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.