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Magic Pots

Sometimes, It's Not the Drink That Matters

April 17, 2002|SONOKO SAKAI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I spent part of my childhood in Kamakura, Japan, living with my grandmother in a house that had a traditional tearoom. Kamakura is a town near Tokyo that dates from the 12th century and where Zen Buddhism flourished. The monks, who drank tea to combat drowsiness during meditation, popularized the practice of the formal tearoom, and later they developed it into an aesthetic and philosophical ritual that eventually evolved into the tea ceremony.

When I was growing up, my grandmother held weekly tea ceremonies with the ladies in the neighborhood. Always on Wednesday, these ladies would arrive in their gray and plum kimonos, subdued earth colors. They shuffled quietly across the tatami mat and gathered in the tearoom for several hours where they would sip green tea and engage in polite conversation.

To prepare for the tea ceremony, my grandmother would start the charcoals on the stove top in the kitchen and stand guard until the charcoal turned red and sparks flickered. The hot charcoal was placed in the pit in the tearoom, on top of which a large iron kettle full of spring water was placed. Grandmother would then step outside and pick a flower to place in the tearoom, preferably a bud, which symbolizes a fresh beginning. She would also choose a scroll for the wall that had the correct seasonal representation and would check that the tools were clean and the tea powder was fresh.

Just before the guests arrived, she would change into a kimono, apply a little rouge to her cheeks and lips and wear a fine hair net to hold her bun in place. She always looked beautiful. As I child, I was amazed to see the amount of work involved for such a simple act of sipping tea.

I felt grown up when I joined the ladies for tea. Though my family consumed green tea in large quantities, the experience of participating in the formal tea ceremony was purifying and divine. I usually joined the ladies toward the end of the ceremony when the desserts were being served, because I did not have the discipline to sit through the whole thing ... my feet would go to sleep.

Someone would lay a pillow on the tatami mat, and I would quietly take my place. The lovely aroma of tea would fill the room. I could hardly wait for my turn to sip the slightly bitter but invigorating tea and taste the sweet bean cake. The tea master would comment on the scroll or the flower arrangement in the vase and the ladies would respond with equal admiration and appreciation toward the work of art and for the human labor.

When I returned to Japan in the '80s, my grandmother was still holding the weekly tea ceremonies with the same group of ladies, but the tea master had become very old and rather senile. Still, out of respect for the master, the ladies would ask her to preside over the tea ceremony as long as she was able. She would often forget and skip a step, but most of the ladies (who by then had earned certificates as tea masters themselves) would take turns reminding their master what to do next. It was an experience that made me appreciate the spiritual unity and the kindness of these people.

The tea ceremony is not the only way to take tea. Because of its complexity, and the hours required, it is probably not feasible for general Western practice. But tea drinking can be done simply for pleasure, digestion and sociability--without any formal ceremony.

In the Western world, green tea is appreciated more than ever for its medicinal properties. It is thought to possibly reduce the risks of heart disease and cancer and even tooth decay when it is used as a mouth rinse. It is also rich in vitamins and contains tannin, which may help lower blood cholesterol.

My grandmother sips about six to eight cups of green tea every day. She will turn 100 this year. Since the new year, I have been cutting back on coffee, drinking green tea more often and taking moments to study the twigs in my tea in hopes I will get lucky and live nearly forever like my grandmother.

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