In Japan — especially in Japan — food and drink have always been about more than merely nutrition or a mere succession of tastes. They have also been a pretext for bringing people together in social rituals that don't have to be ancient, formal or solemn: rituals focused on food and drink can also be fresh, inventive and humorous.

On Valentine's Day I cycled down to an industrial building in Tengachaya, a maze-like working-class neighborhood in the middle of Osaka's Nishinari Ward, one of the poorest areas in the city and the country. I had been invited to a tea ceremony presided over by the artist-turned-tea mistress, Mai Ueda. For almost a decade, Ueda has been conducting tea ceremonies in unlikely places: on a traffic island in the middle of a busy New York street, inside a mosquito net at an Indian biennial or next to a geyser in Iceland.

The venue, Poehum (the name combines the word "poetry" with "humming"), is a two-story corrugated iron warehouse converted into artists' studios, a gallery and an event space. Shotaro Ikeda, the artist who runs Poehum, told me that his grandparents operated a cracker factory here during the Showa Era (1926-89), producing and packaging handmade okaki (rice crackers). The building now hosts installations and video projections — for instance, Shoji Funakawa (known as "Funasho") has installed a hot electric coil in a darkened room, and hands visitors big blocks of ice to place on it. The ice sizzles satisfyingly as it sinks through the coils.