Friday, 4 April 2014

The Tea Ceremony of Awkward (Flashback Friday)

This is basically a slightly-edited version of an email I sent friends a few years ago, so the tone is a little different from my usual posts. I debated about posting the story because it seems ungrateful of the kindness we were shown and that really isn't how we felt... it was just very, very awkward! So, while reading please keep in mind that we were very grateful, and our desire not to too obviously reject the hospitality we were being shown is in fact the source of most of the cringe involved in this tale of woe!

On my last day of the winter holidays 2009-2010 the then-secretary of my Naginata club (and mother of one of my co-workers) had invited me and my little sister Verity (who is also vegetarian and was visiting Japan at the time) over to her house for afternoon tea. We got a lift with an English teacher I'll call Nunally who did Naginata with me. The secretary had a huge house on a steep hill overlooking the bay on one side and the city on the other. When we arrived she was wearing a beautiful kimono, and it turned out that “tea” actually meant a full tea ceremony. She had a dedicated tea ceremony room in her house. Verity is not a fan of green tea at all, let alone matcha, and she hates red bean paste, which is often in the sweets served with the tea, so we were a bit nervous. It went beautifully though, and Verity even managed to down a second cup. When it was over we signed hugely with relief and patted each other on the back. Little did we know. 

We left the tearoom and were ushered into the dining room, where our hostess had prepared a full New Year’s meal. Why she didn’t mention she was feeding us I have no idea. It was all exquisite and hand made- the soup had spinach leaves that she had grown in the garden and tied individually into little knots- and every last dish had seafood in it. We sat there petrified as she brought out dish after gorgeous dish that we couldn’t eat. She even made steamed shrimp custards in antique cups garnished with roe. She had hand rolled sushi which was vegetarian except for some crab cake, so we tried to subtly poke that bit out and eat the rest. Watching us mangle her dainty sushi she kindly suggested that if chop sticks were too hard for us we could use our fingers. Verity took a bite of something that looked like a segment of citrus fruit but turned out to be herring roe. I attempted the salad but it had shrimp AND spam (an ancient traditional Japanese ingredient). She brought out some chicken which we declined. It was excruciating. We managed to drink the soup despite the fish stock and crab cake, then pleaded fullness; so she packed it all up into Tupperware for us to take home. At that point we just wanted to die but we retired to a sun-room for three hours of attempting to make conversation (our hostess and her husband couldn't speak English, my Japanese was basic and Verity's non-existent) while being served half a dozen kinds of black tea each in a different antique cup (the monetary value of each being the main talking point each time). During this conversation I stupidly responded to a question about beef in Australia that we were vegetarian. “That’s why you didn’t eat the chicken” our hostess commented, then after a moment Nunally asked “what about seafood?” “Well, no, we don’t eat seafood” I squirmed. “What about in soup stock?” she persisted. “WOW this tea is GOOD” Verity chimed in. Argh! We felt that nothing could ever feel more awkward than that conversation.

Then they asked what sights I had taken Verity to and I explained that we hadn’t done much because I was sick, and had to go back to work the next day, but that before going back to Australia Verity wanted to try an outdoor hot spring (rotenburo). “Yes” they exclaimed, “you must! We’ll take you to one tomorrow while Sophelia is at work”. Now, hot springs are naked affairs, and before hopping in you all sit on a row of stools washing and thoroughly rinsing off any soap. For some reason Japanese people think that this is too complex for gaijin to understand, so I had visions of Verity being surrounded by old naked Japanese women trying to school her on the finer points of soaping. I tried to subtly diffuse the situation by saying to Nunally in English “Verity has her period now, so she can’t go.” Rather than tactfully transmitting this to our hostess Nunally just directly translated it into Japanese, including our hostess's husband in the announcement.

“What a pain” said our hostess, “will it be finished by Thursday? We could go on Thursday.”

“She doesn’t know when it will finish...”

“Well when did it start? How long are they usually?”

We were wrong about the vegetarianism being the peak of awkwardness.
Eventually feeling fairly safe that I had got her out of it, we headed to Nunally’s car for a lift home only to hear our hostess say “See you at 11 tomorrow then.” They had decided to take Verity sight seeing but had neglected to tell us. For me, it was over, but Verity got to enjoy another full day of awkward.
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  1. Wow! First off, that was so kind of them to go to all that effort! Second, I feel your pain! As a socially awkward girl myself I cringed and squirmed just picturing this! The later half really highlights the cultural differences, how open the Japanese are about nakedness and all the things an English girl like me would turn bright red at the mere mention of. Anyway I've just found your blog and im reading all the back posts and really enjoying it, long may it continue!


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