Dear Tea Friends,
I talk to strangers; it’s more interesting than talking to myself. While researching “Tea In the City: New York - a tea lover’s guide to sipping and shopping in the city,” I spent a lot of time waiting to be seated. One afternoon, after standing in a bustling hotel lobby for nearly an hour, I invited the young Japanese woman in line behind me to share a table. She looked tired and not in the mood for company. “We don’t have to talk,” I said. “But I’m dying to sit down and have a cup of tea, aren’t you?” She nodded and that’s how I met my friend Kay.
Kay used to live in New York, but moved back to Tokyo a few years ago. She visits twice a year and on that fateful afternoon she was too jet lagged after a 13- hour flight to be interested in making conversation with a stranger. But tea’s legendary powers to relax and revive soon melted her reserve. We parted with promises to keep in touch and a year later, when Kay learned I was visiting Asia on a tea tour, she insisted that I carve out a couple of days to visit her in Tokyo on the return trip. “China’s tough - you’ll need a couple of days to decompress before you head home. I’ll source tea places,” she promised, knowing my weak point.
In addition to sleek Ginza tea rooms, mom and pop neighborhood tea shops, Shinto shrines, a Buddhist temple with a huge incense cauldron (rubbing with the smoke is said to bring health) palace parks and the wholesale market for fish, fruit, vegetables and tea, Kay took me shopping for hand-made paper and vintage kimono textiles made into scarves. She also taught me to drink matcha brewed with brown buckwheat “tea.” It is delicious hot or iced; I’m drinking a cup right now.
I never dreamed that I’d get another chance to visit Japan, but a few months later, working as tea sommelier at the St. Regis Hotel, I helped two Japanese couples select tea to accompany their English-style afternoon tea. One of the women seemed particularly interested in the Keemun Hao Ya A I recommended and we chatted about China. She asked if I’d ever visited Japan and I described my 3 whirlwind days in Tokyo. When we exchanged business cards, I learned that Goda-san is President and CEO of Croesus Bouquet de L’Arthe, http://www.mercure.jp, a business which imports elaborate art tea from China. We met again for dinner last December in New York. And this July she hired me to participate in afternoon tea seminars she hosted at the top hotels in Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo and Yokohama which serve her teas.
The Japanese are mad for afternoon tea. The pleasant ritual is both foreign and familiar. The seminar consisted of a 45-minute talk from a Japanese etiquette expert re the history of afternoon tea and its etiquette. Satoh-san had once lived in England, as I did, but in the home of a Duchess! I spoke about the history of tea in NYC, after all we drank it before the British, and showed a power point with photos of the variety of ways to experience tea in the city. Then the china reps (Spode, Ginori and Augarten) talked about the history of the company, how the china is made, etc.
In addition to product displays there were two tea tables - one traditional with a Victorian- style floral arrangement, Battenberg lace linens and a second, more contemporary setting with an ikebana floral arrangement. The chef came out to talk about the menu created just for the event. I talked about the tea that was served, a lovely Keemun. We speakers circulated from table-to-table (thank goodness I always had a translator) answering questions while people enjoyed their full afternoon tea. The event attracted magazine and book editors, chefs, food stylists and event planners, university professors, tea associations, and just plain tea fans. I also met the Colombian ambassador and the female consul from the People's Republic of China.
Can now speak about a dozen words in Japanese and was actually complimented on day 5 re my bowing by the Japanese etiquette expert. Everyone kept asking the hosts if they were sure I wasn't English because I wasn't "loud, rude or large!!"
I also enjoyed 4 hours of Kabuki theater. All the roles, male and female, are played by men who dance and even sing gowned in beautiful kimonos. Every story was either sad or violent, or both, but there’s an elaborate bento box meal served to you in your seat at intermission! I also attended an incense "listening" ceremony (it's part of the traditonal tea ceremony) and took a workshop to learn how to make Japanese wagashi sweets (traditionally served prior to sipping matcha at the tea ceremony) ate a true Kaiseki meal, dressed in a silk kimono, served in a house circa late 18th century, visited The Fukujuen Cha Research Center and Ippo-do, a Kyoto tea shop dating back to 1846 .
Quite an adventure. I was the only non-Japanese, save for the Spode china sales rep. for 13 days. Then there was the typhoon and the earthquake that rocked the bullet train. Thank goodness I didn't realize what the big lurch actually was while hurtling from Tokyo to Kyoto at 164 miles per hour. Kay said that I was lucky I wasn’t in Tokyo- the skyscrapers swayed.
Two darling 70 year-old retired Japanese businessmen whom I met on the plane (they were eager to practice their English) took me for an exquisite 10-course dinner and the Big Echo Karaoke bar in Tokyo. Luckily one of the gentlemen is also tone deaf so I didn't warble any worse than he did.
I used to be shy, still am, too often. But I challenge myself to talk to strangers because one never knows what wonderful adventure awaits.
P.S. Tea In the City and Tea With Friends will be on vacation Aug. 4th-18th. Tea Tours will resume the week of Aug. 20th.
P.P.S. If you’d like to see photos of my Japanese adventures, please click on the “Gallery” tab on my website, www.teawithfriends.com.