Before joining Warwick’s BA (Hons) Social Studies 2+2 degree I would not have appreciated the Japanese Tea Ceremony experience my sister treated me to, as much as I did.  I lived so much of my life in my own little bubble, believing in meritocracy and oblivious to social/structural influences that inhibit or enhance our opportunities and life course.  My ‘failures’ were always my fault, so I assumed.  I never thought to question how wealth, income, power, status as well as our class, age, gender and ethnicity all affect the (un)ease of our journeys through life. 

Being born to the dominant habitus of society, one has the social and cultural capitals – the advantage – necessary for navigating the field and it’s easy to unquestioningly accept things simply because that’s the way they are. But, for those  born into the non-dominant habitus of one’s society, life is more like orienteering, but without a compass and a map that is written in Elvish. 

Anyway, I digress, but only slightly.  I was fascinated to discover how the old Japanese class system differed from ours and how Samurai and farmers were valued more highly, as they protected and fed people, whereas the merchants were at the bottom of the class hierarchy, because they just sold stuff to make money with no added value to the community.   However, being Samurai didn’t guarantee material wealth, so they would sometimes marry their offspring into the merchant class for financial security.  Ahhh, true love, eh!?   But what is true love?  Marriages throughout history were mainly an economic arrangement.  It’s only in more recent times that marriage has been more precariously built on romantic love.  Although, with serial monogamy and rising divorce rates, perhaps there’s something to the old way of doing things? Although, we tend to glorify the ‘good old days’ and look through rose coloured spectacles.  While you might think the grass is greener, it’s just as hard to mow, to paraphrase the John Butler Trio.  

The tiny Japanese Tea Room, created during a time of great war and suffering, was a space where everyone was regarded as an equal.  Regardless of status and power, all weapons and props were left outside.  The doorway into the room was so small that everyone (apart from hobbits, perhaps) would have to bow down to enter.  An unavoidably humbling experience, even for the largest ego.  In the intimate space of the tea room,  the host would perform the tea ritual which could last for hours and the guests would drink from the same bowl,  so if one person were poisoned, they would all suffer the same fate! No shenanigans here, thank you very much! Trust issues much?!  

After listening to the rich history of the Japanese Tea Room, which didn’t end ‘happily ever after’ for everyone (its founder was forced into ritual suicide), we watched, mesmerised, as our wonderful host Keikosan gracefully made us authentic Japanese matcha tea.  One. Cup. At. A. Time. It was compelling.  We each performed the ritual when we made another tea for our companions.  What Keiko did with ease,  we executed with conscious incompetence. There is soooo much to remember and perform with intent.  It’s certainly not ‘pop the kettle on and bung in a tea bag’.    There is a correct way to hold the bowl, ladle and spoon, correct steps to hold the tea caddy (while still holding the spoon) and pour the matcha powder, tap the spoon twice before replacing it, zig- zag with the bamboo whisk, then a deosil swish to finish the mixing. There is even a correct way to replace the whisk, then hold and ‘deliver’ the bowl to your guest.  It is etiquette to slurp your last mouthful so the host knows you are ready for the next round. I got the slurping down to a fine art!  The accompanying sweets were amazing too. Candied Yuzu.  Adzuki bean pancakes and mochi. I loved the entire experience.     

I only very briefly pondered what an ‘English’ Tea Ceremony experience would be like in comparison. But apart from the fun, but risky, art of dunking and devouring biscuits before disintegration, a seminar on its history would reek of white, imperialist, capitalist patriarchs and consequent colonialism.  Even the very British-sounding Yorkshire Tea is grown in numerous regions in India and Africa.  If 80 teabags costs only a couple of quid, a company needs to cover overheads and still make a profit, exactly how much do labourers in India and Africa get paid?  (Don’t worry, this is not a maths question!)  Hmmm, it seems my version of a tea workshop would lack the same essence of social equality and zen-ness inherent in Japanese rituals.  

I also learned some Japanese idioms, which reminded me of the beginner’s mind and present moment awareness of Mindfulness, which I studied last year:   Ichi-go ichi-e (Japanese: 一期一会, lit. "one time, one meeting") [it͡ɕi̥.ɡo it͡ɕi̥.e] is a Japanese four-character idiom (yojijukugo) that describes a cultural concept of treasuring the unrepeatable nature of a moment. The term has been translated as "for this time only," and "once in a lifetime" (thanks, Google!)  

Certainly the tea ceremony was an unrepeatable moment, as I feel the last four years have been ‘once in a lifetime’ never to be repeated experiences as a mature student.  Each module I have taken has gifted me greater understanding, knowledge and opportunities to research some fascinating subjects I would otherwise remain ignorant about.  This degree has encouraged me to look beyond the superficial and encouraged me to critically evaluate everything, even myself!    So, enjoy each new moment as if it will be the first and the last, because it is!   xXx

 

cover photo courtesy of Keiko Uchida