In Japan, joyagama happens in the middle of winter, just before the New Year, when the double-layered winter kimono is barely enough to keep the heat tight against your body in a teahouse left open to the elements. But in Hawaii, winter doesn’t exist, and December is just another month in the continuum of warm and humid days. Instead of fires, we light mosquito punk, letting its burnt scent waft through open sliding doors.
Joyagama is the end-of-year tea ceremony, a time for gathering and reflection. Japanese tea ceremony rests on the idea that one can achieve enlightenment through tea, that each movement, whether gliding across the tatami mat, pouring hot water, or wiping the rim of the tea bowl, reveals the character of the host.
As the boys light lanterns and sweep stone paths clear of leaves, we place the last pins in our hair and remove jewelry, strip to our underwear so the women can fold us into the kimono laid out on the floor. The one who dresses me mutters in Japanese as she holds the fabric in place, securing it with ties she wraps around my waist one, two, three times, pulling them tight so I cannot take a full breath. “Hosoi,” she keeps saying. Skinny. Skinny. The cotton and silk grow damp against my skin.
My grandmother died in the morning, at the breakfast table. The nurses found her slumped over a plate of eggs and rice in the middle of the nursing home cafeteria, coffee untouched. My mother said, at least she didn’t go alone.
Her death was sudden. Sort of. She’d been dying for years. Congestive heart failure filled her lungs with fluid and ushered her in and out of hospitals, attached to ventilators and IVs that dripped clear liquid into her bruised veins. But in reality, her body had been rebelling for her entire life. Kidney disease at age six. Rheumatic fever at fourteen, leaving her with a weak heart. Severe asthma in adulthood. My mother remembers waking in the mornings to find her kitchen empty, knowing that Grandma was in the hospital once more. I spent my whole childhood afraid that she was going to die. But when my grandmother finally passed, she was free of machines and out of bed. She left quietly, in a crowded room. It looked as if she’d just fallen asleep.
We arrived at the hospital forty-five minutes after it happened. Grandma was in bed, hands still warm, covered to her chin in a thin white sheet. Her cheeks were deflated, skin dull and flat. The hair she’d kept permed and dyed for decades had faded to a pearl white that formed a wispy halo around her head. For an hour we sat by the bed, aunts and uncles and cousins wandering through the door, placing more chairs on the floor. My cousin’s two year-old asked, “Is Grandma sleeping?”
Later, it was decided that I would give the eulogy at her funeral.
In the mizu-ya, the back room of the teahouse where preparations occur, I am sitting on my ankles, sifting matcha into a silver canister. The other girls wash bowls and place handmade sweets on lacquer trays, while the boys arrange shards of charcoal in the brazier, nestling them in a soft pile of gray ash. Sensei sits by the door, legs crossed, plating coils of buckwheat noodles for the after-tea meal. In this way, tea ceremony is all about preparation: weeks of practice, sitting seiza on tatami mats, selecting and cleaning the tea utensils, changing the shoji.
But in Hawaii, winter doesn’t exist, and December is just another month in the continuum of warm and humid days.
I always wanted to write a eulogy. When I was young, I attended my great-uncle’s funeral and listened to my father speak. He was the go-to eulogy-giver in his family, and contrary to tradition, even gave the eulogy at his own father’s funeral. I admired the way he made people laugh and cry within a space of ten minutes, tapping into those collective memories in which a person survives.
Three years earlier, I decided to interview my grandmother. I recorded her in her living room as I sat on the carpet at her feet. It was a Sunday afternoon, the quietest time of the week when my aunt and uncle were at church and the house was vacant. Many of these stories I’d already heard, told over fresh musubi and carrot sticks in her red kitchen, her figure clad in long flowered dresses, silhouetted above the stove.
Daughter of Okinawan immigrants, the eighth of ten children, my grandmother was a woman for whom marriage and childbirth were once deemed too dangerous for her weak heart. Born on a sugar plantation in Honokaa, she remembered watching her mother make tofu in the kitchen, and the hot summers when they’d burn the cane fields and the sky would grow dark with ash. It was the most frightful time… can you imagine living in a camp, where around you they’re burning all the canes?
In the tropical heat, even walking must be precise. Two steps per half mat, lead with the right foot when entering the room, lead with the left when exiting. Kneel and stand in one swift motion. Place the tea bowl three fingers’ width from the ro (hearth). When lifting the wooden ladle from the kettle, pick it up between your index and middle finger, then swing your thumb beneath the handle and turn the ladle upwards, sliding the handle into your grasp. If a mistake is made, keep going as if nothing is wrong; the ceremony is a performance, an exercise in grace and self-discipline. Every object is significant. Every movement is telling.
The day after my grandmother died, I sat in her dining room with my mother and aunt, sifting through cardboard boxes and Ziploc bags filled with her things. She saved everything. Costume jewelry, decades of birthday and Christmas cards, art projects by former students, silk scarves, straw hats, broken music boxes, seashells, pennies in a plastic bag. Dozens of photographs and letters. Everything was cataloged, labeled and dated on scraps of notebook paper taped to tiny boxes and vases and handmade picture frames. As if she was afraid to lose the memories.
My grandmother once kept a journal. A soft-bound volume with a faded purple iris on the cover. I found it buried in a box with the birthday cards, pages yellowed and soft-edged. I suppose it made sense; she was always writing. On paper napkins and post-it notes, on the corners of newspapers, on index cards, in the margins of books, and in the spiral notebooks where she documented what she fed each newborn grandchild and at what time. Inside the journal, she had written six entries over ten years, and a folded page torn from a 1985 calendar was inserted like a bookmark just inside the cover. I unfolded the page to find that Sunday, April 1st had been circled and written upon: Mother passed away today. Approx. 7:40-7:45 A.M. Kuakini Hospital. I left home about 7:30-35. I didn’t make it…She had just died. She did not want to die alone…she always told me this and I was not there.
Sensei says that every tea ceremony has a theme, which changes from season to season. This theme is reflected in the scroll hanging in the alcove, the shape of the tea bowl, the designs painted on the lacquer tea container, the choice of sweets, the flower arrangements. For joyagama, the flower of choice is the camellia, tsubaki, in Japanese, which blooms in the quiet of winter. It is a pale shade of pink, the flower buds round and large as walnuts, petals pulled tight into the center. When it opens, the blossom spreads strong and symmetrical, exposing itself to the elements.
More people attended the funeral than I expected. White roses and irises adorned the front of the room, and a large photograph of my grandmother was propped on the alter. I wore a black blazer and let my hair down. The eulogy was printed on a sheet of paper that I’d folded four times and stuck in my back pocket. I have always hated the vulnerability of speaking in front of others, and by the time I reached the podium, I’d willed my mind elsewhere. In contrast to the utter awareness that gripped me in performing a tea ceremony, I experienced everything from a distance. The crowd of faces shifted and blurred into a single background.
Such ceremonies are meant for the collective, for the community, for sharing grief and celebrating life. For those who live on, the funeral is a formal conclusion to death. But my family has always done its real grieving in silence. Perhaps this is why I didn’t cry when my grandmother died. It’s strange, because I cry all the time. When I’m angry, or anxious, exhausted. My therapist once asked me how my family expresses anger. Passionately, I’d said. But grief? We grieve separately, behind closed doors or in the shower. I notice a redness in my mother’s eyes, a tremble in my aunt’s voice, a solemn gaze, my grandfather quieter than usual. But instead of outward expressions, we fill the void with plans. Funeral programs, slideshows, catering, flowers. We scan photos and write detailed timelines of family history—places we’ve lived, jobs we’ve held, who married whom, when, and where. Little notes on a calendar.
When my grandmother moved into the nursing home two years before her death, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. There would be no more early morning trips to the emergency room, no more anxiety that she would drift away one day in an empty house, leaving us to wonder what we missed. In those last years her short-term memory failed, and conversations and questions about the present repeated over and over. But her long-term memory remained, and I like to think those memories kept her company at the end, memories of playing on the plantation with her brothers and eating with her parents at dusk, of her striped dog named Tiger.
Everything was cataloged, labeled and dated on scraps of notebook paper taped to tiny boxes and vases and handmade picture frames. As if she was afraid to lose the memories.
In many ways, tea ceremony is about the host’s relationship with her guest, in the same way that eulogy-writing requires care and precision in presenting a life; it is about crafting an experience that is personal and attentive. And in both, there is the fact of knowing that you can never give enough. You are presenting a gift to one who is not there, making a bowl of tea in pursuit of a perfection you may never reach.
I’ve read that tea ceremony is a form of meditation, and meditation is a way of being present, refusing to dwell in the constellation of memories and dreams and biting anxieties that tug at the threads of one’s consciousness. Once, my doctor recommended that I meditate, and wrote down a list of titles on the subject that I tucked into my wallet. I’ve never read any of those books, but when I perform a tea ceremony, I focus on the movements, on the positioning of my hands and the curl of my fingers, on the stiffening in my spine and the turn of my head, and I think: this is as close to the present as I’ll ever be. As students of tea, we’re told: ichi-go, ichi-e. One time, one meeting. This ceremony, this encounter, this moment—it happens only once.
But at joyagama, an element of reflection appears. There is an obvious symbolism in the closing of a year and a flower that blooms in snow. Sitting on tatami as dusk falls, barely two weeks after my grandmother’s death, I cannot help but fall into memory. Memories of her salted hands shaping musubi, of gathering limes, ripe and soft from her yard. And there are also the memories of missed opportunities: decisions to go to parties instead of family dinners, moments of silence beside her hospital bed that I didn’t know how to fill. When my grandmother passed away, she was surrounded by strangers. She, like her mother, feared a lonely death.
Rain. We’ve shut the rice paper doors and switched on ceiling lamps that spill warm yellow light onto the floor. Sitting by the fire, I ladle steaming water over matcha heaped in the center of a bowl and whisk in short, quick movements of the wrist, until the tea becomes pale green and frothy. A bowl of tea is judged by its consistency, by the absence of large bubbles in the top layer of foam and no remaining clumps of powder. It should be light, and hot, and smooth. I always worry about this—whether the tea I’ve prepared is acceptable.
Examining the surface of the tea, I place the bamboo whisk on the floor. The bowl heavy in my left palm, I turn it clockwise, twice, and set it on the floor in an empty space on the tatami, ready for my guest to retrieve. I hope it is enough.
Kelsey Inouye was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. In her free time she enjoys traveling and hiking with her husband, and reading all the books she can buy. Currently, Kelsey is looking forward to entering a doctorate program in education at the University of Oxford this fall.
Illustration by Monica Hsu. Follow her on Instagram at @monhsu.art