Credit: Rachel Hawley

The idea to return to oyatsu first came in September, when the weather was still gentle, fall just beginning to work itself into a fantasia of crimson, gold, and auburn. Because I’ve lived in Chicago for nearly 15 years now, I knew that winter, with its flat white sky and toothy chill, was not far off. Every year I suffered through it alongside everyone else, slipping on iced-over sidewalks and complaining bitterly that spring never arrived in a timely fashion. But this year, the pandemic and the need for continued social distancing would curtail the indoor gatherings that I had always found a necessary reprieve from the dark and cold. Glowy, long dinners held at a friend’s table, peeling tangerines in my parents’ living room, sitting in the half shell of a shrugged-off down coat in the dusk of a movie theater; these were the things that made Chicago winter bearable. And they were precisely the things that would likely be impossible. Panic and anxiety began to dance a two-step at the edge of my mind. “Winter is coming,” I found myself proclaiming wildly to my husband, unabashed that I sounded like an extra from Game of Thrones. “We have to strategize how we’re going to survive this season!” I began to research snowshoeing. I bought wool socks. I vowed to haul myself out of the house every day to walk outside, no matter the weather.

Enter: oyatsu. I say oyatsu because it is the word that is most familiar to me. Oyatsu (sometimes called osanji) is an Edo-period word referring to what was then considered the eighth hour of the day, around 2-3 PM, when people would break to eat a light meal to tide them over till dinner. As a child in Japan, I was raised to follow this practice, eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner without snacks in between, only the designated 3 PM break for something sweet. Of course, the practice of taking a break midday for something hot to drink and delicious to nibble is hardly unique to Japan. There is fika and khavi and tea time and merienda. One winter my mother went to Finland and came back with stories of a deeply snowy country where people of all ages stopped what they were doing to drink dark, bitter coffee and eat sugary pastries. She explained that it was a way to ride out the frigid sunless winter, taking an intentional break to eat something sweet and connect with others. I was enchanted by this story as an eight-year-old, and, recalling it nearly 20 years later, I find that I remain enchanted by the Finnish pastry hour. But more importantly, I found myself inspired.

I never did take up snowshoeing. Instead, I’ve instated a ritual tea time. A few minutes before 3 PM, I close the lid on my laptop and pad into the kitchen. I fill my small copper kettle, bought in the home goods aisle of Joong Boo Market on Kimball Avenue, and put it on the stove to boil. While the water burbles, I rummage in the cabinet for a blue ceramic teapot and two teacups with saucers. Once the water is done boiling, I pour a bit into the teapot, swish it around to warm the inside, then pour the plain water into the teacups to warm them too. I fish a tea bag out of a drawer, something herbal and without caffeine so I don’t keep myself up worrying half the night, and plunk it into the teapot, covering it with steaming water. I pour the hot water from the teacups into the sink and use it to scrub a few spots of grime away.

The smell of peppermint and ginger winds its way out of the pot. I place it and the teacups onto a brightly patterned tray next to a plate with whatever cookie I decided looked interesting at Devon Market. Last week it was a sleeve of fudge-covered Oreos, on sale near the entrance of the store, wedged between gallons of vegetable oil and boxes of Medjool dates. This week, it’s a sort of Jaffa cake-digestive hybrid, a crumbly, wheaty biscuit wearing a shiny cap of orange-flavored chocolate. The energetic, sky-blue box informs me the cookies are Lithuanian. I carry the tray into the living room and meet my husband, who has just turned off his own computer. We sit for 30 minutes and chat about nothing in particular, sipping tea and eating cookies. At 4 PM, the half hour is done and my husband takes the tray into the kitchen (he handles cleanup). I return to my desk and resume working.

The ritual is soothing, nostalgic. It reminds me to slow down, to be kind to myself, to untangle my being from the capitalist slurry of work-life-work-life that the pandemic has wrought. I give myself a break. I indulge in aimless conversation. I savor something sweet. I pour out the last of the tea, its soft steam warming my palms.   v