"Slow Bread"

Hello all.

(The subject is from the package of bread I bought.)

The warring states period of Japan lasted for 150 years.  When I was younger, in college, knowing only my small groups of people, this was but a fact in a book with no emotion behind it at all.  But now that I'm older and I've seen the ugly side of the world, it's unthinkable for me to imagine living at that time, in constant fear that your neighbor might go to war with you the next day.  Even in today's world of relative peace, there are black patches in society where one violent act has spread to cause deterioration and corruption, where instability in one area causes instability in another, where discrimination is fostered to be used for political gains.  At least, I think to myself, in my quiet neighborhood, I never have to worry about anyone killing me, even by accident or by "accident."

From long stretches of tumult and instability, where people can't rely on their friends, many countries have built up very solid religions that soothe the mind even when the physical wounds remain fresh.  In Japan, one tactic of the samurai class was in Zen Buddhism. Japanese religions don't involve much of an afterlife, and so instead of embracing the idea of heaven or a reward after death, one embraces the calmness of the world that can be found now.  Now, after the battle has finished and before the battle begins again.  A mind must heal.  One of these ways of healing was the tea ceremony.  This developed into a very elite practice over time.  While business partners use golf today to unwind or seal a deal, the upper class samurai had tea parties!

Before I left for Matsue, my friends held a goodbye tea-party for me!

A tea party in another country might sound like a lacy, frilly affair involving a fine tablecloth, flowers, and gossip.  But in Japan, it is more of a zen experience, involving silent appreciation for the small bits of simple beauty in a sparse room.

The tea expert who was invited to serve the tea was more interested in tea than in giving us a spiritual experience, which much relieved my friends who had come with their knee and back problems, and weren't keen on sitting rigidly on the floor in formal dress.  Instead of silent contemplation, we threw dozens of questions at the tea expert who was all too happy to impart his knowledge.

At first I thought Mr. Fujii was just your average Japanese man.  As this was MY goodbye party, I didn't want to tell him so much about myself.  I loathe talking about my life when the elderly person at the table starts losing their mind that my husband is Japanese or that I can read kanji, and tries to turn the conversation to "How could your foreign fingers possibly handle Japanese chopsticks?" when I'm trying to chat with my friends about what to pack for my move to Matsue, or place bets on how many of my plants Yossi is going to kill while I'm gone.

But it turns out that Mr. Fujii's passion for tea spurs from the fact that he's been to many other countries, he's immersed himself in other cultures, and he's come back to Japan with a new appreciation for what he has here, that can't be replicated elsewhere.  He regarded me for who I am, and no awkward conversations ensued.

All teas come from the tea plant, of which there is only one variety, and it is the preparing of the leaves which creates the variety.  Japanese tea (ocha) is green because the leaves have simply been steamed and dried.  They have not oxidized or been roasted or fermented like other teas in the world.  Tea from the leaves is called "rokucha" (green tea) or "sencha" (boiled tea), and both of those apparently refer to the same thing which answered a question I've been carrying in my head since forever.  Then there's "matcha" which is the same tea leaves, but ground into a powder.

First we had matcha, which we stirred with a tea whisk until a froth formed on the top.  The froth gathers around the edges of the tea bowl and is swirled toward the middle with the whisk.  If you do it just right, the only break in the froth is a crescent of clear tea, which represents the moon.  I drank my tea from the large bowl with the "moon" reflecting the garden behind me as I tilted it toward my face.  I was at once surprised that the matcha wasn't bitter.  I asked Mr. Fujii about this and he told me that when only the new, young growths of the plant are picked, and the tea is made soon after the leaves have been steamed and dried, there is no bitterness.  It's the aging of the leaves or the aging of the tea that introduces bitterness.

So we all drank our matcha and ate traditional Japanese sweets while I asked all about tea plants, how they grow, what their flowers look like, and stopped talking once in a while to admire the garden outside where the occasional butterfly would drift in looking for nectar.

Next we had sencha, which I've always shoved into a tea bag and drank rather thoughtlessly.  But he showed us how you need to let the leaves unfold and steep in 100ml of water at a specifically 70 degrees inside of a teapot.  We drank once from the pot, then filled it with more water, and drank a second and third time.  Each time the tea had a slightly different taste to be appreciated in a different way.

After we were done drinking tea, one of the people at the party asked to read my palm.  What??  Apparently he's a palm reader and he told me all about what the lines on my hand mean.  He also did a tarot reading for me, which was interesting if only because he was so passionate about it.  He fumbled with the English written on the cards and I wondered if using this foreign language made the whole experience more mystical and spiritual for him.

Finally our tea party was over.  I bought some sencha from Mr. Fujii and found that the name of his company is, "My Way."  I feel like this man has a lot of layers, and I was only able to see the outer edges.  We exchanged contact information and he ended up sending me more tea in the mail after I moved to Matsue.


Little did I know, but Matsue is a cultural center for this area of Japan.  In the 18th century, thWe lord of the castle, nicknamed, "Fumai," brought prosperity to Matsue city, as well as introducing his own form of the tea ceremony.  He wanted to strip the ceremony of its elitist, samurai reputations and bring it to the people.  In Tokyo, he established 11 tea rooms and in Matsue he had the famous Meimei-an tea house constructed.  One of the important points of using these tea rooms is that one must pass through a garden before entering them.  This garden divides the secular world from the  world of tea.  At the tea party at my friend's house, we all enjoyed the view of her traditional garden from the tatami room.

This makes me wonder about American culture.  What ways do we have as a culture to still the troubled mind and heal from the pain and suffering on our streets?  Perhaps we turn to our various religions.  Perhaps that makes it difficult to talk about, if one person resorts to prayer where another person drinks tea.  The message seems then to be: Heal yourself, by yourself, in your own way.  Whereas the message within these practices and methods themselves are: Pray together, drink tea together, heal together.  Maybe this is an inevitable result of a mixed culture.

If you come visit me in Matsue, I will make Mr. Fujii's tea for you, and introduce you to the traditional sweets that Fumai provided at his tea ceremonies.



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