Friday, May 17, 2013

Day 17 - Mealtime manners

It's been a bit more than two weeks and I'm starting to have faith that I can adapt to the customs and expectations by the people at Shunkaen. It's an unbelievable experience just to stay in this house, to wake up in the morning and walk barefoot in hallways of tatami mats, to look out over rows of excellent bonsai while brushing your teeth, and that's before any of the work and learning has even begun. But it's also probably the most difficult and challenging situation I've every been put in. Doing bonsai is the "easy" and relaxing time, most of my energy is spent trying to satisfy all of the more or less mysterious expectations. If it was only about hard work then it wouldn't have been so difficult. The challenge is that you are not told what to do, you have to be constantly on your toes ready to help out faster than any of the higher apprentices, who are equally eager to win the race. This is especially evident at meal times, you need to be the first one to finish eating in order to make and serve tea before anyone else. Before and after meals there's a flurry of activity with all the lower apprentices stumbling over each other to help set the table, carry things dish up rice etc. If you're slow to act, you'll be scorned for not helping out. Even when it's apparent someone else will beat you to the kitchen for fetching the soup, it's good form to get up and make an honest attempt. As I'm used to calm and relaxing meals, either taking care of everything or nothing, this was a difficult change. At first I kept wanting to suggest that if they left it all to me (I'm the most recent arrival) we could all have a more relaxing time, but that's not how it works. A week ago I thought this was one custom I could never get used to, but these days my speed-eating abilities have improved, and I'm starting to understand the order of things.
Another peculiarity that was easier to master is the concept of higher and lower positions at the table, where the middle is usually the higher, except for at home where the chief has his high seat in front of the tokonoma, the lower seats being at the far end (well, not that far actually). This is easy enough even for a novice to grasp (I knew of it but have rarely seen it practised) but to spice things up, the higher apprentices are ever ready to invite you to the high seats, especially if you don't appear busy arranging things. The unsuspecting novice who does as he is told is soon to get some funny looks and has to endure the agony of watching his superiors fetch soup, tea and clean up the table at the end of the meal as most of us are seated on benches. Once when we went to a restaurant, the two seats closest to the chief were empty, as the higher apprentices took lower seats and me and a Japanese guy, coming last, outsmarted the game by sitting down at a nearby table. When in Rome...

I thought I was pretty well versed in Japanese traditions, but this place is probably more traditional than most. Now that I'm starting to feel more comfortable in this little world, I think the traditional ways are are a unique experience in itself, as the bonsai world is probably one of the few areas where old traditions and values are still alive, Sumo being another such sphere.
Whatever I did know has certainly been of great help, my new friend and the next most recent apprentice, Marcelo from Bolivia has had a hard time learning the ways and fitting in, and probably won't be staying for as long as he had hoped.

If you made it all the way down here, you're probably wondering how I found time to write such a momentous piece of a blog post. The answer is that I've spent the last four hours waiting for my turn to hand in my visa application at the immigration office. Only three numbers left...

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