I have often read that Japan is a culture in which things “become” (naru bunka) in contrast to the West which is a culture that “does” things (suru bunka). Nowhere is this more evident than in the art of kimono and the Japanese tea ceremony. I had the pleasure and unique opportunity to experience both last week.
Kimono literally means “thing” (mono) “to wear” (ki). While it is arguably one of the most aesthetically pleasing and exquisite national costumes in the world, the true beauty of the kimono emerges only when it is worn, thus giving the wearer a deeper understanding of what the Japanese naru bunka means. This is the opposite of Western style ready made clothes in which the form is fixed before they are worn, and the variety of styles and designs available either suit a person or not. On the other hand, all kimono, from the most simple to the most elaborate, have the same form — they are essentially T-shaped, straight lined robes long enough to reach the ankles and with long wide sleeves. They are easy to take apart and resewn into the same one piece material. When lying flat in its wrapping paper, one can appreciate a kimono’s color, textile quality, pattern or print but the beauty of its form becomes apparent only when worn. Put another way, it is the wearer who creates the kimono’s form.
Norio Yamanaka, founder of the Sōdō Kimono Academy, wrote:
Since it is what is inside that gives the kimono its true form, it is meaningless for the wearer to merely imitate another person’s outer or physical presence. Those who would make the beauty of the kimono their own must first make their own spirit and character a thing of beauty. This is the wisdom of beauty for those devoted to the kimono... the kimono reveals, rather than disguises, the wearer’s inner qualities. There is no other garment which does so uncompromisingly.
Thus, the wearer of the kimono undergoes not only a physical but also a deeper spiritual transformation.
There were two professional kimono outfitters assisting me and my classmates to put on kimonos. I first watched my classmate be dressed. Each layer was carefully donned and each tie carefully knotted. It took about 45 minutes to complete the process, with just one person assisting her. When it was my turn, both professionals were available and I was surprised that it took both of them only 15 minutes to dress me up. Probably having two people made it easier to keep the balance and the symmetry of the garment. While it is a bit difficult for me to imagine, my Japanese language teacher says that she can put on the kimono all by herself.
I was surprised when the assistants brought out cotton padding, but they weren’t used as I expected. Western clothing tends to accentuate a woman’s distinct bust line, waist line and hipline. The kimono on the other hand flows more smoothly with a cylindrical outline and so the cotton pads were used to suppress the contours of the body and fill in the hollow areas (ex. around the collar bone, the small of the back).
With the kimono snugly fitted, movements become naturally restricted. The kimono looks best with an upright posture, back straight and shoulders relaxed. Walking gracefully meant taking slower smaller steps. It was a challenge to kneel and then sit in the tatami room for the tea ceremony. I had to ensure that the folds of the kimono do not open to reveal my legs or get disheveled and that my sleeves don’t drag when I pick up my tea cup.
The Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu or sado) is the perfect occasion to wear the kimono to. As a guest of the tea ceremony, I came to realise that the process is not so much about the drinking of the tea itself; rather, it is a discipline that considers in entirety the aesthetics involved in the whole experience of hosting.
The simplicity of the tea room provides the perfect ambiance for the seasonal flower arrangement, calligraphy (of a poem highlighting a particular seasonal element), and the ceramics in the alcove. At this time, there were also dolls displayed to celebrate Hina Matsuri (Doll’s Day or Girl’s Day on March 3). Just as the colour and the design of the kimono are carefully elected to match the seasons, so are the elements of the tea ceremony and the environment deliberately chosen to communicate harmony.
As the tea ceremony started, the slow, predefined movements of the host were almost hypnotising. The silence provided ample opportunity for quiet contemplation, rendering a spiritual dimension to the occasion. Even my two year old son who was with me at that Eme quietly observed the proceedings.
First, we were served traditional Japanese sweets with bean paste filling, the color and shape of which were inspired by the plum blossoms in early spring. My son received different sweets appropriate for his age. The bean paste left a lingering sweet taste that nicely complemented the bitter taste of the Japanese green tea or matcha. After eating, the person beside me instructed me to tuck away the sweets paper and the wooden pick into the folds of my kimono sleeves - I didn’t know that the sleeves doubled up as a place to keep things.
Next, we were served a bowl of matcha. Proper etiquette requires the guests to appreciate not only the tea but also the vessel which holds the tea by turning it in a particular way before and after drinking, the exact procedure of which would probably take me a while to master, but it is consoling to know that even ordinary Japanese don’t necessarily know what to do during a tea ceremony. To fill this gap, tea schools have gained some popularity as more people want to learn about this ancient art.
On one level, the tea ceremony provides a beautiful and enjoyable atmosphere to relax and connect with friends. On another level, it allows the participants to partake of a moment of purity and serenity, something that is quite rare in our fast paced modern lifestyle.