Into the blustery headwind we were walking to the train station. The building has had a few facelifts but still sports the steel, green, and off-white colors. We passed a tiny wooden shop with five or six teapots in the small window. “I need a teapot,” Yasuko said.
We went in. The brown teapot she wanted was $40. “How much is that one?” I asked the shop lady, pointing to an identical teapot in a different display case with wooden edges and sparkling clear glass.
“$600,” she said.
“We’ll stick with Mr. Four Thousand Yen,” I said.
The tea shop was old. It had analog scales, the ancient kind with a counterbalance, and was made of metal, heavy metal. The floor was tatami, worn, and raised more than a foot off the concrete slab.
The sliding doors were glass, in wooden frames, and the cold poured in. A giant dimpled iron kettle simmered over red-hot coals. I wondered how the open indoor flame got past the fire department.
The shop lady might have been ninety and her hair was up in a bun, pinned with an elaborately carved wooden barrette in the shape of an ibis. She wore a plain kimono, indigo and white, with tiny blue cherry blossoms and blue cranes embroidered throughout. Her tabi were spotless, hurt-your-eyes white.
I looked in amazement at the big wooden tea crates in the shop; you never see those anymore. Some of them were ancient, all marked with the kanji for “tea.” Disposable hadn’t been invented there yet.
Before she took our money she made us each a cup of green tea. First she poured the hot water into the cups to cool it down. Then she poured the water back into the teapot and brewed the tea. Her teapot was brown, like ours, but not $40, and engraven on its sides was a motif of tall bamboo and a mountain and a river.
Each cup was swirled brown and white with a slightly rough finish. The cup fit my hand, and the rough made no slip. She sat the cups on cherrywood coasters. We sipped the perfect tea, which smelled like tradition. The orange coals and massive gray kettle threw off heat to beat back the cold as the wind rattled the doors, and we simultaneously warmed on the inside, too.
The teapot got carefully wrapped in a green gift box that had a design of tiny frogs and water lilies sublimated throughout. The box fit the teapot to perfection. “I’m sorry the box doesn’t quite fit,” the lady said.
“I’ve passed by here a hundred times but didn’t know it was a tea shop,” I said.
“We opened in 1890,” she smiled.
The other item I got there was the past.