The custom at the Japanese junior high school where I worked was for the women, both teachers and staff, to gather up all of our tea cups at 10am, noon, and 2pm. They would rinse out with cold water at the sink the tired tea leaves from the last round of tea making lying swollen in puddles at the bottom of the cups. The men continued to do whatever it was they were doing. My instinct was always to help, but the women would shoo me away if I tried.
Once the cups were rinsed clean and dried by towel, a new batch of tea would be brewed. A giant golden-colored tea kettle sat on a little one-burner unit hooked up to gas. Fired up, the water would soon scream. The tea was brewed in several rather small red metallic tea pots with black lids. A small amount of wonderfully pungent green tea leaves would be poured into screens resting atop the lidless tea pots and the boiling water would be poured almost to the rim, then black lid put firmly in place. The chemistry teacher taking note of my interest in this tea brewing ceremony once explained to me in a combination of broken English and what little Japanese I could understand that you never left the tea leaves in for more than about thirty seconds, or the tea would have a bitter taste. He lifted a lid on one of the pots and showed me the soaking leaves. He said you knew it was time to remove the leaves when small bubbles began to appear amongst the swollen leaves. Once brewed, the tea would be poured into each cleaned and dried cup, which would then be taken to the desk of each respective teacher; men, of course, were served first.
The cups would usually only be filled about a third of the way up, never as much as half. This was explained to me once: the Japanese appreciate modesty and restraint. They find a full cup offensive, even vulgar in its excess. I encountered this cultural difference once in a Denny’s restaurant in Japan (yes, a Denny’s; they’re all over Japan and quite good with their Japanese twist to the American menu). I complained to a Japanese friend that the waitress would never fill my coffee cup to the rim. He explained that the Japanese found a full cup to be aesthetically unpleasing and generally didn’t fill them like Americans, even in an American-style restaurant.
I always liked this explanation, and have no doubt this speaks loads to the different ways Americans and Japanese see reality, but there was a more practical explanation to the practice of filling cups less than half full, at least in regard to green tea. Most of our cups were handle-less. Each teacher brought his or her own personal cup, and they ranged from cheap coffee mugs to elegant, hand-fired traditional tea cups of great beauty. My own was a beautiful grey cup with a thick, gritty texture to the clay with the impressions of Japanese maple tree leaves pressed into it. One of the men from the Board of Education, Kitayama-san, had taken me and his son out into the country of mountainous Gunma Prefecture when I was in my first month of adapting to this strange new world. We visited a woman who made these cups, and other gorgeous works of art, in her studio in the country. Her work was beautiful and the cup purchased for me by Kitayama-san a treasured memento of my time in Japan, but I never knew who she was. Neither Kitayama nor his son spoke any English, so our day was spent smiling at each other as he took me to wondrous places and showed me things I couldn’t understand. How valuable was this cup? How great was this artist? I will never know. But the cup brought me gentle joy as I drank my three rounds of tea each day at Itakura Chugakko.
Hank Jones has taught literature and composition for the past thirteen years, along with a four-year stint as Assistant Director in the Office of International Programs, at Tarleton State University. He has found none of this conducive to writing, but has recently begun writing again anyway.