As you may have seen last week, my International Booker longlist adventures have finally come to a close, and having finished one chapter of my reading life, I’m free to move on with some new plans. It seems apt, then, that my first post-Booker review examines a work on an even longer-term project, with reflections on a rather intricate pastime providing glimpses of important truths about life itself. I’m not convinced that you’ll all be ready to spend a couple of decades developing these insights, but if you’ll lend me your ears for ten minutes or so, I’ll do my best to give you the gist 😉
The Wisdom of Tea: Life Lessons from the Japanese Tea Ceremony (review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin, translated by Eleanor Goldsmith) is a wonderful work of non-fiction by Noriko Morishita, a journalist and essayist with an enduring passion for the Japanese Tea Ceremony, having begun studying the traditional art in 1977 when she was just twenty years old. Urged by her mother to take it up (mainly, one suspects, as an attempt to improve Noriko’s marriage prospects), she and her cousin, Michiko, dutifully trot off to the house of a family acquaintance for an introductory lesson, and thus begins an obsession that has lasted decades.
The title might lead the reader to expect a book in the vein of the many self-help guides around, another tome explaining how an ‘exotic’ foreign concept will make your pathetic western life more meaningful, but that’s not really the case. The Wisdom of Tea is much more about Noriko’s journey, a personal reflection on her life and the part her weekly lessons have played in it. There are certainly nuggets of wisdom scattered along the way, but these are couched as personal discoveries rather than as lifestyle tips, and Noriko is far more interested in describing her own experiences than in imposing her own beliefs on others.
We join Noriko at the very beginning of her journey, with the first taste of the tea she is offered immediately evoking strong memories:
When I visited Ryōanji Temple as a young teenager during a trip to Kyoto with my family, we had each been served a black tea bowl containing a tiny amount of liquid covered in a dense green foam. My parents drank it with every appearance of enjoyment, but my younger brother and I screwed up our faces at the bitterness when we took a sip.
Why do adults enjoy drinking such bitter things?
p.8 (Allen & Unwin, 2020)
This is merely a forewarning of how Noriko will struggle with her first steps into a new world, with confusion at every turn. She’s overwhelmed by the manifold arcane procedures governing how to approach the tea materials, wipe the utensils and even pour the water. Expecting a calming afternoon of tea and traditional sweets, Noriko and her cousin leave their teacher’s house exhausted wrecks.
Perhaps her biggest issue, though, is the disconnect between how she is taught and the educational methods she has experienced previously. Early on, we are privy to an angry internal commentary on her teacher’s admonitions:
“In Tea, form comes first. You shape the form first to provide a vessel for the spirit, which comes later.”
But creating an empty form without spirit is nothing but formalism! Isn’t that just forcing people into a mould? Surely there isn’t even a fragment of creativity in simply going through the motions from start to finish, without understanding the meaning? (p.15)
As Noriko struggles over and over with the basic manoeuvres, scolded for making the same mistakes repreatedly, you sense (wrongly, as it happens) that this isn’t a hobby that will last. She’s a young woman growing up in a modern, slightly Americanised society, and we wonder how long she’ll be able to take the constant corrections and the need for blind obedience to procedure.
This, of course, is all part of the charm of The Wisdom of Tea. Over the fifteen chapters, full of fun, enlightening anecdotes, Noriko gradually comes to understand more about the ways of the tea ceremony (or, as it is simply referred to throughout the book, ‘Tea’, with a capital letter). The change from summer to winter styles is the most obvious development, but almost every lesson brings a subtle change as the year rolls on, with the course of nature reflected in the selection of the scroll adorning the wall and the flowers adorning the room, as well as the choice of traditional sweets (which, as we learn early on, are eaten before drinking the tea to absorb the bitter flavour). Later, when she and the other students are taken out to a chakai (a mass gathering where adherents attend multiple tea ceremonies at a central location) and a chagi, where an imposing kaiseki lunch (with lashings of sake) is merely the prelude to the real business of the tea, Noriko begins to understand how what she studies every week fits in with the wider world.
For most readers, the lessons themselves are interesting enough, but it’s Noriko’s development that really makes the book. Her outside life is told in asides, the reader learning about her studies, her precarious existence as a freelance writer and her romantic woes, but it’s her mental development that is more intriguing. Helping the reader to sympathise with the writer is the revelation that Noriko’s not exactly a Tea prodigy; in fact (although this may well be poetic licence), she seems a tad clumsy, often painting herself as the dunce of her class. Yet this makes her discoveries even more startling when they occur: the realisation that she can suddenly hear the difference between spring rain and autumn rain, discern the smell of the charcoal used to heat the water, identify the different grasses growing in her neighbourhood. In effect, her senses have become heightened, all because of Tea.
There has been an enormous absence in my review of The Wisdom of Tea thus far, as where there are students, there must, naturally, be a teacher, and Noriko’s sensei is ‘Aunt’ Takeda. While she’s just an ordinary middle-aged woman, she has a certain air about her, showing the unmistakeable signs of a master, and looms effortlessly as a major figure in Noriko’s life. Currently, as a lock-down treat, we’re watching all of the Star Wars movies together as a family, which makes it hard for me *not* to see Noriko’s teacher as a proponent of the Force, striving for harmony and balance in the universe. However (and forgive me for yet another irreverent pop-culture reference here), a very different teacher-figure frequently came to mind, especially when Noriko is forced to spend hours practicing the procedures for wiping the tea utensils, needing to follow exact hand movements without being told why. Need a hint? Wax on, wax off…
There’s so much to like about The Wisdom of Tea. The reading experience is enhanced by its clever structure, with Noriko’s voice helping us to learn about the tradition by seeing and experiencing what goes on, rather than simply being lectured to. As a result, she comes across as a sympathetic fellow student rather than a stern teacher. The physical book itself is also a delight, from its simple yet pleasing cover (and generously spaced text) to the wonderful photos included at the centre of the book. Goldsmith (according to her biography, a Tea lover herself) provides a useful glossary, with illustrations, at the end of the book, and her own love of the subject shines through in her nuanced and elegant translation. It’s a joy to read and beautifully captures the contrast between Noriko’s many frustrations and her moments of enlightenment.
The Wisdom of Tea is a book for all Japanophiles to try, an enjoyable series of anecdotes with the occasional life lesson to accompany them, and in today’s rather uncertain climate, it provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the pace of modern life, at the same time as many of us are being forced to slow down. At one point, Noriko ponders Aunt Takeda’s comments on each chaji being a “once-in-a-lifetime” encounter, given that she attends so many. It’s up to a fellow student to enlighten her with a sobering response, explaining how this belief has been passed down from the masters of the art:
“A friend full of life one day might be killed the next,” she went on. “Maybe that was so common that it gave people a sense of urgency about today – made them realize that it might be the last time they met someone?” (p.143)
There’s definitely a lesson to be learned there. Whether you like tea or not, please, look after yourselves, everyone…