I don’t remember the last time someone french braided my hair. It’s relaxing to have someone pull your hair into a braid. I felt remarkably calm as I sat in my kimono, looking into the mirror, admiring the two smiling Japanese women braiding my hair. They embellished my new ‘do with flowers, fully preparing me for our tea ceremony.
It was our first full day in Kyoto, and as sleep deprived as we were, we were ready to jump in. As tea enthusiasts, we wanted to learn more about this tradition and found a place to participate in an abbreviated ceremony. After we got dressed in our kimonos – undergarments and all – we made our way upstairs and sat on the tatami floor with a dozen new friends and learned about this intricate, rich tradition.
While traditional tea ceremonies last a couple hours, ours lasted 30 minutes. We mixed our matcha, then learned how to appropriately hold our cup, sip the tea and slurp the remains. Accompanying our tea were “sweets.” We ran into these throughout our trip, and I concluded Japanese sweets are mostly some combination of sugar and beans. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I’m just saying…there’s an impressive variety of sugar/bean combos out there.
Our hostess walked us through the history and etiquette of the tea ceremony. She was so delicate and deliberate in her kneeling, folding, pouring and mixing that I could feel the molecules slow in my body. She was a moving meditation.
Central to the tea ceremony is the concept of “ichigo ichie,” which loosely translates to “once-in-a-lifetime chance.” Participants of a tea ceremony understand this unique experience will never come again, so being fully present is paramount. This encounter with these people only happens once in your life. You’ll never get this moment again. Cherish it.
Her explanation was beautiful, simple and made so much sense. At the same time, it felt so out of reach in the over-stimulated, self-important world we’ve created for ourselves. It’s an epidemic. A day doesn’t go by without someone reading notifications on their fancy watch while I’m in the middle of talking to them. Our lives are full of distraction – none of us are immune from this behavior.
How could I consciously bring more “ichigo ichie” into my life? I kept this concept close over the next two weeks. When jet lag held me hostage at 3 a.m. and threw me into a dark spiral, I’d catch myself, think of the tea ceremony and return to the present moment.
When Typhoon Hagibis plowed into the country and pushed our travel plans three extra days, I allowed myself a couple hours of anger, frustration and tears, but remembered this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Being in one of the world’s greatest cities with my favorite person would never happen again.
The following days ended up being some of the most fun. We stumbled into a 2-D cafe, danced through a city park, watched Japan win a rugby match in a Wisconsin-themed bar, laughed a lot, ate a ton of food, explored new neighborhoods and had unforgettable adventures with new friends.
These extra days were a gift. I “ichigo ichie-d” them super freakin hard.
Like I do after every trip, I reflected on which elements had the deepest effect on me. What I loved most about Japan was the attention to detail – and how the smallest details were often of greatest importance.
Whether they were gestures of respect and kindness, beautiful serving ware, kawaii (cute) embellishments or heated toilet seats – it was done with precision, but in a way that felt like second nature. Not showy. Just the normal way of being.
An “ichigo ichie” mindset allows you slow down and appreciate details. To stop merely seeing the forest, but admiring the trees. Maybe even noticing the tiny leaves fluttering. I collected a bunch of unusual Japanese souvenirs, but “ichigo ichie” might be the best of them all.