09 May 2013

A Bowl of Tea at the Golden Pavilion



From my Japan journals:


It is the stuff of dreams: a tiered pavilion, dressed in gold leaf, standing in a pristine garden.  The image is framed by a wooded hillside and boldly reflected in a tranquil pond. Even the sunlight falls like a golden veil on a humid summer afternoon.

Gold is a symbol of prosperity and purity. We think of the streets of heaven paved in gold. Gold suggests comfort, hope and security. Gold is big and bold and self-assured.

Among the temples skirting the edge of Kyoto, Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, stands out.  It is one of the most popular tourist attractions, not only in Kyoto but in all of Japan. It is beautiful and evocative, an elegant structure in an harmonious setting.



Beyond the Golden Pavilion and through the garden stands a teahouse. It is open to guests and offers a bowl of matcha and a sweet.  Shoes are left outside and guests are ushered to a space on the tatami mats.  A bowl of frothy green tea is promptly served along with a single tea sweet on a small plate.

Here at Kinkakuji, that sweet is firm, like sculpted sugar, and flecked with gold. The surface is impressed with a small image of the Golden Pavilion itself.  The firm shell is filled with sweet red bean paste.  The hostess motions for each guest to eat the sweet first, then sip the matcha quickly, before the tea settles.

On my tongue the sweetness of the gold flecked wagashi is intense, so intense that my children do not finish theirs. The thick green matcha that follows is bitter to my lips but when it meets the lingering sweetness on my tongue the flavors harmonize to an agreeable balance.  The two blend, developing a complex and pleasing symmetry.



I am fascinated.  The recess is brief; the interlude of a few sips of tea following a single sweet, refreshing.  I tuck the experience away for further reflection.

Outside the teahouse I buy a small box of the gold flecked sweets, a souvenir of this new discovery.  Then we continue our journey out the gate and along the roadway toward Ryoanji. 

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