My first Japanese tea ceremony

Last week, I was happy to participate at my first tea ceremony. I got to have a better idea of what it consists and understand how well it molds together with other Japanese traditions. I had matcha (fine powder green tea) before, but never sat through a tea ceremony.

During the approximately 2 hours “class”, I was simply mesmerised about the whole event. It’s an event!  It’s rigorous and complex, but oh so beautiful. Every move is done with grace, every sound has a meaning and everything has a timing.

One must know that it take about 25 years to become a licensed tea ceremony sensei. So, that in itself should tell you that one does not only have to learn a set of rules and principles, he has to perfect them. The job is not done there, as you practice performing the tea ceremony, the purpose is for you to become a better person. At least, that’s what I’ve been told.

So, what does it consist of? Please note that this is not a minute description of the tea ceremony. It’s a description of my own experience during the class, but should give you an idea of what’s all about.

1) For the participant it’s fairly easy. You sit down on the floor (tatami) and just watch, eat and drink what’s given to you.

First, you are served the sweets that go with the matcha. As the mtacha is bitter, the sweets will generally will be (very) sweet to balance it.

When the sweets are given to you, both of you will bow upon receiving them. You will be encouraged to say a few sentences, like sorry for eating first, thank you, etc.

Then, you get a beautiful bowl of matcha. Before you drink, you have to turn it twice. Generally, you’re supposed to finish your matcha with 2-3 sips. But it’s not compulsory. If your stomach cannot take it, then it’s no offense to leave it. For some foreigners it’s too bitter.

After you finish, you put the bowl in front of you and with the elbows on top of your upper thighs, you turn the bowl with your hands and admire the design before you give it back to the tea maker.

When you return it, you pick up the bowl and place it as far as your arm can reach. Then, you slide your body close to it. You may do this once or twice in order to reach the tea maker in order to return the bowl. Finally, you slide backwards to your place.

2) For the tea maker, it’s a different story. Every move, every object and sound have a purpose and carefully follow the rules.

Everything takes place very slowly and with calculated movements. I find it so fascinating that it looks so simple, yet it take one practising for years to master the tea ceremony.

I  urge you to go enjoy this exquisite part of Japanese tradition. It’s peaceful, engaging and relaxing, unless you’re counting sitting Japanese style. That will wear the untrained 🙂

 

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MOCHINAGE (rice cake throwing) in Nagoya

Yesterday, I got to take part to a pretty cool event – MOCHINAGE (rice cake throwing) in Nagoya.

What happens? The supporters (A.K.A donors) of the Shiroyama Shrine we were at get to throw the rice cakes from the top of a scaffolding type of structure. The rice cakes come in white and pink, wrapped in plastic.

On the ground, there are a lot of people waiting to catch as many rice cakes as possible. It is believed that the more you catch the more luck you will have.

Here’s a video that shows better what’s all about.

I must say it’s the first time I’ve seen Japanese so frantic about something. But also so much fun to see them out of their usual well-behaved way 🙂

Last, this is me with my “luck”, that was donated to me 😀

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In case of incoming Japanese summer, HIDE!

Truth be told, this must be the worst hot weather most of us foreigners have ever experienced. The summers in Japan are very hot, and that would not be so overwhelming if it weren’t for the humidity that can reach levels of up 90% and even 100%. In order to understand this, just imagine walking through a Turkish hammam, all day long. This means that you sweat even inside the house without doing anything. You end up taking showers various times a day, because you’re sticky from sweating like 100 times a day.

It’s end of July and from what I’ve been told it’s only going to get worse. So, here’s some observations of what the Japanese do to protect themselves during this period and some tips. Some are popular only in Japan and I haven’t seen them anywhere else. So, here goes:

  • Ride a bike rather than walking. The heat is more bearable with the sort of breeze you get when you ride. If you are in Tokyo, riding a bike is not the best, but the rest of Japan is fine.
  • Bike sleeves. These are some sort of covers added to the bike handles to protect your hands from the sun. Thy can also be use for the rain. I’ve seen then in white (lace looking material) and black.
  • Put on sunblock daily!! Although recently I read an article that apparently this is worse than going out without any, due to the chemicals in the sunblock, but I’m not buying it.
  • Stay hydrated!!! With the vending machines everywhere, you have access to cold water all the time, so there’s no excuse. Or you can just carry your own bottle/thermos.
  • There are toilets everywhere, so that makes it easier to hydrate. But with the amount you sweat, this barely comes in handy 🙂
  • Sun hats or caps, preferably those that can be folded so it’s easier to store and carry.
  • Sun glasses, need no explanation. Funny enough, Japanese don’t really wear them. It’s mostly the foreigners.
  • Wear white and loose clothes or at least the top part. Most Japanese women wear wavy tops. The idea is that you don’t want anything tight on your body. I started wearing 2 layers; one to sweat and one on top to look decent.
  • Japanese sun caps! These I decided to split in 2: the dog cone type and the Darth Vader type. Below you have the Darth Vader type 🙂 I must admit that the first time I saw them on a person I startled.

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  • Sun gloves, which is something I’ve only seen in Japan. I was kind of shocked at first, but I understand now. The sun here is out of control. Sunblock is not enough!! I never had a tan in my life, but I do now.
  • Sun umbrellas. You can use any umbrella you have, but here there are special ones for the sun with UV protection. These type of umbrellas are grey on the inside. I saw a lot of people put a support on their bike that holds their sun umbrellas.
  • Summer scarves to protect your neck from the sun or simply just t wipe your sweat.
  • Japanese use handkerchiefs or little towels to wipe their sweat (which you will do profusely).
  • Pretty fans (flamenco style) to use if you are in a place with no AC. You can get them anywhere here, in any color and size. I saw even men use it. So, it’s pretty common to have one.
  • An AC in your apartment is a must, it will make your days more bearable. If you don’t, then get fans to be able to survive.

For now, I’m just bracing for impact, although it already hit me 🙂 That being said, I’m quite happy to trade the grey Belgian skies for this super sunny weather. But keep in mind, if you want to visit Japan try to avoid the period between June and August when there’s this burning furnace.

 

A few things I miss about Europe here in Japan

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It’s been about 3 months since I moved to Japan and my brain is understating that we’re here to stay for a while, this is not a drill!! I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, I’m very excited and enjoy this new life, this new world opening up in front of us. It’s an amazing opportunity to live in Asia, get to see this part of the world, learn about the different cultures and people.  The more I learn, the more ignorant I feel 😀

On the other hand, I do miss Europe. It’s normal to miss things about your home (wherever that might be) when you’re away. So here’s my list:

  • My family and friends! This one is tougher than I thought. I used to be able to see my family every couple of months. And I could hang out with my friends anytime or at least just be able to give them a call.
  • Being in the same time zone with my dear ones. It’s somewhat frustrating that conversations now have to scheduled.
  • COFFEE!! Oh man, I miss having good coffee. Not to mention the Italian cappuccinos☺️ I found out that the coffee in Japan is only roasted once, whereas in Europe they go for 2 rounds, which makes it tastier.
  • Cheap good beer and wine!
  • Being able to talk to people! My Japanese is still limited and the Japanese have a limited English. So, not an ideal combination.
  • The international diversity you get in Brussels is unique.
  • My favorite cupcakes from Lilicup, Brussels! Haven’t had any in 3 months.
  • A simple and delicious croissant.
  • The varied choice of delicious European food 😊 that doesn’t come at a premium price.
  • The architecture!!
  • Cheap traveling to so many locations!!

These are just a few of the perks that I’d have living in Europe. But, to be honest I’m so excited and happy about our new life in Japan!

Traveling by car through Japan

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We love traveling by car and we’ve done tons of that in Europe. So, it was almost a no brainer for us to jump in our car here in Japan and go explore. During our 2014 Golden Week holiday we decided to do a tour around the Chugoku area of Japan by car. This gave us the change to see certain differences between Japan and Europe. Here are some of them:

  • The most obvious one is that the steering wheel and driving is done on the right side of the car, as opposed to the left side in Europe.
  • Most cities are in the valleys between the many mountains Japan is made of.
  • The infrastructure is built between bridges and tunnels that go trough mountains and most times both.
  • City rings the way we know them in Europe are not so common. Instead there are elevated roads that go trough the cities or along the cities.
  • Service stops are amazing oases with everything: gas, restaurants, shops, tons of toilets, showers, you name it.
  • Some gas stations have suspended gas hoses. This makes it quicker to cater to the people waiting, independently on which side your gas tank is, since the hose can be pull in any direction.
  • Drivers respect the traffic rules, speed limit, overtaking mostly from the right.
  • Speed doesn’t really exceeds 100km/h, which makes it more relaxing but also slower. Actually the speed limit on the highway is 80km/h.
  • Google maps on our smartphone was better than our car’s integrated gps.
  • Internet coverage is so good that you can listen to your favorite radio stations online on your phone, unless you go through a very long tunnel 😊
  • Truck drivers drive over 100km and they are not shy at overtaking.
  • Toilets are omnipresent and all free. The coolest toilets we have seen had a dashboard (picture below) at the entrance to show you which ones are being used and which ones are free. Also, you can choose between the western style and the ones you need to squat over.

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  • Tolls! Once you start traveling you understand why you pay. Due to the limited usable space (that is not a mountain, forest, river, etc.) you need all those bridges and tunnels and they are all in a very good state. You can just pay straight up cash or by a card that needs its own reader to be installed in your car (ETC card).
  • There are lights on the side of the road that look like the police car’s lights when you are going down the hill to prevent drivers from speeding.
  • Certain poll signs have curved poll just so that the size of the traffic sign does not get compromised due to the street being too narrow. This allows the car to pass and the signs remain intact.
  • The signs for cities are both in Japanese and English. But that’s about it.
  • Cement nets(!) meant to prevent land slides (see first picture) on the road side, they are massive and they are everywhere.
  • In general, you have lights only in the tunnels and smaller colored ones to show the curves.
  • Food! If you want to eat you have enough to choose from in the service stations on the highways. You never find anything in the gas stations inside the city, they only have gas! 🙂 Also, very affordable!
  • Souvenirs. I add them in this post since you find more in gas stations on your way to different attractions that at the location of the attraction itself. Side note: Japanese prefer food treats as opposed to other knickknacks Westerns look for, like the fridge magnets, decoration items and so on.

These are just some of the things we have noticed. One thing worth remembering is that traveling by car in Japan is very safe and comfortable. You’ll always get great customer service and don’t be surprised if you don’t see other foreigners 😊