Forest hike and Japanese tea ceremony

Today I wondered: what was I doing in Japan around this time four years ago? The answer did not disappoint me: I was hiking through a virgin forest and attended a field tea ceremony (nodate 野点).

Me and my aunt, who was visiting from Belgium, were invited by my lovely friends Nobuo-san and Motoko-san to go on a hike with them. Being avid hikers, they claimed to know the most beautiful spots for hiking around Toyota City. They took us to a beautiful virgin forest. It was kōyō (autumn leaves 紅葉 ) season and the light was gorgeous that day.

japanese forest

Our guides are leading the way. Seeing bamboo in a forest was very exotic to me.

japanese forest

The autumn light on the coloured leaves was spectacular.

japanese forest

Looking up the trunk of an ancient tree.

As if taking us to this precious place wasn’t enough, they surprised us with an impromptu tea ceremony in the forest. When we sat down in a clearing to have a little rest, Motoko-san started unpacking several implements that she had been carrying in her backpack. As I had no knowledge of tea ceremony at the time, we were very curious to see what all those beautiful objects were for.

nodate field tea ceremony

Motoko-san is unpacking her wares.

nodate field tea ceremony

She produced two gorgeous red chawan (tea bowls) out of her backpack, and some wagashi (Japanese sweets). The stop at the sweets shop on our way to the forest suddenly made a lot more sense.

nodate field tea ceremony wagashi

Seasonal wagashi

nodate field tea ceremony

Omnomnom. Wagashi are delicious. The bowl of tea is waiting on the bench to be drunk.

It was one of my first experiences with the Japanese tea ceremony and it made a deep impression on me. The spontaneous enjoyment of tea in that beautiful natural setting was such a special experience. That day I learned about the concepts of wabisabi (わびさび the Japanese aesthetic of transience and imperfection, perfectly embodied by the fallen leaves, the rough table and the setting in general) and ichigo ichie (一期一会 litt. ‘one time, one meeting’, indicating the preciousness of meetings with people and emphasizing that every moment and experience is unique).

Thank you Motoko-san and Nobuo-san for that once in a lifetime experience!

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Ancient arts: Japanese calligraphy

Calligraphy is one of the great Japanese arts. This is exemplified in the Japanese word for calligraphy, shodō 書道. The second kanji of the word, , means road. All the great Japanese arts have this kanji in their name. Examples are:

  • sadō 茶道 the way of tea
  • jū 柔道 the famous martial art, literally the gentle way
  • kadō 華道 the way of flowers, also known as ikebana

The inclusion of ‘road’ in their name implies that the study of these arts takes you on a life-long journey. As you study these arts, you not only learn about the art itself but also about life in general. It takes many years to master these arts, and even the master is never finished with his studies. These arts exemplify Japanese culture at its purest and are often closely linked with Zen Buddhism.

shodou, the japanese word for calligraphy

Shodō, the japanese word for calligraphy

There is however another word to indicate Japanese calligraphy: shūji 習字. It refers more to good penmanship and writing neatly than to sophisticated art and walking ‘the great road’. It is for example used to indicate the calligraphy lessons that are a mandatory subject in elementary school. In high school, Japanese calligraphy is no longer a mandatory subject but one of the choices among art subjects like painting and music. It is also a popular high school club activity. People who are really serious about calligraphy continue (or start again) to study as adults. Over the years, they earn different degrees until ultimately, after ten years or more, are qualified to teach themselves.

Being the eager Japan geek that I am, I tried my hand at calligraphy when I was living in Japan. I was lucky enough to be introduced to a wonderful teacher, Isogai-sensei. Here she is teaching her grandson:

japanese calligraphy teacher teaching her grandson

My Japanese calligraphy teacher, teaching her grandson

Usually Japanese calligraphy is practiced sitting in seiza, the Japanese way of sitting kneeling on one’s heels. But because my teacher had a knee injury, she preferred to teach at a table. This picture also illustrates the necessary tools for a Japanese calligraphy lesson:

  • thin calligraphy paper
  • calligraphy brushes
  • black ink (here in a bottle, but also available in a solid block to be diluted with water, see below)
  • an ink stone to hold the ink
  • orange ink to correct mistakes
  • paperweight
  • soft mats to cover the table
utensils for japanese calligraphy

Here is a closer look at the utensils for japanese calligraphy. You see the items mentioned above. Additionally, the small teapot-like container holds water to dilute the ink. You can see the block of ink resting on the ink stone. To use it, put a bit of water on the ink stone and move the block of ink back and forth over the stone. It can take up to ten minutes to make enough ink. This repetitive action is meant to calm the mind before starting your calligraphy practice. But these days, many people buy ink in bottles that is ready to use.

The very first exercise that a calligraphy student practices includes drawing a horizontal line (the kanji for ‘one’) and a cross (the kanji for ‘ten’). Many of the basic techniques are already included in this simple exercise. At the start of each class, my teacher usually tried the first few exercises together with me, noting points of interest and correcting mistakes. She then gave me an example in orange ink and left me copy this a dozen times.

japanese calligraphy student practicing the basics

A japanese calligraphy student practices the basics

We would then line up my work on the table or on the floor and my teacher would correct the work with orange ink. She also choose the one she liked best at the end of every lesson and indicated it with an orange spiral over the calligraphy.

 japanese calligraphy practice sheets lined up

My work from the first lesson lined up. Top left shows the first basic exercise. The other ones spell niji in hiragana (Japanese phonetic, syllabic writing system), which means rainbow.

a japanese calligraphy teacer makes corrections in orange ink

My teacher corrects my work with orange ink

japanese calligraphy the two best examples of the day

These are the two she liked best

My classes lasted for about 45 minutes to one hour. Afterwards I always felt both calm and tired. If you are doing it right, you are very focused on every exercise you do, so it takes quite a bit of energy. But it is so much fun! And to get one even remotely right is so rewarding. I was always amazed at the ease with which my teacher writes her calligraphy. Once you have tried it yourself, you realize the years of practice it must have taken to write so beautifully and fluently.

I only studied calligraphy for a few months but even during that time, I got a glimpse of the broader lessons it can teach you. During class, I was doing my very best to write as correctly as possible, paying attention to every detail. But due to my emphasis on form, my writing was lacking in energy. It turns out that I had to learn to let go a little and add some more vigour and joy to the strokes. A good lesson for life!

japanese calligraphy lesson with my teacher's grandson

It helped me a lot to study together with my teacher’s grandson, whose personality embodied just the things my calligraphy was lacking: spontaneity and energy, which of course showed in his writing as well.

Flowers and manhole covers

I adore Japanese manhole covers. They are just so beautiful! Here’s the one for Toyota City:

toyota city manhole cover

Toyota City manhole cover

It features the symbol of Aichi prefecture in the middle, surrounded by sun flowers. Toyota City has adopted the sunflower as its symbol flower. Likewise, the manhole cover for Takayama features rhododendron flowers, which are symbolic for the city of Takayama.

takayama manhole cover

Takayama manhole cover with rhododendron flowers

In fact, I think almost every Japanese city has a symbol flower and a symbol tree. Additionally, each province has a symbol flower and even each month of the year has its own typical flower (see hanafuda card game).

hanafuda_cards

Hanafuda card set by Kelsey Cretcher

The importance that the Japanese attach to flowers is further illustrated by the following anecdotes: During my stay in Japan, I have often been asked what the symbol flower of Belgium is. Japanese people seemed quite surprised when I said there is none (as far as I know). I have also heard that during trips abroad, Japanese people will often ask their tour guide about a particular flower. Usually the tour guide doesn’t know anything about flowers and the response will be ‘that’s just a flower’, causing great disappointment to the Japanese tourists.

At first I was quite surprised by the Japanese fascination with flowers. But if you think about it, it shouldn’t be surprising at all, considering that the Japanese elevated flower arrangement to a true art form (ikebana 生け花) and have developed an entire symbolic flower language in which words and codes are assigned to flowers (hanakotoba 花言葉). I guess I can only conclude that the Japanese sure do love their flowers!

Ikebana

Ikebana – image from Wikipedia

My first bowl of matcha green tea

After having lived in Japan for over a year, a bowl of matcha green tea seems like the most normal thing in the world to me. But I can still vividly remember the first time I came into contact with this magical substance.

Matcha tea is produced by drying and grinding green tea leaves into a powder. This powder is then placed into a bowl, hot water is added and the tea is whisked to a uniform consistency with a bamboo whisk. The end result is a bowl of bright green, foamy tea with a soft, slightly bitter, slightly sweet taste. Matcha is most famous for its use in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, but in Japan it is also enjoyed on more informal occasions like a touristic temple visit or as an afternoon treat.

making matcha

Making matcha: the tea powder has been scooped into the bowl. Hot water is ready to be added. Then the tea is whisked. You can see the bamboo whisk in the bottom right.

Of course I didn’t know all of this when I first arrived in Japan. I had never even heard of matcha. My first introduction to matcha was at a small lunch restaurant (Mamean 豆庵 in Toyota City), popular with elderly Japanese ladies. I noticed all the ladies were consuming some bright green beverage after lunch, which fascinated me tremendously. In my beginner’s Japanese, I tried to ask one of the waiters about it. In reply to my halting “are wa nan desu ka” (lit. “what is that over there?”), the waiter provided me with a very elaborate explanation, of which I of course understood absolutely nothing. I just practiced my smile and nod technique, which is my go-to solution for such situations, and was rewarded with a steaming bowl of matcha tea.

my first matcha

This is the result, my first bowl of matcha tea

I think ‘interesting’ would be the best way to describe my first taste of matcha. It is somewhat of an acquired taste. Some foreigners just plainly dislike it, but I have grown very fond of the taste. In Japan you will encounter it frequently, since it is also used as an additive for sweets, cakes and ice cream. Starbucks Japan even serves matcha flavoured latte and frappuccino.

Starbucks Japan matcha

Azuki Matcha Latte at a Starbucks in Japan… while one could argue about the taste, it is certainly very Japanese.

matcha ice cream

My first taste of matcha ice cream (the green scoop on the top) wasn’t really a big hit. I later discovered that the taste can differ greatly from place to place and occasionally it can be very good. Therefore my advice is: avoid the Baskin and Robbins matcha ice cream, try it somewhere where it is homemade.

Japanese hands

The other day I was watching the Japanese movie ‘Okuribito’ (usually titled ‘Departures’ abroad). I absolutely love that movie and would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone.

Japanese movie Okuribito

The Japanese movie Okuribito. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009.

The movie is about a man who moves back from Tokyo to his hometown in the mountains. He gets involved in the funeral business, a profession that was despised in feudal Japan and was only carried out by the lowest social class, the eta. Even in modern-day Japan, some people still look down on the profession of undertaker. At first, the main character in the movie also has some misgivings about his new job, but gradually he learns to see the beauty in the tender ritual of preparing the dead for their departure. This ritual is called ‘nōkan’, and you can see it performed in the video below.

While watching the movie, it struck me again how beautiful and elegant Japanese hands are. One of my cherished images of Japan is the way most Japanese people perform even the simplest of daily tasks; their gestures expressing a mixture of elegance, precision and understated strength. The elegance of Japanese hands and gestures is even more apparent during the stylized movements of Japanese rituals, such as the burial ritual in the movie above or the ritual movements of the tea ceremony.

tea ceremony elegant hands

Taking hot water to pour into a tea bowl. All movements during the tea ceremony are elegant and delicate, yet precise and deliberate. Not an easy thing to accomplish!

tea ceremony elegant hands

Admiring one of the utensils that are used during the ceremony. The utensils have to be treated with the utmost care since they are very precious. Her hands look so elegant!