I’ve started writing this post the day after Thanksgiving here in the U.S. I’m so gratified that over 50 countries have followed my blog in its first three months. Holidays are good moments to rest and reflect. After an energetic trip to Hanoi, Luang Prabang and Hong Kong married to a trip to the Latin Grammy Awards in Las Vegas last week, the combination of Thanksgiving with Hanukkah – Thanksgivakkuh – has put me in a mood to unwind.
And there is no better way to do that than with a slow gong-fu (read complicated) tea ceremony…
If I was asked to describe Asia on to the back of a business card, I’d respond “TEA.”
So I thought I’d give you a short guide this holiday weekend to tea based on my experiences in Kyoto and Mt. Yoshino in Japan, Shanghai and Hanzhou in China, and Taipei and Hong Kong. Because through this complicated taste experience lies one sure key to understanding what is, for us in the West, the Other Side of the World.
A recapitulation is also in order. My blog now has followers in over 50 countries and this might be a good time to refresh the memory.
I wrote in a September post about how my Journey to the East began in Japan. My wife’s best friend from Boston University school days, Mitsuyo Matsumoto, met us in Kyoto in 2002 as Jan and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary during cherry blossom (sakura) time.
Upon reflection, I realize that Mitsuyo began our first trip to Asia at a true point of origin. She took us to a UNESCO World Heritage Zen Temple in Kyoto (the name is now opaque). The first thing we did was have a tea ceremony. I can still feel the silence of that moment as she and Jan reconnected as I was meeting Mitsuyo and her daughter Natsu. The incense and the intense green tea smell have stayed with me.
Mitsuyo then took us to two more stops: Ryoanji Temple and then to the old highway street of Kyoto and the oldest tea shop in Japan.
The Zen Temple of Ryoanji is a major destination for a new music lover. Cage’s music is unthinkable without his attraction to Japan. He received the Kyoto Prize and composed a haunting piece for the temple grounds. Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote that he had the vision for his mammoth LICHT cycle at the rock garden you see above. That’s enough right there for you to get the point.
But I want to focus more on tea than music with this post. So the next stop in Kyoto was also prophetic. Mitsuyo left us off at the Ippodo Tea Shop on Teramachi Dori in Old Kyoto. Ippodo is the oldest tea shop in Japan. The smell inside that shop is unlike any in the world. Fresh, clean, clear, complicated and deep smells of tea. We’ve been ordering from them on-line since 2002.
I’d put a stop at Ippodo in Kyoto on anyone’s Bucket List.
We had another important interaction with Japanese tea when we met Mitsuyo’s husband, Ippei. They drove us for lunch to a ryokan on Mt. Yoshino, famed for its cherry blossom viewing and prized by the Imperial Family.
Sure enough, we had a full tea ceremony on the top of the mountain, which we were told was a favorite tea viewing pavilion of the Emperor.
So my love of tea began in Kyoto and Mt. Yoshino in Japan through the patient eyes of Mitsuyo Matsumoto. I remained a complete novice but I also want to encourage anyone reading who is curious that a tea evolution takes time.
The next big chapter in my tea education took place in 2007 in Shanghai and Hanzhou. We were happy to meet up with our good friend composer Joan Huang, a native of Shanghai. She was lecturing at the Shanghai Conservatory and had pointed us in all the right directions visiting her home town.
Hearing Joan at home in Shanghai speaking in Chinese was a revelation. She was a virtual commander in charge of major strategy. After her reeducation through hard labor during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, she is an inspiration in Buddhist compassion. There is no sense of revenge, just acceptance that those difficult years are over and we are in a new cycle. Story over.
She had recommended we stay in the French Concession, the neighborhood of her childhood and the Shanghai Conservatory, with the homes of Sun Yat Sen and Zhou En Lai walking distance from our hotel. And she’d also recommended that we take side trips to Suzhou and Hanzhou. Two of her best pieces were inspired by these cities, with her Impressions of Suzhou written for Southwest Chamber Music. And of course we would have to visit the Yu Gardens and its Huxingting Tea House in Shanghai.
My memory is filled as much with smells and tastes as it is with visual images. I don’t believe that the visible takes precedent over the invisible. Mystery is, plain and simple, a lot sexier than graphic anything….but as a musician my imagination exists more in the abstract world of sound than the image world of places and things.
So my memory of the picture below is one of smell and taste. Dark, century old aromas, part herbal and medicinal, with a new world of taste for me coming from the West. It’s easy to dream of Shanghai with the aroma of tea in my imagination when I look at this photo.
Visiting the old capital cities of Asia is particularly rewarding. Nara and Kyoto in Japan before Tokyo. Hanzhou in China. This magical city a few hours by train from Shanghai and its beautiful West Lake was a favorite of Zhou En-Lai. The surrounding hillsides contain one of the great expanses of tea farms in the Middle Kingdom.
I’ve never recovered from our sunset walk around the circumference of West Lake in Hanzhou. Memory is destiny. This sunset created a tangible image to the transcendent movement of farewell in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde:
“The sun is setting behind the mountains. In all valleys the evening is rising.”
Those distant twilight mountains you see in the photo contain magic. Hanzhou was the ancient capital of China, and was connected by canal to Beijing. This is described by Marco Polo. And in those soft mountains are valleys and fields that poetically hold “all the tea in China….”
Before heading out into the cozy valleys behind West Lake, I have to point out Ling Yin Temple, the Vatican of Chinese Buddhism a few centuries ago. All our guide books were ridiculously brief about this major destination. So if you go please plan a few hours to visit. Not doing so would be like going to Rome and skipping the Sistine Chapel.
As you proceed into the Temple, be sure to walk the mile long path of carved Buddhas in the rock mountains.
And be sure to walk all the way to the top of the Temple complex. The views keep getting better and better.
From this extraordinary sacred spot you can easily find a cab to drive you to the heart of Chinese tea and the Meijiawu Tea Village which has the only Memorial Hall to Zhou En Lai in China. Zhou passed away before Mao but was beloved by the Chinese people. He asked that his ashes be spread over China from an airplane, refusing the usual grandiose monument of the privileged leadership. This final wish, unprecedented in China’s lengthy history, created great reverence for Zhou’s memory in the average Chinese citizen. An imposing figure of the 20th century who was at peace in Hanzhou and its environs.
Slowly but surely, tea was becoming more and more compelling, more interesting and more complicated. Tea is to Asia what wine is to Europe and the West.
To find a meal is a fascinating experience here. Numerous sales ladies will appear on the street, offering to cook you lunch in their home. We eventually settled on the nicest person, she took us through the house with its rows of vegetables, chickens, ducks, and of course teas to accompany the meal. Truly a look into the Chinese heart and soul.
But I need to fast forward to 2011 and our first trip to Taipei. This is where the door to tea opened for me, wide and full.
Living in California, we’re blessed with excellent wineries 90 minutes to the north in Santa Barbara, Los Olivos and Paso Robles another hour by car. Not to mention Sonoma, Napa and the Russian River. So I am used to directional signs pointing the way to all the good spots on a country road.
I’ll be posting Part 2 of my tea journeys soon. In the meantime, when I tell you there is a tea culture in the hills above Taipei, you’ll know what I’m referring to by looking at the picture below.
So I’ll need another full post to discuss Taiwan and Hong Kong. Because if my door into tea opened into Taipei in 2007, my knowledge graduated magna cum laude at Ming Cha Tea in Hong Kong this past October.
In a world that seems as if it can no longer be shocked by anything, a tea ceremony is a sure way to push the PAUSE button on your life.
Tea is subtle. Tea is sophisticated. Tea is Asia.
Best, best, best,