I saw her for the first time dressed in her kimono in the chasitsu, the special room for sado, the “tea ceremony” she had in her house in Kanagawa –a house she built with her eldest daughter by working until she was 72 years old. I had met her daughter a few days before and hearing that I was interested in old Japanese culture, she had arranged for her mother to do a private event for me and my two friends. The chasitsu was small, the way the founder of sado, Sen no Rikyu wanted it but every detail had been taken care of. In the end, as is customary, I stayed behind to look carefully at the equipment she had used and although this wasn’t the reason I did it (or at any rate it wasn’t the only reason) I understood that I had impressed her –not a small feat because after all she’d been through she wasn’t easy to impress.
This impression was enough for her to agree to her daughter’s request to let me spend one night in the same chasitsu while returning from a trip one year later –in the meanwhile a relationship had started developing between us but she hadn’t said anything as is usually the case with the Japanese of her prewar generation. Of course she was extremely polite and unusually tolerant to a non-Japanese, perhaps because she remembered my interest in her culture. From the window of the chasitsu, if you got the angle right you could see Fuji; she always wanted to stay at a place from which she could see Fuji and even though the view wasn’t direct, she was satisfied with at least the idea. Even though she wasn’t born in Kanagawa but in Fukushima, Kanagawa and its emblematic mountain had marked her difficult life: the few years she got to spend with her husband, the birth of her daughters, the endless hours of work and study of sado.
Last winter the house needed refurbishing and the chasitsu was the hardest. As I had found out in the two years I lived there –now as the husband of her daughter- its oshi-ire closet was filled with hundreds of sado utensils, others bought and others gifts, most of them unused. We had to open them all and being the one mostly interested in that stuff, I was also the one who got to listen to at least a few words about everything. Fifty years of her life were in that chasitsu which she actually never used for lessons even though she had the teaching license –her priorities were different: her children, her work, her obligations to the Buddhist organization that helped her through the hardships of being a widow and her participation in the neighborhood’s activities. “Itsuka” she used to say, “someday” –meaning she hadn’t completely abandoned the idea.
In the same chasitsu I saw her for the last time in that house. The people from the funeral parlor laid her down on a white mattress and covered her with the futon she had in her bed. Next to it they put up the mandatory low table-altar with the chopsticks stuck upright in a bowl of rice, her cup filled with water, sweet manju, a candle, a bell and a small urn for the incense sticks. In the days she stayed there dozens of people came to see her, light an incense stick for her and ask how it happened; despite her 82 years she was very active even a few hours before. (People always ask these things trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.) On the first night we ate sushi –she loved it too but rarely cooked it: it was too bothersome and she was too tired.
I couldn’t thank her for accepting me and for trying in her own way to make me feel as comfortable as possible in the way customary to the culture I grew up: by hugging her –it wasn’t in her culture, ethnic or personal. But when the people at the crematorium gave the box with her remains to her daughter, I offered to carry it and not just because I was worried she couldn’t make it, physically or psychologically: it was my only chance to hug her, even indirectly, to take her to her home and to put her one more time in her chasitsu, this time in the tokonoma alcove, the most respected spot in the room.
O tsukaresama deshita okaasan
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.