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?