“Anyone celebrating a special occasion?” our tour guide, John, asked.
Kathy, Julie, and I~ along with seven others (people we didn’t know) ~huddled together at the entry to the Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix.
After a long silence, one of the ladies in our tour group of ten said, “It’s a good day to be alive.”
“That’s a good reason to celebrate,” Kathy said.
“Every day I wake up and I’m alive, I celebrate,” said the lady, who we later learned goes by the name of Georgia and is 80 years old.
Being alive is not often celebrated like a birthday or anniversary. Party City doesn’t have a “Being Alive” aisle next to the Cinco de Mayo aisle or the Over-the-Hill gag gift aisle.
John ushered our group into the garden and pointed to the architectural design. Everything has purpose to promote beauty and serenity, he explained.
He noted the sidewalk’s raised location overlooking the pond, set purposefully to allow sunlight to create glistening reflections in the water.
The rounded stepping stones, he said, are not random but positioned so each footstep on each stone causes you to slow down and focus downward.
Looking around, I observed the harmony~ the Koi pond and the soft whoosh of the cascading waterfalls set next to stone lanterns and sculpted trees and sky-high bamboo.
But, forget harmonizing with beauty and nature. I had higher priorities. I wanted to sit down. My impatience had kicked in. When’s the Japanese Tea Ceremony? Our main reason for coming was to participate in the tea ceremony, an event we had reserved, (and paid for), weeks earlier. My shoulder ached from hauling my overloaded purse.
We trooped inside a bamboo-gated tea garden, where John stopped and asked us to pause and reflect on the garden for 15 seconds. “What did you hear? What did you see?” he asked us in a soothing, quiet voice. “It’s about being fully present in the moment,” he said.
He ushered us into the tea room lobby, where we reflected more. I missed the significance of this time of reflection as I was distracted by my search for my camera inside my well-stocked purse. When I caught up to the group, I found them in silent reverence gazing on a vase with flowers and a watercolor painting.
We removed our shoes and jewelry before entering the tea room. Jewelry can serve as a distraction, John explained, and the tea ceremony is all about being in the present moment.
I could see the problem. Who wants someone flashing their diamond Rolex or their one-carat diamond ring during the ceremony? Our thoughts might turn to the Shane Co. or the jingle “every kiss begins with Kay” rather than the experience of tea.
Ulee, a Japanese lady in a silky, teal kimono, read to us about the history of the tea ceremony. Both Kathy and I felt the presentation would have had more meaning for us if she had told us about the history rather than read. If the ceremony were free or maybe the cost of a movie ticket, we wouldn’t have minded. But the high cost for the ceremony caused us to expect a knowledgeable and engaged presentation. Anyone of us could have read from the same paper and saved ourselves some money.
Kathy said later, “Maybe she (Ulee) was new.”
Every task in the ceremony was done in order and with precision, from how we held the tea bowl (always in the left palm), to how we turned the bowl clockwise three time before taking a drink, to how we discarded the napkin (always on the left). We did a lot of bowing to show appreciation. When the sweet is served. Bow. When the bowl of tea is served. Bow. When the bowl is removed. Bow.
The sweet treat, the size of a tea bag, had the look of worn, shoe leather. I had hoped for the Japanese equivalent to a Cheese Danish. Remember, we had paid for this ceremony and with high payment comes high hope, such as more filling dessert. Our small sweet treat tasted like raw dough filled with the insides of a Fig Newton. Our hostess called it mochi.
The tea arrived after the mochi, a bowl of bitter and frothy green tea called matcha.
Ulee asked us to give an “elegant slurp” upon finishing our tea, a signal the tea was truly enjoyed. Suddenly I heard a loud, not-so-elegant slurrrrrp-ppp. I turned to see Georgia slurping with gusto. Her head flung back, her bowl to her lips and sounding like a lawnmower without a muffler. Sllllurrrrp-urrp. If I slurped like this at a dinner party here in America, my fellow guests would be whispering to one another, “Ahem. (eye roll) Please don’t invite Bronwyn again.”
As we filed out of the room, I felt somewhat let down. I had expected more. Maybe our names written in Japanese calligraphy? Or seconds on the mochi? Maybe a mochi take-home bag? Or at least give us the opportunity to try on the kimonos?
“It’s good to learn about other cultures,” Georgia said. Unlike me, she focused on what she got out of the ceremony, rather than what she didn’t get. I focused on feeling slightly ripped-off.
We strolled down the path after the ceremony and Georgia expressed her delight in the art and discipline of the ceremony. She said, “It’s like watching a ballet, everything so beautifully choreographed.” She waved her arms gracefully like a ballerina would.
And so, as we strolled to the gift shop to buy food to feed the Koi fish, I noticed the peacefulness of the manicured landscape and the joy I had of being with my friends, Kathy and Julie. That’s when it came to me, it was a good day to be alive. βω♥