Lessons in Shibumi. Teapots and Tales


Japanese Grandpa used to come and visit at the worst of times. He was never there when I needed him, and always there when I didn’t want him to be. He had a knack for it, an innate ability to not be where he was needed whilst having the worst sense of timing known to man. Japanese grandpa was a drunk and a dumpster diver, he had friends in low places and friends in high ones. He once put the Ambassador to Sweden on the phone to me from the flea market where Grandpa had a stall selling second hand kimono to tourists alongside used but serviceable old Japanese pottery and porcelain, the toys you get in gacha gacha vending machines, and the free gifts that come with fast food meals alongside other trash he had liberated from various dumpsters, or rescued from being deserted outside fancy Tokyo apartment blocks. Admittedly sometimes he found some pretty nice things and often found people who wanted them once more. He was not above robbing the children of their rice sprinkle packet free stickers so he could sell them at his stall. He was a thief whom during a curry supper, relieved them both of their anpanman free gifts (a beloved Japanese children’s cartoon character from the 1970s who is made out of bread and sweet red bean paste) and furikake packets at the same time, paying them in candy and promises.

Anpanman rice sprinkles ‘furikake’

Grandpa loved furikake. He did not love the kind of rice sprinkles made for adults with their wasabi and elegant pickled plum umeboshi flavors. He loved the overly sweet and salty packets made for children’s taste buds. He told me one night, him nostalgically drunk, that his mother used to hide furikake packets under his plate for him to find on nights that they only had a small amount of rice and nothing else to eat. It was a tough hungry time after world war two. They sometimes only had a sweet potato to share between all four siblings, his mother watching on hungrily content that her children had something, whilst tearfully panicked it was not nearly enough. He was the youngest, the only boy, and her favorite.

One night I hid a furikake packet under his plate for him to find. I had made him curry and rice, sat him down with the children, and waited. I expected laughter. Instead I found Grandpa crying over his curry muttering about shibui. I patted his shoulder indulgently, and went back to presiding over the fights small children have when one of them has to take a blue packet with Baikinman on it, and the other must have the last Melonpanman. Nobody wanted Baikinman, not even Grandpa.

Once I had made the peace deal of the decade, and sat down to my own meal, a more jovial Grandpa thanked me. It reminded him of his mother, of days long since gone, and the mundane everyday simplicity of the sight of a furikake packet under his plate coupled with the beauty of this feeling of motherly love had made him cry. It was not a grand gesture, but it was this small sacrifice of a tiny perfect thing that he loved so much, that engendered such deep emotion. Grandpa was not very Japanese in his personality and actions sometimes. He was a bit of a wild man, and not afraid to cry. Now I understand why. Oh to have such a simple time back again, oh for just two more moments with those people round my table, eating curry and fighting over cartoon packets of salmon rice sprinkles. How shibui to find a packet of salmon rice sprinkles under a plate.

You have no furikake, Paltry-chan, Grandpa admonished. It was because there was none left. I had given all I had to those people that I loved, and there was nothing for me left.

This reduced Grandpa to more tears. “My mother, she like Maria, she perfect,” he wailed. “She in heaven now. She never complain, not one time.” My supper had taken a darkly emotional turn. All because of a few packets of rice sprinkles. I assured him that I didn’t much care for them anyway, they were way too sweet for me. I instead committed the westerners sin of pouring a dash of tamari on my rice. Grandpa shook his head.

Later, after he had tested his blood sugar, he poured himself a shochu and grapefruit, and sat down on my sofa to talk, he set about educating his fatherless daughter in law about important things. Like Shibumi.

Trying to explain shibumi to me, me sitting there with the black eye my husband, his son, had given me, a baby sat on my knee, his plump hand curled around my hair, sucking on his thumb working his way up to crying before he realized how tired he was and went to sleep, with my older child watching Phinneas & Ferb, giggling and tapping on the cool wooden floor, resting her back on an oversized Stitch-shaped legless chair, was like explaining to a dog how men can go to the moon. The air conditioning was blowing a gale, it was that or melt in the stuffy humidity of a Tokyo late summer. It was not Shibui. It was chaos. Still, the old man tried.

I started to make tea, pouring hot water from my modern electric water heater, into the good cast iron teapot that my mother in law had given me as a wedding gift. That teapot, that is shibui, he announced triumphantly. Not complicated, the pattern is elegant. It is functional but beautiful. I grabbed a mug with winnie the pooh on the front of it, and some homely line about honey and bees. Grandpa shook his head. No. No. Not shibui. Too kawaii. Too cute. Setting the baby on my hip, I went to the cupboard and pulled out a simple wooden box with a kanji of the maker seared into the lid, I opened it, and pulled out two cups. They had no handles, and were small and delicate. Each one different. A different color, a different flower. One had a small fox and a rabbit painted onto the duck egg blue outer wall, and was rimmed in gold. This one was mine. No one else much cared for the fox and rabbit cup with the gold rim. I never pulled them out, they were too nice to use, and too dainty to display. The fox was more an impression of a fox in a few bold strokes, the rabbit too formed out of a single brush stroke. The gold dabbed on carelessly artfully. Grandpa was spooning genmaicha into the teapot, curiously sober and restrained, at least for him. I brought over the cups. Making tea, he announced, was shibui. I set out a pale orange cup for him, pushed away tiny hands from hot water, and started to pour. What you are doing is shibumi thing, he said. You are not pretending to be grand, you are not saying oh I am so fancy, you pour tea. But pouring tea is beautiful. It is simple.

“Putting the furikake packet under my plate was shibui in spirit. Maybe you might be Japanese after all!” He smiled at me, waiting for a reaction. I did not want to be Japanese. I just wanted to be loved. I just wanted not to be hit. I just wanted to cuddle my babies, and make my tea, and have a husband that didn’t hit me. All of a sudden it made sense. Shibui.


As I grew older I came to appreciate the implicit simplicity, the plain modesty, innate naturalness, the everyday imperfection, and silence between the notes. The gaps in the spaces between what is and what is not. As harsh as life was in Japan for me, I still love what I could not bear. After all, it was not Japan per se, but my husband who made life so hard. I just fell victim to circumstance. Japan is not all shibumi and jinja, but then, what is!


    1. The Paltry Sum

      Thank you, Ron, I appreciate the kind words. I do hope that the beauty of your surroundings did something to heal the pains of war. Being enlisted must have been very frightening indeed. I’m so glad you made it home safely.

      1. Ron Pavellas

        Oh, it was not difficult for me, but I saw how difficult it was for the Japanese people in their recovery.. I am thankful I was never in a war: too young for the Korean War, and too old for the Vietnam War, both horrible as wars are. I have known men who WERE affected and they did suffer, until their natural deaths. I wrote some notes upon my first glimpse of Japan which I later revised into a memoir:

      2. The Paltry Sum

        Yes, I have my very own Vietnam war casualty. The Korean War personally impacted my Japanese family. I feel that story is not mine to tell while certain people are still alive: too much pain. I’m looking forwards to reading your memoir.

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