The Ceremony of Coffee
The tea ceremony in Japan is dead. It has been dead a long time.
It was not killed by the arrival of coffee or the change in popular preference, although coca cola, coffee and the “red” tea – Indian and Sri Lankan teas are differentiated by their hues; just as “green” tea is in English – certainly have displaced or deterred would-have-been Japanese green tea drinkers. Neither did the tea ceremony die due to lack of good tea, although many bemoan the decline in the overall quality of food products. Good tea, like anything else good in life, has always been hard to come by – today or yesterday or a hundred years ago.
Therefore, it is not the “tea” part that has died, but the “ceremony.”
Now, there is no argument that ceremony is dead: it is dead in Japan, it is dead in the U.K., and it is dead just about everywhere and anywhere in this narrowing world. Ceremonious has become synonymous with cumbersome; and if at all, curtesy is performed clumsily. Get rid of the suits and throw away the ties; casual is good and informal is intimate, and we are all friends on the Facebook.
Hence, there is no more need for an artificial closeness, created within the space of two tatami mats, where the host and the guest face each other across a bowl of tea – close but not intimate; tense but tranquil. Upon entering the minuscule doorway into the “cha-shitsu” (tea room in Japanese), past is discarded and future is forgotten, and one succumbs and submerges to the present – a present where the host, the guests, the tea, the fire, the water and the flower all become elements of a condensed miniature cosmos. While there may be a war raging outside, in this sanctuary, even the opposite parties may partake the same bowl of tea – sharing a fleeting moment of temporal and spatial concurrence. In such an altered reality, it takes will and discipline to maintain the ego and the superego. Intimidating but not intimidated, dominating but not domineering, the host allows alien bodies to enter their inner sanctum on the one hand, while the invited must be initiated into the rites and rituals of the host on the other.
This battle of wills, battle of selves, and battle of egos, is the tea ceremony. The tea ceremony is an unspoken war of words; it is a silent war of worlds. After all, the ceremony was born in the warmongering days. Instead of wielding the swords, however, the tea drinkers pass the bowl of tea.
Therefore, the demise of spirit and the decline of ego paved the way for the death of tea ceremony.
Into this void comes coffee.
Coffee is the new black. Being washed over by so many waves, the field for coffee is wide open for anyone to ride on the newest tide. Due to its foreign origin and exotic air, coffee has always enjoyed a special dispensation from the polite public and has been allowed to command idiosyncrasy and individualism despite the uniformity that is Japan. The “masters” – they are in fact so called – of coffee houses are masters of their own small universes, and they can be nerdy, eccentric, bossy and cantankerous – as long they can carry it off: wearing vests and donning bow ties, they brew the mysterious potion in bubbling siphons or distill the elixir in twisted glass tubes. The customers watch the modern-day black magic and stare at these latter-day Wizards of Oz, in fascination and in awe.
And, it is these masters of coffee houses, who have become the Masters of Coffee Ceremony.
The ceremony of tea is dead and is likely to remain dead, and it cannot be revived even by using the caffeinated power of coffee. Yet, with a sleight of hand, nonetheless, the black art of coffee can conjure up the ghost of the ceremony. Combining artificial stimulation and simulated serenity, the masters mesmerize the audience into a moment of oblivion. That is our new ceremony.
“Kabuki” – a new coffee house in the old Tokyo – is one of such masters of coffee ceremony. A thick door separates the real world from the other – the other being the silent, somber and subdued world of Yusuke Kabuki. Donning a long, indigo robe, Master Kabuki oversees a kingdom of six heavy chairs surrounding his counter and two small tables.
The master roasts and blends the coffee beans and offers three kinds of flavors: Oriza, Haku and Kamoshika – all dark and all nel-dripped. The trendy airy, fruity single origins have no place here; neither do the staccato Italian nor the pictorial Australian concoctions.
In traditional “kissaten” – Japanese coffee house – a cheesecake will be the house dessert because the acidity and the fat in the cream cheese complement the bitter blended brew. However, not at Kabuki. Having worked for a chocolate company in his previous life, Master Kabuki is not only a master roaster of coffee, but also of cacao beans, so that he can offer the rare and unique opportunity of enjoying the bitter and the sweet under his auspices.
“Oriza is light and glamorous, so the mild Nadeshiko with the notes of citrus and honey should pair well,” said the master and proceeded to set up his apparatus of wizardry – the nel drip. “Nel” is short for “flannel,” therefore a cloth is used in lieu of paper to strain the coffee. Typically, a nel-drip allows more oil to seep through, thus it produces a rounder, mellower and thicker liquid with a slight viscosity.
Bare lightbulb, antique tin shade, old wood and the bare stucco. The stage was set. The master reached for one of the three metal canisters on the counter – bronze, copper and tin for each of the three blends, then he scrunched his eyebrows and poured a thin line of water onto the little sac of flannel. There was no background music to mar his concentration, or ours. Even the boiling of water and the hiss of the steam were subdued and subjugated. Only the Master Kabuki’s hand shone palely, against rough cotton cloth of his robe.
The “Oriza” turned on the tongue, floury and fruity like a green muscat grape, mellow but clear in spite of the nel-drip. The chocolate – “Nadeshiko” – tasted more like agave syrup than honey, with a hint of smoke and its associated acidity, as if someone had added a drop of liquid smoke into the vat of chocolate. Then as the chocolate melted into the coffee, the coffee turned into – voilà – tea, and not just any tea, but it was the highland tea of Dimbula from Sri Lanka.
The black magic of coffee continued.
The iced coffee was not anything ever seen on the face of earth. After making the coffee fresh and hot, Master Kabuki took out a block of ice. The hot liquid was poured into a cocktail shaker, which was then placed into its little nook in the ice. Then the Master began spinning; he spun and spun the shaker, fast and faster, so the liquid inside the shaker was rapidly rotated and chilled by the continuous contact with the ice-cold steel. Fast-freezing, done manually and magically. And the guests, having followed the spins avidly, started to feel slightly vertiginous.
A vertigo – that was to be restored by a shot of “Kamoshika,” his darkest blend of coffee and in a concentrated demitasse. If that was still not enough, then the last resort: Mocha from Harrar in Ethiopia. Otherwise renowned for its notes of fruits and berries, the Mocha had been turned into a blackguard in this nether world so that it was pungent, spicy and extremely bitter like drinking a stewed Chinese medicine.
Being present, being conscious, being mindful – it is a goal shared across many disciplines because it is so universally, inhumanly difficult to achieve, much less to maintain. It is even more difficult today where virtual reality seems just as real as, or more real than, the real reality, and many fall into the chasm between verisimilitude and verity. It is therefore necessary to have a moment to engage what is real and to disengage what is not.
Although yoga and meditation all teach us to be present and preach against the razzle-dazzle, those practices may not be everyone’s cup of tea and may even be suspected of being another form of hocus-pocus. But, a cup of coffee is just a cup of coffee. But taken ceremoniously, it does take us out of our self-absorption and provides a moment of respite from ourselves. While it may be a simulacrum and a show, where hypnotization takes the place instead of real revelation, if it works, it works.
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