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.