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Arigatō to Japan

903408_10151570253825799_1048541306_oAsante! xièxiè! Gracias! Tack så mycket! The first word any traveller learns in their new destination, Thank you! A phrase which shows humility, compassion, and a sincere gratitude used to acknowledge the new cultures, the diverse lifestyles, and the natural beauty of the place which you are exploring. The past few years have taken me to all corners of the globe, thanking people, children, even animals for the experiences they have given me and the warm hospitality they have shown (most of the time!) One place is etched in my mind however for showing me gratitude, showing me a way to give thanks like no other. This place, this experience was in Tokyo, Japan.

March 2013, I ventured solo to Tokyo for a week. I knew this bustling city, bursting at the seams with people would distract me from any feelings of loneliness. I did not expect to find the peace, serenity and awe inspiring silences which I did. Japan, a country of discipline and innovation, could teach us all something.

I signed up for a Traditional Japanese Tea Drinking Ceremony, ironic for the British traveller who does not drink tea, however I knew this would be far more than just a cup of ‘cha’. We were taken to a small wooden house, nestled in the most pristine of gardens, friendly and welcoming in the cool, crisp March air. We circled the centre table, and sat in expectant silence. A petite, shy, yet self-assured lady emerged from the back door, closing it softly behind her without a sound. Her movements were so precise, so intentional, and so silent that they could not be ignored. She sat composed at the small table on the floor in front us, unfazed by her eager audience. The aroma of the tea was mixed with sheer intrigue and anticipation. Each of us was offered a small lilac sweet, to accompany our tea. There was no rush, no hustle, and each sweet was offered and received with a polite, gentle nod of the head. Once the tea had been prepared, the tea drinking customs were demonstrated to us. There were no words in the Tea Drinking Ceremony, no sound at all in fact, just a series of movements, gestures and customs used to show gratitude. Japan was a country where I thought language would be a problem, but sat in this Tea Ceremony, almost 6,000 miles from home I knew exactly what was being said.

I went over the etiquette of tea drinking over and over in my head, desperate to repay gratitude and discipline I had been shown. I felt clumsy and nervous as my jade coloured cup or ‘Chawan’ was handed to me, without a sound in such a confident, yet friendly manner. I was inspired, I was in awe, and I did not want to disappoint. After an intense, yet tranquil few minutes it was time to drink or tea. We all followed intently, turning our cups clockwise twice, taking three smooth sips of our tea, being sure to leave some for the next guest as tradition suggests, placing our cups back down, and wiping the rim. I sat back, and breathed a sigh of relief, amazed at how this silent and composed atmosphere could make all your senses so alert.

The Tea Ceremony came to an end; it was time to thank our host, and our host to thank us. There are two ways to show gratitude in Japan. It can be said verbally, ‘Arigatō!’ But what does this mean, what does this mean to a traveller who doesn’t speak Japanese? As with every country I go to, I had learnt the phrase for ‘thank you’, but in this unique and awe inspiring culture, in made me question language. Anybody can say thank you, but as we are told, actions speak louder than words. We put our hands together, and bought them up to our chest. I lowered my head, I slowly blinked and bought my head back up, making eye contact with the host on the way up. With a slight smile thanks was given, no words, no language needed. Thank you for sharing your Tea Ceremony with me.

About the Author: Kate Chapman, a secondary school Geography teacher originally from the UK. Currently teaching and living in Singapore, I am travelling and eating my way through as much of (South East) Asia as possible.

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