One cup of tea unites two cultures
December 6, 2012
CAMP SENDIA, JAPAN - Each morning my coffee cup is filled with water; two bags of Tazo Awake tea float along the top, and a dash of honey sinks to the bottom. After two minutes in the microwave, a sit on the kitchen counter for one more, and a quick stir, the temperature is perfect, and I smile with every sip. While tea is a drink Americans enjoy just about any time of the day, in other areas of the world, it has a storied history. The act of preparing and drinking this tea is a special time that holds special meaning and is woven into their culture, the thread that connects generations.
Members of the U.S. Army had the opportunity to experience just that during a tea ceremony hosted by Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces. The ceremony was a part of a series of cultural events for the soldiers visiting Camp Sendai for the Yama Sakura bilateral training exercise. I walked in to enjoy a cup of tea that morning, and I left cultured more than I would have thought.
Our instructor of the morning, Yoko Kono, and her guest, sat on their knees with perfect posture. The bamboo mats were pieced together below them, making a cushioned patchwork design on the stage where the scene was set. A red paper umbrella sat in the foreground and a calligraphy painting hung in the background. The symbols, hand painted on parchment paper each with specific meaning, were described for the group of Soldiers in attendance that morning.
Wa Kei Sei Jyaku it said, and its translation meant - harmony of people, feeling of respect, being pure and being calm.
"Keep this spirit in your mind and in your action," Kono said in a soft voice. Her smile was sweet, her eyes were bright and her movements were very gentle and purposeful as she demonstrated the preparing and presenting of green tea.
The ceremonial style preparation of powdered green tea is one that dates back to the ninth century where Zen Buddhist monks prepared and shared a cup during acts of worship. The tradition continues today at Japanese temples during celebratory events where everyone is welcome to attend.
We watched as Kono ground the tea leaves, wisked them with hot water into a green frothy liquid and served her guest, who waited patiently to Kono's right. The next order of events were very specific to follow tradition, the small sweet treat placed on a white napkin was eaten first; the design, shape and color of the small candy changes with the seasons of the year. Our treats were decorated with warm colors of fall that matched the vibrant leaves falling from the trees outside our windows.
We watched as large teacups were placed before us; a decorative flower design faced each guest and was to be turned 45-degrees before taking a sip. We lifted the cups with our left hands, turned it a quarter turn with our right hands and the wide cups engulfed our faces and we all took a sip. The tea was warm, frothy and a refreshing flavor that was unlike anything I've had from a tea bag found in the United States.
U.S. Army Sergeant Thai Bui, Yama Sakura exercise participant, mirrored my admiration for the new discovery and new flavor pairing.
"I've never tasted this flavor before," he said with a smile. "The combination of the bitter tea with the sweets just before. It was really good."
We turned our cups a half turn back before placing them down on the table before us, and we all felt the effect of the words painted in black ink on the calligraphy piece hanging behind Kono. I walked in to the tea ceremony out of curiosity, but walked out feeling refreshed, re-energized and cultured.