Tamaryoku tea and George Benson are today’s hommage to my mother. I’m afraid her star is rising high in my universe today. It’s Valentines day. It’s all about love. While in the background George Benson is smoothly singing about love is a masquerade. My unique mother killed herself this very day of the year some few hundreds years ago. The special Japanese tamaryoku tea warms me up inside out. The taste can only be described with words that talk about products that seem quite revolting as tea flavorings: cod liver, a deep well, stagnant water covered by tiny little spots of duckweed. You get the taste of it? The Japanese and we after them, call it umami. For me now I don’t care much about the name, as I am completely intrigued by the effect it causes. A very subtle guitar softly touched, the slow beat of the eighties, long stretched rhythmical sequences, instrumental only; one easily visualizes the stardust through the air slowly and softly touching the face of the earth. Did I mention snow flakes softly fluttering outside my window? Uncertain and insecure about their very ice cold presence this Valentine’s day, they add up to the magic multiple impressions of the moment. Attentive listening, attentive tasting, attentive seeing evoke an illusion. An illusion of a special moment in time, unique, as elusive as it is eternal. And this makes me dwell over the difference between reality and fantasy. In what reality did my mum dwell? Did she not taste umami and listen to the soft tones of an electric guitar? Don’t we all do this? What made her renounce it? Wise woman, tell me your secret. Your secret of not being attached. Your secret of being a hero. Is it a life full of pain that formed you? No, Not at All! Because in that case you would have loved and cherished the little things. If your life would have been full of dreadful pain, wouldn’t you? Or am I mistaken? Probably I am. It’s not to me to understand you. We shouldn’t focus at understanding each other, shouldn’t we? We should focus at loving each other. Even if that takes evoking an illusion. Even if that takes soft music, snow on Valentines day and tamaryoku tea to tantalise the senses. We should do that. Because that’s what we have.
A good relationship starts with a cup of tea. Beautifully said by Ooyama Seichaen. His slogan appears at the website of Mono Japan, a three day exhibition and cultural exchange program hosted by the Lloyd Hotel, Amsterdam. Ooyama Seichaen is a tea farmer. Since 23 years he proudly owns a tea plantation in Nagasaki, Japan. Tea was introduced in Japan during the twelfth century by a zen monk who brought it from China. Nagasaki, Kobe and Tokyo all three got tea plants from him and started cultivating the leaves for medical use. Over the centuries tea and drinking tea became custom and found it’s ultimate meaning in the traditional tea ceremony, Sado. Sa meaning tea (chai) and Do meaning the way: The Way of Tea. Let me tell you about my first steps onto that path.
Today Ooyama Seichan and mr Tosaka have come to Amsterdam to tell us about their tea and some amazing methods of preparing it. It actually feels only slightly off from Alice’s unbirthday tea party. Ooyama’s workshop and tastings sure are as much of a deeper meaning learning experience as is Alice’s magical party.
Eight years ago. I had maybe once or twice tried green tea out of curiosity. Mainly because it was a quite new addition to the regular Amsterdam assortment in shops and places like the Coffee Company and I like to be on top of new things. I surely didn’t like the taste of it.
Then I got send off to Tokyo for work during two weeks. Thrilled to experience the real Japan not as a tourist but actually being part of the society for thirteen whole days, I spent my one and only recreational day as meaningful as possible. It took some effort to make it possible and without the help of the reception staff of the hotel where I stayed it wouldn’t have materialized. But at that particular day a traditional tea ceremony was booked for me. For me alone.
I travelled – in Tokyo one doesn’t go by public transport but travels by it – to a fancy hotel. Can’t think of the name no more. But it was an impressive high rise with a private half roundabout in front of the entrance for the taxi’s to drop off guests. The elevator brought me to the top floor where I entered a special tearoom. A not white painted and simply dressed in a sober colored outfit, Japanese woman welcomed me. Whatever the looks, to me she was a geisha.
She asked me to take place at the tatami floor. She explained what was going to happen in that room with just her and me the following hour. She explained how I should react upon her gestures and how I should receive from her what she would be offering. Once started only silence remained. It was beautiful. The way she held her utensils, the way the water was boiled, the way she manicured her gestures, the way it smelled. So this was the way of tea. I was brought onto the path, impressed and grateful.
From that day on I’ve been drinking green tea. Occasionally accompanied by a mochi, a semi sweet steamed ball made of rice starch, if I am lucky to lay my hands on it. I’ve been drinking a lot of green tea. Back then at Tokyo airport in some kind of fancy store – to me almost all Japanese stores are fancy – I purchased the essentials in order to be able to prepare matcha tea back home. A beautiful whysker, a special bamboo spoon, a delicate small can filled with green matcha powder and two earthenware bowls. Matcha is served in a relatively large bowl because of the necessary whysking as opposed to the fine egg shell like porcelain cups used for other tea types. My Japanese tea set felt sacred and so it remained.
Four years past in which many lives changed dramatically at least the ones of me and my beloved ones. A second child was born and a relationship broken. And then I found myself visiting a man. Our first date was at his birthday. I’d gone finding a suitable present and arrived at his place with a beautiful earthenware tea bowl, selected specially for him, and my sacred Japanese tea utensils. A good relationship begins with a cup of tea. Those words hadn’t been written yet or at least I had never heard of it.
I prepared the valuable matcha with a geisha like intention. We didn’t make love that day. The earthenware bowl later ended up as a garde-monnaie. And the impression of purity this special man experienced was expressed in the second edition of a book he had recently been writing. A good relationship starts with a cup of tea.
Another four years passed. The contact appeared too pure and impossible to handle. Purity as opposed to different shades of grey proves itself impossible to integrate in our modern daily lives. In our harassed existence where bondage, compromise and incompleteness rule. No place for purity and no more tea. Sex and alcohol quickly took over as tools to connect. The relationship fell apart in scattered pieces of hurt, hope and surrender. Obsessive behavior, barriers and a lot of masturbating replaced the initial pure intention. The frequency of contact was as low as the disappointment was high. Probably at both sides. But I can only speak for myself here. If a good relationship starts with a cup of tea, what then marks the end of it?
While my mind drifted, Ooyama in front of me introduced different methods of preparing different teas. One of which must definitely feature at the next start of a good relationship, I decide. It’s a method where ice cubes slowly melt over Kiri green tea leaves. Kiri is a newly created melange of tamaryoku tea leaves by the hand of Ooyama Seichan himself. Kiri is not for sale (yet) outside Japan. But the preparation can be done with another sort of tamaryoky tea leaves as well. The process of melted ice water that slow as a turtle is getting infused with the umami flavor of green tea leaves to me is beautifully symbolic for the slow blending of the obvious duality of two people present until they connect to their universal one and holy- or wholeness. Let’s call it unification. Mono means product in Japanese. But it associates to uniqueness. In the way of outstanding and in the way of wholeness.
Amino acids (umami flavor) are distracted from the tea leaves already at 5 degrees Celsius. Also a lucid green color is subtracted from the leaves by the melting ice water. Umami tastes completely different to us from what we know as tea. What we know as tea is a flavor which can only be distracted from the leaves by water at temperatures over 80 degrees Celsius. This infusion shouldn’t take longer then 1 minute. Otherwise the taste becomes bitter and actually suspiciously close to what we consider to be tea. The real method is to let water at 60 degrees Celsius be infused by the tea leaves. It brings out the amino acids. The taste of it called umami. In Japan considered the fifth taste after salt, sweet, sour and bitter. The taste is overwhelming. It’s rich like double cream or diary butter but with a liver-like flavor to it. Cod liver. If you think it’s detesting, please stop thinking!
If only about the experience of consciously sipping at slowly dripped cold lucid green tea. Would that mark the beginning or the end of a good relationship?