Nathan Chen


Intern #169

Ichi go ichi e (一期一会). It is the proverb we use to start our tea tours at Obubu and one of the first proverbs people learn in any Japanese class. It roughly translates as “one lifetime, one encounter”, and it is used to remind people that every moment and encounter in life is unique and thus should be cherished and treasured. As I prepare to end my journey with the Obubu internship, I can’t help but feel that this proverb sums up my experience here the best.

Before coming to Obubu, I was not really thinking about this proverb at all. Having studied Japanese for a long time already, I categorized the proverb as almost cliche. Of course it is good to be present and cherish the time we are able to spend with others. It is a great philosophy on approaching day to day life. At that time, my reality was waking up in the same bed everyday, sitting at the same work desk, in the same room, with the same monitors. It is because of this (and perhaps my refusal to put down work and take a vacation) that I gradually burned out. By the time I applied for Obubu, I was ready for something completely different.

What I wasn’t ready for was the whirlwind that was work at Obubu. On the first day, I had a leisurely walk with my fellow interns by the river. In the darkness, we could just make out the shadows of the bare sakura trees. The calm before the storm. Within the first week, while I was learning tea tour preparation and packaging for customers we also harvested kyobancha, a bancha harvest right before spring. By the end of the first month, we had started trimming for harvest preparation. Following a late frost, the sakura began to bloom in April. The bare trees along the river that I enjoyed with my fellow interns on our first day transformed into a sea of pink. For a brief two weeks, I could see the sakura blossoms from the Obubu office window. But all too soon, the sakura blossoms fell away, and the trees became flushed with a brilliant bright green. Not to be outdone, the tea bushes, carefully trimmed in March and April, began to shoot up beautiful baby tea leaves. Entire Wazuka hills are flushed in the beautiful tea leaves of spring. The town bustled with activity. It was during this time that I got a chance to pick leaves from abandoned tea fields and make my own tea. When the baby shoots reached a height for harvest, an intense schedule was put together so that we could harvest in the morning and process in tea in the evening. After sencha was harvested, round two came with the bancha harvest. Then, before we knew it, we were removing shading and harvesting season was over. June’s typhoon season approached… along with the end of my internship.

The relationships made at Obubu are also quite similar to the ebb and flow of the seasons. I was only able to spend a short time with so many remarkable people, but even so, I’m so lucky to have met all of them. 

Often I enjoyed these relationships as a guest. One weekend, I went hiking with fellow interns around the old roads around Tenri. There we chanced upon an elderly auntie who hosted a small cafe in her home. While we enjoyed her matcha, we learned that she was actually a tea ceremony teacher, and would occasionally host tea ceremonies. As we enjoyed her serene garden, I was struck by how one spur of the moment decision led us to such a memorable moment. Another time, I participated in a pottery class in Uji. Afterwards, we sat in their store to drink tea brought by George (Obubu staff). While we sat around beautiful pottery, golden hour flooded the store. The wide windows gave us unobstructed views of Uji river as we tea lovers conversed about different teas and their origins. Around the third cup of tea, I was suddenly taken aback about how unique of a moment it was. Towards the end of our internship, we went to Tokoname. The owner of that pottery store knew about Obubu and from there introduced us to a cafe open only twice a month. This cafe was in turn owned by another craftsman, who showed us his workshop and described his work process. Being able to meet and spend time with all these people was, more often than not, a combination of timing, circumstance, and most importantly, the generosity of our hosts. 

At Obubu, you also get to be the host. At first when I started the tours, I was filled with unease and anxiety. However, by my last month, I had one guest tell me that it was one of their best experiences in Japan! This is something I have never experienced before, and I felt that it was an honor to be able to give such an experience to the guest.

At the end of every interaction, there comes a time where everyone has to go home. The reality of the Obubu internship is that it is only three months. Within the first month, we were saying goodbye to interns from the previous season and an assistant manager. At the same time we were welcoming interns who in turn will eventually have to send off my cohort. Everyone’s intern cohort will give them a different experience, but for me I know I will be sad leaving all of them. Together we worked through the crazy Obubu days, enjoyed beautiful day trips, laughed, cried, and sang together. It is very sad that we only had this short time to do so. But just like the blooming of the sakura and the shooting of the bright spring tea leaves, it was also so beautiful.

One of the most commonly asked questions asked to an intern by tea tour guests is, “What will you do after your internship?”. It is a sobering question. Personally, I came to Obubu to explore possibilities of pursuing a career that involved my love for tea. What that actually entails is a harder question to answer. I don’t think I will be able to properly digest what my future will look like until I’m on the flight home. However, right now I do know the memories and lessons I will take with me. These experiences were gifted to me by those with the spirit of ichi go ichi e. It is a spirit I wish to take with me going forward.