Saturday, December 06, 2003
Soulfood, Japanese style.
The invitation to dinner was extremely courteous and the young teacher couldn't refuse. Besides being a foreigner on a rather meager pay, etiquette and manners required that he accommodate the request of his hosts, even though he politely expressed his sincere wish not to be a burden to them or that they go to any sort of extravagant measures to entertain him. Of course, etiquette dictated that the hosts, in order to show the maximum hospitality to their guest, do exactly what the guest asked them not to do - to take him to a fine meal, whose cost was to be no object.
The hosts offered to pick the teacher at his home west of Kobe, but knowing that his home lay a long way from their home, the teacher insisted that instead he ride the train the majority of distance to visit his hosts and minimize the time it would take his hosts to fetch him. In the mind of the teacher, riding the train for an hour and a half was nothing, a mere gesture of the depth of gratitude he had toward his hosts' invitation. They picked him up at the train station and off they went to a restaurant.
The restaurant was nestled in a quiet neighborhood outside the center of the city - no towering office buildings, mammoth warehouses, or sprawling shopping complexes were near by. The exterior of the restaurant was simple, an understatement even amidst the collection of humble houses that surrounded it. The teacher was informed by his hosts that their relationship with the restaurant was quite friendly, the host father's construction company being the people that helped to build the restaurant.
Inside the restaurant, the architecture again echoed the values etched into Japanese culture - simple, functional, and graceful. A friendly hostess greeted the party and quickly took them to a private dining room, away from the general eating area open to the public. The private dining room was accessed by a small stone walkway, surrounded by garden that sprung up rather unobstrusively in the middle of the restaurant.
The private dining room itself was floored with tatami mat, soft lighting, and a low ceiling. The hosts explained that the room had been constructed to ancient specifications - the dimensions of the room were all to ensure the comfort and sense of safety of feudal guests. Because of a lack of a window, a low ceiling preventing an overhead swing of a sword and the narrow doorway allowed easy defense of the room - a lord or aristocrat could dine in ease, without fear of assassination or attack. Adding to the air of serenity were works of art - a wall scroll of fine calligraphy, a statue of a kabuki actor, a flower arrangement, and a piece of pottery.
As soon as the party was seated, the drink and food were immediately brought in. The young teacher marveled at the menu - handwritten in calligraphy by the head chef on expensive rice paper flecked with gold paint. Course after course, the food was brought out - small dishes, each prepared exactly the same for every guest with care and beauty. The pace of eating was leisurely, so the teacher and his hosts took their time - food and drink helped to make the atmosphere friendly for everybody. Even though he was a foreigner, and being such, was exempt from the traditional expectations of etiquette, the young teacher made sure to observe every convention, the most important being the pouring of rice wine for his hosts whenever their cups ran low.
It was after about his 10th pouring, that the hosts laughed and commented to the teacher, "You are too polite. Please, while you are here in Japan, consider us family. There is no need to call us 'Mr' or 'Mrs'. Feel free to address as 'father', 'mother', 'big brother' or 'big sister'."
The young teacher smiled sheepishly, bowed deeply in thanks, and replied in his unsteady Japanese, "It is no trouble at all for me to be polite. It is the least I can do for the kindness you have shown me in this country and the gift of this excellent meal."
The courses continued, until at last, the final course arrived - a simple serving of tea for each guest and a piece of candy shaped like a maple leaf. The head chef and owner of the restaurant also arrived personally to greet the host family and their guest, the young teacher.
"Did you enjoy the meal?" the chef asked.
Everyone in the party nodded their heads and murmurred comments of thanks and praise to the chef for the meal. The young teacher also asked the chef a question.
"If I may ask, is there a reason why every person here has a different bowl for their tea and a different mat?" the teacher asked. He had noticed that through out the meal, everybody had been served identical looking courses and dishes, except this final course, the tea - every person had received a completely different shaped bowl that held their tea, as well as different colored mats of material for the bowls to rest on.
The chef smiled and replied, "Of course there is a reason. This meal is a traditional Japanese meal, in the style that commonly comes from Kyoto. The tea itself is part of a very old tradition that came from China. Do you have a guess as to the significance of why this final course is different?"
The young teacher was silent for a moment as he pondered the chef's question. But as he gazed at his own bowl of tea, an idea struck him and he spoke.
"Every person received a different looking bowl and place mat," the teacher began slowly. "However, everyone still was served the same tea in these bowls." The teacher paused to collect his thoughts.
"It is the same way for people. Just as each of the tea bowls are shaped differently and appear different, so too do the events of life shape human beings and mark them differently. Our outward appearance, even our outward character, are all molded uniquely, just as these bowls are molded uniquely. And we sometimes are also placed in different situations and environments, just as these bowls all rest upon different placements."
"Yet despite our different appearances, our different characters, our different situations - there is still a commonality that all people share, an existence of a spiritual self, a soul. It is the same for the bowls and the placemats - despite their differences, in the end, they still all contain tea. People and bowls... they are both vessels for something more precious than themselves."
The chef nodded in agreement and chuckled. "Fantastic. You are correct, each of these tea bowls were handcrafted individually for the purpose of just serving, but they are representation of an idea more important than just drinking tea. Not only do you have the haircut of a monk, you have the mind of a monk. How is it that you understand these things? How were you taught them?"
The young teacher smiled and shook his head. "My understanding of these things is very limited. But what little I know... faith alone has taught me."
- - -
The Akito challenge? .
This is what happens when you miss your train and you have too much time in the internet cafe. At least I dun have to work tomorrow...
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