It had just started to rain, so softly you could barely feel it on your skin. But the path was darkened and I could see the droplets on the pond. I stepped slowly forward, absorbing each moment deliberately, the elegant trimmed plants, the perfect pebbles. I closed my eyes for the smell of pine in the damp morning.
For many years I hoped and saved and planned to journey to Japan. I like the word journey much better than travel, and completely better than holiday (or worse still, trip). It infers a level of knowledge of the place to be experienced and a level of acceptance of the experience to come, not a ticking off of an “I saw that” list. I am not a modern Japan person. Bright lights and crowds can be found in any big city. For me, I adore the obsessive neatness, the perfection of form, the expression of beauty, found in old, traditional Japan.
The architecture. The art. The poetry. The gardens. From my big shaggy garden with overgrown weedy rose beds, vegetables rambling untrained and hastily netted fruit trees, I dreamed of a delicate pebble stream, raked into fine waves twice a day, not a leaf polluting it’s imagined flow. I dreamed of beautiful trimmed pines with artfully crusty bark and luxuriant weeping needles. Of haircut grasses clumping shyly between voluptuous stones. Mountains and rivers and adventures for the mind’s eye.
I felt a fizzy tension in my belly as I stepped through the garden. It was the fulfilment of a long held dream to be in a real Japanese classical garden and to finally participate in a real tea ceremony. I was never elegant or measured or silent. I was quick to laugh loudly, to enjoy a great meal way too fast, and down a lovely wine in a swig not a sip. A coffee lover in a tea house.
It wasn’t about the tea of course.
I looked up and there she was, emerged as if from nowhere to the tea house pavilion doorway. She was tiny. Totally, arrogantlessly, elegant. Her kimono had a soft golden sheen and was, as desired, just too long. Her face was makeup free but I’m sure it wasn’t. Her hair pulled back and a pearl clip restrained it. I smiled broadly and she nodded, glancing down and confirming my invitation to join her. “Aisatsu” she whispered in welcome. I removed my shoes, only hopping a few times for balance. She turned silently and shuffled inside and I followed. Her kimono swished on the tatami mats as she walked and glistened in the semi darkness.
I corrugated a deep bow through the low pavilion entrance, not quite deep enough of course, scraping my shoulder blade on the doorframe and puffing a way-too-loud “auhhfw”. The pavilion performed a polite groan as it accepted my weight. I bit my lip, trying to be as composed and elegant as my host. As I had been teaching myself, I bowed again to the scroll hanging opposite and slowly knelt and then reclined onto my feet in the traditional way. Conscious of every movement, every sound, every smell. What a treat.
She quietly welcomed me and began the mindful art of tea. Each movement was perfect ceremony, the curve of her wrist, the lowered eye. The concentration. Time did not exist there. I was her guest, she my host. Making tea. I watched her intently. I did not want to lose a single moment. My feet were shimmering with bloodlessness. I didn’t move.
Purposefully she whisked the brew, rotating the cup from her, to me. She gracefully offered the matcha, whispering “right hand”. I nodded and reached slowly. My knees reminded me that love and pain were the yin and yang of life. I blissfully sipped and gently swallowed the cupful. I closed my eyes again to absorb this significant life-event with all my senses. I could not feel my toes.
I thought for a moment, how opposite we were. How obese and ungainly, sweaty and awkward I was, and how utterly delicate, fine and sweet her presence.
She glanced at me and smiled, perhaps sensing my thoughts, the perfect host. A tear trickled down my cheek. It was all I hoped for. The illusion unsullied. My dreams come true.
She offered a little black tray displaying a tiny pastel wagashi sweet. I bowed and accepted it’s smooth softness into my mouth. Just sweet enough to balance the tartness of the tea. I left it on my tongue a while before allowing it’s texture to dissolve. She bowed deeply, acknowledging my pleasure. I leant forward to bow to her in deep appreciation.
It was done. It was perfect. My life was complete.
I couldn’t move my lower body. She stood quietly, expectantly. But oh so politely. I knew this was the time I, too, should gently stand and depart. Problem there. I was blushing furiously at this point and looked up at her with repressed desperation. “Oh!” she gasped, realising my predicament and darting over to assist. She pushed me sideways, allowing me to fall onto the tatami flooring. My hip screamed but all I could do was look her straight in the eye. And laugh! And she in return covered her mouth with delicate hand, and laughed along.
I lay there, bathed in laughter, until my blood recirculated. First tingly, then sparkly, then painfully. I laughed until I cried and she laughed in compassion and confusion at this ungainly peasant westerner, lying there, laughing in her teahouse.
Slowly I rolled to a crawl, crawled to a squat, groaned to a bow, and stood to my full height, stretching my bruised spine and feeling distinctly dizzy. I grabbed for the doorframe to save more embarrassment, and the pavilion again squeaked and moaned under my impact.
“Domo arigato gozaimasu” I said. The most sincere thank you I have ever expressed. I felt like I was floating with joy. I turned back onto the gently curving path.
A tiny lizard observed me from its rock and darted away. An pink azalea shimmied in the breeze and offered a spent blossom. I was a pumpkin vine amidst a perfect topiary. A messy, rampant stranger. But still a delicious, productive plant. It takes all kinds.
I smiled and realised how happy I was. And then the rain came.