These are extracts of my bimonthly newsletter I write to friends and family over the whole world. Last week I wrote about tea, because it is really becoming my cup of tea. (Did you see there what I did?). I got to know some young people in Onomichi who do not only have an organic green tea farm, but also want to sell the whole holistic experience. They just opened a tea shop in Hiroshima, and I have visited the old house in Onomichi they turning into a tea shop where you would be able to experience tea in its sacred way. I was so blessed to try their tea. I also bought some tea from their last harvest (they harvest in spring) and still enjoy the tea almost every day in my office in Nagoya. I also had the chance to visit tea farmers and a tea factory, as a part of my PhD training in environmental studies. I am not really a tea connoisseur, but I drink less and less latte and coffee, and make tea infusions (actually in Chinese way, I have a special tool for “lazy people in office”, which I found in a hipster Chinese tea shop in London), and also read more about Japanese tea culture. I just finished a book about “women and tea in Japan” – which was very interesting to learn more about the history of Japanese tea culture, but from women’s perspective. Here are some notes.
Is the feminization of tea culture leading to the loss of the zen-spirit?
First, they say “you do tea”
Last month, during my holiday “back home” in Belgium, my parents and I joined a tour in the Japanese gardens, where they said a tea ceremony is about spirituality. There are different aspects, such as harmony with other people (wa), respect for nature (kai), purity (sai, I think) and simplicity. They say that you should see a tea ceremony as something unique. Every ceremony is different. Every experience is different. Every moment is unique. In Japanese, they say “ichigo ichie“, which means “one time, one meeting”. However, these ideas come from a more recent tea master, called Naosuke (who actually got murdered, because yeah he had some political ideologies that were against the imperialists). Anyway, Naosuke really wanted to connect spirituality with tea drinking. He was also quite progressive, by letting women even host tea ceremonies.
Yes, tea used to be very masculine dominated. Nowadays 90 percent of tea ceremonies would be hosted by women, but the famous tea schools like Urasenke (headquarters in Kyoto) have a male head, and all texts are written by men. It is like Christian church. You have female practitioners, but is actually still very shaped and made by men. That is the idea I got when I read that book about women’s history on tea in Japan. Some people in the 18th-19th century were really against participation of women as a guest, or even as a host. One guy wrote that “because of feminization, tea ceremony lost its original zen spirit”. However, I do think that women can be connected as much as to the spiritual spheres as men can, not more or not less, depending from how open that person is.
Tea got introduced in Japan more than thousands years ago from China, by Buddhist monks who used it as aid for meditation, but yes, the zen part is maybe a bit gone. The tea culture with all its codes came like 500 years ago, and the big tea schools with heads who teach you the right way came in the 17th century. It was all very institutionalized and male dominated.
picture, June 2018
So, something you have to know about tea ceremony is that you have a host and guests, and the last and first guest are the most important. When you study tea, you learn first how to behave as a guest. There are rules about how to eat the sweets, and how to enter the room. And then you can learn how to be a good host. First you learn how to make “thin tea” and then how to make “thick tea”. Every utensil has a meaning, so it is quite a study.
It was actually only for elite, and a place for war politics and showing off your power. According to Naosuke, people are equal in a tea ceremony, but that was an idea that started in end of 19th century, for sure, not earlier than that. In the 19th century, tea study was used as a way to teach women how to move their body in a gracious way, and also a way for lower class people to be “civilize”.
Actually it got so popular by “commoners” that it lost its flavor, until Japan entered the era of modern state building (end 19th century). First they took over many western ideas, but realized than they also needed “Japanese culture”, so tea culture got heavily promoted at world fairs and exhibitions as something “Japanese”
The green tea that I drink, from Tea Factory Gen, is organic, and apparently, a lot of green tea in japan is not organic, he told me. Even more, matcha, which is a sort of green tea, but more processed, is also not always organic. I wonder if many Girl Gurus who have health food blogs in California and London are aware of that. You can buy his tea in Hiroshima, Onomichi and also in Paris. You see, green tea is getting very popular in Europe, because of its health benefits.
A thing in japan is also to drink cold green tea -or cold brewed. Of course I am not sure what to think about all the hot and cold green tea in PET bottles …But apparently -a concern of tea farmers- is that more people want to drink tea individually rather than in a traditional way – namely sitting together, and drinking together tea made with reusable utensils. I also enjoy more the traditional way, and often invite (or force haha) some lab members to drink tea with me, because I made enough tea for more people.
But the Japanese tea industry has also big problems. The income is very low. The work is hard. You can also harvest tea a couple of times a year. After harvesting, you have to do the first processing within an hour in a factory, so you have to be close to a factory. etc etc. So, actually tea production in Japan is really in decline – just like other agricultural industries in Japan. Most tea farmers I met – apart from that lucky guy and his friend – are actually quite old, and they do not have successors, so I think Japanese green tea is going to get more expensive, — unless they allow immigrants to work in tea industry, but yes… that process will go slow.
You can learn more about the problems through this 10 minute video from the Japan Times: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrHxz3OE9mI&t=79s
Please let me know what you know about the sacred experience of drinking tea? Which notes were interesting for you?