Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m an addict. Probably for about fifteen years now. My taste has gone from the milder form to more of a mid-range, but never to the really heavy stuff. Asians have been indulging for millennia, centuries before the common era. Burma and China used it first as a medicinal herb, India soon after and, later, it was introduced in Japan by Buddhists as an aid to wakeful meditation.
My addiction is to a single plant, Camellia sinensis. Tea. Camellia plants are magnificent but the heady potion that results from steeping the leaves in hot (but not too hot) water is what you might refer to as liquid moonlight. I say moon rather than sun because, despite the golden quality, tea has very soft edges, a luminescence more so than a glare, reflectiveness as opposed to directness. Its resonances are those of savoring rather than scarfing, calm instead of incitement, uplift and not submergence.
In Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea, published in 1906, he introduces the concept of Teaism. Teaism, he states, has influenced the whole of Japanese culture as a religion of aestheticism, “a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence…. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.” One hundred years later, Japan needs Teaism now in the wake of its present calamities; maybe that is one explanation for the culture’s exemplary behavior in the midst of overwhelming upheaval.
One of the beauties of tea is its mystery. All forms of tea are harvested from one plant; it is the stage of maturity at harvest, the fermentation process and the roasting that create either white, green, oolong or black teas – each starting out the same and ending up unique. Every picking (even if separate pickings happen from the same plants on the same day) will be different. A tea picked early in the morning will often produce a different-quality tea than leaves picked just before noon, so a tea farmer can harvest two distinct teas for different market consumption in a single day. The names of teas confuse and mystify their origins but are based on the mixed complexities of geography, climate, botany, grading, appearance, processing, biochemistry and the human hand: all coming together to make each and every batch of tea sui generis.
Those are its practical mysteries, and then there are the sensual ones: the way tea feels warm like a soothing bath in your cup, held up with a faint mist on your face; its color varying from moss green to yellow gold to amber depending on your selected variety; the earthy and ethereal smell of its plant compounds; the sensation of its bitterness/sweetness in your mouth; the way it energizes and refreshes but not instantly – its ebb and flow, much like other natural processes. Tea’s power is in its restraint as much as it is in its urging. It is nearly a living being and you, the partaker, are having a meaningful conversation with it. You are having tea with it.
The place where we obtain our tea adds to its mystique: a 19th-century narrow shop with high, decorative ceilings and top-to-bottom dark wooden shelves, large tins resembling old milk cans filling every cubbyhole of space and holding an array of cultural offerings from those regions, as with wine-growing, where mountains and sun-filled days/cool nights make things grow in a special, almost magical way. Our ounces of leaf matter are weighed on an old balance scale – kind of completing the sense that we might be in Haight Ashbury in the sixties (however, the bags are quite different and are labelled with the name of each tea), or transported to Victorian London in a quaint shop in Neal’s Yard. There is a direct connection with the ancients in the process of the shop owner inviting us to smell the contents of the tins – lovely barrages of earthy tones, floral essences, hints of mountain air, each unique and heady. Your nose knows. The textures and shapes are so varied, some are little knotted balls of leaf matter, others are slender flat leaves, some even resemble dried moss or seaweed; they are curled, folded, powdered, chopped, rolled – each has its own form, fragrance, taste. The differences derived from a single plant species are astonishing. From a simple bush, such complexity. Much like life.
There is a placeness to tea, more so than most other comestibles. It can be silently meditative, it can be social in its shared experience and it can make you part of a continuum in meaningful customs and traditions. It is such an adaptable place-maker because of its portability and requirements of simple implements for brewing. But the Japanese have perfected sites for it: tea houses. These beautiful, simple structures are, in a sense, altars to tea, but with an Asian component of humbleness. Tea houses are full of the stuff of Teaism: aesthetic surroundings with a dash of imperfection to keep us grounded – and all for the enjoyment of a steeped leaf. It is understandable how tea has been revered in many cultures, even developed into a ceremonial ritual much like a religious rite. The beauty, harmony and tranquility that emanates from this plant and its ability to create an atmosphere of opening one’s senses to the offerings of nature is very much in keeping with arslocii. No wonder we drink so much tea.