Rebalancing – personal places, Pt 2

In Feb ’06, Chris and I decided to check out the Japanese tea ceremony up on Bukit Tinggi, in the Japanese Village (up Colmar Tropicale). I’d only been up there once before, in ’02, and I only have vague memories of the area. We were just in time for the 11:00 am session and there were only 2 of us for the ceremony. Once payment was settled – MYR 20 per person for the ceremony and MYR 20 rental per yukata (summer light kimono) – the attendants promptly closed the sliding doors of the tea house and moved us to the smaller rooms to dress. I kept my white socks on and kept quiet most of the time, while the tea house manager dressed me. I decided that I was going to observe more, so the manager expertly chose a brown-rose colored yukata for me. Looks nice on brown girl, she said. She also decided to use a more classic way of dressing me; using a light-colored sash as a band around my waist and a simple gold-colored cord to bind around me, on top of the sash, making simple knots as the finishing touches. When Chris came out of his dressing room, I was so surprised. He looked like a Japanese 1000-koku samurai on his day off!

After we finished dressing and posing for our photos (oi those were rented kimonos – we knocked ourselves out lah) signaled our readiness to the tea house attendant. She ushered us to the waiting house – a small hut with benches and a small square pond) and politely informed us to wait. Before reaching the waiting house, we used a small bamboo long-handled bucket to wash our hands and mouth, and rinse the bucket as well. Once the host was ready, she will come back to fetch us up to the tea house. Maybe it was the washing the hands and mouth action that made me become more quiet and reflective. Chris thought it was the whole kimono-wearing gig.

After 15 minutes (I suppose the host needed to put on HER yukata too, for starters) the attendant shuffled down to meet us. She explained the etiquette of walking up to the tea house; we were only to step on the larger rocks that formed the pathway and not step on the small pebbles around them rocks. We were to walk as softly and soundlessly as possible. The key to the whole experience is to behave at all times in a respectful manner to the host; as it is always a huge honor bestowed on us to be invited to a tea ceremony. It would be natural for the host to deliberate carefully on ever decision. Which scroll to hang on the wall, how to decorate the tea room, which tea pot to use and which bowls to use to serve the green tea. So, in view of how much respect is put in the effort by the host, we as guests need to reciprocate. Guests also must honor the host. Mutual respect must be honest and felt.

If you think that was deep – it’s only the beginning! 🙂 And we were only at the stage of WALKING UP to the tea house!

Once we got to the tea house, we were brought to the side entrance. It’s a door that’s half the size of our normal doorways. The entrance is raised, like on a Malay kampong house where you only reach the door after climbing up a few steps. When I saw that tiny door I automatically thought I’d have to climb up and crawl through, but the attendant (such a sweet and patient girl) showed us the proper way of entering; we kneeled slightly so that our shins touched the base and we were to use our knuckles outside the body to brace ourselves and to assist in the hauling our bodies through the door. The rationale behind that? To remind all guests that even though the host holds them in the highest esteem, we are still all humans. No matter what our classes/castes/social standing are, every one has to ‘crawl’ through the door to enter. After we place our samurai swords on the rack outside, of course.

A few minutes’ wait in the waiting hall was used by the attendant to explain to us the usage of the different rooms in an authentic tea house. The size of each room is measured by how many tatami mats were needed to cover the floor. I think the tea room was a 6 1/2 tatami mat-room. She briefed us on how to sit without breaking our ankles (the ceremony took about 45-mins) and showed us how to bow to our host properly, while seated. It’s rather like our Muslim prayer position where we bring our foreheads to the floor. Elbows were to be kept in, not sticking out ala char-kway-teow upper-cuts. She showed us how to use our thumb and forefinger to measure the distance between our knees and the edge of the tatami mats when we sit.

Upon entering the main tea room, we bowed to the host(ess) and sat. Immediately I felt the hush. I didn’t expect it, nor was I prepared for it; I could feel my heartbeat slowing down, my inhales and exhales deeper yet more quiet, my facial muscles soften. In photos taken after the ceremony, I actually looked relaxed, like I just completed full hour of Riyo’s Body Balance class that included meditation/relaxation.

The attendant briefed us on how we were to behave to appreciate the room, the hanging scroll, the single red flower in the slender white vase, the delicate bowls from which we would drink our tea. The hanging scroll’s calligraphy always represented the mood/tone of the tea ceremony, so they are chosen carefully, always. In this particular instance, the calligraphy on the scroll reflected peace and harmony. We looked at those stuff and bowed our appreciation. We also picked up the bowls and turned it around carefully, to admire the design. Usually, the best bowls would be chosen by the host. They could be heirlooms, part of a set that was handed down from one generation to the next. Some of them could be thousands of years old. Such was the respect for the guests.

Then the tea was mixed. The attendant described the actions in the background. I remember something being said about the bamboo whisk being used to mix the green tea powder into the hot water. Everything was special. Each of the movement was economical, but smooth. How could simple gestures and moves of making tea be so meaningful and calming?

It would take 3 1/2 sips to drink the tea, the last half sip a slight slurp. Before bringing the bowl to the lips, we needed to turn the bowl 2 (or was it 3) times so that our lips would be in the plain side of the bowl and the painted design (flower or fish or whatnot) would be facing out. That was to ensure we kept to the pureness of the design, as the bowl we drank from was to be a vision of unmarred beauty. I’ve forgotten the proper way to pick up the bowl and hold it though 🙂

After finishing the tea, we used the tips of forefinger and thumb along the rim of the bowl to remove any residual lip print, and press those tips on the paper napkin placed next to us, to keep the bowl as clean as possible. I remember the attendant mentioning that some traditional tea ceremonies also would include finger food – mostly sweet deserts – and could take up to 4 hours. Whoa.

I totally did not expect the tea ceremony’s impact on me. The calming effect was welcomed, naturally, even though I wasnt sure I would feel it before I got there. But in reflection, I was totally bowled over by the combination of alertness and peacefulness that I felt, sitting there, on the tatami mat. It felt like I was relaxed and calm, but at the same time, ready to spring up and take the head off my oponent, should one would attack. Very strange, but very true.

So this now became my place to retreat to. When I need a quick DIY rebalancing fix, I’d close eyes and return to the tea room, and remember the tranquility. And move on.

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