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.