By Rei Tanotsuka, 13 June 2020

Okakura Kakuzo, tea connoisseur, scholar and art critic: “When will the West understand, or try to understand, the East? Strangely enough, humanity has so far met in the tea- cup. It is the only Asiatic ceremonial which commands universal esteem.”

About a fortnight ago, I joined my husband on one of his regular business trips to Tokyo. On his days off, we went on a date. After an exhausting hour in one of Japan’s infamous cosplay restaurants – the ubiquitous “maid cafe” in the Mecca of nerdom Akihabara, (a saccharine charged, frenetic diner and safe space for the socially inept), my crazier half asked me where did I want to go next to relax. I quipped, a tea place please! Enter Mariage Freres in Ginza.

Situated in undoubtedly one of the swankiest post codes in Japan’s glitzy streets of the well to do, we enter a tea store. It wasn’t just another tea shop. Mariage Freres is a transmogrification, a hark back to the days of British Colonial rule, where all the male wait staff stood patiently in head to toe virginal white, the maître d’ providing the contrast in black, ostentatiously signalling his superior position. I felt I was superimposed onto a sepia photograph, where my awe and excitement in the cynosure of teas were out of place, and incongruent with the overall ambience…..you know what they say, you can take a girl out of Oz, but you can’t take the feral bitch anywhere else……..

“No cameras on the first floor”, a staff warns me as I took out my phone to film my debut in the posh establishment, HOWEVER he proceeds to enlighten me, the second floor is a free for all. Yep, I could snap away there!

When we were escorted to our table on the second floor, something more than my own vanity caught my eye. A book. It was all about tea. The opening quote was taken from this canary coloured book:

After spending an hour looking at girls dressed up as a caricature of a French maid, screaming, dancing and dispensing paid smiles for all, I wasn’t seeking philosophy, at least not in tea. Philosophy sought me.

I spent a little more than an hour reading this book and was surprised by this gem;

The main tea producing areas are in the Center and south of China: Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Ningbo, Anhui, Fujian, Jiang Xi, Henan, Hu Bei, Hunan, Guangdong, Guang Xi, Szechwan, Chongqi, Gui Zhou, Yunnan and Hainan.

Chinese teas, unlike Indian teas are not marked according to the name of the estate. Instead, they are labelled according to the taste and quality. Only in rare cases do harvests retain their own name.

The philosophy behind the grading of tea in China is reverberated in its ethos. Its not good enough just to be born into an estate, YOU NEED TO EARN the title. Isn’t it reassuring, that in a cup, lies the foundation of a civilisation that can be so acutely missed, yet seen everyday? It gives hope to those who will, as I did, one day make the connection and realise that what we are is of true value, and not only our circumstances.

The Past……..A tea story

I used to have a favourite cup. I bought that cup on one of my trips in Japan, and it was hand crafted. The shop that sold this cup was rustic and in my mind it bore the scent of a shop that was once robust with customers who understood the value of artisan products, not like mass commercialism now……so I can only imagine the conversations that once loomed in this little shop…..

……maybe questions pertaining to the delicate grooves individuated in each cup and bowl, back then it was made by the craft master who also served as the shop keeper. I’m always intrigued by the intricacies of handmade products…..earrings which look perfectly symmetrical, until you pick them up and upon close inspection, that’s when you will find the touch of the artisan…maybe the loop on one earring a fraction larger than the other, or the faint scratch of a bead when the artisan exercised unparalleled strength while handling it……it’s all these things to me, which represent true beauty – perfection in imperfection.

So back to this cup. I relished every tea experience using this cup…..I love tea, I don’t drink coffee. I love tea because of the fragrance and mild taste…..a delicate dance on the palete, I mean with everything we eat, our tongues are jaded, so a cup of tea undoctored is simply sublime, it’s one of the things I most enjoy. I personally feel, that each cup of tea when drunk from a cup that is beautiful…well, it just tastes so much better. This particular cup that I loved, I knew it was a labour of love….

Every time I picked up this cup for a sip, I’m also touching the hands of the maker, every glance I took, the maker also shared with me.

If the experience of drinking tea was simply to quench thirst, then it wouldn’t have given rise to the daily ritual which I enjoy so much. With every wash, I know the tiniest amount of the creator is being eroded, the grooves feel fainter through time….and the colour, less rich, but nonetheless, the essence of the creator never wanes….

As with everything, as soon as it is born, it is inevitably subject to demise….and I remember the first time the crack appeared, it was the most compelling and haunting, because the very love I have for using it, is the same driving force that is hastening its journey……and one day….it broke.

The cup that I bought was no longer made by the shop keeper, the original craft master, it was made by a few local artisans who contribute to the products sold. I have always wondered inadvertently, does the love pass through, from the hands of the creator to the hands of the appreciator?

So on the day my cup broke, I was standing near the kitchen sink….a faint sliver of sunlight passing through the curtains and I wondered to myself at that time, would the artisan also be standing in his kitchen with the same sunlight peering through, but in place of my sorrow, lies a sense of happiness, for he realised that his creation was loved to the very end…….