Cultural background: tea ceremony

Chances are that if you are friends with an elderly Japanese woman, she has arranged an opportunity for you to try tea ceremony. It is perhaps one of the most accessible forms of Japanese traditional culture, and can often be found (albeit in a more tourist-friendly form) at temples and other tourist attractions throughout the country. A number of schools also host tea ceremony clubs for their students. But what exactly is the “ceremony,” and why does it remain so popular in modern Japan? The conventional English translation obscures the real nature of this unique practice, which blends cuisine, design, meditation, and choreography in an act that is ultimately about building human relationships.

The wide variety of tea ceremony styles trace their heritage back to the figure of Sen-no-Rikyu, who rose to fame as the tea master of Oda Nobunaga in 1579, though elements of the modern tea ceremony had existed before then. He perfected a particular aesthetic that was defined by its simplicity and appreciation for long-term wear (wabi-sabi). Unfortunately, for reasons that remain a mystery, Sen-no-Rikyu was ordered by Nobunaga’s successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi to commit seppuku, but his legacy lives on in the practices of the matcha tea ceremony schools. The design of teahouses, selection of pottery, the flow of the ceremony, and the tools used were all affected by his philosophy.

In addition to the method by which the matcha is prepared and the selection of sweets to pair it with, tea ceremony focuses on a prescribed choreography of movements that emphasize the relationship between the host and the guest or customer, emphasizing mutual appreciation and respect. After entering the teahouse in a low, crouched manner, the guest first enjoys a sweet snack while the host carefully prepares the matcha, each movement carefully prescribed according to their particular school. The proper appreciation of the tea room’s decorations and ceramic ware in which the matcha is served is one of the guest’s main responsibilities, along with respectful greetings to the other guests respectfully acknowledging their participation. In the case of large numbers of guests, particularly for tourists or those unfamiliar with tea ceremony, the final serving of matcha can be abbreviated so that all guests receive tea at the same time, as opposed to the more traditional individual preparation and serving. In formal gatherings of tea ceremony schools, this ritual may be much more elaborate, involving thick, high-grade “koicha” matcha and possibly even a full course meal.

In the last decade matcha has become popular worldwide, and in Japan it is enjoyed in a variety of forms, from snacks to noodles to lattes; there is no need to visit a tea house to enjoy matcha. Nevertheless, trying matcha in a quiet teahouse in a garden, perfectly decorated with flowers, ceramics, and a hanging scroll to match the season, is a quintessentially Japanese experience, for both casual visitors and for those who would like to learn more about traditional Japanese culture.

Event info: Owara-style dance

Enjoy an evening of Owara-style dancing, from Toyama prefecture, at the beautiful Higashi Betsuin temple in Nagoya! Owara is a style of Bon dancing that is performed flowing through the streets, while thousands of paper lanterns decorate the doorways of local shops and houses. The members of Nagoya’s local folk dancing research collective, Kasuri no Kai, traveled to Toyama to learn the steps of this thoughtful, plaintive dance accompanied by shamisen, kokyu, and folk song.

Date and time: Saturday, October 14th, 5:00 PM – 7:00 PM
Place: Inside Higashi Betsuin temple
Tickets: 700 yen advance, 800 yen day-of (contact us to arrange for tickets in English)

Cultural background: taiko drumming

One of the first forms of Japanese music many people encounter is the dramatic and powerful taiko drum ensemble. A perennial favorite at festivals and fairs, both throughout Japan and overseas, the driving rhythm has come to represent the spirit and strength of Japanese culture. Thus, it’s surprising for many to learn that taiko ensembles are in fact a modern innovation, though they make use of one of the oldest instruments known in the country. This phenomenon was made possible by Japan’s peculiar national situation in the 20th century and by the dedicated efforts of one percussionist.

Since ancient times drums had been used in a number of settings in Japan, particularly ritualistic ones, but in the warring states they acquired a new prominence as instruments of communication during battle. The warlord Takeda Shingen, in particular, assembled a corps of 21 taiko performers who conveyed messages to faraway allies and pounded out appropriately dramatic background music during battles. (That NHK historical drama’s climactic battle scene may have been more realistic than you thought!) Following the death of Takada Shingen, a distinctive taiko music continued to be played in the Yamanashi and Nagano areas as part of his legacy, but it slowly died out, until in the 1950s the jazz drummer Oguchi Daihachi was asked by a relative to translate an old page of sheet music that was a relic of this Osuwa-taiko style. He decided to not only recreate the traditional songs, but to add original layers, and assembled a team of drummers on instruments of various sizes in the spirit of Takeda Shingen’s drum corps.

This style of music quickly spread, gaining notoriety in particular from Oguchi’s group’s appearance at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. The simple yet dramatic nature of this style struck a chord with a Japanese public searching for a way to connect with Japan’s historical legacy in a Europeanized, postwar country. A massive number of taiko groups in this style quickly sprang up, first around Japan, then in the United States, Australia, and Europe. One of the first groups to perform in the U.S., Ondekoza, achieved notoriety for running the Boston marathon in their taiko performance attire, a testament to the Spartan training they cultivated during their training on Sado Island in Niigata. A breakaway group, Kodo, maintains enormous success, touring, teaching, and hosting Sado Island’s annual Earth Celebration festival.

The taiko drum ensemble has become such a popular staple throughout Japan that it’s hard to imagine such groups weren’t around less than a century ago. Thanks to a nationwide revival of interest in traditional Japanese performing arts and the dedicated efforts of Oguchi Daihachi, Ondekoza, Kodo, and performers worldwide, this modern take on Japan’s most ancient instrument is a huge draw for players and audiences, and continues to spread and develop in fascinating new ways.

Nagoya event: “The Art of the Guitar”

On September 10th, Spanish-based guitar performer and professor Takagi Masayuki will be in Nagoya as part of his “The Art of the Guitar” tour. As part of a 3:00 PM afternoon concert, he will perform a number of contemporary works by composers from around the world, including Antonio Lauro’s Five Venezuelan Waltzes, Alexandre Tansman’s Cantina, and Frederico Moreno Torroba’s captivating Sonatina.

For tickets, contact Muse Salon in Ozone (see flier for details).

Sunari Festival

Last Saturday, we had the pleasure of taking a group of travelers to experience the Sunari Festival in Kanie, and we saw why it’s earned its spot as a UNESCO important cultural heritage event. In addition to watching the decoration of the stately lantern boat, we were lucky enough to meet the mayors of Kanie and Nagoya. In spite of the massive crowds pouring into this small town, the people of Kanie were extremely welcoming, and we all enjoyed a wonderful evening together.

In autumn we’ll be arranging more tours to visit other local festivals – stay tuned!