I like my Tea with Kittens and Deer

Read all the exciting things our scholars have been up to!

Hello again readers! As promised my group went on a few excursions, so I thought a nice fun post was in order.

The first thing I’ll discuss was finally experiencing a Japanese Tea Ceremony. It’s an ancient tradition, one that is so important that the government will actually issue visa permits to those wishing to live abroad to study it. I was so lucky to be able to get a firsthand look at this famous ritual.

Traditionally tea was served during times of battle discussions, and the type of tea served during these crucial times was matcha. Kyoto is actually considered the matcha capital of the world, apparently the green tea leaves that are ground up here provide the best taste. State of mind is important during the ceremony. That’s why the kanji for harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility must always be present in the room, as well as seasonal flowers to set the mood. Without these symbols to provide proper ambiance, you cannot serve the tea.

Since our room had both the kanji and flowers, the ceremony could proceed.

Also important is the respect given to everything involved in serving the tea. The hosts always wore kimonos, traditional Japanese garments that are actually quite intricate. I’m sure I’ll be discussing them in another post. Our host also informed us that while everything used had been cleaned beforehand, she needed to purify them in front of the guests. From kettle to serving ladle, every item was ceremonially wiped with a red silk cloth that the host kept tucked into her obi, the wrapping around her kimono. She then expertly whisked the matcha powder in hot water with a bamboo brush.

Even the location of her fingers was important to the custom.

We each got a chance to try for ourselves, and I was then even more impressed with her speed. The brush was fragile, and we were warned that bamboo bits in our tea was a consequence of whisking too hard against the cup. On the other hand, whisking too slowly would result in clumpy, bitter tea. It’s a delicate balance that takes years to perfect. Mine was edible, but more practice would be best!

The closest ritual I can think of to compare to the tea ceremony in America would be the changing of the guard in Arlington cemetery. The timed pace of the soldiers requires the same amount of precise training and careful attention to detail, not to mention respect. The tea was so respected, in fact, that we had to eat our sweets before the tea was even served, so that the candy wouldn’t overpower the flavor. No sipping between bites here.

Even the candy was enjoyed with direction, placed atop a serving paper on the tatami mat and eaten with one hand.

This experience gave me a new appreciation for matcha powder’s place in Japanese culture. There are quite a few matcha flavored snacks here in Japan. There’s matcha cake, matcha ice cream, even matcha soba noodles. The influence of the ceremonial drink is clear, and I will no longer balk at the price for tea made from the powder. It takes great effort and care to make it well.

Moving away from tea though, my group was also lucky enough to visit Nara. Nara was the very first capital of Japan, and even the distinction only lasted for 80 years, the Japanese still show a great respect for the city. Located in Nara is a huge temple, Tadai-ji temple, which houses Daibutsu, the great Buddha, one of the tallest bronze buddha statues in the world.

Even in the pouring rain, people still flocked to this temple. Once inside it was easy to see why. The sheer height of Daibutsu is enough to humble anyone. Indeed, many Buddhists began praying immediately upon seeing him. I wasn’t sure how to behave, but I did my best to be silent and respectful. The bronze statue is 15 meters tall. To put this in perspective, 10 people who were 5 feet each would have to stand on top of each other’s head to just barely reach that height. That sight will stay with me for a long time to come.

But most people when they picture Nara don’t immediately see the Buddha. They picture something much smaller and cuter- deer!

Nara has a deep history with deer. Once considered sacred, it was illegal to kill a deer under punishment of death. As a result of this decree, these creatures do not fear humans. They bow to visitors, accept treats, and as the picture above shows have learned to use the crosswalks to avoid traffic accidents.

It’s interesting to see the real world effect an ancient law has had on this land. My country is too young to have something like this, but Japan is rich in history and tradition. I can’t help but wonder how else humans from centuries ago have shaped the way we live today.This is an obvious example, but I’m sure there are many little things we take for granted that wouldn’t exist if history had only been slightly altered.

Finally, I’ll end this post by talking about one thing I crossed off my to-do list, visiting an animal cafe. As the name implies, an animal cafe is a small little shop where you pay to spend time socializing with adorable pets. There are many kinds, including Pug cafes, Shiba cafes, and even hedgehog cafes. Back in Tokyo I had the opportunity to visit an owl cafe, but I was too nervous about the language barrier and chickened out. Even though I only know basic phrases now I’ve been forcing myself to converse with cashiers. So armed with a tiny bit of newfound courage, I finally took the plunge.

Cat cafe!

Next week I’ll finally be able to talk about a Japanese holiday that’s been going on all month long- Gion Matsuri. So stay tuned!