Tea ceremony

I have recently read a couple of interesting books “Samurai Williams: The adventurer who unlock Japan” and “The Tale of Murasaki: A Novel.”

Both books talk about remarkable historical figures, who have had a significant impact in shaping Japan’s identity as such. And to my surprise, in both books, the “Japanese tea ceremony” is mentioned, almost as a coincidence.


So, I decided to join a “Japanese tea ceremony” to experience this ritual first hand.  And my scepticism was overthrown by the sacred atmosphere that surrounded the room as an invisible veil had covered it all leaving only our naked souls exposed to what whatever might happened.

I was first, presented with some sweets to help me stand the bitterness of the tea. They were hand-made, beautifully-shapen and, as I confirmed later, nectar of Gods.

Then, the preparation of the tea itself begun, a girl, whose skin resembles the white snow of Akita, with gracious and precise movements started folding and stretching a piece of cloth. Such movements had the audience in a trance. We all fell under the spell of her. She pours tea powder into a bowl and whisks it with intensity and reverence. Then she slowly pours water into the bowl.

Nobody speaks.

Once she finishes with the preparation, a handsome young man passes the bowls around.
He sits the bowl before you and reverently bows before leaving. We turn the cup three times clockwise. And drink the tea in three gulps.

I feel as if a spell has been broken and I can hear the traffic sounds, and people outside in the street again.
I’m asked to eat the sweets I had been given previously, a very polite reminder that it was time to leave.
Life goes on.

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Japanese business etiquette II: Business cards

Although, Japan is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. Our daily business interaction hasn’t changed much in the last decades.

What do you mean? You may ask

I mean that our ways to interact, to connect, to build relationships in business are still traditional. We still don’t rely on social media as most people, in other countries, do because we don’t trust it much yet.

We still go old school when it comes to “network” We go through the whole process. We make phone calls, send faxes (yes, you read that correctly) we make appointments, wait for appointment confirmation. Then on the day of the appointment, we dress formally, make our way to the meeting place, while being sure to arrive at least ten minutes before the agreed time, wait in the lobby room and greet our counterparts one these arrive.

And once we get inside the room where our meeting will be carried out then we finally exchange business cards.

There are also few steps for this simple and yet crucial moment.

1.- Hold your card with both hands. Do not simple handle the card. But offer it.

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2.- Then respectfully receive the business cards you are being offered.

3.- Once you get back to your seat, lay all the business cards you have received and read them.

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As you can see, business cards, physical business cards are a must, because business cards tell the person you are meeting that you are trustworthy. And if you translate your card even into simple Japanese, people would be grateful. And you’ll be showing your commitment and your willingness to go the extra mile, which will speak highly of you. Moreover, as Japanese people tend to be shy, your business card will be giving them “a hand” because they will make small talk based on the information you provide on them (your business cards).

In other words, business cards are still ,in this time of internet and social media, the best way to introduce yourself in Japan. And secure the beginning of a good business relationship with your possible clients and business partners.

Japanese Business etiquette I: What happens in the nomikai. stays in the nomikai

Japanese business etiquette is very interesting, even puzzling at times, but of all Japanese business traditions the one that still interests me the most is the “nomikai.” But what’s a nomikai you would ask? It means “drinking party”. And it is one of the most important business rituals in Japan. If you are a non-Japanese person and luck strikes you, you’ll be asked to join a “nomikai,” but remember that you are not simply asked to participate in a dinner party. But entering a sort of entrance ritual to belong to the group, which in Japan is very important, because we are a culture that takes pride in belonging to groups.
In these gatherings, as you are an outsider (a person that does not belong to the group yet), people will observe you, they will want to know how approachable you are. And the longer you stay at the drinking party, the more trustworthy and open you are to have an everlasting business relationship, you appear to be. These invitations to “nomikai” should be accepted and taken as part of the business courtship, especially when you are a non-Japanese person. And if you were here for a short period of time, e.g., business trip, then the “nomikai” opportunities should be grasped at once, as the chance to seal the deal.
Most westerners come out of the negotiation rooms thinking they had made a deal with their Japanese counterparts when these only meant to say they will think about it. So, just a piece of advice, if you want to be sure you will get the deal, invest time building personal relationships here. It will help you in the long run.
The “nomikai” scene is far from wild, but it is carefree, happy and sometimes silly, everything but violence is allowed. But remember, Japanese people like discretion, so whatever happens in the “nomikai” stays in the “nomikia”, you will not reveal either comment about people’s behavior, possible episodes that might have happened or spread rumors about people. The next day you go the office clean shaved and showered as if nothing had happened and work your normal shift. But one of the bosses will send you an e-mail thanking you for your participation in the “nomikai” , reply as soon as possible. It is all part of the business etiquette protocol.
The japanese drinking party, as puzzling as might look for the Western world, is the free space where the Japanese businesspeople freed themselves from the mental weight of our extreme severe protocol, and all hierarchy seemed to disappear for just a few hours. “Nomikai” is the space where we get rid of our duties and embrace one another to show our gratitude and appreciation for the people who help us succeed in business. Therefore, “nomikai” not simply should be considered as the place where people get drunk but as the moment that allows Japanese businesspeople to be themselves.
And keep in mind that “nomikai” is the shortcut to have connections in Japan, and if you don’t have connections here, then you will have no business.

 

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Meiji shrine: Where the Gods meet

Tokyo is a place of contradictions, where you can find glamour in one corner and tradition and culture in another one (another corner). When visiting Harajuku, Shibuya’s cheeky little sister, one find eccentricity, and it (Harajuku) never disappoints, with its vibrant colors, rare stores, and beautiful people, you navigate through its small allies in a trancelike state. At least that’s how I feel every time I go there (Harajuku)

But just around Harajuku station (Omotesando exit), you will find one of its most precious treasures: Meiji Shrine (明治神宮 Meiji jingū) a place that has survived modernity until now. And still bring people together, local and visitors, we can feel the Gods and their spirits whisper in the trees when they ruffle the leaves, which some confuse with the wind. But I know it’s them who met in the trees’ top to talk about us, to make fun of us, to help us, to listen and to remind us that this is not the only life we will live.

The entrance of this enchanted place

Barrels of sake

Barrels of wine

We do like spirits here, what can I say?😉

 

 

Isn’t it breathtaking?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s Meiji jingū, a place not only to worship but to talk to the Gods and to meet them.

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Japanese theater: Noh and Kyogen

The origins of Noh theater can be traced back to the 8th century,  when sangaku, a form of entertainment that included music and performances was brought from China.

But as everything that arrives in Japan “sangaku” would go under a transformation, becoming Noh, one of the most emblematic cultural expressions that would ever be born. Noh is intense. It penetrates the air with its flute, drums, and songs. It will transport you to a mythical Japan, where demons and men fight the eternal battle between good and evil. But above all,  Noh will bring back the spirits of forgotten ancestors that still hovering the island.

Noh is a gust of air that becomes a tornado. And that’s where Kyogen, its loyal companion comes in handy. Without the fresh air kyogen blows into the room, I couldn’t recover from all the emotions Noh brings to life. Kyogen is lighthearted, it presents human nature, as it is, a maze of countless contradictions, which put in scene are rather amusing to watch. And perhaps their contrast is a reflection of our complicated and unpredictable lives.

  • A little video from the Noh National theater garden.

Ramen: Its mommy, daddy and museum

 

The arrival of instant ramen in 1958 to the world marked a milestone in ramen history. 

 

                                                                            Instant ramen advertisement-1963

 

 

It was a game changer..! Just imagine….! Japanese housewives didn’t have to slave over a hot stove to prepare one of the most emblematic and delicious dishes ever been born in Japan. But have you ever wondered if Ramen is Japanese?

 

Well according to the ramen museum in Shin-Yokohama, ramen is hafu (a mixed race child) 

 

 

                                                        In summary, Chinese daddy, and Japanese mommy

 

                                                                                                      

See..? I never lie 😉 

 

 

And once we finish researching about the origins of ramen, we entered the museum, and this beautiful view welcomed us, 1958 was a magical year indeed. 

 

And it is in 1958 that the ramen museum is set up, as it time had stopped forever in its alleys.

 

The experience was amazing, I mean ramen is a unique experience in its own right. But walking, feeling, touching and “living” 1958 Japan was a sort of a dream come true as if someone would have opened a “time portal” for us. I just loved it..!

 

It was just simply lovely 😊

 

The Empress: Her tea house, her lake and her garden

As soon as you step into the garden, something changes in the atmosphere, I don’t know if it is the temperature, the cicadas that sing in unison with the wind. Or the voices of visitors that become a mere whisper in the distance. I have no idea, what it is, but something changes. Or maybe it is the Empress Shōken herself welcoming you to her garden.

I see the lights on in Empress Shōken’s tea house, and I can’t help but feel naughty, as if I were spying on someone. But I imagine that if Empress Shōken discovered me outside her tea house, instead of getting upset, she would invite me to drink tea with her. Because I think she was indeed a generous soul.

I just imagine her (Empress Shōken) sitting there in her tea house, looking at the little lake in front of it (the tea house), letting her maids entertain her, and ask them to leave as soon her husband arrives. Of course, nothing of this is written anywhere. I just like to imagine it.

A few shots of the empress’s lake little lake, where the water lilies imperceptibly move with the soft afternoon breeze.

A shot of the tea house from the little lake

I distractedly (without paying attention) walk through the garden and, as always, my feet take somewhere I didn’t mean to go and I arrive to Kiyomasa-Ido well, which is famous for the purity of its water.

But I am afraid it’s time to leave, because I am the only person  in the garden now.  Or maybe I’ll just stay a little bit longer so I can make Empress Shōken company, at least for a little bit longer.

NOTE: Although, Meiji jingū gyoen (Meiji jingū inner garden) existed before the construction of Meiji Shrine, according to the Meiji Jingū gyoen brochure, I always think of the garden, as Empress Shōken’s garden, because the tea house that adorns this secret garden was built especially for her.

Kagurazaka: Gods in summer

During the Obon holidays, which are the holidays, where most Japanese people go back to their hometowns to visit their families and to honor their ancestors, Tokyo opens its secret dens for you.  And following the summer breeze one Sunday afternoon, I discovered: Akagi jinja (Akagi shrine)

When I saw this torii (entrance to a sacred place), I knew I had arrived at an extraordinary place.


Akagi jinja (Akagi shrine) was redesigned by Kengo Kuma in 2010, and he made of it (Akagi shrine) a master piece.

Those kanji above can be read as 蛍雪天神(keisetsu tenjin) The God of the diligent study

As always my enthusiasm took the best of me and I gave my offerings a little bit too loud. I think I might have woken up the God in its day off. I should leave now, but if the God wakes up, please do not speak of me. You haven’t seen me. Shhhh…!!

Candy crafting: When candy dances

 

As children we all enjoy playing with dough and mud, we love dressing their ordinary appearance into whatever our innocent imagination tells us.

But when we grow up, sadly,  we forget that once we were all artists, that we could create dragons, castles and kill them all at the end of the game to just start it all over again later.

Lucky for me, I have good friends, who don’t let me forget the joy of playing and who are willing to experiment with me what the city has to offer.

And going around town with these good friends, we found a charming little store, and soon as we got in, we were hooked, because we had found an “Amezaiku” (飴細工) shop.

Amezaiku, candy crafting, lets you shape candy into whatever shape you might like. Amezaiku’s origins could be traced back to 796AD when Amezaiku masters gave their first offering to the Doji-temple, which was built when Emperor Karmu moved the capital from Nara to Kyoto.

But you have to be quick, though, candy wants to be given an identity, and waits for no one.

 And even your hand temperature will play against you, so you have to be quick.

There were enchanted roses, sleeping mermaids waiting to be freed, dancing bears, who would love to go home with you. And something primitive and familiar awoken inside me. I just simply had to try it (Amezaiku).

 

And I did

 

 

I almost immediately registered for a workshop. And It was a nice class indeed, where a young master, Mr. Yamamoto, would guide us step by step into the process of making candy dance. And through this dance wake up the spirit within it (the candy) to reveal it (candy’s the spirit) before the world.

 

 

※If you wish more information about the lessons, call 03-6323-3319 website: http://ame-yoshihara.com

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Taiyaki: The rebel fish

Nobody knows when exactly taiyaki 「たい焼き」appeared for the very first time in Japan, but according to some historians its origins can be traced back to the Meiji era.

But what most people find puzzling is its shape, which resembles a fish. And on this subject, although, there isn’t an absolute theory, I read somewhere, that during the Meiji era, red snapper (tai 鯛)was incredibly expensive, so as to give people the sensation they were eating something special, taiyaki was shapen into fish silhouette. Just to make people happy. As always making people happy it’s the main purpose of taiyaki’s short and yet incredible existence

I personally see taiyaki as the rebel fish, being born in an era of change, somehow it speaks of  human resilience and of the untamed determination to survive despite adversity. And while doing so, we can be happy.

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