Text and photos by: Claudia Bonillo Fernández (Spain) & Frank Westhoek (The Netherlands)
God(s) first, guests second and yourself third. This phrase is used to indicate the correct order of serving tea in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. This is just one of the many things we learnt on our fifth day in Japan, which started with a visit to Miyajima, an island of the Hiroshima Prefecture near Hiroshima City. In older times, it was thought that the island of Miyajima itself was a god, and because of that people were not allowed to live there, or even to construct anything in it. Because of that, they had to build the torii (Japanese shintoist door) in the sea, to mark the entrance of the sacred place which was the island. Nowadays, however, there are people living in the island and it has become the favourite spot of many tourists around the world, including us.
When we arrived at Miyajima, we went to see the torii in the water to take a photo of the group. When there is high tide it seems as the torii is floating on the water, but because of the low tide we could see it whole, and that was beautiful in its own way. Then they gave us tickets to the Itsukushima Shrine, the main shrine of all the ones which can be found in the island (ant there are quite a few). Although the main building of the shrine it is said that was constructed by Saeki Kuramoto in 593, the temple as we know it today was built by the warlord Taira no Kiyomori around the 12th century. This shrine was built with the hope that it would protect Japan from natural disasters and, specially, the Imperial Family. After that, we were given free time during a couple of hours to explore the island. Apart from the torii in the sea, Miyajima is famous for its gorgeous landscapes and antique shrines, and we had the opportunity to enjoy all of it. After talking a walk around the island for some time, we got back to the pier to eat lunch. The highlight of the meal were the oysters, for Miyajima is famous for the quality of them. The rest of the dishes were also seafood, and they complemented nicely the oysters.
After this delicious lunch, we continued our program with a cultural exchange, experiencing a traditional tea ceremony, origami and the art of calligraphy. The tea ceremony is to be carried out in a very specific manner. When receiving tea from your host as a guest, a small ritual is carried out in which one thanks their host, apologises to any other, yet unserved, fellow guests for receiving drinks earlier than them and only then the tea can be drunken after turning the cup clockwise. These and many more rituals make up the traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. Over 500 different tea ceremony schools exist, with basic training already taking three months and gaining full experience requires decades.
The tea ceremony we experienced as part of the MIRAI 2018 program was themed after the New Year, a traditional occasion at which a tea ceremony is carried out with family. As Japan is not a Christian country, Christmas is hardly celebrated except for younger Japanese inhabitants who celebrate it with friends. The start of the New Year, however, is an important event for Shintoists and is commonly celebrated in the presence of the (extended) family. Typically, the theme of the tea ceremony is only announced by the host after it took place. Guests can, however, guess using room decorations, the kimonos worn or tea accessories used as important hints.
Just as the tea ceremony, calligraphy and origami are both not exact sciences. Creativity is valued and rewarded while adherence to rules and traditions is also important. The appreciation for such cultural traditions in Japan forms a nice contrast to the highly developed, technology-rich country that Japan also is at the same time. This combination is fascinating and contributes to Japan being such a unique country. As we approach the end of our journey, we hope to be able to gain some more insights in our last two days!