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Culture & Tradition Series

January 4, 2012

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, held at an old Japanese confectionary shop in the old part of Gifu City known as Kawara-machi (川原町). Now, there are several uses of the word "old" in the previous sentence, but I assure you, this is a GOOD kind of "old"...the kind that retains a deep sense of history and longstanding tradition while still maintaining relevance in the modern day and age.


Before I get into a description of the sweets shop and the tea ceremony itself, I should briefly introduce Kawara-machi for those who are not familiar with it. One of the first things that most Japanese think of when they hear "Gifu" is ukai (鵜飼), the 1,300 year-old traditional method of fishing using cormorants to catch ayu (sweetfish) on the Nagara River. The loading docks for the ukai viewing boats are in Kawara-machi, which is located right on the riverside, leading to a close relationship between the town and ukai that has existed for a long time. In fact, one of the most famous, award-winning products of the confectionary shop Tamaiya (玉井屋本舗), where the tea ceremony was held, is an ayu-shaped sweet. Kawara-machi is quite an old town, but gems like Tamaiya, which has been in-business for over a century, are sprinkled throughout!


On to Tamaiya, then! This sweets shop makes products of infinite variety, as you can see with just a brief glance through the shop's website (http://www.tamaiya-honpo.com/okashi/namagashi.html). I highly encourage you to browse this site (http://www.tamaiya-honpo.com/nousaijiki/index.html) for a minute or two; even without any Japanese, clicking any entry on the left-hand list will reveal the stunning confectionaries that the store has produced in the last several years. One of the distinguishing characteristics of traditional Japanese sweets is that, along with taste, visual aesthetics are of the highest importance. I know that I could spend all day marveling at the visual beauty of each and every one of those sweets...except there's probably not enough time in one day to do so! I was able to taste one of the currently-produced sweets (well, SEVERAL, actually, but all of the same type!), and I can assure you that it was just as delicious as it was visually striking.


But the appeal of Tamaiya doesn't stop there...the shop itself is gorgeous and is a tribute to traditional Japanese architecture, with a small garden in the middle and a traditional tea room as well. It was here, of course, that the tea ceremony was held, led by a kind teacher of the Urasenke school, one of the three main schools of Japanese tea ceremony. I had been to a Japanese tea ceremony before, but at this session I was free to ask questions (it's usually a fairly quiet function), so I learned a lot about the history, culture, and various other aspects of tea ceremony.


For one, I did not previously know that at a tea ceremony, there is a spot for the guest of honor, who, as you might guess, is served before the others. I also learned that (at least at "official ceremonies") the seating order/arrangement is directly according to this "scale of honor," meaning that those closer to the guest of honor are in a "higher" position than those who are not. And what I found REALLY interesting is that the host-the person who makes and serves the tea)-is the one who decides this order, which means that, to some degree, the host actually has to KNOW everybody attending in order to come up with the seating arrangement! That surprised me for a moment, although it does in fact make sense when you think about when tea ceremonies are held-especially for occasions such as weddings and when celebrating the changing of seasons-usually times when one is with family and friends.


The general flow of a tea ceremony is fairly simple...the guests are presented with sweets, then the host makes the tea, offers it to the guest of honor-who then drinks it ALL-and then proceeds to do the same for the next guest, and so on. And yet, as a guest, there are many intricate responsibilities that you have that make it quite a challenge, even for the guest of honor! For example, there are three different degrees of bows that are used in the tea ceremony, and they are each clearly differentiated, have their own names, and are used at specific times. So knowing when to use what type of bow, and towards whom-the host, the neighbor sitting to your left, etc.-is something that undoubtedly takes time to get used to. So in a sense, being a guest at a tea ceremony is an art unto itself!


One particularly memorable part of the ceremony that I didn't previously know existed was the part where the guest, after draining the bowl of tea, takes his or her time to inspect it carefully, admiring its shape, color, etc. Bowls used for tea ceremony are often extremely old and valuable, and this practice of really APPRECIATING the work of art is illustrative of that fact. While it felt unnatural at first to lean forward and look closely at the bowl for literally a minute or two, rotating it in my hands to see it from every angle, I understood that this was an important part of the ceremony, and I came away with an understanding that the act of appreciation is at the very heart of Japanese tea culture. (This idea is further strengthened by the fact that the tea ceremony is the origin of a Japanese proverb-"ichi-go ichi-e"-that encourages one to treasure every meeting and moment as if it will never come again.)


Some other intriguing tidbits that I came away with include the fact that you are not supposed to step on the edge of any tatami mat in the room. While it is no longer necessarily the case today, the edges of the mats were often made from extremely expensive fabric and were branded with the seals of noble families, and thus stepping on the edges was avoided. Another fact is that maccha tea used in the tea ceremony is made from crushed tea leaves, whereas Western tea is made by soaking the leaves in water. Finally, I learned that the tea ceremony was, in its early days, used as a political and business tool by those in power-among them, Oda Nobunaga, who controlled Gifu Castle for a time.


In the end, I came out of the tea ceremony-with the sweet aftertaste of the confectionaries and the bitter taste of the tea balancing each other out-with an increased APPRECIATION (keyword!) and heightened knowledge of various facets of Japanese tea culture. It's a very ritualistic experience, but in the pre-determined actions, there is a lot of significance that gets at the heart of what traditional Japanese culture-not just related to tea-is all about. So attending a tea ceremony is a great way to learn about Japan and to just try something new!!

Last updated  January 4, 2012 10:42:13 AM
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September 3, 2010

I've been living in Gifu City for over 2 years now, and I've had the opportunity to see a lot of exciting things that this city has to offer. But something that never ceases to amaze me is a traditional fishing practice, which is called "ukai (鵜飼)" in Japanese.

In ukai, cormorants are used to catch small river fish. The cormorant handler, called an "usho," conducts the birds as he rides in his boat. The cormorants are held by a thin leash which prevents them from swallowing the fish that they catch. The usho brings each cormorant back to the boat in turn, and retrieves the fish that they have stored in their throats. It's a really interesting practice with about 1,300 years of history in the area. The fishing is conducted at night, and a suspended bonfire is used to attract the fish. Visitors can watch from the banks of the river, or they can ride in spectator boats that float down the river in tandem with the fishing boats. Nagara River ukai is done every night from May 11 to October 15, except on days of heavy rainfall and on the night of the Harvest Moon.

I have seen ukai several times, and each time it has been interesting and different. Last year, I took my sister to watch the fishing. We bought some snacks and drinks and sat down on the northern bank of the Nagara River to watch. When you're riding in the spectator boats you get to see the fishermen up-close, but you sometimes can't see what the other fishing boats are doing because they are all further up stream or down stream. However, from the riverbank, you can see what all the boats are doing and how each usho works a different area of the river.

But either way, ukai is really exciting and I definitely recommend it as one of the best things to do in Gifu Prefecture, or in Central Japan in general. Especially since Nagara River ukai is the only form of ukai in Japan that is officially recognized by the Imperial Household.

Take any Gifu Bus heading towards Nagara from JR Gifu Station (Bus Platform 11) or Meitetsu Gifu Station (Bus Platform 4). Alight at "Ukai-ya," approximately 15 minutes from the train stations.

To reserve a space on the viewing boats by phone:
[TEL] 058-262-0104 (in Japan)
Online reservations can be made here (Japanese).


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Last updated  November 18, 2010 05:00:11 PM
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