TravelPhoto Essay

Seeking serenity in Tokyo

For a man who feels at home all over the globe, this is the city that perfectly engenders peace at every turn and in the smallest gestures and details.

Photograph by Andy Mann
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Japan is often referred to as the Land of the Rising Sun. The top floor of Park Hyatt Tokyo offers stunning views of Tokyo's Shinjuku district at sunrise.
Photograph by Andy Mann

An entrepreneur, diver, pilot, machinist, and inveterate traveler who currently calls five places home—Palo Alto, New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo—Ismael Ghalimi has written with great personal insight on the benefits of high-frequency business travelers taking up residency in the places they frequent most. French by birth, Algerian by descent, American by choice, Chinese by marriage, and Japanese at heart, Ismael loves Tokyo for its refined aesthetics and a culture that emphasizes gracious respect for others. A true global citizen fluent in English, French, German, and Latin, he most appreciates the Japanese for their subtle nuances of gesture, craft, and attention to the smallest details, especially in the meditative art of tea ceremony.

Here, Ismael shares the backstory of a special gift from his sensei: the bamboo tea whisk that helps transform his Palo Alto garage into a temple.

Nothing Lost in Translation

What I love most about being in Japan in general is the deep serenity I feel there. I arrive at Narita Airport and I feel like my heartbeat goes down by nearly 10 BPMs. I just feel calm and peaceful. For me, that has to do with the very Japanese sense of aesthetics, an attention to detail, and a focus on being very respectful towards others. I can feel that in my surroundings right away.

I discovered Park Hyatt Tokyo like everybody else, following the movie by Sofia Coppola. The first thing that struck me was that it’s at the top of this tower, but it's really three towers. You arrive at the top of one and land in this beautiful bamboo forest, and then you move through the second tower to go to the third, and that's when you get to the guest check-in area. You can't really find it on your own if you're not guided there; it’s like an initiation. Then you take another set of elevators to actually go to your room. To me that’s the epitome, the essence, of the Park Hyatt Tokyo experience and the Japanese aesthetic.

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Ismael’s sensei, Machiko Nagura, finds serenity in the gardens around her sensei’s temple, built specifically for hosting tea ceremonies.

Respect for the Sensei

A little over a dozen years ago, I met Machiko Nagura, who soon became my teacher, my sensei, in the art of Japanese tea ceremony. She is a retired flight attendant who learned tea ceremony from her sensei, a very wealthy man who built railways in the Tokyo metropolitan area during the post-war era and built his own, very beautiful temple devoted to tea ceremony. Whether we go to the temple or to her home, or she comes to me at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, I try to organize a class with her as often as I can.

My teacher’s teacher built a temple in a quiet place in a little park on a hill on the north western side of Tokyo. It's a series of buildings that are all built for the practice of tea ceremony. They are different sizes and different layouts, because tea ceremony can be practiced in many different ways. It’s in a very natural environment with lots of trees, plants, and flowers. A lot of these rooms open to the outside garden. You can walk through the garden, and because it's on a hill, the landscape is varied and interesting, making it ideal for meditation.

Respect is very central to the tea ceremony and is also a big part of the local culture in Tokyo. People live in such close proximity, and regarding one another in this way fosters harmony. When I go there, I try to adopt that same mindset. If you approach something like the tea ceremony in a purely practical way, as a stress reliever, you're missing the main point of it. It's a serene experience, but also something sacred, to be approached with respect not only for the teacher, but for yourself, for others, and for the moment you are experiencing. Really, it’s about a deep respect for life.

The Art of Japanese Tea Ceremony

The very first time I participated in tea ceremony, I felt deeply relaxed. The Japanese tea ceremony is much like a martial art. You follow rules that at first you don't understand; you have no sense of why they are there and what they might mean. But their purpose is actually to take your mind to a different place, to slow you down and gently force you to be in the moment. In this way, it’s also a form of meditation. There is a specific way you should enter into a room and a specific way you should sit. There are instructions for folding the handkerchief that you’re using to clean the little flat spoon or spatula used to take some of the tea powder and put it into the bowl. Just learning that art of folding is one of the things that takes the longest for students of the tea ceremony. All of these things actually relax you. At the end of the ceremony, you feel calm, serene; you feel at peace.

Japanese Tea Ceremony

The tea ceremony is designed to hold practitioners in the moment.

Most significantly, though, when you practice tea ceremony, you are preparing tea for someone else. You have that gift. For example, when you receive the bowl of tea that was prepared for you by the practitioner, you hold it in your hand, and you turn it three times so that after three consecutive turns it is rotated half a turn towards you. The bowl was looking at the practitioner, and now it is looking at you, and when you are done you turn it the other way. There is that important notion of exchange.

As you are watching the practitioner prepare the tea, you get relaxed by the practice of the other. Everyone takes turns being presented with the tea, one at time. You drink the tea as soon as it's been prepared, especially when it is matcha, which is a powder. You want to drink the tea right away or else the powder will settle.

There are quite a few variations of tea ceremony, depending on the season, the type of tea, the place where you do it, and especially what mechanism you are using to heat the water. Is it a heater that is built into the floor or is it something that is outside, and that varies also depending on the season. You spend endless time learning all the details. That appeals to me because I yearn to be a student for the rest of my life.

A Touch of the Temple at Home

This beautiful bamboo whisk was given to me at the first lesson as part of a complete kit about a dozen years ago. It’s traditional, but it’s not an antique. It doesn't have any particular value other than the personal symbolic value that it has for me. I'm not sure you could keep it for a very long time. In Japan, things that are made out of wood aren't supposed to last. Many Japanese temples, traditionally made out of wood, are destroyed and rebuilt on a regular basis. It's very hard for Europeans to conceive of that, but the monuments, especially the temples, are not built to last. On a regular basis, workers will take the temple apart and then rebuild it. I think that bamboo whisk is the same. You replace it when it has done its work.

I use this whisk when I do the tea ceremony at home in Palo Alto, in my garage, which is actually a very special space for me; it’s where I work and entertain as well. But having the whisk and my tea ceremony kit there also makes it a sort of temple. I treasure this whisk but I'm not a collector, and I'm not very attached to material objects. I'm much more interested in tools, and that’s really what this whisk is for me. At home, I use it for my own tea ceremonies, which I do alone, very much like a meditation practice. I don’t make tea ceremonies for family and friends yet because I don't consider myself skilled enough for that. I think I still need maybe ten years of practice. For now, if I want to share tea ceremony with friends, I take them to Japan.

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