Monday, March 21, 2016

Turning Japanese? I Hardly Think そ: Review: Making Tea, Making Japan Kristin Surak

Review: Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism Practice

by Kristin Surak (Stanford CA, Stanford University Press, 2013) 
What’s all this fuss about Japanese tea anyway?” begins a quiz I give to students after I do a demonstration in conjunction with their Japanese culture curriculum. I usually don’t don kimono, not only because there’s not lots of prep time, but also because it sends a different message than what I hope they will experience. 

Why are we studying the culture of other people? I my youth it was because it was out of my regular “ordinary” experience; it seemed exotic and either made my own daily existence look better or different. Since beginning my study of chanoyu in 1985, and being one of only a few Occidental people who has stuck it out, I can now say that it is within my regular “ordinary” experience. 
My friends seem to think that I’ve turned Japanese, but that is categorically impossible as Kristin Surak’s new book that explores how chanoyu has molded and been molded by the core essence of Japanese-ness: 
The tea practice – the preparation procedures and modes interaction at lessons – 
began to mold my foreign body into forms regarded as distinctively Japanese.

Turning Japanese? I Hardly Think

As a left-handed, cross-country skiing Jewish feminist, such a transformation is not likely, but something has happened and for some reason it has made its impact.
Perhaps the best test has been during numerous subsequent visits to Japan. When I mention upon first encounter with a Japanese native that I have been studying chanoyu since that time with a distinguished tea master, people stop what they are doing, inhale slightly through the teeth and a type of relief mixed with fear comes over the person with whom I am conversing: Relief that I may understand them at their core. Fear that I may ask them a questions or, perhaps worse, that I may invite them to participate in a tea gathering, an activity about which they in fact never cared too much for or about which they may know very little.
When I would be invited to join other tea folks to do a demonstration at the annual Japan Expo in Los Angeles, I am usually stopped during my break time walking around to see the other exhibitions / demonstrations by an arguably Japanese (language accent) ...
 "You wear kimono yourself?"
To which I usually replied, pulling the neckline out a bit in the front and peering down into the chasm of my décolletage that has been stuffed into the coquettishly kokeshi tubular form, much like those devices that produce perfectly round hard boiled eggs that are then sliced and served in airplane salads ...
 "I'm the only one in there."
Of course, this questions is literally a translation from Japanese into English, as "mono" means "thing/object" and "ki" refers to the verb "to wear", so a kimono is a thing to wear, but it has tremendous cultural implications. 
A sister tea practitioner social anthropologist Kristin Surak has written an important and essential book that will help the curious place the impact of chanoyu where it belongs in Japan, smack dab in the middle of the culture. While the finger that points to the moon is “only” the finger, tea is absolutely tea and the ritual is reasonably identified as and of Japan (even though it is also of China and Korea). Like a horse with a wandering soul, it takes a strong trainer to keep it on course. This has been the work of many aficionados for more than 450 years. 
Likewise, there is a Zen Buddhist parable that states the taste of Tea and Zen are one ... or maybe it's One. There are many tea practitioners who can't possibly practice the forms without kimono. The garb does support the torso while sitting seiza, and the temae gestures do specifically accommodate and even enable the long sleeves -- doing double duty as pockets -- to be seen as a type of prop. The folds become essential "pockets" for various cloths and papers used by both host and guest.
Couquettish Kokeshi
Some might call me an "Orientalist" to the extent that I still find many aspects of Asian cultures, especially Japanese, very attractive. As I have some beautiful kimono to okeiko and tea events, even  kotohjime at the JACCC, but as I've aged my body type just is not made for this cut of cloth. I stick to haori for formal Western wear and samue for informal gatherings where I wish to show cultural symbiosis.
When I began practicing chanoyu, I had lost quite a bit of weight and, for my first public demonstration, several of the Japanese ladies who were helping me dress, were muttering about how many towels it was going to take to fill up waistline. From them on I learned how to dress myself so I could avoid that stuffy feeling.
As my body filled itself out naturally over time, I know now why the obijime is worn low on the obi if one is of middle age and older. While it may be a sign that one is young and available for marriage if it sits mid-way, the lower position is more likely practical to hold fast to the extra material when more of the long sash is need to circumnavigate the midriff, leaving much less "extra" flap to tuck upward behind the "pillow".
And there is the matter of the various useful, however unglamorous strings that I have inherited from various kind women who took pity on my not having an appropriate kimono trousseau, including koshihimo, strings, usually pink or white but mine is light blue and purple wave pattern, are a formal description of these unsung heroes. I can also measure my girth and have had to resort to pretty serious knots.
There is nothing useful to be said about zori, except that if there are puddles, get high ones, but otherwise one really doesn't need them most of the time for tea ceremony events in a home. I usually wear men's varieties to accommodate the essential tabi, or use Birkenstock sandals so I can drive my car.