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Debbie Ridpath Ohi reads, writes and illustrates for young people. Every few weeks, she shares new art, writing and resources; subscribe below. Browse the archives here.

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« kobe | Main | kinkaku-ji »

tea ceremony

(continuation of a multi-part Blathering which begins here)

Thursday, September 6th, 2001 (continued)

When we got back to the ryokan, we took another bath. There's something wonderfully decadent about sitting in one's room in what was basically a bathrobe, waiting for dinner to be served.

Jeff and I had wondered whether or not we would get the same dinner as the previous night...most visitors tend to stay at a ryokan only one night, after all. Instead, our maid (a different one from yesterday's, and who turned out to be the same one that JeffL and Alison had, and in fact we found out they had the same ROOM as us, and apologies for this run-on sentence) brought up a portable gas stove and pot, and then the makings of sukiyaki. My mother used to make this quite often when we were kids, and I always loved it.

Basically, sukiyaki consists of vegetables and thin slices of meat cooked in a broth of sake, soy sauce, and vinegar. Our maid also stirred in a raw egg at one point. Delicious!

Jeff and I had asked about the possibility of witnessing a tea ceremony during our stay, and the ryokan people had said there would be one that night. A few minutes after we asked the maid for a confirmation about when this would take place, the manager came to get us. He said we could stay in our yukatas.

I had half-expected to be part of a crowd of tourist onlookers, so was surprised to find Jeff and I being the only attendees. The manager took us into the garden (we had to change from our house slippers to garden slippers) where we used stepping stones to a waiting room.

After a few minutes, an older Japanese man named Ken introduced himself and gave a short talk about Yoshi-ima, which was built in 1747, and the surrounding area. He even mentioned "Memoirs of a Geisha", which surprised me since I had heard that most Japanese didn't like the book, and encouraged us to take an evening stroll for a chance to see geisha or maiko (geisha-in-training).

Side note about geisha: Geisha are not prostitutes (this seems to be a common Western misconception). They are basically women trained from an early age to entertain. Some pay more than US$3000 to spend an evening being entertained by two or three geisha, whose main function is often to break the ice at a gathering of Japanese businessmen. Entertainment consists of a wide range of visual and performing arts, including singing, dancing, playing the three stringed shamisen, as well as social entertainment such as pouring drinks, lighting cigarettes, and keeping the conversation lively. You need an introduction of an established patron before being invited to witness a geisha performance. Apparently there are about 100 geisha and 80 maiko in Kyoto. (these facts gleaned from the Lonely Planet's guide about Japan).

Anyway, Ken also gave an overview of what to expect from the tea ceremony. A few minutes after he left, a gong sounded, which signalled that the ceremony was about to begin. A woman came to take us to the ceremonial tea house. Before stepping into the tea house, we removed our slippers and stepped through the nijiriguchi, a two foot square sliding door to the room. The purpose of the small door was to force people to bow as they passed through, enabling them "to become humble enough to enjoy the tea party equally and peacefully" (quote from a booklet we were given by Yoshi-ima).

Yet another Japanese woman came into the tea house, and told us that she would be translating what was happening for us (she spoke very fluent English). We could sit cross-legged or kneel, whatever was most comfortable.

An older woman entered the tea house and began the ceremony. Every movement was carefully choreographed. Apparently it takes many years to master the art of the tea ceremony. Also a lot of money, our young guide told us enthusiastically; the courses cost a ton. Later, Jeff said he noticed the older woman (who never said a single word during the entire ceremony) giving our guide a couple of looks whenever she waxed too eloquently about the cost involved in the learning the ceremony, or how much the teachers were paid.

We were given a small block of sweet bean paste-stuff (sorry, don't know the proper terminology) which she said was supposed to counteract the bitterness of the powdered tea. It was fascinating to watch the older woman, knowing that every move was the result of a lifetime of study. Also interesting to try powdered tea instead of the usual green tea made from leaves; it's frothy on top, and more bitter.

After the ceremony was complete, the older woman left. Our young guide encouraged us to ask questions, and also encouraged us to take an evening stroll around the area. If we were lucky, she said, we might even see a geisha or maiko.

We were met by yet another young woman (this made a total of six people involved in the tea ceremony just for us, wow) who gave us a tour of Yoshi-ima as well as some of its history. I made a major gaffe as I stepped up from the garden into the ryokan: I HAD FORGOTTEN TO REMOVE MY GARDEN SLIPPERS! The slippers weren't at all dirty, of course, but the changing-slipper thing is a major deal in Japan...I thought the two women were going to jump me! I quickly removed my slippers and went inside to put on my inside slippers, much to their relief. :-)

I was intrigued by the romantic image of the elusive geisha mentioned earlier, so Jeff and I decided to change our plans (which had originally been to crash fairly early) and go for a walk. We didn't see any geisha, but we did see several inebriated Japanese men happily reeling down the sidewalk after their Thursday night binge. :-)

Next: Kobe!

Today's Blatherpics:

- Our maid making sukiyaki with Jeff observing. :-)

- One of the side dishes for our sukiyaki dinner. The stick-ball thingy was crunch on the outside, soft on the inside, was very tasty, and I have no idea what it was. The spherical thing was some kind of cooked nut, I think. The maid showed us how to peel off the outside.

- Tea ceremony out in the garden.

- Tokonoma (alcove) in the ceremonial tea house. The Yoshi-ima teahouse was modelled exactly after an authentic ceremonial tea house created by a famous tea house artist in Nanzen-ji Temple.

- My teacup and a sweet (mostly eaten).

- Sign across the river at night reads "OPEN BAR NOX". Not sure if "Nox" is an English typo which should be "Now", or if it's the name of the open bar. :-)

- This photo helps demonstrated why Jeff kept accidentally banging his head against the doorframe separating the two sections of our room. The Yoshi-ima booklet says, "Watch your head! Because the Japanese were commonly only about five feet tall in the formerdays, the basic scale for the structure in this country still has been standardized at about six feet, a unit called ken." To give you some perspective, our maid stood in the same position (after seeing Jeff bang his head)...the top of her head came to the bottom of the topmost white square.

Today's Poll:

Do you prefer black tea or herbal tea? (choose YES for black, NO for herbal) If you don't like tea at all, don't answer.

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