Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Borrowed Water

In tea ceremony we use a bamboo scoop (chashaku) to measure the powdered tea into the bowl before adding hot water and whisking it into a foam. The chashaku is an important part of tea ceremony. Although they may all look the same at first glance, there are small variations in shape, weight, and balance that add up to make each one unique.

If a chashaku has a particularly good character, it might be given a poetic name (mei). Usually the name is based—as you might have guessed from the translation!—on an image from Japanese poetry. My sensei told me about one classic mei that’s especially appropriate for this time of year: morai mizu.

Like most mei based on a poem, this phrase is tough to translate. This particular one is from a haiku by Chiyojo (1703-1785). The Japanese version is:

Asago ni
Tsurube toraete
Morai mizu

Here’s a translation from an anthology of Japanese poetry:

With the well bucket
Taken over by morning glories
I go begging water

But although it’s very evocative, the translation doesn’t capture the full meaning of the original. Let’s break it down.

Asago is easy; it means morning glory. Tsurube is a well bucket. Ni . . . toraete is a little bit trickier. The literal translation would be “is taken,” but in Japanese, that particular verb form gives the action a negative feeling – a sense of being inconvenienced by the action. That’s reinforced by the use of the verb toru, “to take,” which can also mean “to steal.” So you could interpret the first part of the poem as “a morning glory has taken my well bucket” or, more indignantly, as “that morning glory stole my well bucket!”

Now we come to the crucial line of the poem: morai mizu. Mizu is easy enough; it means water. Morai is a form of the verb morau, which is usually translated “to receive,” but it suggests gratitude for having been given something.

So a more literal translation might be something like:

A morning glory
Has taken my bucket
A gift of water

But to fully understand the meaning, especially in the context of tea ceremony, we need to visualize the story behind it. The poet woke one morning and went out to draw some water from her well, but discovered that a morning glory had wound its way around the bucket. Unwilling to disturb the flower, she went to her neighbor’s house and asked to borrow some water.

What a great image for summer! When you’re preparing tea during a tea ceremony, you want to give your guests a psychological feeling of coolness, and in this one phrase you’re evoking a fresh morning, water, and delicate flowers that will fade in the heat of high noon.

Although it’s not a literal translation, I like using “borrowed water” for morai mizu because it also brings up the image of going to a neighbor to “borrow a cup of sugar” – a visit, a chat, a little gift that makes someone’s day a bit brighter. Just like a good tea ceremony!