Tuesday, December 06, 2005

It suits me to a tea

"... the first sip is joy, the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, the fifth is ecstasy."

Jack Kerouac, "The Dharma Bums"

A visitor to my blog points out that I mention tea in several of my postings, and asks what role, ceremonial or otherwise, tea plays in my life.

When I was in college, I used to drink gallons of tea so that I could pull all-nighters studying for tests. My favorite blends were Twining's Earl Grey and Tetley's, both taken with enough sugar to trigger diabetic shock.
When college ended, so did the tea orgies.

And then I moved to Japan.

For many Japanese, tea isn't just a drink. It's a way of life called Sado (or Chado), the Way of Tea. At the center of this art is the Japanese tea ceremony, steeped in Zen and requiring a lifetime to understand. I don't know much about Sado, so I won't delve blindly into it here.

But I can tell you that on a more mundane level, tea infuses most every aspect of Japanese life. It's a token of hospitality and friendship, a cue to relax and take a break from your office work. For me, it was always a subtle reminder that I was a guest in someone's house or workplace, a formality that officially marked the start of a visit.

When I first got to Japan, I thought green tea was green tea. But I quickly learned that that's like saying the "Mona Lisa" is just a painting.
I discovered the differences between common-grade bancha and higher-grade sencha. I grew fond of the nutty taste of hojicha, so inexpensive and so comforting on a cold winter's night. I loved the strong, slightly bitter matcha, that staple of the tea ceremony, so expensive that it was only an occasional treat. I liked the woody taste of kukicha, the subtle hint of puffed brown rice in genmaicha.
And above all, I savored that ambrosia of the gods, gyokuro, as if it were the very breath of life itself.

I've been back from Japan for nearly eight years now, but my green tea habit is as strong as ever. Lately, I've added Quan Yin tea, an inexpensive import from China, to my stash.
When I drink tea, time melts away, the pace of my life slows. Nothing assumes greater importance than enjoying the warmth of the cup in my hand and the warmth of the tea that spreads like a down comforter across my chest.
This is my tea ceremony.

I never got into the coffee habit. I never cared for the taste. I equate coffee, probably unfairly, with morning rush hour, stress, a caffeine fix, high blood pressure, lives of quiet desperation, cheesy Folger's TV commercials and Joe DiMaggio ("Mr. Coffee").
Ironically, coffee has become more popular in Japan than tea among younger people. But then, I've always bucked trends (or at least I like to think so).

So there you have it.
Tea is my heroin, my obsession, my savior, my teacher, my excuse to procrastinate (as if I need one).


g said...

Tea. I can see this is a topic with depth and breadth.

Maybe one step at a time.

I heat up some water in the microwave, add honey, reheat the water and add a tea bag.

Not much ceremony. But maybe there is. I am assuming you do not use tea bags. Is this correct?

Michael said...

Hi G,

I only use a teabag when I have the occasional cup of Celestial Seasonings. For Japanese/Chinese tea, the tea is always loose.

passion said...

Greetings Michael

I was listening to the radio yesterday which says tea is very good for us cos it can prevent cancer.. Isn't it an irony?

I can relate to the tea culture as In China it is pretty much the same. Very glad to learn that you are very into it...Tea culture certainly has more merits than drinking culture over here in NZ.

The best green tea I've ever drunk is Japanese green tea - I am with you on that one!