Friday, June 5, 2009

Going to a Chaji

This weekend, I was invited to a chaji put on by one of our teachers, Drew Hanson.

“Chaji” literally means something like “tea event,” and it’s considered the culmination of tea practice. It’s more formal than a chakai (“meeting for tea”), which has a more flexible format. In a chaji, everything is carefully determined. It starts with a meal that has a set number of courses. When the first course is brought in, each person gets a tray with two bowls and a plate. One bowl has rice, one bowl has soup, and the plate has sashimi. Once everybody has their tray, they simultaneously take the lids off the two bowls, put them together, and set them off to one side of the tray. From that point onward, each step is carefully choreographed: What’s in each course, when it enters the room, and how it is served. Even the guests have to pay attention to the timing, because they have to eat certain things by the time the next course is served.

If you’re the host, the food is by far the most stressful part. The menu is planned months in advance, and the cooking begins days in advance, because each element of the meal requires special preparation. And, because some courses are served hot, the host needs helpers in the kitchen to make sure everything is ready at exactly the right moment.

The food at this gathering, by the way, was wonderful. It was in a very traditional Japanese style, but there were vegetables from his garden as well as seafood and even some things imported from Japan.

After the food came the laying of the charcoal, which is done in front of the guests. As the fire builds, the smell of incense fills the room. With the fire going, the host served sweets. The sweets were in a hydrangea shape – bean paste dyed blue, grated, and arranged on top of a red bean paste center. Then little cubes of clear kinton (a gelatin-like substance) laced with gold leaf are put on top of it so that it looks like dew. They were really beautiful, but not too beautiful to eat!

After the sweets came the break. At that point, we’d been in the tearoom for about two and a half hours, and we were all ready for a standing break – sitting seiza for that long is no joke. During the break, the scroll in the alcove was replaced with a flower arrangement in a vase that Drew’s friend Brandon had made from local bamboo.

When we came back in, we had koicha, or thick tea, followed by thin tea. The utensils had been chosen to reflect a theme, which was water. The bowl for thin tea had fish painted on it, and the character for “ocean” on the bottom of the inside of the bowl. The tea container also had a wave pattern on it, and the lid-rest was in the shape of three fish.

But more than anything else, it’s the people who really make a gathering. Knowing the amount of preparation and care that went into everything that happened was really touching, and being able to share it with good company made it even better. It’s hard to describe how it feels, to be sitting in a tearoom, drinking in harmony with everyone else, soaking in every detail with every one of your senses. But by the end, there’s do doubt about why a chaji is considered the ultimate tea experience.

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