Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Tea Ceremony

Two weeks ago the Tahara International Association invited us ALTs to a tea ceremony that the elementary school students were having. They weren't really taking no for an answer, and since I hadn't yet experienced this aspect of Japanese culture I went. We arrived at a very traditional Japanese style house (supposedly the site where Kazan Watanabe, founder of Tahara, used to live) late in the morning on Sunday.

Handing in our tickets, we were given a piece of paper with a little origami flower attached. This was for our sweets, they told us. Then we were escorted into a room, empty but for some tea things on the floor and a few decorations on the wall where we sat in the seiza position until I thought my legs would fall off. Then the tea came and I had to sit up even straighter.

Tea 001
I'm totally cheating here and sitting partly to the side.

Tea 003

If I thought I was just here to drink tea then I was very wrong. The ceremony part became evident very quickly. There was bowing. There was a certain way to hold the chopsticks to get my sweet, a certain way to hold my teacup, and a certain way to walk in and out of the room - that one I failed at because they told me after I sat down. The woman one over from me whispered instructions to Emiko and me, while I tried to forget how much my legs hurt and remember to enjoy the experience.

The sweets were good though, the very first I have liked here in Japan. And the little girls were absolutely adorable all kitted up in their kimonos. They looked like the Japanese equivalents of baby beauty queens back home.

Tea 004
There was lots of bowing.

Tea 007

Tea 006
Oishi! I don't usually like Japanese sweets but these were good. I had to handle the chopsticks very carefully with precise movements dictated by the ceremony. Needless to say, I messed up more than once.

In the first room, we had a cup of tea, then a sweet, and then another cup of tea. In the second room, we had a sweet (not nearly as good and I had to choke it down) and then a bowl of thick tea that slightly resembled pea soup in looks. I preferred the first, but most of the Japanese I was with preferred the second. Apparently it is the more common green tea drank in Japan.

Tea 009

Tea 011
Three turns clockwise and I'm ready to drink my bowl of tea.

All in all, it was a very good experience. I had a nice time with the ladies from the TIA and it was great to experience some authentic Japanese culture. Several of us even went out for lunch afterwards. We had Italian, which made for a very multi-cultural day. ;-)

More on Japanese tea ceremony here

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Onsen ga daisuke

Lest you think that Japan is a crazy place filled with odd toilets that only locals can use and no beds anywhere, let me assure you that there are some advantages to living here that can’t be had even in America. One of those is the onsen.

Traditionally an onsen was an outside bath strategically placed over a hot springs. There are still plenty of “real” onsen around, but there are even more whose hot springs are merely hot water tanks, not that any of the many Japanese who flock to them mind. I know I don’t.

The basic principle is very simple. There is a hot tub, Jacuzzi, sauna or variations of all three. You must sit and bathe Japanese style before you get in, but that is no trouble. They provide little stalls and often there is complimentary shampoo, conditioner and body wash. You turn on the shower, sit on your stool, and get to work. If you are Japanese this takes a long time because you rinse, wash, and scrub everything at least two or three times. If you are me, you try to drag it out as long as possible so that no one thinks you are still dirty, but not so long that you spend more time in the bath than at the shower. The only small hurdle for an American girl like myself is that all of this is done naked and in full view of other naked people.

Now I’m not particularly modest, just as my roommate or anyone who lived in the dorms with me knows. More than once someone would knock on my door while I was drying my hair in nothing more than my underwear. (I have a lot of hair and I get hot blow drying it!)

“Oh, I thought I heard you say come in!” they would screech while covering their eyes.

“I did,” I would answer cheerfully and beckon them in. Some of the girls got used to it. Others learned not to knock when they heard the hairdryer going. My roommate, Stacey, was just happy that at least I put on underwear.

But stripping down in front of strangers still seemed daunting that first time and I’m still getting used to it. The only protection against immodesty is a small towel that you hold up over your privates while you walk from the locker room to the bathing area. Once you’re in however, the towel comes off and you’re completely exposed. Your only hope is that the steam is thick and that the other bathers are myopic.

Although the hot water of the baths quickly overrides any misgivings I may have about people seeing my cooter, (or me seeing theirs for that matter) and I am able to relax. It’s fun to move from one pool to another. One might have mineral water, another has Jacuzzi jets, while yet another is slightly carbonated. Other onsen have pools outside as well as inside. There are cool baths for after the sauna. Some even have baths with low level electrical currents running through the water! I have yet to brave any of those.

They have an onsen at the gym I joined and I have a feeling I will be exercising more often now that I know there is the option of a bath afterwards. Speaking of, I’m off to my own very large bathtub in my apartment. It’s not quite the same but at least there I am alone.