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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Japanese tea ceremony - an art and a form of meditation

I first experienced the "Japanese tea ceremony"  or "Sado" during the Golden Week (end of April) in 1999,  nearly 14 years back. I still have a very vivid memory of the whole thing as it was quite a unique experience. I was visiting my friend's family in Osaka for the holidays and it was his mother who suggested I experience one and I got quite excited about the idea. I remember how she took out all her kimonos one by one from the closet and asked me to choose one and then she helped me into it. Wearing a kimono took me about half an hour. As I have mentioned in one of my previous articles, it is not easy to wear one. And I thought wearing a sari was the most difficult task in this world :) 

Finally I was ready and we started with the ceremony. My friend's mother took me through the whole ritual step by step, explaining in detail what each action signified and I was amazed at how a simple day-to-day affair like making tea can be like a "work of art", time consuming, seeking our undivided attention to detail but unique, and striving for perfection. It turned out to be an extraordinary learning experience, although I do remember feeling a wee bit exhausted after the whole thing was over. I guess it was because of the kimono and sitting in a "seiza" ** position for long.


My friend's family has a "chashitsu" or tea-room in their house with a proper "ro" or a square hole in the tatami flooring where the tea is prepared. I believe not many homes in Japan have a "chashitsu" and having one in your house is a matter of pride. The tea prepared in tea-ceremonies is usually "matcha", a type of finely ground, high quality green tea.

Like everything Japanese, the tea-ceremony has a set of etiquette that should be strictly adhered too. For foreigners like me, following each and every rule may seem like a little tedious at times but then each of these "predefined actions" have a significance and are thus an integral part of the ceremony.


The room had this beautiful "Tokonoma" (an alcove), which i was told, is the most important part of a tea-room. It had a "kakejiku" (hanging scroll)  hung inside, with a "chabana" or flowers displayed on a small table. It is important that the main guest be seated nearest to the Tokonoma, considering that it is the most important part of the room. As you probably know, Japan is a hierarchical society and so the Japanese are very conscious about their position in any social setting and act (and are expected to act) accordingly. The tea ceremony is no different. 


Right from how the guests and host enter the room, how they sit, how the tea utensils are bought into the room, their placement on the tatami floor, how they are held, how the sweets are offered and eaten, how the the tea is consumed, to how everybody leaves the room, is all governed by a set of rules which takes each individual's position into consideration. The guests take time to drink the tea, appreciating it's color, taste and aroma and making appropriate gestures whenever required. This is a way to show their respect and gratefulness towards to host for inviting and honoring them. 

For the host, it is important that everything takes place strictly in accordance with these predefined rules and the guests leave happy and satisfied.


My friend's mother told me that it sometimes takes years for a person to master the "art" of tea-ceremony perfectly. She had also taken dedicated classes in the subject and it took her a few years before she felt confident about holding a tea ceremony on her own.


Though it is a unique and an interesting ritual, I have always wondered why the Japanese convert a simple and relaxing affair of preparing and having tea into such a complicated and tedious affair. I am sure many of you must have asked this question to yourself or to your Japanese friends. Obviously, it is very different from our modern ways of serving and drinking tea. At times I have felt that the strict protocol kind of hinders the actual free spirit behind the whole thing, which is quite contradictory to how a tea-gathering should be. 

For the Japanese, it has a spiritual and aesthetic value attached to it. It is almost like meditation for them. It is a way of connecting with not only the people around them but also the surroundings. Deeply rooted in the Zen philosophy, it is a way to remove oneself from the mundane affairs of life and achieve serenity and peace, even if it is only for a short time.


Since I mentioned scrolls, there is one very interesting thing that I would like to share with you  The scroll hung in the alcove of my friend's tea-room had the phrase "一期一会 " (ichigo-ichie) written on it.  His mother told me that It is a phrase that you will often see on scrolls hung in the Japanese tea rooms. It can be literally translated into "a once in a life time meeting", which basically conveys the idea that each time we meet for tea, is unique and special in its own way. While we may meet again it the future, no meeting will be quite the same. Thus, it basically emphasizes on the fact that we should not engross ourselves too much in the future, but try to live in now and treasure the people and our encounters with them. Such a simple phrase and yet the meaning it conveyed was so strong. I was moved.  


The Japanese tea ceremony originated from China and was initially enjoyed only by the Samurai class. Eventually, people from all walks of life started having small tea gatherings and that is when this  tea culture reached it's peak. In the modern society, tea-ceremony is not a as much a household affair as it used to be. Most Japanese regard it as something which is a part of their cultural heritage and their interest in it is kind of limited. The younger generation finds it to be a tedious and boring ritual. 

The ceremony is however quite popular among the tourists for whom the whole idea of being a part of one seems exciting and unique. Kyoto's Gion district is one place where tourists throng in large numbers to attend tea-ceremonies hosted by a Geisha. Interestingly, the traditional tea-ceremony is being given a "face-lift" by a tea-ceremony promoter Nozomi Taneda, who is mainly targeting the office goers and spreading the message that they too can "take a mental break anywhere, and it doesn't have to be fancy.” You can read more about it here:

http://travel.cnn.com/tokyo/drink/japanese-tea-ceremony-gets-fresh-update-busy-salarymen-and-office-ladies-774458

In India, although there is no "tea-ceremony" as such but offering tea to guests is considered as an act of politeness. It is common to offer tea with sweets/snacks to your guests and many households believe that a guest should not leave one's house without having a cup of tea. In my previous post, I mentioned about my love for "chai" or Indian milk tea. For me, and I believe many of my Indian friends, drinking tea everyday is like a form of meditation too. It helps me relax and "unwind my mind from the daily grind"...


How about you? 



I found this great website that talks about the Japanese tea ceremony, its history and techniques in detail. I am sharing the link, in case you are interested. 

http://www.japanese-tea-ceremony.net/

Photo credits: http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/japanese%20tea%20ceremony

Sunday, April 21, 2013

I love my chai (tea)...

A blog on Japan and we are discussing tea..strange??
I know it is...but this is one of the few aspects of living and working in Japan that I struggled the most with..ha ha!!..Being a true Indian, my relationship with tea has been a long and emotional one..:) Tea has been my best friend...smiling at me when I wake up in the morning, helping me stay awake at nights during exam time, rejuvenating me when I feel exhausted...sharing my happiness when I am chit chatting or having fun with friends, giving me company when I am feeling lonely, providing warmth on a cold and rainy day.and the list goes on.....now.. aren't all those characteristics of a good friend ?..:)
Yes, indeed!!

You can very well imagine my plight when I realized during my very first visit to Japan,  that my dearest friend, my Chai was nowhere to be found. (Chai** is Hindi for Indian milk tea). All the cafes and restaurants served only coffee, which was mostly bitter and very different from the concept of coffee in India, where, like tea, coffee is also had with a lot of milk and sugar in it. Starbucks and Excelsior were not popular names back then in 1999, that too in a small city of Utsumomiya. (Starbucks entered the Japanese market only in 1996 and was yet to establish its popularity) 

So the very first thing I did after settling down was to get an electric thermos and make my own :) ..I remember having my first tea in Japan after almost two weeks after landing here and it tasted like never before. 

Things are quite different now, with Starbucks, Doutour, Excelsior, etc becoming household names and serving different types of coffee and tea (milk tea as well). For me, It is much easier now to grab a cup of (milk) coffee or tea during long work hours or while traveling than it was back then. Excelsior is my favorite, though Doutor is the best if you want to have a cup of good milk tea. The Chai latte at Starbucks is not at all like how tea should be...it just ain't my cup of tea :) (that is totally my from my perspective)

Tea is a popular beverage in Japan too, although mostly it is black tea (Kocha) and of course the Japanese green tea (Ocha***). Other teas like Oolong tea (a type of Chinese tea) and Mugi cha (barley tea) are also quite popular. Like Chai in India, Ocha is an essential part of the Japanese everyday life. In spite of all the popularity that the above mentioned brands enjoy in the daily life of the Japanese, tea continues to have a special place in the Japanese society.  

Green tea, Oolong cha, mugi cha, with their various health benefits, definitely have an upper hand over kocha, coffee or chai.  Green tea is low in calories and is a rich source of vitamins C and B2. It helps kills bacteria,has cancer fighting properties, lowers cholesterol, and the list goes on. More and more Japanese are now realizing that and throwing away their 'new-fashioned' refreshments in favor of the dear old Japanese tea (and Chinese tea)
 
The green tea is not limited only to beverages only. There is green tea ice-cream, green tea kit-kat, green tea cakes, and guess what? a green tea hair dye :) Dozens of salons in  Japan are now using matcha (a variety of Japanese green tea) to dye hair. They feel that matcha improves the quality of the hair and is chemical free and thus beneficial for the hair.  Now that is one healthy way of dying hair :) 

Personally, I am still having a tough time letting go of my beloved chai in favor of the healthy green tea. For us in India tea has a certain "image" and developing a taste for something which is no where near that is not an easy task, but I am trying . And then, having chai once in a while should not hurt...should it?   :) 
 (Oh yes, I am making sure my one year old son prefers Chinese and Japanese tea over Chai and started giving him mugi cha, which he absolutely loves)  

This reminds me - it is time for cup of hot chai and pakodas (Indian version of theJapanese tenmpura) Perfect for a rainy day like today) ...Catch you later!!


**Green tea is divided into grades depending on the time of harvest, the portion of the leaf used and the processing method (Matcha, Ryokucha, etc.) 
***Chai comes in various flavors such as masala chai, ginger tea, cardamon tea, saunf tea, etc. Ginger tea and Cardamon tea are my personal favorites.  

(An article on tea and Japan and there is no mention of the Japanese "tea ceremony". I am sure many of you must have expected that to come up in the write-up sooner or later, while reading this article. Tea-ceremony for me is a much more "serious affair" and I hope to write an article dedicated to it in the near future. Will keep you posted)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Celebrating life - no matter what (the age)

One of my Japanese friend's family will be celebrating her father's 88th birthday very soon. According to her, it is an important celebration in Japan and  her whole family will get together at her hometown, on the occasion. The festivities would be held at a local banquet hall and relatives and friends would be invited too. When she told me this, all i could say was "Wow!! that must be exciting". For me, coming from India, where grand birthday celebrations are usually meant for kids, celebrating one's birthday at the age of 88 definitely has a "wow" factor attached to it. :)

Talking about festivities and celebrations, Japan has countless locals festivals but the way the Japanese celebrate life and its various stages is absolutely amazing. - 'Shichi-go-san', 'Seijin no Hi', and the various "Go no iwai" ('Yakudoshi', 'Kanreki', 'Beiju', 'Hakuju", and many more); and of course birth(and the child's first visit to the temple or miyamairi) and wedding - the list of festivities is endless. I am sure no other culture celebrates age as much as the Japanese do!!

"Miyamairi" or a newborn's first visit to the shrine, usually held between 30-100 days after a baby is born, is a very special occasion for the family. The priests says prayers for the baby, asking for her good health and long life. It is somewhat similar to baptism in Christianity. I guess the first temple visit of a newborn is a special occasion in cultures all over the world.


"Shichi-Go-San" (literally 7-5-3) is a festival for 3 and 5 year old boys and 3 and 7 year old girls. On this day, the families visit the temple with their children. The children wear kimono and are given "Chitose ame" (thousand year candy) that symbolizes good health and a long life. Incidentally, the same friend of mine celebrated shichi-go-san for her grandson, who turned 5 this year. 

"Seijin no Hi" or coming of age day. This festival is for the new "young" adults, who are not teenagers anymore, that is turned 20 year of age, the previous year. The females wear "furisode" kimonos** and the males wear a hakama or western suits and attend congratulatory ceremonies usually held at local city halls after which they have drinking parties and photo sessions. 

"Go no Iwai" is a custom of celebrating one's birthday on turning 60 (Kanreki), 70, 77, 80, 81, 88, 90 and 100. Here I go again.."wow". In a society where the average life expectancy for males is 82 and females is 86, it is not surprising at all. And to top it all, most of the Japanese I know are in pretty good health even at that age. I remember meeting an old lady in a bus who was 86 years old (she told me that). We sat chatting and that is when she was told me she was going to the gym and a swim after that. Can you beat that? 

Out of all these birthdays, the Kanreki (60th birthday) and Beiju (88th birthday) are considered the most important ones and are celebrated in a grand manner by many Japanese families.

'Kanreki' (literally means "going around the calender") has its roots in the traditional Chinese calender which was organized in 60 year cycles. Thus, completing 60 years of life meant going one full circle around the calender and was thus symbolized as re-birth. Interestingly, this is the reason why the age of 60 was traditionally the age at which men would retire. This is not the case now when most of the 60 year olds in Japan are still working and most likely feel they still have a long life ahead of them.  

'Beiju' - the word is made up of the Japanese Kanji character "Bei" (rice). It is basically a play on the Kanji - the strokes in the character can be rearranged to form the number 88 (米 --> 八十八) Traditionally, rice had a special place in the Japanese society as it was their food, their very livelihood and denoted purity and wholesomeness. This is the reason why Beiju is considered to be such an important day.

Then there are the unlucky ages or "Yakudoshi" which are also important. For women, 18 and 32 are considered as unlucky ages, whereas for men it is 24 and 42 that are considered unlucky Men and women usually visit temples on their birthdays to pray for better luck during the unlucky years.

With the average life expentancy in Japan sky rocketing, these events which were once extremely rare are becoming commonplace now.  

All in all, life looks like one big celebration for the Japanese for and onlooker but those who have worked or lived in Japan know very well that there is a lot of hard work that goes into it.


** A furisode (振袖) is kimono with long sleeves and is only worn by adult single women. This is somewhat similar to Debutante gowns in the western society, worn at balls by young ladies making their debut into the high society.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Departure (death) - a way of life?

I am sure many of you must have watched the Oscar award winning film - Departures or Okuribito (in Japanese) This is one visually and emotionally stunning movie because of the way it portrays death, an inevitable part of human life. If you have noticed, the four seasons, which in a way depict human life, have been beautifully and very articulately woven into the story.
The movie inspired me to come up with this writeup that talks about how the Japanese perceive death. I have also tried to compare this with the belief and attitude of the Indian culture towards death and all that is related. Death is invariably a taboo topic in societies all over the world. Keeping that in mind, the way the movie depicts and tackles the subject death, both in a dignified and a humorous way, is truly commendable.  

I have never had a chance to talk about death with a Japanese and so all that I write here is purely what I understand from the movie, which I assume is a true picture of the Japanese culture and belief. (If not, I would love to receive inputs from my Japanese friends, that is if they don't mind talking about it ) and also from what I have read on the web.


The movie revolves around the life of a Nokanshi (an encoffinment apprentice) and how he takes up this jobs by mistake and then moves on to love and respect this job. It is indeed amazing to see how a Nokanshi glorifies death, how he turns the simple task of encoffinment into a heart-warming ritual, conveying respect and passion to a lifeless body as if it was alive.  


While watching the movie, I realized that there were so many similarities between the way death is perceived in India and Japan. I could not help but draw the similarities between the ritual of encoffinment** in India and Japan. 


The complex ritual of encoffinment in Japan is very similar to that in the Hindu Culture***

Just before an expected death, or right after a death occurs, the dying (or the deceased) person's lips are moistened with water. This practice of giving water to the dying or the dead is known as "water of the last moment" (末期の水 matsugo-no-mizu). This is quite similar to the practice of offering gangajal (holy water of the Ganges) to a dying person in the Hindu religion, so that the soul may attain liberation. Matsugo-no-mizu is probably also offered for similar reasons. 

In both the cultures, the purification of the body involves the cleaning of the body with water after which the orifices are blocked with cotton.The fact that "purification" is carried out means that death is considered as impure by the Japanese and Indians alike. The body is then dressed up in new clothes, after which make-up is applied. In India, the body of a married woman, whose husband is still alive at the time of her death, is usually dressed up in bright colored clothes and adorned with jewellery. This whole ceremony is basically held to prepare the deceased for a journey into the next life, which stresses upon the fact that both Japanese and Indians belief in life after death or 're-birth'. 


 After the cremation, it is customary for the relatives and friends to spray salt over themselves before they enter their house to purify themselves. This practice is again quite similar to the practice in India of spraying holy water over oneself for purification. 


It is believed by the Japanese that the soul of the dead wanders for 49 days before it finally goes to heaven. In Hinduism, the belief is that the soul wanders in this world for 13 days before it finally attains "Moksha" (or eternal freedom from the cycle of life and death) 'Moksha' is one aspect of Hindu religion which is quite intriguing and complicated, and i would rather not touch upon it in detail for my understanding of it is quite minimal :). From what I know, this concept of liberation has it is origins in Buddhism so I wonder if the Japanese too have something similar in their religious traditions or culture? 

The concept of "Obon" and "Shradh" is also very similar in the two cultures. During "Obon" or "Shradh", the souls of the dead are thought to return to their homes. The families hold prayer ceremonies during this period and prepare the favorite food of the deceased is prepared in order to to welcome their souls. In India, people avoid eating any non vegetarian food during this period as non-veg is considered to be impure. It is a way of showing reverence to the dead. ('Shradh' comes from the word 'Shraddha' which means 'unconditional reverence')


Coming back to the movie and the topic of Nokanshi, one can see that there is the same social stigma attached to the job that is also the case in India, where the person who cremates the bodies is considered as one belonging to a lower cast. In Japan, they are referred to as 'Burakumin' (literally 'filthy people') and are (were?) considered as social outcasts, which is very similar to the concept of "untouchables" in India.


These similarities probably have their roots in Buddhism which came to Japan from India and intrinsically linked the two cultures together. This is reflected not only in death but also in other aspects of life.


Summing up, one cannot help wondering how death can "hold us all together", no matter how far apart we may be in our lives. 


** The word "encoffinment" per say would not be applicable in the "Hinduism" context as the dead are cremated and their ashes are deposited in the Ganges or sea. In Buddhism, the body is put in a coffin, then cremated and the ashes are then buried.

***Although, Japan is a secular society, 91% of the funerals are held according to Buddhist customs"" (""quoted from Wikipedia) 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Geisha & Devdasi - mirror images?

I happened to read "Memoirs of a Geisha" a few months ago and have been kind of intrigued by the uncanny resemblance the Geisha has with Devdasis or "Kalavantis" (as they were popularly known in ancient times) of the south Indian folklore. 

In fact the literal translation of the two words is exactly the same. "Gei" in Japanese means "art" and jin stands for person, and so the word Geisha basically translates to "a person who is skilled in some art form" or "an artist". Similarly, "Kala" in Hindi means "art" and "vanti" refers to a woman who is an expert in or possesses some skill. 

The book describes the world of a Geisha in a very lucid manner with subtle descriptions of their emotions, customs and rituals and is one big reason that I decided to come up with this write-up. After reading the book I did some research on Devdasis and was surprised at how two women from two different parts of the world, different cultures and beliefs, and strikingly different looks, can possibly have so much in common.   

Usually coming from an impoverished background, they were sold into households that maintained such practices, at a very young age and were then rigorously trained on various art forms such as dance, singing, musical instruments (Sitar, Shamisen), etc. Both went on to become professional entertainers, the only difference being that Geisha  performed at tea houses and were thus required to master the tea ceremony, whereas the Devdasis performed at temples. It was a kind of social obligation (also religious obligation in case of a Devdasi) that they were expected to fulfill till they died. 

Although they enjoyed a very high social status in the pre-colonial days, the British and American presence resulted in an intense social and financial turmoil in the two countries. This may have caused the two systems to collapse and forced the Geisha and Devdasis to succumb to prostitution.


Born out poverty, these so called "mortal fairies", molded into personality that is a connotation of queen, a slave, an artist, and a prostitute, have been a subject of fascination for many. Revered by some and looked down upon as social outcasts by many, they lived a life dedicated completely to the society and yet they belonged to nobody. Beyond their elaborate costumes and extravagant lifestyles, there lied immense pain, which is very clear from the following snippets from the book - Memoirs of a Geisha

“We can never flee the misery that is within us.”  

“Nobody becomes a Geisha because they want to - they become one because they have no choice" 

Another one from a book, "Nine Lives: In search of the Sacred in Modern India" that explores the various traditional forms of faith in modern India, captures the emotions of a Devdasi beautifully. 

"If I were to sit under a tree and tell you the sadness we have to suffer, the leaves of that tree would fall like tears."

The enormous grief hidden behind these words can only be felt and understood by them, they who have lived all their lives as slaves and yet had nerves of steel. Although geisha and Devdasis lived**in oblivion of each other's existence, their sufferings and fate binds them into a bond that only soul mates can share. 

** The Devdasi system was abolished by the government of India in the year 1988 but continues to flourish in some parts of southern India. The modern Geisha still lives in Okiyas (geisha households) in areas popularly known as hanamachis (literally "flower town"),  the most popular one being Gion in Kyoto. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Nomikai (drink parties)

Nomikai (drink party) - is one aspect of the Japanese work culture that I am still kind of getting used to....
I remember my first nomikai quite distinctly - why? because I was a tee-totaler...(i still have a very low tolerance for alcohol and can manage a beer but mostly get away with a breezer or an orange juice...) and more so, because my school director told me I was supposed to drink - and that if i did not drink, it would be considered very rude. Drinking, he said, is mandatory in Japan and one has to do it in case one has to mix up or socialize with the Japanese. 


That was on my very first trip to Japan and I hardly knew or understood the Japanese culture. Moreover, that was the very first time in my life I had ever been away from my house and was kind of struggling to gel into the totally new culture, trying to make new friends..appearing rude to the people i was going to work with was the last thing i could do...so..quite unwillingly.. I took a glass of beer...and somehow forced myself to take a sip...and...uggghhh!! The taste and smell of the "beer" was too much for me to "bear"...there was no way i could gulp all that down..i just could not...I had to find a way out and thanks to a "flower pot" kept on my table, I managed to somehow pour my beer into it when no one was watching and kept on filling my glass with water (i wonder if people actually did not notice that or were just pretending not to..that is one thing that i will never know)....phew!! ....that was one long long evening...

I would learn later that although nomikais are an integral part of the work culture in Japan - but Japanese are extremely tolerant towards other's drinking habits and culture. If you don't drink, they will never ever force you, or even expect you to drink. And yes, that has absolutely no impact on your relationship with them. Instead, they will try to ensure you get something to drink and try to make you feel comfortable.
 It makes me sad that my "first lesson on the Japanese culture" proved to be wrong....
Nomikais are sometimes followed by a Nijikai or a second party, usually at a karaoke restaurant or a bar which serve light meals and alcohol. 

In the Japanese professional world, nomikais, usually held at Izakayas (restaurants serving alcohol with food), are considered as an opportunity for colleagues to let their hair after the very hectic work day/week, and bond with other co-workers. This kind of socializing and bonding between colleagues is important in a culture where people tend to work in groups as a team, quite different from the culture elsewhere in the world where individualism is a way of life. It is considered socially acceptable  to get drunk at such parties and anything said or done in such a state is forgiven and not taken seriously. One can often see emotional displays and frank opinions being exchanged between colleagues, irrespective of their rank, and can sometimes get quite scary for a non-Japanese. I have experienced such scenes and have always wondered if the people on the receiving end do actually forget what is said or done? After all, human beings are basically the same everywhere. Not that I am being cynical, but isn't that what anyone new to the people and culture think? 

Frankly, even after all these years I am still struggling to understand this aspect of Nomikais. I am often baffled with questions like is it really possible for one to pretend as if nothing has happened even after somebody says or does something mean? I wonder if the people who say such things are really drunk enough to not know what they are doing? Is there a limit to what and how much you can say? Is there a protocol to all this, like everything else in Japan? And last but not the least, what if a non-Japanese co-worker was to say or do awkward things to a colleague? Would that be acceptable? What do you think? 


All said and done, nomikais are excellent opportunities to understand and build good relationships with your fellow workers, especially for a non-Japanese or somebody who is new to the workplace. It is a good idea to attend one, once in a while (irrespective of whether you drink or not). For an astute businessman, it provides a marvelous opportunity to get to know your client, which sometimes help in future negotiations and decision making.  But one should keep in mind that like everything Japanese, the nomikais also have an etiquette that should be stickily adhered to. Grab a book or google it to understand the rules before you attend one :)