Tea with Keiko by Maria Howard
We meet at ten o'clock on Sunday at Jodo-Ji temple in Onomichi, a port on Japan’s inland sea. As instructed, I toss 100 yen between the wooden slats at the entrance and prostrate myself in front of the altar. Explaining the fluidity between Buddhism and Shinto in Japanese culture, Keiko then leads me to the nearby shrine where we bow, clap twice so the gods hear us, bow again. This ritual done, we walk through narrow streets until we reach an old house with dark roof tiles and an elegant wooden gate. I remove my shoes and recall Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In praise of shadows as I take in the screen doors and chiaroscuro light particular to Japanese interiors.
Keiko sits me down in a room with rattan chairs, an old television set and a Miffy clock, and introduces me to the ancient art of the tea ceremony. She offers me a slice of pound cake -- ‘green tea is bitter so first we eat sweet’ -- and warms a bowl with hot water, wiping it down carefully with the slow actions prescribed by tea masters hundreds of years ago. Next comes the matcha. The powdered tea is acid green, an almost unnatural colour that the austerity of the wabi sabi ceramic throws into dramatic relief. Keiko pulls out a wooden whisk and whips the tea into a foam like a barber lathering up his brush; ‘This is the most important part. I put my energy here.’ She passes me the bowl with two hands; ‘When you drink you bow. Hold like this and turn out of respect for the host. Or hostess.’ I do as she says and turn the bowl clockwise before taking a sip of the thick tea, enjoying the feeling of the glaze on my lips, the heat on my hands.
As I drink she talks to me about energy, or ki. An artist who spent ten years in Manhattan’s TriBeCa, Keiko is also a healer and yoga teacher. She returned to Japan to look after her late mother and now lives with her sisters, putting her energy into the house and the people around her; ‘You know arigatō? Arigatō has very good energy. Sometimes three or four of us get together and we say ah-ree-gah-toh.’ She stretches out the syllables of this simple thank you until it takes on its own sacred meaning.
Then, ‘showtime!’; the ceremony is over and Keiko makes strong black coffee before showing me her portfolio. She explains how she spends hours at the market talking to the flowers; ‘who will be my model today?’ I ask how they reply; ‘They shine!’ We talk for a while about the flatness of Japanese art and as she packs away her drawings she asks where I’d like to go for lunch. ‘I leave myself entirely in the hands of a local,’ I say, and we make our way out of the shadowy house and onto the bright streets of Onomichi.
Maria Howard is a freelance writer and curator currently living in Glasgow. Last year she quit her full-time job as an editor for Christie's auction house in London to travel from the bottom to the top of Japan in three months.
"Tea with Keiko" was highly commended by the 2017 judge in the I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition. He had the following to say about "Tea with Keiko":
'The subject matter is familiar to many who visit Japan, I would guess, so no surprises or excitements there. But the essay seems to encapsulate, for me, the quiet, mannered, ceremonial side of traditional Japanese life. Again there is an economy of words and some attractive imagery – the “chiaroscuro light particular to Japanese interiors” and the “acid green” of the powdered tea, “an almost unnatural colour that the austerity of the wabi sabi ceramic throws into dramatic relief”
'“Wabi”, I am told, can be translated as “tranquil simplicity”, a phrase that (appropriately) describes the essay itself. And there is a wonderfully ironic twist at the end (hopefully intended!) when Keiko, after hosting, with meticulous attention to detail, an age-old ceremony devoted to tea, “makes strong black coffee”.' -- Graham Mercer