Saturday, December 20, 2008

Last Class of the Year

Last Saturday was our final class of 2008. It’s really amazing to see the change in the house over the seasons. In the summer, we open all the doors and have lessons in the 15-mat room to take advantage of as much air circulation as we can manage. In the wintertime, we’re all shut into the small tearoom, and even the doors that we’d normally have open are shut to keep the heat in. The house gets incredibly quiet – all the better to hear the water boiling in the kettle. It feels like the rest of the world is a thousand miles away.

The past couple of weekends the tsukubai – the water basin outside the tearoom where guests can wash their hands before coming in – had a thin sheet of ice on the top. The pond wasn’t quite frozen, but getting there. Inside, we were trying to think warm thoughts while we waited for the tea water to heat up. The tearoom does have electricity, but not heat, so the outlets have to support not only the electrical element for the kettle but a space heater also. Sometimes they don’t play well together.

But on the last class, all of our regular students were able to make it, and we had a lovely surprise visit from one we hadn’t seen in a while. The students from our beginner’s class were just wrapping up a twelve-week introduction to tea, and they did a fantastic job. It’s always fun to watch their transition from knowing nothing about tea to being able to do a tea ceremony from beginning to end. It gave everything a feeling of completion.

We’ve got a long winter break coming up, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no tea. Everybody practices in their own way, from doing tea on their own to studying books to working on their cooking or sweet-making. And we’ve got the memory of the warmth in the tearoom to carry us through the New Year. I with you all the same joy and good company throughout the holidays!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Warmth in Your Hand

I heard a story on the radio the other day about a psychological study done by Yale University. The study showed that people who are holding something warm in their hands are more likely to perceive other people as “warm,” and therefore more likely to behave in a friendly, generous way. Here’s a link if you want to read the whole story.

Of course, I immediately thought of tea. In the tearoom, when a guest is about to drink a bowl of tea, they rest the bowl on their left hand and wrap their right hand around the side for support, so the bowl is less likely to fall.

If the guests are in the proper frame of mind—that is, if they’ve been watching the host prepare the tea, and allowed their mind to slip into the harmony of the movements—then they’re already in a heightened state of awareness. It’s hard to describe, but the tea tastes different when it’s drunk as part of a tea ceremony. You taste more of the nuances, whether the tea is fresh and grassy or more earthy and complex; whether it was whipped into a thick foam or whether it’s thinner and more woody. You feel the shape of the bowl in your hand, whether the shoulder at the bottom is round or square, whether the texture is rough or smooth, whether the clay around the rim is thick or thin.

Of course, that’s the ideal. If you study tea ceremony with a teacher, then the vast majority of the time you’re drinking tea in a classroom setting. Everybody has their good days and their bad days, the times when they’re paying attention and the times when they’re just going through the motions. That affects the taste of the tea, too. I know if it’s been a while since I’ve had matcha, I approach my first bowl with much more attention (and gratitude!) than my third or fourth bowl of the day.

But I think there really is something visceral about sitting with your hands wrapped around a warm bowl of tea, something that’s comforting even when it’s 90 degrees outside and the room isn’t air conditioned. I never thought about it before, but I think that the warmth of the liquid does add to the experience of drinking tea. Everything combines to give us a feeling of fellowship as we drink the tea together, and isn’t that the goal?

And since I was drinking a nice cup of sencha as I wrote this, I’ll be thinking of you all warmly until next time…

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Robiraki Accomplished!

Sunday was our Robiraki gathering. The day before it had been rainy but amazingly warm, up close to 70 degrees. We were crossing our fingers that the weather would hold out, but overnight the temperature plummeted. Sunday was sunny with highs in the 50s, which was okay, except for the gusts of chilly wind.

We had to keep a close eye on the weather because the site where we held the gathering – also the place where we hold our lessons – has no central heating (or plumbing, for that matter, which is a challenge all its own). It’s a reproduction of a 16-century Japanese house with a garden and koi pond. It’s a beautiful place to be at any time of year, and by a tiny Robiraki miracle, some of the maple leaves held on to add some color to the garden. One of our big fears was that the weather would turn freezing suddenly, and that our guests would be so cold they couldn’t enjoy themselves. (The house is wired with electricity, so we can use space heaters, but they aren’t much help in the big room.) But fortunately, the weather was fine, especially with a charcoal fire in the middle of the gathering. That sumi kicks out a lot of heat!

The crew of hosts and servers arrived at 9 a.m. to open the house and begin setting up. We had to carry all our tea utensils and serving dishes into the house, as well as the food itself. The tea utensils were set up in the kitchen of the tearoom, and we put tables on the veranda near the door to set up our serving area. It was convenient for serving, but we had the occasional wind gust sending things blowing away and keeping us on our toes.

There’s always little glitches that happen on the day of a gathering. Somebody forgets some crucial piece of equipment, somebody forgets to set up something in the tearoom, or the preparations take too long and you’re just not ready by the time the guests arrive. Amazingly, not one of those things happened this time. We did have a guest come who we weren’t expecting, but that worked out, since another guest never arrived. The number of guests is actually a major concern, because when you’re serving food, the trays are set up for the exact number of people who are coming. An extra person can throw the entire gathering off if the hosts don’t have enough food or extra trays. (If there’s one person too few, the kitchen helpers just eat the extra food.)

The guests arrived just before noon and gathered in the waiting area. Just as we were about to begin, our big glitch – the fire alarm went off! There was no fire, fortunately; the fire alarms at the house are equipped with particle detectors, and as nearly as we could tell, it was being set off by the particles carried in by the wind, which was unusually strong. Fortunately, we got it shut off quickly, and we began without a hitch.

Due to a fractured leg, I can’t sit seiza (kneeling) right now, so for the first time in many years, I wasn’t able to come into the tearoom to do tea or even to serve the food. It was hard for me to judge how things were going in the room, but based on reports from Drew and Mary Lynn, who laid the charcoal and prepared the tea, everything went fine.

The gathering started with the laying of the charcoal, followed by serving the meal. The food in the bento box was served cold, but it was followed by a serving of soup. The soup is tricky, because it includes dumpling that have to be warmed beforehand, and it has to be served piping hot in the tearoom. So once the guests got their initial serving of food, we had to rush to get the soup into the bowls and out to the guests before it got too cold.

In a more formal gathering, there would be several more courses of food, but we decided to keep it simple so that the gathering didn’t take too long. This time of year, it starts getting dark around 4:30 in the afternoon, and the house has (you guessed it) no electric lights.

After the food, we served sweets in anticipation of drinking the thick tea, or koicha. Then there was a break.

The break was supposed to be fairly brief, but just as we were breaking, the fire alarm went off again, and this time nothing we did would make it shut off. Half an hour and many phone calls later, we finally got the system shut down and could go on!

The next phase was thick tea, which was made by Drew. Usually, the host makes tea for everybody in the same bowl, and the bowl is passed around, with everybody sharing. Because there were so many people at this gathering, we did a variation in which you use two bowls, the first one for the first half of the guests, and the second one for the second half.

Once the thick tea was served, there was thin tea, or usucha. This tea was prepared by one of our students, Mary Lynn – her first time making tea during a gathering like this, and she did a great job. I assisted in whipping extra bowls of tea in the kitchen so that she didn’t have to do all 13 by herself, although I think she could have done it if she needed to!

After that, the gathering was over. It was just around 3:30, and after we said our final goodbyes, we really had to race the darkness to get everything cleaned and packed up before it got too dark to see. We did it, though, and just as the final light left the sky, we locked up and headed off on our separate ways, happy that the guests all enjoyed themselves and had some good tea.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Preparing for a Gathering

This week, our tea group is in the middle of preparations for an annual celebration called Robiraki. November is the month when we switch from summer season, when we heat the water in a raised brazier, to the winter season, when we use a sunken hearth. Normally, this celebration is held at the very beginning of November, but because of various schedule conflicts, we put it off until this weekend.

In a lot of ways, Robiraki is like the “New Year” of the tea world. The weather is getting colder, the last of the leaves are falling, and we’re just cracking open the tea that was harvested this past spring. Unlike the calendar New Year in January, which is a flashy, festive occasion, Robiraki is more subdued – it’s a time to embrace the season and look ahead to the bare coldness of winter.

Planning a tea gathering is a lot like planning a large party – there’s the guest list to coodinate, invitations to send, food to cook, and an added dimension, utensils to choose. Every item that’s used in the gathering, from the tea scoop and tea container to the scroll that hangs in the alcove, is carefully chosen to fit the season, and it all has to match – not in the sense of being the same color or pattern, but in the sense of being harmonious when you put them next to each other. For example, you wouldn’t want to put a very small tea bowl next to a very large tea container, because the proportions would look strange. You also wouldn’t want to put something bright and colorful next to something that was very worn and dull – the “mood” of the pieces needs to match, too.

The past couple of days for me have been all about food. I’m sharing the cooking responsibilities with Drew, one of the other teachers, but there’s still a lot to do. Even shopping can be a challenge. We try to incorporate as much traditional Japanese food as possible into our gatherings, but there are a lot of things that we just can’t get here. I’m lucky that there’s a small Japanese grocery store not too far from my neighborhood, and a larger Korean grocery store nearby. If we’re doing a big meal for the gathering, we trek up to New York, where there’s an even larger Japanese grocery store called Mitsuwa. However, that’s about a two-hour drive each way, so I don’t go very often.

Yesterday was shopping – running around and getting all the various foods we’ll need – and today I did most of the cooking. The most time-consuming thing was cutting the carrots; I’m trying out a new flower design that was meant to look like a chrysanthemum. I’m not sure it succeeded, but we’ll see how it goes over with my co-hosts on the day of the gathering.

Tonight I sifted the tea (two different kinds), and also the ash for the hearth. We’re using charcoal to heat the tea instead of electricity, which means that a couple of days ago, I washed the charcoal so there’s no excess dust (dust can create sparks, which are a big no-no in a room covered with dry grass mats!). Drew has been washing a portion of the ash so that it’ll still be moist when he lays the fire in front of the guests (creating a color contrast).

There’s still more to do tomorrow, but the biggest challenge is to make sure that we don’t forget to bring anything on the day of the gathering. Wish us luck!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

October Tea

The leaves are changing colors in our area now, a stunning visual reminder that the weather is getting colder and that soon, the trees will be bare and the snow will be falling.

In the tearoom, we’re also experiencing a transition. In October – and only in October –tea practitioners have the option of doing a style of tea called “Nakaoki.” Nakaoki literally means “placing in the middle,” which is a reference to the location of the furo, the brazier which holds the fire.

So let’s take a moment to review. In the wintertime, the fire is contained in a sunken pit in the middle of the floor called a ro. That way, the fire is close to the guests, and helps them to keep warm (very important in the days before central heating!). In the summertime, the fire is moved to a raised brazier called a furo and moved away from the guests to help them keep cool. (If you’re thinking, “What about the host?” the answer is, the host suffers. That’s his job.)

In Nakaoki, the furo finds a middle ground – directly in front of the host, closer to the guest but still not too close for a warm October day. That affects the position of all the other utensils, of course, but for the guest, the net effect is the same: the water is boiled, the tea whisked, and the wonderous beverage served.

There are little seasonal practices like this in almost every season, each designed in their own way to accommodate the weather conditions. But October is a particularly special month, not only because of the changing of the leaves (giving tea people an opportunity to do chabako, or picnic-style tea) but because it’s the transition from summer to winter season. November, when the sunken hearth is opened, is kind of like the “New Year” of tea ceremony (although we also celebrate the calendar New Year in January). It’s the time when the tea which was picked earlier this year is ground into powder and used for the first time.

But there will be time to think about that later. Right now, the mornings are crisp, the sun is radiant on the changing leaves, and tea people everywhere are enjoying a special taste of October. Come join us!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Depth of Field

The following post was written by Drew Hanson, one of the tea instructors at Shofuso.

In tea (as in life in general) revelations can occur when they’re least expected. Walking down to the tea house yesterday—a walk I’ve taken hundreds of times—I was suddenly struck by the almost uncanny visual ‘depth of field’ I was looking into after making the last turn on the path leading from the middle garden to the lower garden. Finally, after almost 11 years, the mature landscape made sense.

Oh, from the beginning, we were very careful in our selection of plant materials and their placement in this part of the garden, which in a more classical Japanese setting would be called the roji. Our tea house, Boukakuan, sits in a very dark corner of the property, shaded by massive, almost 300-year old sycamore trees.

Because of a series of turns, the path to the tea house seems longer than it really is. But it’s what one sees after making that last turning that justifies the agony of choosing plants and shrubs and the seemingly endless wait for them to mature. We wanted to create the illusion of distance and to ‘manufacture’ light at the same time. Making the first happen was easy. The second was more of a challenge.

But we met it. We decided to harness the power of ‘reflective’ light both to illuminate and give depth to the garden. Plants with leaf variegation: green and white, green and cream, green and yellow; all have found their way into the landscape design, offsetting and enriching the solid greens and blue greens of already existing plantings. Choosing them, however, was the hard part. We live in agricultural zone 6A/B and have to contend with cold (but not frigid) winter temperatures and hot, humid and often (in the last few years anyway) dry summer conditions.

Ultimately we selected variegated broad leaf evergreens like Acuba japonica and Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki,’ mixed in a variegated cedar and several grasses like Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ as well as deciduous woody shrubs displaying unusual variegation, a non-invasive Japanese Fleeceflower and Boehmeria nipononvea ‘Kogane Mushi,’ for example. But all our specimens were babies, none more than a foot tall. How was it all going to look? Would we get the effects we were hoping for?

In landscaping, a rule of thumb is: visualize the garden as it will look in five years, position the plant materials accordingly, put them in the ground and wait. We did. What we also did well in advance of setting out the plants was to consider the sun’s movement, its relative position in the sky in both summer and winter. Remember: we wanted to bring as much reflected light into the garden as possible.

Faith got us through the first five years. The babies grew, but our goal wasn’t going to be reached for another few years. And yesterday I got it! I really got it! Rounding that last turn, I saw the tea house in the ‘distance,’ nestled in its dark corner, illuminated by the reflected light of the plants surrounding it and looking for all the world as if it had been there for as long as our house has been on the property, and that’s 233 years.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Being a Guest

In tea ceremony there’s a lot of emphasis on being the host – learning the right moves to prepare tea for people, knowing the sequence, the little tricks of movement that make everything flow. But guests have an equally important role. It’s also structured in that there are certain things that need to be done at certain times, but there’s a lot more freedom. In some ways, that can make it even harder to be a guest than to be a host.

In tea training, when we talk about state of mind, we always emphasize that both host and guest should strive for harmony in the room. Guests should avoid talking about subjects that might cause tension – no religion, no politics, no gossiping about other people. The mood should be light, and ideally, the conversation should focus on things in the room, the occasion for the gathering, or the season.

The role of the first guest is crucial. The first guest, shokyaku in Japanese, is the guest of honor. They sit in the position closest to the host, and they are the first person to be served the tea. But the first guest also has more responsibility than the other guests: He or she has to keep the flow of the gathering going by giving the host the proper cues at the proper time, and at the same time, is responsible for keeping the conversation going in the tearoom. If all of the guests know each other well, that last part is easy; if not, it can be difficult, especially if there’s a mixture of Japanese speakers and English speakers in the room who know very little of the other language.

The other day someone asked me, “I know the goal is to keep the conversation in the room harmonious, but what happens if someone doesn’t? What if someone says or does something offensive?”

That’s not an easy question to answer, because, like any social situation, a lot depends on the people in the gathering. In theory, any of the guests who sense that there’s some awkwardness should try to smooth things over – change the subject, or possible give the offender a quiet nudge. In practice, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes a gathering fails, not in the sense of ending early, but in the sense of the guests not having a good time. That’s one reason why, as a host, it’s important to choose your guests carefully, and why as a guest it’s important to put other people’s feelings ahead of your own. That’s not always an easy lesson to learn, but it’s at the heart of tea.

Friday, August 15, 2008


One of the highlights of my trip to Japan was a visit to Taian. Taian is the oldest surviving tea house built by Sen no Rikyu, the founder of the lineage for most of the active tea schools in Japan today, including Urasenke.

Rikyu lived over 400 years ago, and his most famous accomplishments happened toward the end of his life, when he served as the tea master for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the military ruler of Japan. One of those accomplishments was Taian – not because it was large or beautiful, but exactly the opposite, because it was the epitome of wabi.

I could write a whole post about wabi, and I probably will at some point, but for the moment I’ll sum up by saying that it’s the fundamental aesthetic underlying tea ceremony. It means seeking beauty in simplicity and bareness, in the natural scars and wear marks of an old pot or basket rather than the gleaming shine of a new one, in the imperfection of a tea bowl that’s cracked or assymetrical rather than perfectly round and identical to countless others. In terms of tearooms, it means using the simple, humble materials of a country hut rather than the exquisite paintings and expensive woods and fabrics of a nobleman’s castle.

Taian is a two-tatami-mat room, which means it’s approximately six feet square, plus a tokonoma (an alcove) that’s a little more than three feet square. There’s a small nijiriguchi (kneeling entrance), so called because the only way to get through it is to slide in on your knees, and covered windows that let in a subdued light. The guests would walk through the garden, take their shoes off, and come in through the nijiriguchi; the host would come in through a separate entrance from an adjoining space that has a single tatami mat (three feet by six) plus a wooden board running the length of the mat, which was used to hold the utensils that were waiting to be carried into the room. Beyond that is the actual preparation area (mizuya). Here’s a link to a site with a description and some photos.

I said that I visited Taian, but actually, I visited two Taians – the original, which at some point in its history was moved to Myokian Temple outside of Kyoto – and a reproduction which was built on the grounds of the Zuiho-in subtemple at Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto. The original is closed to visitors; you can only look in from the outside. The reproduction, however, we were allowed to go inside. That’s crucial, because like so many things in tea, it’s the experience that makes the difference.

Six feet by six feet doesn’t sound like a lot of space, and from the outside it doesn’t look like a lot of space, either, but once you sit inside, it feels almost spacious. There’s room for one or two guest, maybe three if you squeeze. The host makes tea on the other mat, with a small ro (sunken hearth) cut into the corner of the mat, away from the guests. (In a larger room, the sunken hearth would be in the middle of the room, giving host and guest more room to maneuver.)

In a typical tea room, there would be at least a half-mat space between the host and the guest. In a two-mat room like Taian, you’re right next to each other. There’s nowhere to hide – every move the host makes is right there for everyone to see. It’s a much more intimate feeling, and I can image how much more so it would be if there was only one guest.

Rikyu built Taian for Hideyoshi – it was originally located in Hideyoshi’s castle at Yamazaki – but Hideyoshi never had tea there. Other people were invited, and in fact, some elements of the reproduction differ from the original based on notes from tea people of Rikyu’s day who had tea there. Sitting in the reproduction, I could imagine someone coming in through the nijiriguchi, sitting in front of the alcove, sharing the experience of making the tea with the host, neither person needing to say a word.

The whole experience brought me a little bit closer to the world where tea ceremony was born – a little bit of insight to take home and build into my own tea experience.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Grand Master's Tea

One of the highlights of my trip to Japan was the opportunity to watch the Grand Master (Oiemoto) of Urasenke, Zabosai, do tea. The occasion was a kencha, a tea offering to Shinto deities. Oiemoto does them several times per year, and I just happened to be at Midorikai during one of them.

This particular one was at Omi Jingu, a Shinto shrine in the foothills surrounding Kyoto. Omi Jingu contains a shrine to Emperor Tenji, who was the first emperor to put a clock in the Imperial Palace. This shrine (and this gathering) is thought to be especially good for people who need to be on time.

We gathered at Urasenke and rode a bus out to the shrine, arriving, in proper tea fashion, ridiculously early. The Midorikai group was joined by the students from the Japanese-language program, all of us in our formal montsuki kimonos (with a crest embroidered on the back of the neck, just underneath the collar). We went up a set of stairs to a rectangular courtyard, where there was a raised platform with tatami (woven grass) mats and tea utensils set up for Oiemoto, and benches around the edges. We sat off to one side; there were various VIPs in the seats next to the platform. I was in a spot where I could actually see Oiemoto do tea, which I gather is pretty unusual.

It’s hard to describe the experience. I mean, in the back of your mind, there’s an awareness that this is The Man, at least in the Urasenke world – the heir to the family tradition, a man who’s been doing tea ceremony since he was old enough to hold a tea scoop. From that perspective, his tea is almost ordinary. But there’s a kind of quiet power behind all of his movements; you simultaneously get the sense that he’s done this a thousand times before and that he’s completely focused on every move and detail.

The kencha itself was done in the context of a Shinto ritual. A line of Shinto priests in white preceded Oiemoto into the shrine, and one of them ritually called on the gods and blessed the people there. Oiemoto prepared the tea, and then he carried the bowl across the courtyard and up the second set of steps to the shrine area, where one of the priests was waiting. I couldn’t see what he did up there, but then he came back down and made a second bowl of tea, which was likewise carried up the steps and given in offering. Once he was done, the Shinto priests finished the ritual, and we all went off to another area to some tea sittings sponsored by local tea groups.

I really feel privileged to have been there, not just to see Oiemoto do tea, but to see a little piece of tea in its cultural context – not just the living, everyday practice that happens right here in Philadelphia and all across the world, but being able to connect it to the other places and ways in which it’s practiced. That was an ongoing theme throughout the rest of time I was there, too.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Days of Matcha

On the grounds of its headquarters in Kyoto, Urasenke has built a school where students can come and study tea full-time. Japanese-speakers have the option of taking a three-year course, which, upon graduation, confers “tea god” status. (Okay, not really. But it’s still a pretty impressive accomplishment.) For foreigners, there’s an English-language program called Midorikai, where you can study for up to one year. When I was there, I spent a week sitting in with the Midorikai students.

First, a bit about the building itself. The first floor has a kitchen (a Western-style kitchen, that is, and it’s huge, like something you’d find in a cooking school) and a series of four or five tearooms. Each room is an eight-mat room – that’s eight tatami mats, which is about twelve feet by twelve feet square – and its own separate mizuya, or preparation/utensil storage area. The fusuma (sliding doors) between the rooms can be removed to make a huge space when they need one. The tearooms open toward the kitchen on one side, and on the other, sliding doors lead to a long, narrow moss garden.

The second floor is all Western-style classrooms – not all that different from a typical college here in the U.S. Well, okay, except for the bathrooms. The second floor also features a library of tea materials, and you’ll often find students in there studying in between classes.

The third floor is all open space covered with tatami mats. This is the “overflow” class space; you might have two, three, or even four classes operating side by side, sharing one large mizuya space.

Students wear kimonos every day, even to lectures – they have to, because once they get started, there’s no time to change. Midorikai students start the day with two hours of classes, followed by about half an hour for lunch. Afternoons are three straight hours of tea lessons. Immediately after lunch, the students go to their classroom (they rotate through the available classrooms so that they’re not always in the same spot) and start getting set up.

Setup duties are broken up among different students – one student hangs the scroll, one arranges the flowers, one makes sure there’s tea in all the containers and that sweets have been brought from the kitchen, one arranges the lit charcoal in the brazier (the night before, another student prepares the ash bed for the fire – in the summertime, it’s an exacting process that can take an hour or more). By the time the teacher arrives, everything has to be ready, and all the students are sitting in the tearoom and waiting.

The students greet the teachers simultaneously, and then immediately, whoever is making tea first asks the teacher for a lesson and then goes outside the room to finish setting up. One of the other students slides forward to act as the guest for the lesson, and the rest of the students observe. The student who’s acting as the host pauses at the door to greet the teacher and the guest, and then proceeds to go through whichever tea ceremony he or she is doing that day. There are many, many variations on tea ceremony; in Midorikai, the students all do the same temae, or tea procedure, on the same day, so they can all watch each other. The student acting as the guest eats a sweet and drinks the tea, and then they switch off, so that everybody has a chance to do tea and drink tea before the afternoon is over.

Students have class Monday through Friday, and sometimes events on weekends, too. They’re pretty much living and breathing tea ceremony for an entire year. What kind of person does this? Well, most of them had some prior experience with tea in their home country – in fact, unless you qualify for one of Urasenke’s special scholarship programs, you have to be recommended by a licensed teacher in order to go to Midorikai. Urasenke doesn’t charge them tuition – the goal of Midorikai is that the graduates go back to their home country and promote tea ceremony there by doing demonstrations and telling others about tea. Some of the students who were there when I went had been studying tea for many years, although there were also some beginners. At the end of a year of study, though, everyone leaves an expert. A year at Midorikai is the equivalent of 7-10 years of private lessons.

Next up: Some of the tea places I visited while in Kyoto…

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Tales from the Back of the House

Okay, I know it’s been a while since I updated the blog, but I have a good excuse – I was in Japan for two weeks in June, one of which I spent studying at Urasenke in Kyoto.

Before I get into classes themselves, let’s talk about where Urasenke comes from. Back in the day, by which I mean, of course, the Momoyama Period (1573-1603), the man who was widely acknowledged as the most skilled tea pracitioner in Japan was Sen no Rikyu. Most of the tea ceremony schools in modern Japan trace their lineage back to him in some way, either through the family line or through one of his disciples.

There are three schools that descend through the family line: Omotesenke, Urasenke, and Mushonokojisenke. You’ll notice that they all end in “senke.” “Sen” is the family name, and “ke” can be roughly translated as “residence.” So, Omotesenke means “the front of the Sen residence,” Urasenke is “the back of the Sen residence,” and Mushanokojisenke is “the Sen residence on Mushanokoji Street.”

Intellectually, I knew this before I arrived, but it was still funny to me to realize that the headquarters for Urasenke and Omotesenke – two very large and prestigious tea schools – are right next to each other. You could open a window in Urasenke, throw a rock, and hit someone from Omotesenke, although I’m sure that never happens.

The grounds of Urasenke are a study in contrast. On one side, the property borders Horikawa Street, which is a wide, busy road. The Urasenke offices, which handle the school’s business affairs, is a modern, multistory office building. Right beside it, however, are a series of family temples and shrines that look like they could have been built centuries ago (probably were).

Here’s a picture of the office building:

One of the family shrines:

And the gate that leads from a back street into the grounds:

One of the Urasenke teachers told me that it used to be that if you wanted to get to Urasenke, you had to take that back street through the Omotesenke residence – there was no direct access.

The grand master (Oiemoto) of Urasenke lives on the same grounds, right next to the office building – in fact, there’s a guard on the back street that leads into the offices because it also leads past Oiemoto’s residence. (By Japanese standards, it’s a fairly large house, but coming from the U.S. I was surprised at how modest it looked.)

Also on the Urasenke property is the school building and other related buildings, like the student cafeteria. More on the school coming up in the next post

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Beginning Lessons

Let’s say you’ve never studied chanoyu before, and you want to start taking lessons. Different teachers approach this in different ways. In our group, we start with what’s called warigeko.

consists of a lot of things you thought you knew how to do already – standing up, sitting down, walking across the room, opening doors, and looking at things. When you’re practicing tea, there are a lot of little rules to observe. For example, the borders of the tatami (woven grass) mats on the floor are very important in defining space. When you walk across the room, you need to pay close attention to which foot is crossing the border – when you’re entering the room, you cross the borders with your right foot, and when you’re leaving, you cross with your left.

But that’s just part of warigeko. New students also learn how to fold the fukusa (silk wiping cloth) and how to handle utensils. The teacher takes them step-by-step through the process of doing tea ceremony, showing them new skills along the way. Sometimes it’s several weeks before a new student actually gets to the point where he or she is making tea.

You may be wondering, why are there so many different details to learn? Why not just boil water and make tea? It relates to chanoyu’s Zen roots. One thing that Zen practitioners always emphasize is focusing on the present moment – not being distracted by thoughts of something that happened in the past, or plans for the future, but being completely focused on what you’re doing right now. By incorporating all of these little details into tea, every movement becomes purposeful – you have to pay attention to every moment, every muscle in your body, because as soon as you let your attention wander, you go off track. It’s a challenge even for experienced tea practitioners.

But, as with so many things in tea, there’s a practical reason, too. All of those tiny little details add up to produce a series of elegant movements. The goal is to make tea a good experience for your guests, a pleasure to watch as well as to drink.

In chanoyu, we talk about “beginner’s mind” as something to strive for: a sense of openness, a willingness to learn, and an intense focus on all the details of the movements. It’s an important attitude to have no matter how long you’ve been doing tea, because if you’re not open to the lessons that the tearoom has to offer, you’re never going to improve. And if we can let that same mindset permeate the rest of our lives, so much the better.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Why Tea?

When I tell people that I do tea ceremony, one of the questions I get most often is “How did you get into that?”

The short answer is pretty straightforward: When I was a student at La Salle University, they had undergraduate courses in tea ceremony. I took the course and really loved it, so I kept practicing.

But really, my fascination with tea started long before then. When I was in my early teens, I remember reading an article in the paper about tea ceremony. I was so fascinated by the idea of an entire ritual built around drinking tea that I clipped out the article and had it hanging on my wall for years afterward.

Was it fate that life brought me to the one place in the Philadelphia area – heck, in the state of Pennsylvania – that I could actually learn about tea ceremony? When I applied, I didn’t even know about the tea ceremony program there. To be honest, at the time, I’m not sure it would have made a difference. When I signed up for the course, I was curious more than anything else.

My earliest experience in chanoyu was unusual for a tea person – learning tea in the context of a college course where there was classroom work and essays as well as hands-on instruction. My first teacher was Brother Joseph Keenan, one of the Christian Brothers at La Salle. He started learning tea at the New York branch of the Urasenke tea school, and later spent time studying at Urasenke’s headquarters in Kyoto. He had a great sense of humor, and he was always making jokes. It made the class seem much easier, even though he was as strict as any other teacher. I remember back in my room I put together mock tea utensils with whatever I could find, and I kept practicing until I got everything right. At the end of the course, when we had our tea “finals,” I did the tray-style tea from beginning to end with only one mistake (I forgot to turn around and bow at the very end). I still remember what a feeling of accomplishment that was – and how hard it seemed to get through that one temae (tea procedure). I still do that temae, but now it seems so easy!

It’s funny, but looking back, I don’t remember what it was that inspired me to ask about continuing studies after the course was over. Maybe it was a beauty of the movements, or the ritualistic aspects, or the taste of the tea. Maybe it was just a whim.

As I progressed in my studies, the tearoom became my safe zone – a space away from the stress of classes and my part-time job, where I could sit and relax and not worry about anything else for a while. I don’t think I realized until much later how much I needed that.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


These past two weekends we did demonstrations at the Horticultural Center and at Shofuso as part of the Philadelphia Cherry Blossom Festival.

The busiest day of the two-week festival is Sakura Sunday, when vendors and performers all convene on the Horticultural Center underneath the cherry blossoms. There are demonstrations of dancing, singing, aikido, reiki, shiatsu, calligraphy, origami, and … hmmm … what am I forgetting?

We had a slightly different venue for our tea ceremony demonstrations this year. In the past, we did our demo in a small room off to the side. This year, we moved into one of the Horticultural Center’s indoor spaces, in the middle of one of their perennial foliage displays. The good news was that a lot more people came to watch this year, and the bad news was that the space was so noisy that the ones who came had a tough time hearing what was going on. Still, it was great to see so much interest – we literally had people packed around on all sides watching what was happening.

Here’s a photo of the audience listening to me talk about tea:

At one point I ran down to Shofuso to grab some supplies – well, okay, in kimono it’s more like a brisk hobble – and there were huge crowds outside enjoying the trees. It was a beautiful, warm day, and the cherry trees were just a little bit past their peak, but still gorgeous. There are literally dozens of cherry trees on the grounds, of all different types. Most of them are pretty young, but there are a couple of fairly old ones (I’m sorry, I don’t know how old). Here’s a photo of one:

And while I'm at it, here's a picture of Shofuso, with its weeping cherry tree in bloom. (This is where we have lessons, although you can’t see the tearoom in this photo.)

This past Saturday, there was another demonstration, this time on the veranda at Shofuso, overlooking the pond. This was a semi-private event, open only to people who reserve in advance. Taeko-sensei, one of my teachers, did a type of tea called chabako, which literally means “tea box.” The idea is that all of the utensils needed to make tea are miniaturized and packed into the box so that they can be easily transported to make tea outside. You can do it any time of year, but it’s especially popular during cherry blossom season and in the fall, when the leaves are changing colors.

We did two sittings of about twenty people each, serving tea and sweets to each person. The traditional sweets for chabako are something called konpeito, which are basically small, hard, round sugar candies. But for demonstrations we like to give people something more substantial to eat, so Taeko-sensei made sakura mochi. The innermost layer is a sweet bean paste (“an” in Japanese), surrounded by layer of steamed sweet rice dough (mochi), wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf. Delicious! But the people who were helping behind the scenes were good and let the guests have some.

After the demonstrations, a photographer from the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation took some photos of Taeko-sensei and the rest of us to use on Shofuso’s web site and in other Philadelphia marketing efforts. So if you live in the Philadelphia area, or like to read Philadelphia marketing pieces for fun, keep an eye out for photos of women in kimono – it could be one of us!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

New Buds

April is one of the busiest months of the year for tea people, mostly because of cherry blossoms. In Japan, when the cherry trees bloom, it’s a huge event – people take blankets and pack up food and drinks (often of the alcoholic sort) and head to the nearest patch of cherry trees to sit and admire the new flowers. Some of the more famous cherry-blossom-viewing sites get so packed you have to make reservations in advance!

Here in Philadelphia, the cherry trees aren’t quite such a big deal, although thanks to the Japan-America Society of Greater Philadelphia, you can’t help but notice the cherry trees – they’re planted in abundance along the Schuylkill River, and all over the grounds of the Horticultural Center, where the Japanese House is located. Driving in for lessons today, I noticed that most of the cherry trees are either in bloom or budding away – about a week earlier than usual, but somehow I can’t complain about having an early spring!

Today is the start of the Philadelphia Cherry Blossom Festival, although most of the big events are taking place next weekend – including the first of a series of three tea ceremony demonstrations, all within the space of a week. See what I mean about it being the busy time of year for us?

But the really exciting thing that happened today was the start of a new beginner’s tea class at the Japanese House, where we hold lessons. This was new for us. Before, we’d add new students to our group one or two at a time; they’d be taught separately, and sit in and observe lessons with the senior students. But over the years, we’ve found that students have more fun (and tend to stick with tea longer) when they’re learning with a group of other beginners. So when we moved to the Japanese House, we started planning a course specifically for beginners – twelve weeks of instruction that takes newcomers through the first tea ceremony (temae) in the Urasenke curriculum.

We had seven students start today for our first course. They’re a really great group – six women and one man (pretty typical gender ratio for tea ceremony), all with different goals. Some came because they were interested in Japanese culture, some because they were interested in the tea itself, and a couple because they were interested in the calming, meditative aspects of tea.

But you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful place to learn tea – it was a warm day, and we were in the big (15-tatami-mat) room overlooking Shofuso’s koi pond – or, for a teacher, a better group of students to start with. I think it must be a sign of great things to come.

Friday, March 14, 2008

About This Blog

The impetus for this blog was one of the most traumatic things that can happen to a tea ceremony practitioner: The sudden destruction of the tearoom where I’d been practicing for the past thirteen years.

On the surface, a tearoom is a small, nondescript space. There are tatami mats on the floor (the mats covered in woven grass that the Japanese traditionally use for flooring), the walls are painted in a subdued color, the ceiling covered with wood tiles, the windows covered with paper shoji screens. There’s an alcove in the corner where we hang a scroll and set out a simple flower arrangement. When it’s time for tea, there’s an iron brazier on the floor (or, in the wintertime, set into a sunken hearth).

But, like many places in our lives, a tearoom is more than the sum of its parts. What happens there, the kinds of feelings that a tea ceremony can evoke – that’s harder to explain. The goal of this blog is not just to tell you about tea ceremony, but to talk about what it’s like to be a tea person (chajin in Japanese). Hopefully, by reading this you’ll get an idea of what it’s like, and maybe even be inspired to seek out tea ceremony for yourself.

I’m your host, Morgan Beard, but I’m only one of a group of tea teachers and students in this area. I hope that I’ll be able to rope some of my fellow tea people into posting on this blog, too, so that you can hear their stories as well as mine. In the meantime, read and enjoy!