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!