Reviewed by Gerard Healy
This is a challenging read for a gaijin. The traditional conventions of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, as explained by Noriko Morishita, are a world away from most Westerners. Nevertheless, it is an intriguing world of ritual and ancient practices from which Miss Morishita has taken some valuable life lessons. She has been practising for twenty-five years and yet she says, “but there is no graduation from Tea.”
The majority of the book is dominated by the detailed descriptions of the intricate movements and utensils required for each of the various iterations of Tea which vary according to the seasons. Foreigners like myself (gaijin) will probably soon become lost in the myriad Japanese words and phrases associated with each specific step in the process. There is a helpful section at the end of the book called Tea Terms, which offers some clarification, as well as a selection of coloured photographs in the middle, which is invaluable.
My tip would be to go straight to the photos before reading the text to get some idea of what’s coming up. On the other hand, taking short cuts doesn’t seem to be the way of Tea. So perhaps you should follow the example of Miss Morishita and start at the beginning and work your way forward diligently. Is it only in the West that we try to find short-cuts to acquiring knowledge?
Just as the students appreciated the sweets served with the tea, so too did I appreciate the author’s personal revelations. We learn of her initial doubts over University, some later career stumbling blocks and the self-doubts about her relationships, including a painful engagement breakup. To her parents’ disappointment, she didn’t seem to follow the well-worn path of many of her peers, like her friend Michiko, who accompanied Noriko to their first lessons, before herself leaving to get married. There is also a very touching insight into the loss of one of her parents.
The turnover of students in her group became a steady pattern over the years. However, while many faces changed, one remained steadfast- her teacher or Sensei.
At first, she was known as Aunt Takeda, a neighbour and friend of Morishita’s mother. She was unusual in that she’d pursued a career into her thirties before having children. She had a calm presence and a straightforward manner, typical of a resident of Yokohama we are told. She was also a stickler for detail. She put much thought into her lessons with flowers and a daily scroll which hinted at the lesson to be taken from each session. But she was reluctant to give her own interpretation, preferring students to gain their own insights. The author gradually came to see the wisdom of this approach. Much later she urged Morishita to become a teacher of Tea and deepen her understanding of the practice.
One historically intriguing aspect of Tea is how today it seems to be overwhelmingly seen as a pursuit for women, but long ago it wasn’t.
Morishita explains how the small, low doorway into the tea room (nijiriguchi) was designed so that samurai had to leave their swords outside. This had the benefit of letting these warriors put aside. temporarily, the physical reminders of the precarious world they inhabited.
One thought that emerges, upon reflection, is the amazing dedication needed to pursue this arcane and highly repetitive practice for decades. Is Morishita representative of Japanese society in general? According to Malcolm Gladwell, she isn’t unusual in having this trait of persistence.
In his 2008 book “Outliers: the story of success”, he cites research into international high school Maths tests (where Japan often comes in the top five) and the link between filling in a lengthy questionnaire beforehand (p 247). On average, Japanese students fill in more questions than American students. In another study, given a difficult puzzle to solve, Japanese first-graders worked at it for 13.93 minutes before giving up. American first-graders lasted 9.47 minutes on average (p 249). Gladwell thinks there’s a link to the wet-rice growing practises of Asian countries over the centuries and this ability to stick to a task.
Morishita’s regular Saturday class seems to have provided a steadying influence on her wellbeing and a way of viewing the world philosophically. One lesson she draws is: when it is raining, listen to the rain. Another pertinent one is, “When you are living in difficult times and things seem confusing, Tea teaches you one thing above all others, live in the moment with an eye to the future.”
I would recommend this book with two caveats. One is that it helps if you have an interest in and/or have travelled to Japan. Then, are you the type of reader who can persist through mounds of detail to find the gems hidden beneath?
Noriko Morishita was born in Yokohama in 1956 and studied Humanities at the Japan Women’s University. She has worked as a reporter and essayist and has had several books published. The Wisdom of Tea (originally published in Japan as Nichi Nichi Kore Kojitsu in 2002) has sold over 75 000 copies in Japan.
The Wisdom of Tea
by Noriko Morishita
Allen and Unwin
ISBN: 978 1 76087 854 2
$24.99; 223 pp
Translated into English by Eleanor Goldsmith (2020)