It depends on how much sugar you put in
(Asacha wa shichiri kaette mo nome;
“Drink your morning tea, even if [you have to] travel seven leagues home”)
If you set out on a trip without drinking your morning tea, then as soon as you notice the error you should go back and make sure to properly drink it, even if doing so seems incredibly inconvenient.
Sadly, that seems to be all there is to it: a throwback admonition that gives us a tiny window into an old folk belief about tea. But I’d like to use it more metaphorically, as a reminder that doing the right thing is worth it, and you should put in the effort even if it’s inconvenient. That’s a lesson we need more people to learn, remember, and put into practice.
We begin with the particle は (wa) marking the compound noun 朝茶 (asacha), “morning tea,” as our topic of discussion. The comment on this topic begins with number-noun 七里 (shichiri), “seven ri.” Without any particles, this is followed by the verb 帰る (kaeru), “to return home,” in conjunctive form and followed by emphatic particle も (mo), a structure that can be rendered as the conditional “even if [verb].” And finally, the conditional’s result clause consists entirely of the verb 飲む (nomu) in imperative form.
When tea was first imported from China in the Kamakura era it was treated as a form of medicine. What’s more, it was supposedly thought that having a cup of tea in the morning was not just good for your health, but preternaturally effective against misfortune for the rest of the day. (One of my sources specifically locates this belief in modern Nagano and Miyagi prefectures) If that were true, then it would stand to reason that it’s vitally important to drink your tea, even if you need to travel a long way home to do so.
And the way home is unquestionably long. While the length of a ri has fluctuated throughout history and across different locations, the modern Japanese length is about 3.9km or 2.4 miles (as we’ve seen before), meaning that, depending on factors such as terrain, each direction would easily make a full day’s walk! This would really only make sense for a very long trip with little chance of getting any tea elsewhere.
The saying becomes much more manageable using the original definition of a 里 as a length unit, which was 300 paces. (The original original measure was apparently of an area 300 paces on each side.) Returning home – and then heading out again – by seven ri each way would then only add 4,200 steps to your total: a bit of a pain, but eminently doable, especially for a pre-modern society in which walking was the norm.
(“Asacha wa shichiri kaette mo nome. Benkyou wa, mitai eiga ga joueichuu de mo, wasurezu ni chanto shinasai.”)
[“Drink your morning tea even if you have to walk miles home. And even if a movie that you want to watch is playing, don’t forget to do your homework.”]