Everything was ready to smoke the pipe: a tobacco tray, charcoal fire pot, a jar for the ash and of course, the kiseru. However, the man touched nothing: he just waited. The host entered the room and smiled at his guest, settled down opposite him and greeted him. They then exchanged pleasantries. Meanwhile, the host had picked up the kiseru and carefully cleaned it with a paper towel. Then he offered the pipe, saying “Would you please smoke some tobacco”. The guest politely declined, saying: “I would not dare, the master should smoke first”. The host cordially insisted and again the guest politely declined. This polite exchange was repeated a few times until the guest finally accepted the invitation and to the great satisfaction of both parties gathered a small plug of kozami, finely-shredded tobacco. The guest complimented the host on its superior quality and rolled the tobacco into a small ball between his fingers which he then placed into the tiny pipe bowl and lit with the embers from the charcoal pot, puffing on the pipe several times. The host looked on with evident satisfaction while the guest, between one puff and another, again complimented the host on his choice of fine tobacco. After refilling the pipe twice and heaping praise and admiration for the exquisite craftsmanship of the kiseru, the guest emptied the pipe into the ash jar and wiped the kiseru with a paper towel, despite the host’s polite protestations to leave the kiseru as it was. However, the guest had already wiped it clean and put it back into its place along with the other smoking equipment…
In eighteenth-century Japan tobacco was not an essential commodity, but few could live without it. The members of the upper classes included it in their system of exclusive symbolic values, transforming it into a precisely coded ceremony akin to the centuries-old tea and saké ceremonies. Thus, a strange substance that had come from afar was gradually incorporated into a pleasant and welcome local custom. Tobacco was the last substance to take hold in Japan. Its initial, sporadic contacts are likely to have dated back to the late sixteenth century, but it is only in the following century that the weed really rose in popularity. There was also another popular substance that had been consumed for at least four hundred years, although not burnt in a pipe but imbibed, namely tea.
Who “invented” tea? One tradition cites Shen Nung, who is said to have lived 5,000 years ago. A legendary Chinese emperor, considered the father of agriculture and medicine in China, also inventor of acupuncture, he is said to have tried thousands of herbs to see if they were useful or poisonous during his long life. One day in 2737 BC (here the legend is curiously precise) he and his servant were in a wood, and his servant was boiling some water in a pot. Some leaves from a small tree accidentally blew into the water and Sheng Nung tasted it. This was the very first brewed tea. Going from legend to written sources, we can read in the biography of Wei Zhao in the History of the Three Reigns (third century AD): "... somebody secretly gave him some tea instead of wine". Thus, in the third century the brew called "cha" (tea) was already quite well-known in China without needing any explanations, and was in fact considered a substitute for wine. Therefore, the introduction of tea dates back to antiquity. As for the Camellia Sinensis tree, who knows how far back in time it existed in that country.
Tobacco was also known as early as the third century, but in another continent. In this case there are no written documents to confirm this, but numerous pipes have been unearthed in Native American funerary monuments.
The Tang dynasty (618 - 906) was established in the sixth century and it was in this period that tea drinking was widespread, and at this point in place of harvesting wild tea trees, they were grown and the leaves processed.
In the same period in Palenque, Mexico, a bas relief depicts a Mayan high priest holding a long stem between his lips from which smoke rises.
In the sixth century tea was introduced into Japan by Buddhist monks, who drank it to keep awake during their meditations. However, tea drinking was limited to the religious orders and little known outside. Meanwhile, in China (c.760) a monograph on tea was written by Lu Yu, a learned Buddhist hermit who described all the known methods of growing and preparing a product that was by then well-established and around which the Zen Buddhists created elaborate rituals. Tea-drinking was definitely established in Japan when in 1191 Eisai, a Buddhist monk, returned to Japan after a study period in China, bringing with him tea seeds and the accompanying rituals together with Zen teachings. Thus, the rituals surrounding its consumption spread from religious centres to society at large, taking on different aspects that were often contradictory, until the practices were finally standardized in the sixteenth century.
The tea ceremony nowadays is not so different from what was practised in the sixteenth century. There are no more than five guests, usually invited for a meal or dessert, a stroll in the garden and conversation, during which at a certain point the host prepares and serves tea to the guests. The Japanese call it Cha no yu , which simply means “hot water for tea”. So where does the exceptional nature of the ceremony lie? The first special feature is the tea itself, a quality that came directly from China in the year 1000. It is a bright green powder, to be thoroughly mixed with the water, which is more of a suspension than an infusion as we are used to preparing now. The resulting brew is brightly coloured, intense and exciting.
The second special feature concerns the rules, which are at the same time simple, complex, meticulous and surprising, so that it takes years of study to master them thoroughly. These rules recall even today the spirit of Zen monasteries that comprise all the various aspects of the ceremony. Situated in the house or else in the garden, the tea room is small and cozy, reached by passing through a small, low doorway, which forces the guest to bend down and so demonstrate humility. Everything in the room has a special meaning: a few sober, symbolic, refined decorative features, in line with the season and the plain interiors of farmers’ houses of the past. The utensils that are used are likewise simple, but essential. Everything that is said and performed throughout the ceremony (not just when the tea is prepared and consumed) follows precise rules: the dress code, position of the body (including fingers), facial expression, set phrases and voice intonation all play a fundamental part in the ceremony. Indeed, it is an exercise in self-discipline, as the series of rules and their spontaneous and natural application require deep concentration to maintain a constant balance, far from life’s daily miseries.
The third special feature is the important, irreplaceable role played by the person preparing the tea, whether it is the host or someone they have chosen to carry out the ceremony, as they are the focus of the whole rite. Thus, the ceremony is not just making a cup of tea, but a social, aesthetic moment infused with spiritual content, which aims to attain four fundamental states: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. This ceremony was already common in Japan when Christopher Columbus thought he had landed in India on 12 October 1492, and it makes one think that had he really arrived in India, he could have brought back to Europe another kind of leaf instead of tobacco.
In America, the home of tobacco, there were peoples who had in fact performed religious rites for centuries using tobacco. The few Europeans who explored the Northern Great Plains in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had the honour of participating in ceremonies in which the aromatic weed and its smoke were at the heart of Native American culture. The ceremonial pipe, decorated with various symbols, was divided into two parts: a bowl carved from a sacred stone, and a long, wooden stem. Before and after the ceremony the two parts were kept separate in their individual pouches. Indeed, only when the ceremony was about to begin would the two parts be assembled and the pipe would become sacred. The tobacco was usually quite strong and sometimes sprinkled with sweet, aromatic herbs, bark and roots. The pipe holder held the bowl of the pipe in his left hand and the stem in his right and raising them high asked the spirits permission to join them together. Then he would delicately insert the stem into the bowl, thus “making the pipe live”. If both parts were sacred, the resulting union became a “living creature”, an altar to the bond between earth and sky.
Then the pipe holder would hold the bowl in his left hand and the stem in his right and point the stem to the east saying: “The east is red for the rising sun which brings us a new day and another chance to learn. We thank the Great Spirit for each day we are allowed to live…” he would then sprinkle a small amount of tobacco on the ground (Mother Earth) and another small amount would go into the pipe bowl. Then he would point the stem to the south, west and north, downwards and then upwards, each time uttering a tribute to Mother Earth and sprinkling a small amount of tobacco in the bowl. Finally, holding up the pipe as high as possible he would address the main divinity: “Great Spirit, creator of us all, creator of all things, creator of the four directions, Mother Earth and Father Sky, we offer this pipe to you.” Another pinch of tobacco was sprinkled on the ground and then the pipe was solemnly lit and passed around the sacred circle clockwise. Each person would take a puff and slowly exhale. The smoke carried prayers, promises and thoughts to the sky, a means of communication between the Great Spirit and His people. Each person could offer a prayer or saying when it was their turn to smoke the pipe. Once the pipe had completed its journey round the circle the pipe holder would finish smoking any residual tobacco, and then would hold up the pipe giving thanks and separate the bowl from the stem, clean them and put them back in their separate pouches.
When the Europeans learnt how to use a pipe, this spiritual bond was totally neglected. Fascinated by the travelers’ tales the Europeans perceived only the echo of exotic rites, other more “natural” civilisations who displayed their spiritual aspects. Nevertheless, this certainly contributed to the growing popularity of tobacco in the seventeenth century in Europe, as well as Eastern culture. It was also at that time that tea started to make its appearance in Europe.
The subject of many speculative, fantastic accounts, as well as being contained in a few scraps of information provided by the missionaries (around 1560), this Asian beverage at the end of that century may have arrived in small quantities in Lisbon, France, Holland and the Baltic, although people had not really been aware of it. Indeed, it was only in the seventeenth century that tea became more widespread, the first cargo of tea being shipped to Holland in 1610. Meanwhile, over land tea was filtering into Europe via the Silk Road. At first it was costly and highly sought after for its medicinal properties, and subsequently for the place it had in the entertainment of the Dutch upper classes. Echoes of the special Asian tea ceremonies with their refined porcelain tea sets had finally made an impact and in 1666 in the Hague, no self-respectable wealthy householder was without a special tea room.
Then England followed in 1657, offering “new medicine” in London’s coffee houses. The introduction of this beverage in what was to become its home in the West was at first surprisingly limited, as it had to vie with another highly popular beverage throughout the eighteenth century, namely coffee. However, coffee consumption gradually declined as tea became increasingly popular and greater quantities of tea were imported, thus also lowering prices. However, the greatest triumph of the national British drink arrived in the nineteenth century.
The western tea ceremony, afternoon tea, began to appear in London around 1840 as an afternoon snack before the evening meal. Ladies would gather together and the hostess would offer bread and butter, cakes, scones and biscuits together with a piping hot cup of tea. The real reason for this elegant gathering was the fact that ladies could come together for a genteel social occasion at a different house each day, excluding the presence of the men who would either be working or at their exclusive clubs. The mistress of the house would preside over the tea party and it was either she or a servant who would brew the tea. Coffee or chocolate was also served to those who were not used to this aromatic drink. As a ceremony it was a far cry from the spiritual gatherings in Japan, though there was still a discreet element of harmony. The code of conduct required by its participants did not stem from exotic doctrine, but from precise etiquette, the same that governed gatherings of smokers.
Nowadays things are different, and leaving behind any symbolic or spiritual connotations, tea is tea, and tobacco is tobacco. As with other substances, these are considered as pleasant ways of spending a relaxing moment. It could be said that they are two different forms of pleasure, one being consuming tobacco and the other an infusion. However, there are some similarities, starting with the fact that both substances are in fact processed leaves, larger for tobacco and smaller for tea. Once the leaves of both plants have been harvested they are subjected to curing, preparation and packaging that also have a lot in common. The variety of blends on offer in both cases is substantial. What is the effect, therefore, of joining the two leaves together? It depends. If we want to enjoy the taste of the tobacco, and simply take a break between one blend and another, then there is nothing better than a good cup of tea, no matter what type. However, if we wish to savour a unique, intense and complex experience the two types of blends should be carefully chosen. A smooth tobacco blend, mostly Virginia, goes very well with different varieties of tea, as long as they are not too strong, whereas if we want something stronger in our pipe bowl, we should avoid teas that are too light, but rather choose darker, stronger blends that have been fermented for longer. This blend of tobacco and tea will be highly explosive but also extremely interesting.
Indeed, there is also another thing that tobacco and tea have in common, something that is difficult to define, and nothing more than a slight perception:
"Tea is less logical than coffee. It does not induce sleep and neither does it stimulate debate: rather it induces a SENSE OF PROFOUND WELL-BEING…” This is a quote from a book on tea, but perhaps it could also apply to a book on tobacco.