Over a cup of Tea
Origin of Lost Ceremony
J A P A N
When I returned from the first round of shooting Lost Ceremony in Japan, I wrote and illustrated an article for Origin Magazine that has not yet been shared online. After three years, three exhibitions, and an upcoming book project, it is great to look back at where it all started.
“Tradition is dead in Japan,” Mariko whispers over a steaming bowl of ramen. For the kimono maker, this is not a protest or resignation. It is simple fact. For her, a woman who came of age in the 1980s, old Japan was lost after the war and will never return. This puts her boyfriend, Eric Chevalier, in an interesting position. He left his native France to live and work in Sakai City, where he is the apprentice and heir apparent to the Sasuke dynasty of metal workers. If he takes hold of the reins, Chevalier would be the 6th master at Sasuke and the first of European blood. Chevalier’s master, Yasuhiro Hirakawa–a 62-year old officially designated a living national treasure by the Japanese government–says that Chevalier has what it takes to carry on the old traditions.
Industries like knife making and tea farming have been self-contained for over 1,000 years. Ever since Japan opened its doors to the world, people have marvelled at the quiet refinements of its master-craftsmen. Their abilities are legendary, but not innate. Each Japanese apprentice must be guided by his or her master. In this way, a delicate thread runs through each dynasty. It only takes one apathetic generation and the thread comes loose, condemning centuries of knowledge to oblivion.
Over bottomless cups of tea, masters and apprentices share their stories and reflections. Breathing the same air and working side-by-side for at least ten years, they share more than just techniques. Following this lengthy and ancient education, the apprentice will remain under the guidance of the master until the elder craftsman retires, at which point the former student will take full advantage of the master’s counsel. When the master dies, his tea cup is placed on the ancestral altar and the one-time apprentice will stand alone.
The work of a craftsman is not glamorous, but there are advantages to the skills acquired across the centuries. Momotaro Jeans Katsu Watanabe’s family have over 150 years of fabric-making experience, all of which had been sustained by the insular Japanese market. Yet global opportunities have presented themselves to Momotaro. The recent explosion of high-end denim, with some pairs of jeans selling for $2,000, now represents 20% of Katsu’s business. The four generations that preceded Katsu have given the Momotaro dynasty the know-how and machinery to produce a range of attractive options from ready made-jeans to hand-dyed indigo jeans woven on an antique wooden loom. Master Uchida, Katsu’s head technician, lovingly tunes the old looms as if they were a concert piano. Once he strikes the right chord, the fabric will build into a pristine sheet of raw denim, with its distinctive red and white selvedge. His apprentice stands by as Shigeru Uchida recalls his formative years. “We could not ask questions…only watch, until the machine worked.”
A watchful eye like Uchida’s had always been an apprentice’s best tool, since it was forbidden to ask questions. In that way, the only path to knowledge was careful observation. Master-craftsmanship is the story of Japan, and in many ways reflects the way that Japanese society sees itself. Bamboo craftsman Miki-san explains that we cannot see the history of bamboo without the history of Japan. Miki-san, generously inviting his guests to tea in his great-grandfather’s anteroom, shares his philosophy of the world through the metaphor–most familiar to him–of a bamboo lattice:
“Society is connected at the roots, our ancestors roots. These are unseen. From the forest floor, bamboo grows up and looks like we do on the streets of Kyoto. But when it hit the sky, the shoots support each other, so intertwined that the canopy is as green as this tea.”
On that afternoon Miki-san points out a bamboo flower in his garden, a blossom which scientists say only emerge once every 100 years. Somewhere between mystery and miracle, the tea with Miki-san provides a sobering moment of clarity.
The tea estates of the Uji region lie forty-five minutes by train from Kyoto. Famed throughout Japan as the provider of ceremonial tea, Uji’s Ippodo produces one of the finest powdered matcha teas in Japan. Not all tea drinkers find themselves on tatami mats drinking matcha in traditional ceremonies, though: Ryozo Koyama–in charge of Ippodo’s daily operations–says he takes tea with his wife at a table just like everyone else. Traditions in Japan can be surprisingly elastic. Standing in front of the steaming machines which dry out the leaves, Ryozo explains that “Technology can be useful, but only if it serves the tea. The final product cannot be of any lesser quality because of production.” Yet in the fields and warehouses, generations of father and son and husband and wife still pick, dry, and grind the teas.
Each tea estate in Uji will yield three harvests a year. The very best leaves are fed into granite plates and then ground into a fine powder. As a result, a fragrant electric green tea dust coats the grinding rooms. Once the matcha is processed it is quickly sealed and sent off for sale. Ryozo does not have an ideal client. He says, “It does not matter what clothes you wear or if you have a tea room. If you want to study the history of tea you can, but usually this is a small percentage of people. “
Regardless of customer, no detail is overlooked when it comes to traditional teas. Inside the studio of Kaikado, Takahiro Yaagi maintains a close relationship with his friends and clients at Ippodo. The two dynasties form an interlocking Zen riddle, because without the other, their products are of no use. For over 160 years, Yaagi’s family developed an air-tight case for tea that doesn’t rely on the aid of mechanical fasteners or rubber gaskets. They are only able to produce sixty cases a week, with a four-month waiting list. In spite of more general economic conditions, there is always a market for highly-specialized goods of outstanding quality. From tea to knives, Japan continues to set itself apart from imitators that can’t maintain the right combination between heritage, patience, and skill.
On a pleasant fall morning, Zen monk Takafumi Kawakami fixed the rock garden. The wind shook orange leaves off of the trees, which gently fell onto the concentric rings of the rocks below. Kawakami needed to clear the garden before the temple opened at nine o’clock. He laughed that mastery never looks as impressive in person, and powers up an electric leaf blower to help him with the task. Once the rocks are once again in order we share another cup of tea before meditation begins. In a temple fourteen generations old, it becomes clear that Mariko the kimono maker’s claims are partially true. Old Japan is changing. Even the Zen monastery is adapting to its new life of cell phones and power tools. But still Kawakami smiles. The principles of tradition remain, waiting patiently for discovery inside a cup of tea.