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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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.

 

Things that make my life easier in Nagoya/Japan

There are a lot of great things about Japan that I love and I’m sure will miss them when we move back. But here’s an initial list:

1. The super customer service. People do their utmost to help you out even if they don’t speak English. If you think the States are the winners at this category, I say come to japan!

2. Safety is paramount! In any circumstance I feel secure, even with the suspended roads all over Nagoya, my gym’s pool at the 9th floor, car parks that look like scaffolding, etc.

3. Not being paranoid about having my belongings stolen. I saw people leave their bag on a chair to save a table and then went inside to order a coffee. What?! That’s unheard of! Bikes are never locked to a fence or a pole. They usually just have a small chain on one of their wheels.

4. There are toilets everywhere and in decent condition: metro stops, parks, supermarkets, stadiums, in convenience store, anywhere.

5. The convenience stores! As I already mentioned they are every 50 meters and they are multipurpose. You can buy food, knickknacks, print stuff, pay bills, make and get deliveries, get cash out, you name it.

6. Punctuality is golden!! In Japan you get early, not just on time! Transportation is always on time, stores open and close on time, people arrive at the time of the meet-up; you get the idea 🙂

7. You can get rid of your coins at the ATMs. You can just deposit the extra coins you have by dropping them in the ATM’s designated hole and that’s a wrap.

8. The food in the restaurants is delish and much cheaper than Europe! You can get amazing dinners for just 15EUR.

9. Everyone respects queues and there are plenty of them. You stay in line to get in the metro, to enter a restaurant, at the cross walk, etc.

10. Japanese want to hang out with you just because you’re a foreigner. It’s a win-win situation, they get to practice English and you hang out with locals!

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20 random things I’ve noticed in my first month in Nagoya/Japan

 

1. It’s very clean and neat. Haven’t seen one graffiti.
2. Everything has explanations with illustrations.
3. Almost no stray animals.
4. It’s all about safety!
5. No trash bins. You carry your garbage with you till you get home or to a convenience store.
6. Everyone bows and you start bowing too (for so many reasons).
7. Convenience stores every other block and vending machines like there’s no tomorrow.
8. Extremely polite people! And best customer service I’ve ever experienced.
9. You are not allowed to speak on your phone on the metro or train.
10. It’s bikeland but bike lanes are not clear.
11. People are not concerned about having their belongings stolen.
12. You get free water in restaurants.
13. You get chopsticks by default. You can get cutlery if you ask for it.
14. Public toilets range from the famous Toto toilets to the holes in the ground where you have to squat.
15. Many people go on metros and trains without holding on and not falling down.
16. The ground floor is counted as first floor.
17. Shorts skirts and shorts everywhere! No cleavage shown tough.
18. You don’t blow your nose, you hold it in 😦 or go to the toilet.
19. There are metro carts reserved only for women.
20. 24/7 Karaoke bars.

Sakura (cherry blossom) in Nagoya

The cherry blossom period is a wonderful time of the year when the city is covered in pink. For about two weeks the city completely changes. Everywhere you look people are frantically taking pictures of the cherry trees or out in the parks for picnics and I just had to do the same. So, I went exploring a few places of Nagoya that are famous for its plenitude of cherry trees.

First on my list was the Nagoya Castle which is a must see even without the cherry blossom.

The Nagoya Castle – used to be one of the most important castles in Japan in the Edo period. Although suffered significant destruction during WWII, it has been restored and even had an elevator incorporated. Now, it’s the city’s landmark and a must see on the attractions list for Nagoya. Side note: Nagoya’s symbol is a giant, golden fish, which you can see on top of the castle, as well as inside. (Location)

 

Second on the list was the Tsuruma Park, that I think is really pretty and pleasant even without the pink cover 🙂

Tsuruma Park – a beautiful Western & Japanese style park (Location)

 

Next on the cherry blossom list for Nagoya was the Meijo park, which was my favorite spot. In my opinion, it was the most beautiful, I felt like I was walking through a painting. The colors were so bright and bold. This park is bigger than the Tsuruma park and it was as well packed with people out on a picnic.

Meijo Park – it surrounds the Nagoya Castle, so you get a great view of the castle. (Location)

 

Last, we went to see the row of cherry trees on the Yamazaki River. We were not disappointed, it has a great richness of cherry tress and wonderful colors. (10 minute on foot from Mizuho-Undojo-Higashi Station)

 

Practical Info

  • Sakura period in Nagoya 2014: 24th March – 6th Aril. To be up to date with just check out this link or any other that is reliable with dates.
  • Check out here a list of best spots for cherry blossom in Nagoya.