I am not properly awake. I haven’t even made my morning cup of tea. I am never quite awake until at least I’m halfway down my giant travel mug. I run almost purely on tea and nervous energy. Living in Japan one of the first things that made me feel somewhat at home was the culture of drinking tea. I got a wedding gift of a cast iron tea pot, and six beautiful handle-less tea cups, each with a slightly different design. Tea taught me the concepts of shibui, and wabi sabi – the inner life we all have, compared to that which we all display on the exterior. Tea time taught me that my inner life was inviolable, sacrosanct, untouchable, that my honne, my inner self was mine and mine alone, that nothing could ever destroy, or sully or hurt it, and all I had to give the world around me, and the man that beat and tortured me, was my tatamae – my outward self, my mask, my construct. This concept of honne and tatamae, true feelings and public outward display, saved my life. It allowed me to hide within myself, and for the years that I could not leave, it helped keep me safe.
Tea was a lifesaver. Japanese grandpa would bring me fine powdered strong green maccha tea of the kind used in tea ceremonies, large packets of robust whole leaf sencha, the loose leaf green equivalent to black tea. cannisters of fragrant pu-er which I preferred to drink cold and black, he introduced me to genmai-cha with its pieces of toasted rice mixed into the dark roasted green tea, giving it a wonderful aroma of malt and sweetness. He tried and failed to get me to enjoy mugicha the staple day to day barley tea that is much loved in Japan. It was too strong and too bold for me, it made me feel strangely more thirsty. I was diagnosed with celiac disease and his repeated attempts to convert me to love the drink as he did was thankfully stopped in their tracks.
Tea became our relaxation time, time to talk and to get to know each other better. I liked Grandpa immensely, at least most of the time. With my first packet of maccha he brought me a little wooden whisk, a small bamboo spoon, a tea tray, a piece of white linen and his old tea caddy, with its black and red lacquer lid, inlayed with a gold design. We sat in my tatami room and made tea. Tatami is a pain to look after, consisting of mats made out of rice straw mats that are edged in brocade. Some modern apartments do not have a tatami room, but they are so widely used still, that room sizes are measured in how many tatami mats they fit. My tatami room fit six standard sized mats. The brocade of my mats was green and tidy. I had had problems with these mats since my husband purchased the apartment (the apartment he sold a few years back after I left him, and hid the proceeds). These mats were full of tatami mites. I sprayed them, I turned them. I tried every remedy, but still these little white insects bred and lived in my tatami in my clean new apartment! In the end I chose to ignore them.
My husband refused to change the tatami mats, and that was that. You cannot have any furniture in Tatami rooms, as it dents the mats. I filled mine with a sofa, two bookcases, a desk and a chair. Grandpa was unimpressed. The wallpaper in this room was a thing of beauty, it was there when we moved in. It was a thick paper in matte ivory with a visible thread running through it, in the style of Japanese washi paper. The room could be opened up to the rest of the apartment and its dark wooden floors, by opening the built in sliding screens of the tatami room, or shut off from it by closing them making a separate room which most sensible people use for sleeping in.
I would boil a kettle, fill my iron tea pot with hot water, and take it through to the kotatsu in the tatami room. Kotatsu are tables with a heater built in under them, like the table equivalent of an electric blanket, in the cold winters in apartments that have no built in heating, just an air-conditioner you can set to warm, they are essential. Then me and Japanese Grandpa would have our own informal tea ceremony, minus most of the ceremony. He might turn his cup three times before he drank his tea, I might spend time extravagantly whisking the maccha and water, I might even wipe the inside of my clean cups with the clean white linen cloth. It was a time spent civilized and peaceful, joyful and content and most of all quietly enjoying tea.
I do not blame Japan for what happened to me. My husband was either mentally ill, or evil or both, I’m not the right person to judge, I’m too involved, too hurt. Yes, beating up your wife is not a criminal matter in Japan, just a civil one, and no, the police never helped me and yes they supported him. That does not make Japan itself bad. It is a country whose system sometimes does not work to protect women. Newsflash, the western world does a pretty poor job of that too. The world is a patriarchy and we women try to survive in it, with varying degrees of safety and success. But Japan, Japan is beautiful. For every cop who laughed at my bloody noses and black eyes, there is a Japanese Grandpa, and his offerings of tea and companionship. He could not stop his son, he was totally out of his depth, he had no idea what to do, but he tried, and he was my friend, and I miss him. I couldn’t stay, I was going to end up dead, but as you have your cup of tea today, spare a small thought for Grandpa. He has gone now, and he did he best, as inadequate as that might have been, and he was loved. He was the father I never had, and my only friend in a terrible situation.
Anti Asian racism in this post Trumpian pandemic nightmare is a real problem, I will not allow what happened to me to be used in any way to justify it or be used as illustration to defend it. All racism is indefensible.
Now, I really need to make that cup of tea! Zen, my friends, zen is where it’s at!