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Crossing the Teas

There is something reassuring about landing in Tokyo after a long night flight and realizing that you are not the only one who did not get any sleep. It is just before seven on a Sunday morning, but as my limo navigates the streets of Ropongi, I keep noticing young couples wearing a blissfully drunk expression on their faces, girls struggling on their platform heels, boys grinning as they help them walk straight into a taxi. My car passes a karaoke joint, which is clearly the source of this Sunday morning parade.

 

I am somewhat disappointed by the fact that Tokyo party animals look just like their colleagues in Paris or New York. I half-expected Tokyo to greet me as a universe entirely different from my own. This may be due to jet-lag, or to a book I read on the plane.

Just before leaving the house, I noticed a little green paperback with a Japanese tea bowl on the cover. I didn’t have a guide to Japan, and hadn’t been there for a few years – so I figured this little volume may be a worthwhile read on my way to Tokyo. But when I open it on the plane, somewhere between Grazia and the “Gangster Squad”, I discover that this is not is not a guide to Kyoto tea-houses, nor is it another anti-oxidant bible, published by Mariage Freres in a hope to outdo Starbucks.

“The Book of Tea” was originally published in 1906. It is written in a perfect English by Kakuzo Okakura, a Tokyo University arts scholar who at the time was moonlighting as a curator at the Boston Fine Arts museum. Thus it precedes all of the new-age brouhaha we have heard about Japan, or Zen or the tea ceremony, and it speaks to an audience so foreign to our current off-hand cosmopolitanism, that they would probably exorcise Hello Kitty. This is not a book about tea, either. This is a book that speaks simply and directly about the aesthetics and philosophy of Zen, tea ceremony being an expression of it. And it invents new words as it struggles to express the notions never before heard in the West – like “Teaism” and “Zennism”.

Yet every word seems strangely relevant, answering questions I’ve been asking myself about the gap that still separates the East and the West. For we might be at ease at Nobu, or enamored of Gangnam Style, or obsessed with Wong Kar Wai – but how much do we really know about the history and tradition that created these worlds, and how much do we really want to know? Try digging deeper at a fancy dinner party and you will still find ignorance and superstition, not even to mention caviar gauche guests shrugging off a whole continent because deep down they could never understand it.

My flight is almost over and I close the book, I wonder if Okakura’s conclusion still holds true: “the only place humanity has met so far is in a tea-cup”. It is the only ritual both East and West call their own.. except perhaps for posting status on social media? On that subject, the old man also has a line for us: “Perhaps we reveal ourselves too much in small things, because we have so little of the great to conceal.”

The plane is landing through a sakura-colored dawn, happy clouds floating around us like cotton candy. The rays of the sun line up in parallel lines and fall sharp into the shimmering ripples of the blue-grey sea. Above this geometric perfection, away from the harmony of steely blue tones, Mount Fuji rises as something completely different, singular and alone – a world apart, with no mountain to keep it company, and nothing but the clouds to circle it’s mythical shape. The plane digs deeper into the clouds. Now they seem to curl into the shape of rising waves, Mount Fuji still looming behind them . It’s as if we are diving into the Great Wave painting – the iconic image of Japan that is one of the clichés we carry deep in the recess of our minds.

How lucky I am that in just 12 hours I can cross the bridge from one world to another. I hope I can learn something new on my stay here, something I still do not claim to know or understand – find “greatness in the smallest incidents of life” as the Book of Tea has promised. I just won’t look for it in a Ropongi KTV

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