Prologue: In an Old Tearoom
On the afternoon that, though we didn't yet know it, this book was about to be born, a storm was battering the narrow streets of Gion, in the heart of Kyoto-home of the last remaining geishas, among other mysteries. We found refuge in a chashitsu, a teahouse, which was empty because of the downpour.
Sitting at a low table beside the window, we noticed that the torrent of water rushing down the narrow street was sweeping with it sakura petals from blossoming cherry trees.
Spring had sprung and summer was on its way, and soon nothing would be left of those white petals that inspired such passion in the Japanese.
An elderly woman in a kimono asked us what we would like, and we chose the most special variety of tea on the menu-a gyokuro from Ureshino, a place in the south of Japan where the best tea in the world is said to be grown.
As we waited for the steaming teapot and the cups to arrive, we shared our impressions of Japan's former capital. We were amazed that there were two thousand temples in the hills surrounding the city, whose population is smaller than that of Philadelphia.
Then we listened in silence to the rain pounding the cobblestones.
When the old woman returned with the tray, the tea's fragrant aroma roused us from that brief and pleasant torpor. We lifted our cups to see the bright green infusion before savoring the first sip, which tasted both bitter and sweet.
At that very moment, a young woman riding a bicycle while holding an umbrella passed by the old teahouse and smiled shyly at us before disappearing into a narrow street.
It was then that we each looked up and discovered the wooden plaque on a dark brown pillar. It bore this inscription:
We set about deciphering those characters, pronounced "ichigo ichie," while the damp wind swayed a small bell hanging from the eaves of the teahouse, making it ring. The meaning of ichigo ichie is something like this: What we are experiencing right now will never happen again. And therefore, we must value each moment like a beautiful treasure.
This message perfectly describes what we experienced that rainy afternoon in Kyoto's old town.
We began to talk of other unique, unrepeatable moments like that one, to which perhaps we hadn't paid enough attention because we were too concerned with the past, the future, or the distractions of the present.
A student walking through the rain, carrying a backpack and fiddling with his cell phone, provided a clear example of the latter and reminded us of a quote by Henry David Thoreau: "As if you could kill time without injuring eternity."
That spring afternoon, in a sudden flash of inspiration, we understood something that gave us food for thought in the months to come. In our age of complete distraction and our culture of instant gratification, when we often fail to listen, and engage only superficially with our surroundings, each person contains a key that can open the door to attention, harmony with others, and love of life.
And that key is called ichigo ichie.
In the pages that follow, we will share a unique and transformative experience, discovering how to make each and every instant the best moment of our lives.
—Héctor García and Francesc Miralles
The Japanese characters that make up this book's central concept don't have an exact equivalent in English, but let's look at two interpretations that will help us to understand them.
Ichigo ichie can be translated as "Once, a meeting" and also as "In this moment, an opportunity." What this means to tell us is that each meeting, everything we experience, is a unique treasure that will never be repeated in the same way again. So if we let it slip away without enjoying it, the moment will be lost forever.
These characters mean
期 (time) / (period of time)
会 (meeting / opportunity)
The Gates of Shambhala
A Tibetan legend illustrates this concept very clearly. The story goes that a hunter was pursuing a deer across the frozen peaks of the Himalayas when he came upon an enormous mountain split in two, allowing him to see what was on the other side.
Beside the opening in the mountain, an old man with a long beard beckoned to the startled hunter to come closer and see.
The hunter obeyed and peered into the vertical crack that was just wide enough for one man to pass through. What he saw left him breathless.
On the other side of the opening was a fertile garden, bathed in sunlight and seeming to go on forever. Children played happily among trees laden with fruit, and animals frolicked freely in a world filled with beauty, serenity, and abundance.
"Do you like what you see?" the old man asked when he saw the hunter's amazement.
"Of course I like it . . . this must be paradise!"
"Indeed, it is, and you have found it. Why don't you come in? Here, you can live happily ever after."
Overflowing with joy, the hunter answered, "I will, but first I want to go find my brothers and friends. I'll come back with them soon."
"As you wish. But remember, the gates of Shambhala open only once in a lifetime," the old man warned him, frowning slightly.
"I won't be long," said the hunter, before running off.
Excited by what he'd just seen, he retraced the path he had taken, crossing valleys, rivers, and hills until he reached his village, where he told his two brothers and three childhood friends of his discovery.
The group set out at a brisk pace, guided by the hunter, and before the sun dipped below the horizon, they managed to reach the high mountain that gave access to Shambhala.
But the mountain pass had closed, never to open again.
The man who had discovered that miraculous world would keep hunting for the rest of his life.
Now or Never
The first part of the term ichigo ichie (一期) is used in Buddhist scripture to refer to the time that passes from the moment we are born until we die. As we have just seen in the Tibetan legend, the opportunity or encounter with life is what is offered to you now. If you don't seize the moment, it will be lost forever.
As the well-known saying goes, you only live once. Each unique, unrepeatable moment is an open gate to Shambhala, and there will never be a second chance to walk through it.
This is something we all know as human beings but easily forget when we allow ourselves to get caught up in our everyday worries and obligations.
Becoming aware of ichigo ichie helps us take our foot off the gas and remember that each morning we spend in the world, every moment we spend with our children and with our loved ones is infinitely valuable and deserves our full attention.
This is the case, first and foremost, because we don't know when life will end. Each day could be our last. No one can be sure when they go to sleep that they will open their eyes again the next morning.
There is a monastery in Spain where it is said that whenever the monks run into each other in the passageway, they say to each other, "Brother, remember that one day you're going to die." This custom places them in a permanent now, which, far from causing them sadness or worry, inspires them to enjoy every moment of their lives.
As Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations, the drama of existence is not death but never having begun to live.
Ichigo ichie is a clear invitation to "now or never," since though we may manage to live many years, every meeting has a unique essence and will never be repeated.
Perhaps we'll run into the same people in the same place again, but we'll be older, our situation and our humor will be distinct; we'll be carrying the weight of other priorities and other experiences. The universe is in a constant state of flux, and so are we. That's why nothing will ever happen again in the same way.
The Origins of the Term
The first written example we have of ichigo ichie is in a notebook belonging to the tea master Yamanoue Sōji, in 1588. What he wrote was this:
"Treat your host as if the meeting were going to occur only once in your life."
If we leave the Japanese term in question untranslated, we could phrase the command like this: "Treat your host with ichigo ichie."
When Yamanoue Sōji included this phrase in his notes, he was writing about what he had learned from the tea ceremony under the tutelage of the tea master Rikyū, considered one of the founders of wabi-cha, a style of tea ceremony that emphasizes simplicity above all else.
However, to express this concept, Sōji turned to old Japanese, using 一期一度, which is almost the same as the original, 一期一会, but with a different last character, which means "time" rather than "meeting."
The change is important, since it allows us to understand the unique character of each moment beyond the tea ceremony-to which we're going to dedicate a whole chapter in order to understand its philosophical depth.
The Time Is Now
Each tea ceremony should be treated with great attention because it is ichigo ichie, which is to say, a unique encounter in time. Even though the host and guests may see each other daily, the gathering can never be exactly repeated.
If we consider the extraordinary nature of every moment, we realize that each encounter is a once-
The host should thus show true sincerity and take the greatest care with every detail, to make sure that everything flows smoothly and without a hitch.
The guests for their part must understand that the encounter will never occur again, and so they must appreciate every detail of the ceremony prepared by the host and, of course, participate wholeheartedly.
All this is what is meant by the expression "ichigo ichie."
-Ii Naosuke, "Great Elder" of the Tokugawa Shogunate, in Chanoyu ichi-e shu (1858)
Current Usage of Ichigo Ichie
Beyond the tea ceremony setting, today the Japanese use the expression ichigo ichie in two situations:
1. When meeting a stranger for the first time.
2. When meeting acquaintances, to emphasize that every occasion is unique.
For example, imagine you are lost in the streets of Kyoto, and when you ask for help, you end up chatting for ten minutes because the person you asked for directions happens to have lived in the United States for a while. When you part company, ichigo ichie would be an appropriate way to say goodbye. By saying this, you let them know that this was a pleasant encounter that will not happen again in the future.
The second usage is closer to what we've seen with the tea ceremony. It's used with friends we see often, to emphasize that each time we meet is unique and special. Our lives go on, and each of us grows and is transformed as time goes by. As Heraclitus said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."
In both uses of the expression, the point is to show gratitude and appreciate a shared moment in our lives. At the same time, it also conveys a hint of nostalgia, and like the ritual of the monks mentioned earlier, it reminds us that our passage through life is fleeting. Ichigo ichie makes us aware that each time could be the last.
The goal of this book is not only to introduce you to the many fascinating aspects of Japanese culture related to ichigo ichie but also to help you create and experience unforgettable moments, with yourself and with others.
As you'll see in the chapters that follow, the cultivation and practice of ichigo ichie will allow you to lead a happier, more fulfilled life, without feeling weighed down by the past or anxious about the future. You will learn to live fully in the present, acknowledging and appreciating the gift of every moment.
At the end of this journey together, we will have become hunters of special moments. We will know how to capture these moments mid-flight, and savor them for what they are: unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
There's a Peanuts cartoon that shows Snoopy and Charlie Brown from behind, sitting on a jetty beside a lake, having the following conversation:
"Someday, we will all die, Snoopy!"
"True, but on all the other days, we will not."
The meaning of the second statement goes beyond humor. We don't know when we'll have to leave this world-and that's just as well-but what does depend on us is how we spend "all the other days," all those when we are alive. And those days are made up of encounters and moments that we can either allow to slip away or make unforgettable.
This reminds us of the end of the epic film Boyhood, which Richard Linklater filmed with the same actors over the course of twelve years so that the viewer could see life pass by before his eyes. For 165 minutes, we watch Mason-who at the beginning of the film is a boy of six whose parents are divorced-as he grows up and has a range of experiences, until he starts college.
After Mason overcomes many difficulties, the film ends with him going on a hiking trip with his new college friends. Mason has become an intelligent, sensitive young man, and he watches the sun set with a girl we suspect will become important in his life.
"You know how everyone's always saying 'seize the moment'?" she says excitedly. "I don't know, I'm kinda thinkin' it's the other way round. You know, like, the moment seizes us."
The meaning of this scene has been widely discussed, and it has much to do with ichigo ichie.
Just as pregnant women see baby bumps everywhere they look, as soon as we become moment hunters, everything ends up being unique and sublime, since we have the privilege of knowing that what we are experiencing right now will never happen again.