At the all Japan nationwide tea gathering held in Kyoto in March of this year, both Oiemoto Zabousai and his father Hounsai gave keynote lectures. Both were  quite enlightening and I absorbed as much as I could.  In  a sense I was grateful that I was able to serve tea at such an event but also that I understood Japanese well enough to be able to take away life lessons that were embedded in these lectures.  Many of you who are reading this may not be involved in tea so I will give you one lesson that we can all learn from.

In Hounsai’s speech he spoke about ‘aji 味’、which in Japanese means taste, or flavour.  In summary:  Each person has their own aji/flavour/taste.  This taste/flavour is deeply personal and is a result of our background, education, and more importantly our personal experiences in life .  Tea ceremony has many rules and sometimes as hosts when we serve tea to guests who are new to tea we forget that our role is simply to serve tea.  As a result we try to teach guests how to hold the bowl, how to bow, and how to drink the tea, and what the tea should taste like.  In short, we try to force our aji/ taste/flavour/ onto our guests and in so doing we rob them of the chance to develop their own taste based on their individual experience.

When we offer to serve someone tea, simply serve them tea.  It is not a tea lesson.  The guest will hint at what he wants to learn more about through the questions they ask. Then the host by all means, should give the  information the guest needs to satisfy their taste/flavour.  Tedious explanations of how to hold the teabowl is of no use to a guest whose is mainly interested in the scroll, or perhaps the wood that is used in the tearoom.  Again our responsibilty as hosts is to make the tea, serve it to our guests and allow them the space to experience it in a way that suits their aji.

An example of  this in daily life:  A few years ago, an old and dear friend of mine visited Japan.  I took him to Himeji Jo which is the best preserved castle in all of  Japan. It is expansive, mysterious, and filled with all the aura of the old samurai days.  The life-sized mannequins wore beautiful costumes and I drooled at how beautiful they were.  My friend was very impressed with the castle and all he saw,however the highlight for him was bird watching in the expansive grounds outside with his binoculars and his ‘Birdwatching in Japan’ book.

The same happened when we visited the Imperial Palace in my city Kyoto.  I was pumped up explaining to him all about the painted sliding doors in the palace but several times he put me on pause to grab his binoculars to check out a bird that caught his eye.  As luck would have it,  on the tour there was another tourist who was a bird-watching enthusiast who recommended some sites for my friend to visit while he was here. Even though he didn’t want to be a bother, and told me to plan his trip based on what worked for me time-wise etc, I was happy to find out his aji, and so while I chose our destinations, I allowed him to take the lead once we were there so he could experience each place in a way that matched his tastes.  I stopped teaching him about Japan, and in the end he had a great time and taught me a lot about Japan.  For example when I took him to the river by my house, I said ‘hey did you know that there are Chinese characters carved into the mountains, come I’ll show you’,  When we got there he said ‘hey you didn’t tell me  there were many migratory birds here in the river! Wow, look at that one!’  I smiled sheepishly.  After all, I had lived in my city for 4 years at that point and had no idea about the migratory birds.   I saw them all the time but I go to the river I do so enjoy the views of the mountains you see.   Now when I think back I smile and say to myself,  wow what a delightful difference in taste.


What should we do to teach ourselves. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Find someone in that field that you admire and respect (you could say a role model perhaps).  Research that person’s work, approach to the subject you are studying, their role models, and if they are  still alive perhaps make physical contact by attending their lecture, exhibition, game etc.
  2. Find another ‘teacher’.  There are tons of people who know a lot more about your topic than you do.  Look on the internet for groups who share a similar interest in your topic, read blogs, and search for videos on you tube that explain, demonstrate or discuss things related to your topic. Don’t forget there are how-to books for almost everything under the sun.
  3. Find a senpai . Senpai is a Japanese word that basically means a person who is more senior than you, not necessarily in age, but rather because they joined an organization before you (meaning they have been doing something longer than you have, and that makes them senior to you).  Look for someone who has been studying your topic longer than you have and ask them to explain difficult concepts or even to teach you something new.
  4. Get information about the opposite of what you do in class.  For example if you are taking a pottery class which is practical, read about the theory.  Maybe read about types of clays, kilns and firing methods, what type of pottery is produced in which countries/regions, and which is considered to be the best, how is pottery used in around the world (eg in Japan it is a big part of tea ceremony) etc. If it is a sport, read about the governing bodies (eg. National Tennis Association) and all the major competitions for that sport, the rules for each competition, prize money, top players etc.                    On the other hand if you are studying the theory in class find ways to learn the practical side of things. eg If you are taking a language class for example, join an online community where you can practice writing and reading messages in your target language.  Make a weekly/monthly lunch date with someone who is fluent in your target language, and ask them to correct your most obvious mistakes.  I say obvious mistakes because you don’t want to make the other person to feel like they are working; you want the atmosphere to be fun.  Your goal is to use the language in a natural setting, accuracy will come with continued practice.
  5. Find a way to practice on your own.  If you can afford to, try to buy the tools you need to practice at home.  You may not be able to afford a grand piano, but maybe you could find a used keyboard type that comes with headphones etc. If it is belly dance, then invest in a few DVDs and any other basics you would need to shake your hips at home.  It is also possible to practice the theory at home, review your notes thoroughly, research anything that came up in class that you would like to know more about, create your own notes by adding information that helps you to remember, or add more depth.
  6. See your topic in action.

(ア)   Language learners : go to speech contests, or International conferences/events in your area, travel to where the language is used

(イ)   Dance/musical instruments: go to concerts

(ウ)  Sports:  don’t just watch it on tv, go to see the real matches/competitions

(エ)  Art – exhibitions, gallery openings, auctions (don’t bid, just look, don’t cough either it may be mistaken for a bid)

(オ)  Alcohol making or tasting – visit a winery/distillery, go to wine/beer festivals etc

(カ)   Tea ceremony – go to an actual ocha kai or chaji

7.  Host your own.  Why not start your own club for patchwork, auto mechanic, real estate investing, guitar, snorkeling or whatever it may be.  Why not host an amateur guitar night, or salsa night?

These are a few ideas to get you started and I am sure that you dear readers have more that you can think of.  Please don’t hesitate to write a comment and share with me any other ideas you have.

Ganbatte Kudasai

We will continue our discussion of how to teach ourselves.   In this part 2 I will explain why I found it necessary to learn to teach myself and in part 3  I will discuss ideas on how we can teach ourselves.  I hope you find  the ideas useful.  These ideas came about because of my own experience studying Japanese Tea Ceremony.  In many cases we are not allowed to see, much less do the tea procedures that are beyond our level. Teachers decide which procedure you will be allowed to do, and how many times you will have to do it before being taught the next higher one.

At the lower level (there are about 6) we need to know  16 different tea procedures.  For most of those 16 procedures however there is a summer and a winter version.  Additionally, for each of those 16, the movements will vary depending on the shelf you are using, and there are many, many types of  shelves. You do the math.  I found that practicing once a week meant that I would have to wait years before getting a chance to do all the 16 tea procedures in my level and to be able to do them well.  Not to mention even more years before I get a chance to go on to the next level and beyond where the procedures become quite interesting.

To ensure that I not only get a chance to study the 16 tea procedures  in a much faster time, but that I master each one as well, I started teaching myself.  I started acquiring the utensils I needed a little at a time, until I had enough to practice the 16 procedures that I need to know.  I relied on online resources, books etc to learn the order of the movements for each procedure.  (For techniques I need corrections from my teacher or someone more senior than I).  For tea procedures that I am not allowed to do or see in my tea class, I ask my senior (senpai) to teach me whenever he can.

I now practice at home usually three days per week and on each day, I do tea procedures 3 times.  Sometimes I do 3 different ones, sometimes I do one twice and another  once to make a total of 3.  I have learned and improved so much by practicing at home. My progress has been rather quick and I am satisfied.  Best of all, I can do any tea procedure I like, even if it is above my level, because at home I don’t need  permission to do so.  Naturally I haven’t shared this with my teachers.

The tips in part 3, have all helped me in some way.  Some of them are priceless.  Please continue to read and don’ t forget to share your comments.

Recently I have been thinking of the importance of learning teach ourselves.   Whatever it is we are trying to learn, be it a foreign language, a skill, or a craft, our progress or lack thereof does not rests soley in our teacher’s hands.  The onus for our learning does not rest with our teachers, it lies with us, it is our responsibility.

What do I mean?  Well, even if you have the best teacher in the world, that teacher cannot teach you everything there is to know about whatever it is you are studying.  More importantly, if you rely only on what you are taught in class without taking the initiative to seek extra knowledge on your own, then your understanding of the subject will be limited to your teacher’s understanding of the subject, and how quickly you progress will depend on how much scope the teacher gives you to do so.  Added to that is the fact that you will be missing an opportunity to fully immerse yourself in your topic by moving beyond the theoretical and more into the practical and vice versa you may be doing the practical in class but lack the theory.

Teaching yourself allows you to progress at a faster than average pace.  It deepens your understanding and helps you to ask more meaning questions in class about different aspects of your topic.

In part 2 I will share some ideas and techniques that I have found useful in teaching myself tea ceremony.  Please do tune in.

Americans have an expression ‘bang for your bucks’  Although I myself don’t use that expression I do appreciate the concept.  I like the bang for free( sounding  vulgar

I think it is safe to say that Japan has the best fireworks shows in the world.  While I am sure that some people may have problems digesting that, what is undisputed however, is that we have THE LARGEST fireworks display in the world.   It happens next door to my city on August 1st when 200,000 explosions can be seen across the summer sky by thousands of gawking patrons in brightly coloured summer kimonos (yukata).

From mid July to August each year, cities and villages across Japan, pull out all the stops to make their fireworks display the best it can be.  Ads for fireworks are never complete without mentioning how many of those firecrackers will be used in each display.  For me personally, anything under 7000 is not worth my time (that was written with a British accent to up the snobby/snotty factor).

In many places these events are usually held by the main river that flows through each city  or town.  It is a grand affair that can be enjoyed by all, and the best part is they are totally FREE.

My favourite fireworks festival takes place around the shore of the beautiful lake Biwa.  10,000 fireworks are set off in the summer sky that are designed to take your breath away.  Of course popular designs such as butterflies, hearts and of cours the ever popular Kitty Chan and Doraemon get their fair share of oohs and aahhs.

If you ever get the chance please do visit Japan during the summer (by Japan what I really mean is Kyoto).  There is so much going on that will make you feel alive again.  Never mind the humidity, it prevents your skin and hair from drying out, and moving around in the heat will help you lose a few pounds.

If you have been to any of the summer activities in Kyoto please do write a comment and share with me what, where, when and your impressions.

Ja mata ne/Sayonara

Before coming to Japan my birthday was a day to celebrate and to have a good time.

However, on my first birthday in Japan (when I had a tv) there were sad images all day, of the sheer and utter destruction of life caused by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.  It was then I realized that my birthday and the bombing of Hiroshima fall on the same day, and while I am living in Japan it will not be a day to celebrate.

I have been to Hiroshima several times.  The site of the atomic bomb musuem is beautiful yet it tells a sad story.  I have spent hours looking at items pulled from the disaster area such as school uniforms of children, lunch boxes, and pictures of victims that were left with severe illnesses and ghastly skin conditions from being exposed to high levels of radiation.

On to another story, in the past few months I have been fortunate to have met and spoken with Daisosho Hounsai the 15th Urasenke Grand Tea Master.  He is quite charasmatic.  He himself experienced war, and the story goes that the chabako temaes were developed by his father so that Daishosho Hounsai could share tea while serving his country n that time of war.  I have been reading some of his written work and they move me.

It is due to his influence and his concept of ‘Peace through a  bowl of tea’ that on my birthday yesterday and the day of the Hiroshima bombing, that I  served tea as a way of encouraging peace.

It was quite fulfilling to serve tea both on my birthday and on the following day as well.  I no longer focused on who forgot my birthday, or what I wanted for my birthday.  I simply focused on making  and sharing tea as my own symbol of peace.

This is now a new tradition for me, and it is one that gives my birthday new meaning.  When tea is made in the true spirit in which it should be done, your focus is on making the best bowl of tea possible for your guest, and all else is secondary.  It is an utterly selfless act, in which everything you do, is for the benefit of your guest.  There is no place for the ego which is usually the root of many misunderstandings/wars.

I look forward to my next birthday when I can again be reminded that there are no winners in war, and when I can in my own way make the tiniest contribution by encouraging peace through my bowls of tea.

I would like to say a big thank you to all of you who have been reading my blog during my absence.  I am grateful because even I have not been to this page in months.  In the meantime so much has been happening and so many lessons have been learned.

I hope to continue sharing my stories and experiences with you

Kind Regards