Today was the first day that might be able to compete with April 11th, 2005 as one of the awesomest days ever.
Let me start by briefly introducing the concept of a traditional arts course at Ritsumeikan. These courses, unlike every other course offered, are not taught on campus by Ritsumeikan teachers. They are taught by very well respected figures in their fields, often lifetime masters of the art, whom are completely inaccessible to the general public. I’m not sure how the school manages to gain access to these accomplished individuals on behalf of their foreign students, but for a mere $100 course registration fee I’m grateful that they do.
As an example, here is a picture from one of our weekly shamisen courses. You might notice that it’s slightly different from the typical college classroom. That’s because it’s the first floor of our sensei’s house.
Enter Ota Sensei. Ota Sensei is our wagashi instructor (wagashi literally means “Japanese confectionary”) and also a master of tea ceremony. His unique ability to create works of art out of sugar and sweet beans has earned him fame nation wide, as well as the ability to spend many years traveling the world and learning about the history and diversity of sweets. Not to mention enough money to purchase homes in Japan, Nepal, Paris, and elsewhere.
As a matter of fact, not just one home in Japan, but several. One of which is the tea house that I mentioned in my last post. I simply didn’t know that it was his. The fact that it ordinarily costs $300 to attend a short tea ceremony there, though, is indeed true.
So, as soon as our regular Japanese classes ended the group set out on bike for Karasuma Imadegawa where we were to catch a subway to Ohara, a gorgeous mountain town just outside of Kyoto. Exciting event number one: Kier’s chain falls off his bike while he’s standing on it, the bike flips, and he ends up sliding backwards for approximately ten feet resulting in the loss of much of the skin from his knees. But he’s a trooper. Ten minutes later we were on the train to Ohara, right on schedule.
After another fifteen minutes, we popped our heads out of the subway to see what appeared to be any other normal subway station in Japan. It wasn’t until we emerged from the concrete dungeon that we all realized how amazing of a place we were in. Nothing but gorgeous nature, rolling hills, and miles of greenery filled our views. We spent some time taking snapshots as we waited for our third and final mode of transportation – the bus to Ota Sensei’s house.
The bus took us even further into the mountains and onto a winding road barely wide enough for a car, yet the pro Japanese bus driver maneuvered the huge vehicle like it was nothing. On one side, wild monkeys watched curiously from thickly forested hills as we zoomed by with our camera flashes raging. On the other, wide-opened rice fields and traditional sloping thatched-roof houses uniquely identified our surroundings as Japan. By this time everyone on the bus was satisfied with the day, but the real experience had yet to begin.
Because we had traveled so high into the mountains, there were no longer any defined bus stops. We almost missed the red tarp draped over a parked car that we were told would signal us reaching our destination. But one of us managed to quickly notify the bus driver and he pulled over to the side of the road to let us out.
The instant we entered sensei’s property all of our jaws instantly dropped. In the immediate foreground, a traditional Japanese garden – bamboo fences, stone lanterns, giant porcelain vases, raked stone paths, all of the usual – was accompanied by a tremendous variety of flowers, many of which I’d never seen before, and a tree with leaves so fiery red that they were almost difficult to look at. Occasionally, a bright green frog would hop out of the bushes and cross the stone path in front of us. To the left and to the right were the two main buildings – the traditional Japanese house, and the guest house consisting of a single large tatami-matted meeting room separated from the outside only by sliding paper shoji doors. In the background, the faint sound of a creek and chirping birds assured us that we actually were far from the city, and not on the imperial castle grounds or in a park made only to create the illusion of nature. Finally, the enormous tree-covered rolling hills finished the task of completely isolating us in the small world that immediately surrounded us.
Then came Ota sensei along with his assistant, a woman fully clad in a kimono and woven straw slippers. After a brief discussion in his meeting room, the ceremony began. First, the woman in the kimono led us by candlelight through the garden and to a small stone fountain where we were to wash our hands, first left then right, and our face. We then continued to a tiny door, large enough only to crawl through, into the raised tea room. We were instructed to kneel in a circle on the tatami. Through another small opening the candlelight enabled us to see the assistant in the next room preparing the tea.
This was perhaps the most amazing part of the night. Just watching how incredibly refined every single motion was, from how she poured the hot water into the bowls to how she set down the ladle, was truly astonishing. It sounds almost silly to say, but I really can understand now how it’s possible to have such grace and elegance at something as simple as pouring water into a bowl and mixing it to a cup of tea. Even the act of placing sweets on a serving tray took her nearly ten minutes to complete, a perfection of harmony that would be destroyed in under ten seconds once it was served.
Likewise, after the small tray of food was brought to us, we were told about how everything, from the way that the tray was handed over, to the positioning of the different foods on the tray, to the depth of the bow, to the direction the host must turn when leaving the guest, must be highly refined and performed flawlessly. The guests, too, have a specific way that they must receive each item, eat or drink it, and signal that they had finished to the attendants waiting patiently outside the sliding paper doors. The sound of the chopsticks being placed back on the tray was the signal that the snack had been finished, and the tea should be brought in.
He continued to tell us about the various tools that had been used in the ceremony. The box that the sweets were brought in, he told us, was over six hundred years old, one of only two like it in the entire world. The scoop for the tea itself cost over $10,000, a very cheap product for a true tea ceremony. To me, it looked like nothing more than a single painted chopstick with a slightly flattened end to pick up the bright green powder. He said that a good quality scoop would cost upwards of $60,000.
After the ceremony, we were escorted back into the main meeting room to find that a feast had been laid out for us on the huge wooden table. Out of everything there, the only thing that I was able to fully recognize was the edamame. Suffice to say that it was quite a feast, and a wonderful way to wrap up the day. We sat and thought about what we were just lucky enough to have participated in until the taxis arrived to take us back down the mountain and into the heart of Kyoto where we had left our bicycles.
And here I am, at 2:00am, writing about this instead of preparing my speech for tomorrow afternoon’s class. Because I can’t help but think that I’ve just become one of a mere handful of foreigners lucky enough to experience something like this, I figured I should get it all written while it’s still fresh in my head. Now the trick will be winding myself down enough to be able to fall asleep tonight so that I can prepare in the morning.
Imagining myself back in that garden should be more than enough to do the trick.