Is the feminization of tea culture leading to the loss of the zen-spirit?

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.

First, they say “you do tea”
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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”.
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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”
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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.
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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.
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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 
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Please let me know what you know about the sacred experience of drinking tea? Which notes were interesting for you?

DIY Forest Therapy 森林浴

Living in Nagoya has some benefits. There are a lot of shrine parks, and Japan is also for 70 percent forest. Even I live in the middle of one of the biggest cities in Japan, I had the pleasure to enjoy the healing aromas of the Hinoki and Sugi, famous Japanese trees used for timber construction. Especially the aroma of the trees of Gifu, the prefecture in the north of Nagoya, can let you sleep like a rose.

I am not sure what came first. Getting interested for Japanese forests or getting interested in forest therapy. During a short holiday in Belgium last August, my parents showed me Flemish books on forestry and I decided to spend more time in leisurely walks in the forests around my house, to relax. I called it as joke “DIY forest therapy”.

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Forest Therapy-  is a research-based framework for supporting healing and wellness through immersion in forests and other natural environments. Forest Therapy is inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin yoku, which translates to “forest bathing.” Studies have demonstrated a wide array of health benefits, especially in the cardiovascular and immune systems, and for stabilizing and improving mood and cognition, resulting in for example stress relief, improved sleep, even weight loss on long term.

Shinrin Yoku is becoming more and more popular in North-West Europe (but still a very small niche market), partly because it resonates with old cultural practices from the Old Religion that was celebrated by the Celts and other indigenous people before Christianity removed or replaced the cultural practices by Christian ones. The christmas tree is actually based on a symbol of the old religion. There are sources that said Maria in Christianity was so popular, in especially our countries, because we could recognise the Goddess figure in her. In this Old Religion, also trees and other nature elements had a very special place and role. For example, people would wear wooden pegs (later broches) at their clothes, because they believed that the tree spirit would accompany and protect them. There were also the figures of druids who gathered fruits, barks and wood from different trees. Shintoism and the Old Religion of the Celts are not that different from each other.

Since I am 10 years old,  I study north and western old religions and mythologies, and also know a bit about forestry. Currently I also do a Phd in environmental studies and know a lot about ecology. I also visited different spiritual guides across the world and talked often about the role of nature, nature spirits and ecospirituality. Since I am here I try to read as much as possible about shintoism and especially the sacred trees.

I like to explore more the connections between shintoism and shinrin-yoku with my own almost lost indigenous wisdom by organising trips to forests, shrine parks, during special moments in the Celtic Year, and engage in conversations about (almost forgotten) indigenous wisdom of our cultures, but also find time to enjoy the healing aroma of the trees and forest.

I planned a first DIY Forest Therapy event in a shrine forest nearby Nagoya, on November 4th, after Samhain. I invited Japanese and not-Japanese friends. Samhain, is the Celtic New Year and a festival of the Dead (very similar to Obon, a Japanese festival celebrated in the middle of August). Samhain isn’t necessarily a creepy, morbid holiday obsessed with death, as some may conclude. Instead, it reaches for themes deeper than that, tying in with Nature’s rhythms. In many places, Samhain coincides with the end of the growing season. Vegetation dies back with killing frosts, and therefore, literally, death is in the air. This contributes to the ancient notion that at Samhain, the veil is thin between the world of the living and the realm of the Dead and this facilitates contact and communication.

We will celebrate the end of Summer by doing a meditative walk in a forst park. In early November, the autumn leaves can be gorgeous, and I think these trees will color red. I also asked everyone to bring autumn-related food and drinks. One friend told me she will make pumpkin pie. I suggested the following:

 

  • Harvest food such as pumpkins, squash, root vegetables, chestnuts
  • sweet potato latte, pumpkin soup, chestnut cake etc.  
  • Nuts and berries, dark breads
  • apple juice, apples, apple cake, pomegranate juice, pomegranate
  • herbal teas: sage, catnip, mugwort

 

Pomegranate refers to Persephone, the queen of the Ancient Greek Underworld. Apples are also symbols of this festival. The recommended herbal teas are very good for detoxing and purification. A Mexican friend told me that her mother used bundled sage twigs to clean her from bad spirits, when she was a child. It is all about letting it go.

The way how my ancestors celebrated Samhain is very similar to practices in shinrin yoku and forest therapy, so I think it very good for everyone who just needs more time to enjoy nature and the silence of it, and contemplate about death and rebirth.

What will you do?

How the Search for Tree Spirits Started

Currently I live in Japan, a country famous for its nature religion. Some months ago I went to visit -as part of a study tour- a forest and we listened to an old man showing proudly some of his sustainable silviculture practices. At some point, a Japanese colleague  pointed out the risks connected to forestry.  “Forestry is dangerous, because the tree can fall, or when ropes break lose, they can cut as knifes in the skin.”  Unconsciously, with some pain in my chest, I said aloud “I know.”
My own grandfather died in a forestry accident, more than ten years ago.
And I had to think a lot about him, when I saw that old forester talking about taking care of trees. He also had not so much hair as my grandfather had.
I still think a lot about my grandfather and I believe that the way he died also “inspired” me to write about trees. Actually I write stories about dryads, tree spirits, immortal beings connected to certain trees. When the tree falls, the tree spirit also dies.
Also, in the time my grandfather died, I was in my fifth year (of 6 years) of secondary school. I studied Ancient-Greek & Science, and during my Ancient Greek classes I translated and read stories about dryads. Besides Ancient-Greek mythology, I am also very into Scandinavian mythology, maybe more than Ancient-Greek, since I am 8-9 years old. That means I know the story of Wodan, who hung himself at a tree, to gain the knowledge of the runes, and become one of the smartest gods in the universe.
My grandfather did not hang himself. A tree felt on him when he was cutting the tree. (that is why you should never do forestry alone)
After he died in the forest, I started to write stories about a young women whose grandfather -this is later turned into a grandmother- died in a forestry accident, but changed in a dryad and got connected to a big pool of information and insights, because she/he can communicate with trees, the eldest witnesses on earth.
Maybe it is my own way of processing loss and death and decay. Even ten years later, when I walk in forests I catch myself in deep reflections.
For me, forests, more than any other power in nature, really represents the circle of life and death, and of mortality, and that everything ends.

Now, I am still fascinated by tree and tree spirits and like to visit sacred tree groves, forests and other places to find inspiration. This website is the fruit of this search. Please feel free to join me in gathering of wood and knowledge as well in my imagination.

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Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

 

 

 

Listen to the stories of the Trees