March 25th, 2016
Fronting a beautiful Japanese garden stands a traditional house with carved stone pedestals bordering the path lined with stepping stones. It is a large house, much larger than I had imagined a traditional house to be. Stepping inside is like stepping through the pages of a history book. Scrolls hang on the walls and statues and offering bowls sit on low tables. At the entryway sits a tiered table with beautifully detailed handmade wooden sculptures of princes and princesses, trees, carts and chariots, all made by our host Mr. Nishikawa. The floors in some rooms are polished wood but some are lined with tatami mats. The doors are all sliding ones with the typical latticed paper. Spacious and tastefully decorated, the rooms are linked by corridors with yet more paintings and sculptures. Reiko, Naoko, Nicole and I are invited for a Japanese tea ceremony.
A special scroll is hung on the wall by the host in honor of the ceremony and a vase with a delicate flower arrangement sits on the table below it. As guests, we are each given a folding fan – to place in front of us, to mark our places. The fan replaces what used to be a sword in the old days. Before entering in a single file, we stop at the stone basin immediately outside the room. It is fed by a bamboo pipe and we wash our hands and rinse our mouths according to tradition. We bow deeply as we step inside and are greeted by our host Mr. Nishikawa.
The center of the room has a cement-lined cavity and charcoal embers glow at the bottom of the hole. Suspended over it is a kettle hung by chains from the ceiling and tendrils of steam curl up from it. Dressed in a kimono borrowed from Akiko, Mr. Nishikawa’s daughter, I shuffle along and we take our places along one side on cushions placed on the tatami-lined floor. Soon the latticed doors across from us slide open and Mr. Nishikawa, Akiko and Akiko’s son, Yoshiaki enter, all dressed in kimonos for the occasion. Yoshiaki is twelve and is learning to perform the ceremony – he is the tea master today. He kneels across from us on the other side of the kettle and begins after we all exchange bows. His grandfather kneels to the side and encourages him with nods and reminders when Yoshiaki hesitates. It is supposed to be a solemn ceremony but smiles and laughter breaks out at this one from time to time.
Each bowl is rinsed with a little water from the kettle, scooped out with a bamboo ladle and then carefully wiped dry. A spoonful of matcha green tea is put in and hot water ladled into the bowl. A bamboo whisk is applied briskly turning the liquid into a frothy creamy texture – the bowls prepared one at a time. The tea master brings us the bowl, places it in front of us and placing both hands palm down on the mat on either side of the bowl, bows. We mirror the bow and lift the bowl. Placing it on the palm of one hand, we turn it twice, lift it to offer it to the gods and then sip from one side. The side of the bowl deemed most beautiful is turned away – it is for the gods. But it is hard to tell since every inch of the bowls are equally beautiful! A plate of sweet sticky rice balls covered with cherry leaves are offered to us. We each take one and slide the plate to the next person. With a second bowl of tea, we are offered a plate of sugared candy in the shape of flowers and leaves, each a work of art.
Ceremony over, we troop into the front room. Tucked into a corner, behind the piano is a stack of old swords. Mr. Nishikawa humors me and strikes a pose with a sword raised high. But he has something more curious to show me. He unearths an old musical instrument. Called Koto, it looks like a long wooden board and has strings stretched from one end to the other. The moveable bridges are taken out of a box and placed under the strings and Yoshiaki as well as Naoko try to pluck out a tune. Mr. Nishikawa modestly shakes his head when I ask if he can play it. His expertise is the Shakuhachi, the traditional bamboo flute, says Akiko. Smiling, he plays a couple of tunes on it. The mellow notes flow across the room and ripple over the dappled sunlight on the tatami mat.