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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.

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