Today we set out to visit perhaps one of the most famous shrines in Japan, the Fushini-inari-taisha Shrine. The shrine is famous for its seemingly never-ending series of torii (the iconic Japanese arches that you’ve seen, but never knew what they were called).
Inari is the name of the mountain where the shrine and it’s mile or so of torri trails are located, and it is also the name of the god of rice and the patron of businesses, manufacturers, and merchants. So, anyone in these industries worship here, and if they are particularly devout, they might dedicate a torri (hence why there are so many).
As the trails scale up the mountain that mile or so walk will take you a good two hours, and even longer if you are unlucky enough to be there when all the other tourists are. Not only do the torris force you into an enclosed space, but you are almost guaranteed to be slowed down to a crawl or a stop every 10-15 feet while another tourist tries (and usually fails) to get their perfect selfie in front of the orange toriis sans other tourists. The selfie march started off with everyone wearing their coats, jackets, and big smiles but as the trail wound up the mountain, slowly and steadily, the selfie marchers first lost coats, followed by jackets, and then by about half-way up, very few were smiling anymore.
Tim and I actually didn’t make it the whole way up as we didn’t anticipate how long it would take to do the walk, and because I’d booked us for a tea ceremony that afternoon, we didn’t have time to conquer Inari (which I think we were both secretly glad that we didn’t have to climb any more stairs for the day).
Making our way down the hill, we spotted a restaurant serving French-bistro-style sandwiches in baguettes that rivaled anything you mind find in Paris (minus the razor sharp crusts).
From there we headed to downtown Kyoto, hit the ATM, and then made our way into a little Japanese-style tea room that was tucked down an alley surrounded by skyscrapers. Attending a tea ceremony in Japan has always been a secret desire of mine. First of all, I love tea, but secondly I love how seriously the preparation and serving of tea is taken.
The tea ceremony is taken so seriously that this is the only tea room (a Chashitsu) open to the public in Kyoto , the birthplace of the tea ceremony.
In our tea ceremony experience, we were taught about the history of the tea ceremony: that is practice in keeping with the principles of Zen Buddhism which seeks to attain Wa, Kei, Sei, and Jaku. Other practices associated with Zen Buddhism include Japanese flower arranging, and rock gardens. Essentially, mindfulness is at the core of Zen Buddhism and it is believed that a wandering mind leads to mistakes. So whether you are brewing tea or arranging flowers, these are opportunities to practice being fully concentrated and in the moment.
Interestingly, our tea ceremony hostess failed to mention that the use of tea in mediation actually came from Chinese Buddhist monks who used tea to help stay awake during meditation, and that this all started when the founder of Zen Buddhism grew so tired that he ripped off his eyelids to stay awake and tea leaves sprouted where his eyelids used to be. I’m actually kind of glad she didn’t share this story. Anyways, when Japanese monks visited China in the 9th century, they picked up on the use of tea for meditation and brought it back to Japan.
Then, it is said that in the 1400’s a Zen monk, who served as an adviser to a shogun, created the essential foundation of the ceremony: having a simple room, tatami mats, and plain bowls. In the 1500’s a new tea master really elevated the tea ceremony game into what we know it today. Our hostess also explained that arts like tea ceremony, flower arranging, and poetry were really popularized by the samurai who highly valued learning as well as being dedicated Buddhist practitioners. However, there was also an element of ego as samurais competed with one another to show his wealth (who had the best bowls, whisks, tea, etc.) as well as his mastery of the spirit and mind by hitting them with his mad poetry and tea serving skills.
We learned that the tea ceremony isn’t really about the tea. It is more than that. As our hostess explained, it is, “A WAY OF LIFE.” As we progressed through the ceremony, it was explained how Wa, Kei, Sei, and Jaku are exemplified. Wa is attained by achieving harmony with your guests/neighbors at the table.
Kei (respect) is expressed in sharing a single bowl of tea together, with the first person taking a sip while holding the bowl so that the other guests can see any designs on the bowl before turning the bowl around so that they can see it for themselves. Kei is also demonstrated in the strict observance of each guest taking 3.5 sips of tea and then wiping the bowl before passing it on. Three sips are to show the host that you liked the tea and the half sip signifies something akin to “I would drink more, but I realize I need to leave some for everyone else.” I’m not really sure how you take a “half sip.”
Sei (purity of thought) is achieved by immersing yourself in a sacred space and then practicing mindfulness during the execution of the preparation of tea. Finally, I would say that jaku (tranquility) is the result of achieving the first three. When you have completed all four, you have achieved Ichigo Ichie, which is the idea that you should treasure each encounter because it is unique and will never happen again.
Later that day I went kimono shopping. I was sure I would find one in Kyoto, the cultural center of Japan, but so far it’s been mostly kimono rentals or ridiculously expensive custom-made ones. Even the second-hand ones run upwards of $200! After dragging Tim all over the place, we found a second-hand store that had a ton of kimonos and all things kimono-related. I struck out yet again, but I did manage to find one for my sister that I thought she would like so it wasn’t a total loss. While checking out, Tim and I spotted this at the same time: