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