This post was written after a trip to Japan in August, 2012.
The morning we left Tokyo for Kyoto on the Shinkansen rain was coming down in buckets. We fell asleep watching water pelt the windows, locked safely inside the bullet train like pills in a pillbox. When we arrived in Kyoto burning sun and blue skies gave way to a thunderstorm in what seemed like a single flash of lightning. Waterlogged, we found our way to a ryokan, and then to a coffee shop.
One of the things I love most about Japan is its small, dim, inevitably dull-brown in decor, coffee shops. Not the Starbucks that are slowly nudging the country in the direction of Korea’s big business café culture. Just to be clear: there are many beautiful tiny-tucked-away cafes in Seoul. However, there are also an increasing number of quadruple-story monstrosities, full to bursting late into the night with students and textbooks and laptops and iPads and smart phones. South Korea’s coffee explosion is Starbucks-ian in style and sweet and creamy in substance. The coffee is espresso-based and whipped cream-topped: latte, cappuccino, frappe. Syrup flavours seem to grow sweeter and more inventive by the week: caramel, vanilla, peppermint, almond, walnut-toffee-mint-crunch. South Korea is fast becoming the coffee theme park of Asia.
Japan, in contrast, takes a much more modest approach. Let me be clear that coffee shops in Japan are just that: coffee shops. They are not cafes. They do not offer you free Wi-Fi, or a power socket to plug in your laptop. There are no ‘comfy couches,’ no magazines, no mugs for sale, no low fat New York cheesecakes or honey butter breads, no toffee-nut blended lattes. My favourite Japanese coffee shop – the one we found across from our ryokan, in the rain, on the corner of that little Kyoto street – looked like this: a small, single-story shop with a brown façade; dark, slightly grimy windows and a sign that said COFFEE. Inside, a few small brown-wood tables huddled beneath low ceilings and dim light. The couple at the next table were talking quietly. There was some disorganised clutter on the walls and between the tables – old photographs, dusty ornaments – but none of it was there for an ironic or nostalgic or stylish purpose. It was just there. It was a little like being in the living room of your grandparents’ house, one of those places where life feels all but shut out, and light finds it difficult to reach, but that is somehow, strangely, still comforting.
And the coffee. The coffee tastes the way you imagined coffee would taste when you were a kid and hadn’t tried it yet (then one day your Dad gave you a sip of his instant Nescafe and you decided once and for all that adults were crazy). The coffee in Japan comes in little white cups. It is blended coffee; dark, even with a little silver jug of milk added. It tastes thick, spicy, chocolaty, and strong. But its strength doesn’t hit you like a punch in the face, the way the syrupy condensed milk coffee of Vietnam or Cambodia does. Rather, the wakeup is smooth and eye opening, like a gentle but firm hand on your back that propels you out into the world.
We left the coffee shop in search of tea. Beside Chion-ji temple in Kyoto’s Gion district a little alley leads to a small shop where tea ceremony demonstrations take place. When we found it the sky behind Chion-ji was still dark with the storm. In the electric air the mountains seemed greener, and the ravens that swooped and perched in front of them a denser black.
The teahouse is called ‘En’, and the outside is a pretty window of bamboo. The inside is tiny – only two rooms: the first for shoes, and the second for tea ceremony. We sat cross-legged in our socks on fresh-scented tatami mats. A few other tourists crouched around us, forced close by the size of the room, the quiet, the low ceiling. On three walls were a few simple calligraphy drawings. The fourth wall was a screen door that led to a courtyard. A rich green garden seemed to be edging its way closer to the door. It seemed as if at any moment a frond would slip its way into the room.
The woman in charge of the ceremony was dressed in kimono. She was soft spoken and peaceful, and her English was fluent and clear. We watched her set out the materials for the ceremony without speaking, while thunder murmured outside. She did everything slowly, deliberately, as if every movement was essential and carried weight.
She welcomed us in a slow, soft tone, and proceeded to tell us about the history and tradition of the tea ceremony. She was clearly repeating a rehearsed and memorised speech, one that she had spoken many times before, probably even that same day. But her voice was so calm that it didn’t matter. It was like listening to a stream, or rain on a roof. Like sitting reading in the sun on a warm afternoon. I felt my whole body relax, but at the same time I was completely alert, ready to hear and understand everything she was saying. Her voice pulled me into the room at that moment, like the focus sharpening on a camera lens. Everything but the woman, the tatami, the storm, and the tea faded away.
She showed us how to make our own cup of Japanese green tea. First we had to carefully lay out our tools on the mat in front of us: a small tea-bowl (twisted to face exactly the right direction), a thin wooden scoop, and a wooden whisk almost as fine as a cat’s whiskers. Then she crouched before each of us and helped us ladle a few scoops of green tea powder into our bowls. The powder is ground from young leaves, and is surprisingly bright green in colour, the kind of Kermit the Frog green you see in new plants after rain. It stood out against the deep red napkins we were using (my trip to Japan was full of deep colours – especially red and green). Once the powder was sitting in little green mounds, like foothills, in our bowls, she carefully poured a neat stream of boiling water over the top. Then we whisked. And whisked. And whisked some more. The aim, I believe, is to mix the tea as quickly as possible (without spilling it over the sides) to achieve a fine foam on top. “Like a latte,” the woman quips, and we all murmur laughter, more at the thought of such a fancy modern beverage in our meditative setting. I flicked my wrist as fast as I could, and slowly my cup developed a pleasing layer of froth. Patience is certainly a virtue during tea ceremony. As is concentration.
Before we taste the tea she brings us sweets: delicate purple creations twisted around themselves like snail shells, sparkling with sugar, decorated with perfectly detailed candy flowers. They are sweet and soft and seem to melt away on my tongue.
We tasted our tea and found it surprisingly creamy, despite the fact that no milk had been added. Slightly bitter, but smooth and warm. We sat quietly and sipped, listening to the thunder and watching the plants flail in the courtyard.
The tea, in a different but equally powerful way to the coffee, is refreshing.
“Tea ceremony is about purifying yourself,” she says. We take our time. We see ourselves in our ladles. We go out into the rain and feel everything draw in around us. For the rest of the afternoon we are completely focused on Kyoto. On the clear umbrellas we buy to walk us through the rain; on a Gion empty of Geisha but full of sweet samples; on the puppets and theatre and dance, and on the roaring river that sweeps through the city.
This is what Japan can do to you.