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The International Writers Magazine: World Travel

Harry & Tea: a Tokyo Memory
• David Russell.

Sachilko and Masamune Mogaki warmly welcomed my wife, 12 fellow travelers
and myself to their beautiful home, a half-hour fast train ride from the
main Tokyo train station. Sachiko, a retired high school English teacher had
been “free-lancing” as our tour guide in the capital city. His accomplished
wife, Masamune, both a music teacher and international performing pianist
graciously welcomed us into their large by Japanese standards home. In
common, each shared an enthusiasm for sharing common interchange with
foreign visitors and had kindly invited us to learn the Japanese ritual of a
traditional "chan-oyo", the Tea Ceremony. Or, as Japanese say, "sado"- the
way of Tea. Much as I would like to claim our uniqueness, we later learned
that the Mogaki’s performed this ceremony with every group he toured, though
we still considered ourselves privileged.

Actually, it was Masamune's sister, Riko, who performed the ceremony which
began with her telling us one of many traditional Japanese Tea tales. Slow
on the pick-up, I suddenly realized that the entire Mogaki family not only
understood English but spoke it like natives. Which was almost true.
Masamune who had for years performed in the States, Europe and throughout
Asia spoke a number of foreign languages and her sister Riko had studied
French Baking in Paris and worked in San Francisco spoke both tongues fluently.

In her version of the story of how Tea came to grow in Japan, Riko talked
of a Buddhist monk named Daruma who was on a 9-year quest to experience the
peace of complete meditation. Only he had one problem, keeping his eyes
open. Angry because he couldn’t stop from falling asleep while in deep
concentration, in desperation what Daruma did was to cut off his eyelids and
flung them to the ground. Watching all this happen was a most compassionate
deity, Quan Yi. When she saw the extreme sacrifice Daruma had made, she cast
a magic spell over his eyelids which transformed them into unusually shaped
leaves. Daruma had worked himelf into a deep thirst, so he tossed the leaves
into a boiling kettle. Soon the water a pleasant green with a strong heady
aroma. When he sipped the brew, its flavor so delighted Daruma that he
downed the full cup, then the full pot. And to Daruma’s surprise, not only
did he stay awake, but by sipping it during his studies allowed Daruma
eventually was able to experience complete meditation.

Some say how this version of Tea Tales came into being is because Japanese
characters symbolizing tea leaves and eyelids are the same.

By the 1500’s, the drinking of tea had become so popular with the Japanese
wealthy class, it was the preferred beverage for both social and business.
This lead to the staging of large tea tasting competitions at which the
merits of various blends of leaves were compared for taste and texture.

“My tea is better than your tea. Tis’ not. Tis’ so. I’ll bet you on it.
You’re on. A million Yen? Two Million!”

So the taste of tea became a gambling event. Soon, millions were being
wagered on taste judgments from Tea “experts”. And, of course that brought
into play charlatan judges with no expertise at all, primarily ship
captains, who gladly rendered any verdict for a bribe of Yen or an evening
with a tasty geisha. One scandal was a well known Daim-you (Fuedal Lord)
down on his luck making a “loaded” bet before “tossing the tea”, choosing
the tea he had bet on. I wondered if they had “Off Tea Betting?”

One contemporary thinker of the period was the middle class merchant Senno
Rikyu, who knowing he could not compete against the powerful competition of
the wealthy, came up with a interesting marketing concept. His premise was
that since famed Samurai warriors were always so busy fighting, they had
little free time to enjoy a moment of Tea. So, he packaged what he claimed
was the purest form of "chan-oyo” in modest small batches, advertising it
not only Japan’s best tasting tea but in his tea room, invited visitors to
take the time to sufficient enjoy the full experience of the Tea’s flavor
and medicinal value. By adding musicians and Geishas to entertain his
guests, he attracted Samurai warriors to fill his shop at “Tea Time”. to
anyone who would listen, Rikyu described the moment of drinking Tea as a
spiritual experience he called "wabi-sabi" or simplicity; a quiet moment in
which to incorporate life's essentials of natural beauty, food and drink.
History says that the Samurai warriors “drank” it up, though it might have
been the Geishas

After listening to all Riko’s stories, it was now our 'Tea Time.' We had been
seated cross legged on tatami mats and invited to enter the quiet spirit of
the moment, which we certainly did, marveling at the meticulous preparation.
First, Riko heated water which she slowly and carefully ladled from her
boiling kettle using a long wooden spoon. Each spoonful was tipped into
special ceramic 'bowls'. The process was repeated, until each of us had a
bowl of still steaming water. Then slowly we were instructed to a small cut
of powdered green 'chai'; each step performed with a slow deliberateness,
with patience and an when completed extending a gracious head bow to our
partner. Next we learned the correct placing of our two hands and how to
lift the Tea bowl with its face away from us and towards the person across
from us.

In what seemed an interval of a half hour past from start of the ceremony
until we finally took our first sip. As we raised cups, we were instructed
to relish the lips receiving the liquid with a pure, clear mind, a moment of
Zen-like spirituality. Of course, for each of us that was one’s own
conception. Mine was to think of a sky filled with wafting clouds. When they
finished wafting, next to appear was an ocean with a soft rippling sweep..
Not to make light of the experience, which I don’t because it was remarkably
peaceful, but I was number 5 in the john line.

Let me tell you about Japanese toilet seats, which appear under the brand
name Tito. They are electrically heated so you never have to experience a
bare bottom on a cold morning. My wife was so captivated by the seat, she
insisted it was a must have, but we could never find one in Los Angeles.
Seems it’s a secret the Japanese have never shared with the cold bottomed
world. However, the Mogaki did share trays of delicious French Pastry. made
by Riko’s own French Boulangerie which obviously had a standing order for
goodies whenever the Mogaki entertained. Talk about keeping it in the
family. In a combined music room-recording studio, the accomplished Masamune
played for us an Etude by Chopin, then to our ears, what seemed a strange
atonal piece of contemporary Japanese music which she recently had performed
in concert with the Tokyo Symphony. She explained that though she loved
music by Western Composers traditional and contemporary which during her
concerts she always introduced throughout the Orient, she also felt a
responsibility to introduce Eastern music to Western audiences, then went
about demonstrating the harmonic sameness and the differences between the two.

At that point, Sachiko invited us to learn the song, "Sakuari, a
traditional song about Cherry Blossoms. In Japanese. After working hard at
learning the Japanese words, Sachiko decided we were ready to make a
recording. Take # 1 and take # 2 were humorously terrible. Mispronunciations
like you wouldn’t believe, plus a few sung clunkers in there as well.
Finally, on take number # 3 our playback was suddenly wonderful; we believed
we had “aced” it. As a reward for our hard work, each of us was given a take
home souvenir tape. Having done much professional recording in my day job, I
wondered suspiciously who had voiced that powerful baritone lead. Later, I
discovered who and why our recording sounded so terrific. The voices were
actually by a vocal group led by Harry Belafonte.

What a wonderful experience and what a delicious story to bring home from
our visit to Japan.

© David Russell Jan 2010

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