually had that experience. This is why we encourage our guests to occupy themselves with engaging in our activity, and only make pictures occasionally.

What Does It Mean to be a Guest at Our Workshop?

What does this Tea-ceremony Workshop uniquely offer its participants?

While most Tea-ceremony ‘experiences’ misleadingly present nothing but thin tea, authentic Tea-ceremony can be properly understood only through direct encounter with (the awesome, and heady) thick tea.

This is what this workshop exceptionally offers – and only afterwards will frothy thin tea, too, be served to you, as that final, and casual, refreshment as which it has always been provided.

Further explanation of why this Workshop is head-over-heels way ahead of any of its would-be rivals follows below. And nothing that we claim is hype: we know exactly what we are doing, and why we should be doing this. For we at The Tea Crane love and revere the rite of Tea, and we most enjoy sharing it with all that are by it potentially engaged, or at least intrigued.

 

This Workshop uniquely invites you to participate in a service of thick tea conducted using the grand Tea-sideboard and its accompanying set of matching bronze utensils. This service originated in Japan’s late-medieval period; and all other ways of preparing Tea are but later variations upon this solemn, time-hallowed ritual.

The rite of Tea is no mere performance (let alone any ‘ceremony’): this hospitable and yet meditative rite cannot be properly conducted without the active participation of plural guests. And, here, that means yours.

Such understanding is what this Workshop offers, through immersion-participation. And participants are gently and expertly guided as to how to aid the host in fulfilling his/her role, and are thoroughly supported in so doing.

Tea is also essentially a happy activity; accordingly, well-timed laughter, too, will not prove out of place.

With the above as ultimate goals of the guidance we provide, while themselves learning to apply the comportment most desirable in a Tea-guest, participants also learn not only what contribution such comportment essentially provides but, in addition, just what age-old aspects of the culture of Japan are revealed within these precepts as to conduct as a guest.

According to the given participant’s requirements, such explanations can be offered in any of English, Japanese, or Dutch.

Most other Tea-ceremony ‘experiences’ employ only cheap and shoddy utensils. Our Tea-workshop, however, throughout employs only utensils of some degree of both aesthetic and historical value. And relating directly to such utensils – taking them into your own hands, and feeling their weight/lightness, passing your sensitive fingertips over their variously-glazed or lacquered surfaces, and examining them from all angles, is one of those informative pleasures that the rite of Tea essentially affords. (Oral explanations of what to note in each of just three, most vital utensils are provided – and there are few questions that we cannot answer.)

In so concluding our Workshop, we hope that, whenever in future a foreign visitor such as yourself should – in museum, antique-shop, private home, or formal Tea-meet – encounter Tea-utensils, that foreign visitor will now know how to examine – and thereby gain greater aesthetic pleasure.

Enjoy The Rite-of-tea at Your Lodging.

Last month was terribly busy. I was invited for lectures in Osaka and Kobe, we conducted tea-ceremony workshops at our regular location in Kyoto, we hosted a 10 day tea-gathering at the Hankyu department store in Osaka, we travelled to Tokyo for assistance with an international tea gathering, I travelled to Shizuoka to participate and give a brief presentation at the World tea gathering, I squeezed in an emergency translation job for the city of Nara, and so much more.

What last month mainly showed me, was that even though we have a steady location for tea-ceremony workshops and have a continuous weekly practice location, we are more often requested to travel and bring our skills to someone’s event, or someone’s private location. Which I am totally happy to do. I like to travel and to see new places, and I enjoy the challenge.

One such occasion stayed with me quite strongly, and I wish to share this occasion with you through several beautiful images. Kyoto has for long been known for its tradition and cultural beauty, and the houses have always spoken to the imagination of its visitors. Recently, a handful companies have begun to refurbish some of the old machiya or “town-houses”, and are making them available as lodging for travellers, who may choose to rent one such house privately.

The request came from a company called Kuraya, currently renting 4 such locations in Kyoto. Renting such a house, and enjoying its atmosphere can just be as enjoyable as going around the city, in that it is mostly a once in a lifetime experience. It is in this light, that guests may wish to experience Japanese tradition at the house, rather than to change location for a workshop at some other venue.

We brought our equipment, installed them in one of the Japanese-styled rooms to resemble the tea-environment as good as we could, and entertained our visitors with a thorough and enjoyable afternoon of tea-ceremony. The location in itself was beautiful, and this contributed to the agreeable atmosphere the space generated. The equipment made it complete and I feel that we were successful in bringing tea with us, and enacting it at a location we have never been before.

Pictures often say much more than words.

Should you wish to enjoy a service of tea at your lodging or place of stay, we will happily make the necessary preparations and bring tea to you.