Cultivated Days | A prelude
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A prelude

The rains have gone and we are swimming through sultry days. Hot, still air vibrates with the high-tension shrill of giant cicadas. But by all accounts this is still the minor phase of heat, the prelude to a major swelter soon to come.

Mornings are moderately cool. Higurashi herald an early dawn. My alarm is useless for its ring of songbirds is indistinguishable from the chorus right outside the open window above my head. But no matter, I’m already awake.

The moment that early summer turns to high summer comes when you can no longer fathom all those warmth-giving things you craved just a few short weeks ago, when the sight of wool or down suddenly suffocates, when cool showers replace hot baths, when all drinks are iced.

Each morning I measure out a portion of green tea. Some days it’s verdant spindles of Yabukita hand-harvested in Mr. Katagi’s fields in Uji. As soon as clear ice is added, the glass katakuchi begins to sweat. A magnolia leaf collects the condensation. In a couple of hours the ice will have just melted and the first draw is poured. The cool, syrupy tea is golden and remarkably sweet. I’ll wipe the katakuchi and magnolia leaf dry, add more icy cubes and set it aside for after lunch. The second draw is perfection, more balanced for my taste, the sweetness pleasantly subdued.

Some days we drink Katagi’s old-world zairai, Japan’s original tea. Unlike the cultivars that dominate today’s tea fields, the leaves of this heirloom varietal are harvested from bushes still grown from seed. With properly variegated genetics a harvest of mineral rich zairai leaves, diverse in shape and size, aroma and color, form their own natural blend. The cult of uniformity can devalue these leaves at market but the taste is original, umami rich with grassy aromatics that linger a long while.

More ice gives us a third draw of cool tea in the midst of hot afternoon doldrums. These measured shots throughout the day offer a clear-eyed wakefulness, enhanced focus, and clarity as I wade through my first full stifling summer in Japan.

If the days are shortening, it’s imperceptible. Each still feels luxuriously long. We work until evening cicadas lure us back up the hill towards home. That same call that serenades the first light of day sounds melancholy as a hazy pink sky bids the sun a slow farewell. The air cools and the mosquitos come out to prey. We drink a fourth and fifth draw throughout the long gloaming, extracting all we can from the tea leaves. These sips are lighter in flavor and in caffeine that could steel away sleep.

Darkness quells the tymbal nerve and when that final light fades, the cicadas cease to cry. Crickets murmur quietly in the hills as we ready for sleep. Inside the heat lingers, thick and still.

*Dear readers, you’ve likely noticed that the frequency of posts has waned this year. It is the symptom of a swell of amazing things going on behind the scenes, collaborations with people I’ve long admired, opportunities to study with the best and dive deeper into the heart of Japanese cuisine, the scent of ink and paper  – in short the fulfillment of many dreams. I’m not one one to voice thoughts until they are fully formed so I’ll leave it there. But stick with me, though it may be only once a month or so here, because amazing things are on the horizon. For a more regular dose of imagery at least, join me over on Instagram!

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11 Comments
  • Alana VanDerwerker
    Posted at 13:45h, 23 July

    Ah, dear Prairie, this meditation on Chado feels transcendent; this tantalizing taste of your days brings joy. I cannot actually taste it but feel as though I might accomplish a similar taste in our Maine way. We do not need escape from heat here. It is cooler than many summers’ past (most days). Fog comes but rain is sparse and the soil powdery, making the farmers’ work hard. But our meals are full of splendid delights and I love preparing them, simply and without ice needed.

    I am excited for your deepening journey of experiences into the heart of the Japanese aesthetic and look forward to your future sharing of them, since you put them into a fine perspective, much needed as a restorative of spirit. Thank you!

    Alana

    • Prairie
      Posted at 02:24h, 25 July

      Alana, The cool air of Maine is on my mind a lot of late. I long to be there, but all the while find myself more than content to be here. This year I particularly feel this luxury of calling two places home.

  • Catherine
    Posted at 15:20h, 23 July

    Finding this essay in my inbox was a wonderful start to my Sunday morning. I only wish it were hot enough here in San Francisco to want to make tea this way, rather than brewing up a nice warm cup of hojicha!

    • Prairie
      Posted at 02:23h, 25 July

      Catherine, I would welcome a day that call for toasty houjicha – nothing on the horizon for a long while here!

  • Barbara Shapiro
    Posted at 16:32h, 23 July

    Your post is as refreshing as one of those cups of cold tea you describe. Thank you.

    • Prairie
      Posted at 02:22h, 25 July

      Thank you, Barbara!

  • Aless Gatti
    Posted at 17:35h, 25 July

    Ciao Prairie it’s always a “meditative” moment to read your beautiful writing! I would like also to taste your cold tea during this hot Italian Summer! Ale

    • Prairie
      Posted at 00:41h, 04 August

      Ciao Ale! Karatsu is so hot too! I hope you have many opportunities to swim in the beautiful seas of Sardinia~

  • Mora Chartrand
    Posted at 17:32h, 02 August

    This morning I’m re-reading your post and viewing your photos with fresh eyes, I am cooled by the description of the steepings throughout the day; now more than ever as Portland OR confronts daytime temps of 104F and higher this week. Thankfully we do not share the same level of humidity. You are brave summer warriors from my perspective. Wishing you well as you look forward to cooler temps. .

    • Prairie
      Posted at 00:43h, 04 August

      Mora, 104! wow. It’s not that hot here but the humidity is intense. But I’m managing this first summer in Japan well. I will call myself a summer warrior!

  • Corky White
    Posted at 02:38h, 04 August

    You’ve evoked my first summer in Japan- in 1963- when mugicha was the coolant and the semi’s buzz could drive you crazy in the heat. I sat very still most of the time on the tatami with the only fan trained on the oldest man in the house…