Reading the World – Japan

The Book of Tea – Okakura Kakuzo

“The first cup moistens my lips & throat; the second cup breaks my loneliness; the third cup searches my innermost being…. The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration – all the wrong of life passes away through my pores. At the fifth cup I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup – ah, but I could take no more! I only feel the breath of cool wind that rises in my sleeves.” – Lo Tung, T’ang dynasty poet

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Japanese matcha tea made by my co-worker

I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did, despite being a tea-lover. This book  discusses the history of teaism in Asia (mainly Japan but also China), and is written in a very poetic and philosophical manner. Not only does the book talk about tea, it also talks about how tea has influenced Japanese culture, especially Japanese cuisine, clothing, literature and art. I learned some quite surprising facts. For example, onions were added to tea in some places, and tea-drinking was considered to be an occupation of depraved people! Henry Saville (1678) supposedly said that drinking tea was “a filthy custom.”

The book also goes into detail about the Japanese tea ceremony and how Japanese tea houses are built in a specific way for atmosphere. Everything is exact : the decor, the utensils, the clothing of the participants, the asymmetric nature, the seemingly fragile architecture…It’s quite amazing the amount of detail that goes into conducting a tea ceremony.

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Some of the utensils needed to make Japanese matcha tea. The gelatinous sweets to the right were in case we found the tea too bitter.

There are also many myths and legends added anecdotally. Also, some information on Buddhism and Taoism and Confucianism was included, as well as poetry.

“But I am not to be a polite Teaist. So much harm has been done already by the mutual misunderstanding of the New World and the Old, that one need not apologize for contributing his tithe to the furtherance of a better understanding.”  – Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea

Okakura is definitely very patriotic. ( Side note : I was told that Okakura was forced to commit seppuku (Samurai ritualistic suicide) as he was heavily involved in politics. ) On one hand, he bemoans how the West supposedly looks down on Japan and then he displays ethnocentric qualities himself, especially when he noted that Western homes have a “vulgar display of riches.” Hmm…. That was my only gripe with this book. I will definitely be re-reading it.

To end with a quote I wholeheartedly agree with:

“We have developed along different lines, but there is no reason why one should not supplement the other.” – Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea

Highly recommended for tea-lovers and Japanophiles.

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