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.