Thursday, December 9, 2010

Perspectives on Tea

Continuing my updates from the past few months…

Back in October, I was contacted by a writer from a blog called Tea + Travel about participating in a series of interviews about tea ceremony. If you’d like to read it, the link is here:

There were three other interviews in the series also. The first was from Gabriel Soga Caciula, who is an Urasenke teacher from Belgium:

“What is there, in Chado that attracts non-Japanese? I would say the same thing that attracts Japanese. In the space defined by the concepts mentioned before: aesthetics, philosophy, decorum, social entertainment, one can find the basic principles defining the spirituality of the way of tea, derived from the closeness of this practice to Zen Buddhism: Wa, Key, Sei, Jaku or Harmony, Respect, Purity, Tranquility.”
- Read the rest of the interview here:

There was also one with Rebecca Lyn Cragg of Camellia Teas in Ottawa, Canada:

“For those who stand outside the Chanoyu Culture, looking in at something silent, mysterious, exotic and elaborate, they cannot often find or appreciate what it is that captures the hearts of practitioners. We in turn, are not always able to convey our fascination and commitment skillfully either. If I could offer an analogy, it might be a little like those who attend a classical concert: while the general audience may enjoy the melody, or harmony they hear, likely other musicians, particularly those of the same instrument – and even more so – those who have studied, played and enjoyed that particular composer’s piece, are best able to empathize and appreciate whether the musician has interpreted the piece well, or played that crescendo ‘correctly’, or not.
Athletes too I think could understand that ‘mastery’ is something we strive for throughout our lives. Playing a ‘perfect game’ is nearly impossible (as impossible as becoming a Tea ‘Master’, a term I strongly dislike). The people attending the sports game can cheer and be pleased with the outcome if the athlete wins, but not necessarily understand the brilliance of applying certain strategies, or understand the intricacies of what a move was particularly well-executed. In the end, the same is true of these tea rituals: likely only other practitioners (of the same school, and there are dozens of different tea schools), can really appreciate the time, effort, thoughtfulness and depth that has gone into creating a tea gathering. Still, the musician, athlete and tea practitioner continues to forge ahead, enjoying the collegiality as well as the general audience.”
- Read more:

And Michael Ricci, an Urasenke instructor in Colorado:

The most two important things about adapting traditional tea ceremony into a different time and culture is balance and non-attachment. You must always respect the tradition as much as possible, but that doesn’t mean adhering to it always. It’s simply impossible to do that and a creative and sensitive person will find ways to make the translation both successful and enjoyable. By being balanced a person will have equal understanding of tradition and change, and by being non-attached a person will have the freedom and ability to make changes where they are needed without causing any kind of disturbance in himself or others.
- Read more:

If you're interested in tea in general, there's lots of other great stuff on the Tea & Travel site too -- go and check it out at

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Clay + Fire = Awesome

I know it’s been a while since I updated the blog. I apologize sincerely for that, but I do have a good excuse… I just got married!

So with my lapse in tea discussion, I have a lot to talk about. Rather than going chronologically, which is just too predictable, I want to start with what happened this past weekend: a kiln firing.

I talked before about Willi Singleton, a local ceramic artist who, among other things, makes tea utensils. He trained for many years in Japan, and when he came back to this country he built a noborigama (a climbing kiln) on his property. The kiln is wood-fired, and it requires a lot of expertise to manage a firing properly. This past weekend I got to participate in one of those firings.

The actual firing began on Thursday afternoon, but it wasn’t until the last two days of the firing (Saturday and Sunday) that the helpers came in. Roughly, the process is this: Willi throws the pots and does the standard sorts of preparation – glazing, bisque firing – and then stacks the pots on shelves in the various chambers. The placement of pieces is crucial, because the flow of air (and especially airborne ash) through the kiln will determine how each piece looks. Certain glazes will produce a certain effect, but the temperature inside the kiln, air flow, and the ash itself all play into the process. It’s very unpredictable, but that’s what makes the end result beautiful.

Willi’s kiln has four chambers, but this time he was only firing two of them. The kiln is built into a hillside (hence the “climbing” part of the name), and the lowest part of the kiln is the firebox, which looks kind of like a fifth chamber. At the beginning of the firing process, Willi builds a fire in the firebox, and then gradually keeps the fire burning, building the temperature. Once the temperature inside the first kiln reaches a certain temperature, he stops stoking the firebox and starts stoking that first kiln, while simultaneously feeding the second kiln to prepare it for a full stoking. Once the second kiln gets to the right temperature, he starts stoking that one and feeding the third, and so on. Once the final kiln has been stoked for the right amount of time, he seals up all the holes in the kiln and allows the fire to smother out on its own.

Here’s a photo of the four chambers from the side. The brick archways covered over with the white substance (I think it’s some type of clay, but I forgot to ask) are actually the doors that Willi uses to access the chambers and insert/remove the pots.

I arrived Saturday night around 9:30. At that point, crews had already been working for many hours stoking the firebox. There were three people working the box, one on the central opening in the firebox, and one person each on two side ports. The photo below was taken when the openings were closed up, but you can see the opening in the middle and the ports above the cinder blocks:

The stoking has a rhythm. Someone (whoever has been designated to watch the fire) keeps an eye on air vents in the first chamber. When the flames coming out of the air vents fall to a certain level, someone tells the stokers to stoke – they all have to go at the same time – and the stokers at the ports remove the block closing the opening, add a set number of pieces of wood, and close the ports again, while the stoker in the center fills the opening with larger blocks of wood. Then everybody waits until the flames die down again, maybe 2-3 minutes.

This process continued for several hours. Along with the pots in the kiln are a series of 3-4 cones; I don’t know the technical details (maybe one of you can fill me in!) but when the first cone bends over and the second one is getting bendy, it’s time to move from stoking the firebox to stoke the first chamber. As luck would have it, that happened during my working shift, around 4 a.m.

Stoking the chambers is more difficult than stoking the firebox, because the goal is to keep the fire spread evenly throughout the kiln. Because the kiln is so wide, there’s one person on each side of the kiln, each stoking simultaneously. The stokers have to shoot thin pieces of wood through a hole that’s about six inches square into specific locations within the kiln. So, for example, Willi might say “two, two, two,” meaning that they have to shoot two pieces to the middle of the kiln, two pieces to a point that’s halfway between the middle and the edge, and drop two pieces on the ledge right below the opening. The stokers then keep an eye on the flames coming out of the vent holes above their heads, and call out to the other side when the flames are getting low. The goal is for the flames to go down at exactly the same time; if one side goes down too quickly, Willi (or the designated watcher) might tell the stoker to add just one more piece of wood to try to even it out.

As a rank amateur, I was given an easier job, feeding the second chamber. So after the stokers fed the first chamber, I put one piece of wood in the second chamber, alternating sides, so I was constantly moving back and forth. When they first started stoking the first chamber, I was literally running back and forth from one side to the other because they were stoking every 30 seconds or so; after a while, the pace slowed down to stoking every 1-2 minutes.

Here’s a photo of the process in action: there’s one person standing and watching the flame, and the person bending over is opening the access hole in preparation for stoking. (All of those photos were taken later in the process, when they were stoking the second chamber, but the principle is the same.)

Here’s another photo of the stoking process. You can see that one person is doing the actual stoking, and the person beside him is doing a secondary stoking to keep the fire even (and also fetching wood, which is a crucial part of the process).

And here’s Willi checking the progress of the pots:

My shift ended at 6 a.m., and I went to get some sleep. I came back to the kiln just before noon, at which point they were stoking the second chamber. The firing ended later that afternoon, but it’ll still be a while before Willi finds out how everything turned out – it takes about a week or so for the kiln to cool off to the point where it’s safe to go inside.

It was truly an amazing experience to take part in a firing like this, even though my part was a small one. There’s something really primal about tending the fire and watching its rhythms, and looking through the vent holes to see the pots undergoing their transformation. I can’t wait to see what comes out!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Freer Excursion

Recently I went with a group of other tea people to the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C. The museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, contains the collection of Charles Lang Freer, who collected all types of Asian art at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century – around the time that Japanese families were starting to sell off all their old art treasures following the dramatic shift in culture of the Meiji Period. The gallery has a truly stunning collection of tea ceremony utensils, only a fraction of which are on display. But if you want, you can make an appointment with the gallery to come and view the utensils that they have in storage – even take them out and handle them. For tea people, it’s an extraordinary opportunity to handle the types of utensils that we normally only read about in books.

We arrived at the Freer and were led down to their vaults in the basement. They have an aisle dedicated to tea ceremony wares, many of which date back to the late 16th and early 17th century – the time of Sen no Rikyu, when tea ceremony was in its “golden age.” We got to hold bowls that were made by Hon’ami Koetsu, a 17th-century calligrapher and ceramic artist who was a personal favorite of mine; bowls made by the heads of the Raku family, the originators of Raku ceramics; and real ko-seto (“old Seto”) tea containers, the “standard” style that modern ceramic artists can only imitate.

Here’s a photo of a bowl by Hon’ami Koetsu (at least, they think it is – part of the collection is a book with details on how and where the piece was acquired, followed by page after page of experts commenting/arguing about whether or not they think the piece is genuine):

And here’s a rather dizzying array of ko-seto tea containers, all of them many centuries old:

But I think the highlight of the trip for most of us was the opportunity to handle some real tenmoku bowls. This requires some explanation. Tenmoku is a type of ceramics that originally came from China to Japan; some of those bowls were already centuries old when they were brought to Japan, and they are only used in the most exclusive, formal types of tea ceremony. Even to learn the temae (ceremonies) that use these bowls requires years of prior study, and of course, in practice we only use copies. Even to get a tenmoku bowl that’s really Chinese – not even an old one – is very difficult and expensive.

The bowls that we were looking at were, on average, over a thousand years old, and had been brought to Japan from China. The one in this photo was said to have been used by the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi at his famous tea ceremony gathering in Kitano:

This bowl is a style called “nogime” or “hare’s-fur,” because of the fine lines in the pattern of the glaze. The photo doesn’t do justice to the piece; the silvery parts of the glaze are actually iridescent, with a bluish-greenish-purple undertone depending on how you hold it. It’s amazing to think how long ago this bowl was made, and how much it must have gone through to get to this collection.

By the way, you notice that this bowl is a conical shape with a narrow bottom. It’s shaped that way because it’s intended to be placed on a little stand called a dai – in modern tea ceremony, if the bowl is ever taken off the stand, you have to put a piece of brocade cloth underneath it; a tenmoku bowl should never touch the floor.

If you ever have a chance, I can’t recommend a visit to the Freer highly enough. It’s a fantastic experience!

(Kind thanks to Mary Lynn Howard for allowing me to post the photos she took during our trip.)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Clothes Make the Chajin

Last time I talked a little bit about wearing kimonos in general; this time I thought I’d say something about how they affect making tea.

Tea ceremony was designed to be done in kimono, primarily because that was everyday wear for the people who developed it. The arm positions are all done with kimono sleeves in mind; the silk wiping cloth is hung from the obi (the cloth that goes around the waist); the sitting, standing, and walking movements are all kimono-centric.

Wearing a kimono can be tough to get used to. The first time I ever wore one, I basically stood there and tried to stay out of the way while I got dressed like a Barbie doll. The first thing you feel is how restrictive it is around the midsection – if you’re a woman, that is. You have two layers of underwear and a kimono on top of that, and each layer is held closed with at least one tie around the waist, and then you have the obi, which is a long piece of heavy cloth that’s wrapped twice around your body and reinforced with a thin piece of cardboard. It’s not meant to be tight like a corset, but if it’s not snug then things are going to start coming apart. And with all those layers, there’s pretty much no chance of bending at the waist. And because the bottom is wrapped closely around you, you’re limited to fairly small steps.

So the range of movement options that you have in a kimono is pretty limited. You can sit (on a chair or in seiza, kneeling on the floor), you can stand, walk (not run, jump, or take huge steps up or down), move your arms, and lean forward and back.

The consequence of all this is that when you’re wearing a kimono, everything about the way you move changes. You walk in a different way, you handle things in a different way, you sit in a different way. If you’re new to kimonos, probably everything is going to feel a lot more awkward and restricted, and it’ll be a relief to be back in your “normal” clothes again. But I’ve found that wearing a kimono, particularly combined with practicing tea, when I’m thinking about my movements anyhow, changes my mental attitude completely. I do everything more purposefully and carefully, and I tend to focus more on what I’m doing, particularly in the tea room. I’m sure a lot of that is psychological – kimonos, in my brain, equal tea – but I think a lot of it is the kimono, also. By learning to become comfortable within the restrictions, you learn to express yourself more fully through the outlet you have. Not unlike tea ceremony itself!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tea Life and Kimonos

One of the aspects of Japanese culture that tea practitioners have to make a decision about is the wearing of kimonos. Tea was developed during a time when everyone wore kimonos on a daily basis, and even today, the movements are intended to be done by someone wearing a kimono – everything from the way the sleeves fall to where you place the various items that you carry into the room (like the wiping cloth or fukusa and the papers we use to eat sweets, or kaishi).

Today, particularly for Westerners, the question of whether or not to wear a kimono is a personal one, and in my experience a lot depends on where you study and how your teacher feels about kimonos. If you go to Kyoto to study at the main Urasenke school, you’d be expected to wear a kimono to class every day. At branch schools, like the one at New York, kimonos are optional for lower-level classes and required for higher-level ones. If you’re studying with a private teacher, then your experience may vary.

I was taught that the proper etiquette is to always wear a kimono if you’re teaching a class, and that it’s optional if you’re taking a class (unless it’s one of the high-level classes I mentioned above). However, I know of people who choose to never wear a kimono, even when teaching. Others wear kimonos so often that they feel uncomfortable doing tea at all in Western clothes.

It’s very much a psychological thing. Some people – both Japanese and Westerners – prefer to wear kimonos, either because they like them or because they feel it adds to the tea experience. Some people prefer not to wear them because they’re so formal, or because they’re difficult to put on, or because they can be restrictive. I know a Japanese woman who doesn’t like to wear kimonos because she feels that people associate tea with geishas, and she doesn’t like feeling as if she’s put on display.

To me, kimonos are like formal wear for tea – if it’s a formal occasion, be it a gathering or a special class, or if I’m teaching – I wear a kimono. If it’s a more casual setting, I’ll wear Western clothes. But I can see that there are many different perspectives on kimono, and I respect whatever decision that others make.

In the coming weeks I’ll talk more about life with kimonos, especially as it relates to tea. If you’re interested, please feel free to post questions!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Feeling the Heat

We’ve had a heat wave the past couple of weeks here, and being in an open-air house with no air conditioning, we really feel it when we’re doing tea.

Moving from our old tea house, with central heat and air, where the windows were all covered with screens, to doing tea in a house where we’re in touch with the elements, has really deepened my appreciation for why we do thing the way we do. For example, in the summertime we try to use bowls that are wide and open, which dispel the heat of the water faster and cool off the tea. Another classic example is the fact that the brazier that heats the water is shifted to a position farther away from the guests than in the winter.

But it’s more than that. Doing tea, even in lessons (maybe especially in lessons) requires a lot of concentration, and that’s really hard to maintain in hot weather. We all find ourselves making silly mistakes or forgetting things that under normal circumstances we’d have no trouble remembering.

I think that’s why, in the tea world, summer is considered a good time to do “casual teas” – using more playful, non-traditional items like glass bowls, and avoiding long and formal gatherings. It’s just too hot to be serious right now!

The worst heat of the season is still to come in July and August, and there are all kinds of season things that we can do to suggest coolness – to psych ourselves into not feeling so hot. But I think the real secret of doing tea in this season is to start by accepting our environment the way it is, and rather than complaining about it, to work with what we’ve got.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What's in a Name

Recently myself and another of our tea people, Drew Hanson, received our chameis, or tea names.

It’s hard to exaggerate what a huge moment this is in the life of a tea ceremony practitioner. It’s a bit like a graduation in that it symbolizes the fact that you’ve completed a certain course of study – you’ve worked your way through increasingly difficult levels of tea practice and, more than that, you’ve worked to develop your inner self as well.

In another sense, it’s almost like taking on a new identity. It’s not just the new name itself (which, in times past in Japan, the tea practitioner might actually have used as his everyday name); along with the name, we get permission to wear the Urasenke crest on our kimonos, in the place where (for a Japanese person) the family crest would go. It’s a little bit like being adopted into a very large family.

My tea name is Somon. The first syllable, “So,” is the same for every tea practitioner who gets his or her tea name from Urasenke. It comes from Sen no Rikyu, the founder of the Urasenke lineage (and the lineage of every other major tea school in Japan). His Buddhist name was Soeki, and that was also the name that his friends and associates used when talking to him. We use the “So” from that name in our tea names; it’s difficult to translate, but the same character is often used in words relating a religious sect or teaching.

The second character of a person’s tea name often comes from their given name. For example, the “mon” in my name comes from the “mo” in my given name, Morgan. There are a number of different characters that could be read “mon,” but in my case, the character is the same as “crest,” as in a family crest. My Japanese language teacher says that the name has the feeling of someone who’s a symbol of a spiritual teaching.

Of course, the name is meant to be an inspiration to work harder rather than a description of my current state. Still, it feels like a huge responsibility, especially since I feel like I have so much left to learn. Tea ceremony is an art that you could study for a lifetime and still keep learning, but getting to this point really kind of throws a light on everything that I’ve done, and everything I still have left to do. I feel different, and I think I need to hold on to that feeling so that I can keep trying to get better.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sakura Season!

This past weekend was Philadelphia’s Sakura Matsuri, the cherry blossom festival, so of course it was a busy weekend for us. On Saturday, Drew Hanson, one of our teachers, did a demonstration at the Morris Arboretum that was covered by the local news (he ended up on television!), and was attended by 60-70 people. I was helping one of our other teachers, Taeko Shervin, doing two smaller demonstrations at the Japanese House. I don’t have any photos of Drew’s demo yet, but here are some from Taeko-sensei’s:

The demonstrations took place on the veranda of the house, overlooking the koi pond. Here’s a shot that gives you a sense of where everybody was:

And us serving sweets:

And if you’re wondering what they saw as they were sitting there, here’s a photo of Taeko-sensei doing tea (I’m standing behind her). She was doing a type of tea ceremony called shikishidate, a type of tea ceremony intended to be done outside picnic-style.

And, just for the fun of it, a shot of the newly redesigned tsukubai (water basin for washing hands) outside the tea room at the Japanese House:

The next day we all came together for Sakura Sunday, which is the culmination of Philadelphia’s three weeks of cherry blossom-related events. There were Japanese cultural activities, music, and general merriment all around the Horticultural Center, which is the location of one of the major cherry tree plantings in the area. Unfortunately, because of the unusually warm spring, the cherry blossoms were almost completely finished blooming by festival time (except for the late-blooming double-blossom variety), but we were very lucky to have absolutely gorgeous weather for both days.

We were set up in one of the Horticultural Center’s greenhouses, surrounded by plants, underneath a little tent for shade. We had people lining up to get in about half an hour before each demonstration, and due to the limited space we could only fit 50-60 people in the room, but there were more standing in the doorway looking in.

This first photo is Taeko-sensei doing the same procedure again (Drew is sitting behind her):

This is the first demonstration; the first guest (drinking in this shot) is Mary Lynn, one of our students; the other two guests are volunteers from the audience:

This photo is from our second demonstration; the first guest (with the bowl in front of her) is Terry, another of our students, and the other two guests were festival volunteers from Philadelphia University. I’m on the right, acting as assistant (hanto):

In this last shot, Mary Lynn and Drew are serving tea to the Cherry Blossom Queen and her entourage, who flew in from Japan as special guests of the festival:

We’re always grateful to have so much interest during cherry blossom time, and to be able to enjoy the beauty of the season. I hope that you had some wonderful cherry memories too!

Monday, April 5, 2010


I think it’s an almost universal truth that we don’t appreciate our teachers enough – at least, not while we’re students. This is true in a lot of areas, but particularly in a practice like tea ceremony, where you spend so much time learning from a single teacher or (in the case of a branch school) a single group of teachers.

I was thinking about this lately in the context of taking lessons from my own sensei. When I was a student – or I should say, when was a beginning student – I didn’t have a sense of how much I didn’t know, or how lucky I was to have such experienced teachers. I find myself now wishing I’d asked more questions, taken better notes, and most of all, that I’d let myself be in the moment more.

I think the ultimate lesson that students learn, though, is that if you want to be a good student you have to move beyond just being a student and really practice. It’s only when you need to plan your own tea gathering, for example, or teach a class that the holes in your knowledge become obvious. And its only when that happens that you realize how important it is to always keep learning – and be a better student this time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Licensed to Tea

In tea ceremony, as in many other Japanese arts, there is a system of ranking to mark a student’s progress in tea. It’s a little bit like the belt system in karate, except that instead of a physical symbol like a belt, what the student receives is a license to study the next level of tea.

At the beginner level, the students learn how to prepare thin tea and thick tea, and a number of different variations on those basic temae (procedures for preparing tea). Students also receive a separate license to study the portable temae known as chabako (“box tea”). This may seem pretty straightforward, but it’s not just about memorizing a sequence of movements, it’s about perfecting your technique and starting to absorb the philosophy of tea, and so it can be years from the time a student starts taking lessons until he or she is ready to move on to the next level. After that, there’s an intermediate level known as konarai, a more advanced level known as shikaden, and finally a series of high-level licenses known collectively as okuden. At each level, the temaes get progressively more complex and require more specialized knowledge and equipment. Only after mastering all off these levels does a student receive his or her chamei (“tea name”), which means that he or she has truly become a tea person, and can teach and practice tea independently of his or her teacher.

The licenses themselves are special documents – they’re handwritten in Japanese calligraphy, with the name of the student, the date, and the seal of Urasenke’s Oiemoto (Grand Master). The application has to be made by the teacher and sent to Kyoto, and it can take anywhere from six months to a year for the license to come back (usually closer to six months). In our group, when licenses arrive, the teacher reads them out in the tearoom and then formally presents them to the student.

Different teachers approach licenses differently. Some teachers will move a student through the different levels very quickly; some will take their time and make sure that the student is fully prepared before before allowing them to advance. I think on average, depending on the teacher and the student, it takes between ten and fifteen years to get to the chamei level. (This is assuming that the student is studying part-time. It’s possible to got to Kyoto and study full-time at Urasenke, in which case you would get to the chamei level in about three years.)

Of course, the vast majority of students who begin studying tea ceremony don’t make it to the chamei level – not that it’s so difficult, but it does require a lot of time and patience, and it takes a certain kind of person to be that dedicated to tea. I was thinking about that this past weekend as one of our students received her konarai license – a true achievement in tea, and one that she well earned. I was really proud to see her advance, especially since she worked so hard to get there. It’s been a real privilege to watch her blossom and continue on her journey in tea.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Room of One's Own

Anyone who practices tea ceremony for long enough inevitably come to a point where they want to create their own tea space. The tea room is an absolutely crucial part of tea ceremony – the architecture, the design, the colors and shapes all contribute to the mood of a tea ceremony. Anyone who’s been in a tea room will testify that there’s no substitute. And lo, after fifteen years of tea ceremony, I’ve finally arrived at a time and place where I can create one of my own.

If I were going to do this in the absolutely proper way – hire a Japanese carpenter trained in traditional design techniques who is an expert in all of the multitude of rules that apply to the creation of a space like a tearoom and buy only the most traditional materials imported from Japan – I could easily spent tens of thousands of dollars on this room, maybe as high as a hundred thousand dollars. Needless to say, that’s a bit out of my budget range. So, like most American tea practitioners setting out to create their own tea space, I’m pulling together the resources I can and doing it with a little help from my friends and family.

At this point, I’m just beginning the design phase, which in a lot of ways is the most important part. You have to think about every detail – not just the layout of the room, but where the light is coming from, what’s illuminated and what isn’t, what the guests will see when they enter the room; what they’ll see when they’re sitting and drinking tea. How will the hanging flower vase look when a guest is sitting in front of the alcove? Is there a way to adjust the temperature if the room is too hot or too cold? Is there enough ventilation if you’re using a charcoal fire to heat the water?

In my case, we’ve set aside a room in the house that’s going to be the tearoom; there’s just enough space to create a room of four and a half tatami mats (the smaller of two “standard” sizes) with an alcove and a separate mizuya or preparation area. I’d like the room to include a sunken hearth – used in the wintertime to bring the fire closer to the guests and keep them warm. In order for that to happen, we’d have to either cut a hole in the floor (not a popular option with my significant other) or create a raised floor within the room, which is the more likely scenario. The problem with that is that it lowers the ceiling to just a little more than six and a half feet, which should be okay for most guests, but it makes the issue of lighting fixures more important.

The other big design question is how to deal with window access. The way the room is currently laid out, the alcove would be next to the window, so the window would be behind an interior wall (which I’d want to do anyhow because there’s a radiator right in front of the window, and I want to hide that). I can put a window in that wall to let the light through, but then there’s the question of how to access the window if we need to open it or do repairs. What I’m thinking is that instead of a wall, we could install a pair of sliding doors with shoji, so that the light comes through and it provides easy access. Would it look strange to have a door where there’s no actual exit? I think the function would probably trump form in this case.

Anyhow, I’m sure I’ll be writing lots more about this in the coming months. Questions and feedback are certainly welcome!

Monday, February 1, 2010


Last week was our Hatsugama celebration, our first tea of the year. It’s the biggest celebration of the tea year (at least in our little group), and also requires the most planning and preparation. After about fifteen years of studying tea ceremony, I’ve come to take for granted the amount of work it takes to pull off a tea gathering, but it really hit home to me during the following exchange…

I was out with a discussion group that I belong to, and some people asked if I wanted to go out for coffee. “I can’t,” I said. “I have a tea gathering on Sunday.” “But it’s Tuesday,” someone pointed out. “You want to make sure you’re extra, extra rested?”

See, to me, it made sense. I’d actually started the advance cooking prep a few days before, doing some shopping and making the filling for the sweets. Back home, I had a schedule written up for every day until the gathering with a list of what needed to get done that day, and I knew that pretty much every hour until the gathering started Sunday morning was filled up with something that needed to be done, including a full day of cooking and errand-running on Saturday. (And what I was doing was only half of the workload – Drew Hanson, one of our other teachers, was co-hosting the event and had an equally long to-do list!)

When the day itself dawned, I was up at 6 and at the site by 7:30 to get everything set up. I mentioned in my last post that we can’t have Hatsugama in our usual meeting spot because of the lack of heat, so we tried out a new venue this year. It worked out really well – we divided the room in half and laid down tatami mats in an eight-mat pattern that would become the tearoom, then used shoji screens to divide the space so that the half of the room with sinks and a mini-kitchen became the mizuya (the preparation area). Of course, even with tatami mats and a screen set up to represent the alcove for the hanging scroll, it wasn’t anything like being in a real tearoom, but as an improvisation it wasn’t too bad. In the wintertime, there’s usually a sunken hearth in a tearoom where the fire for the water is laid; in this case, the fire was contained in a raised hearth that’s positioned where the sunken hearth would normally be.

The guests arrived shortly before the start time, 10 a.m., and the gathering was under way. First came the laying of the charcoal, then the food. We had several courses – first a tray with rice, sashimi, and some vegetables; then sake, then a miso soup with mochi in it, and then some stacked boxes with various seasonal foods. After that, we served the sweets for thick tea, and then there was a break. After the break was thick tea, followed by thin tea. The whole gathering took about four hours.

There were people of all levels of tea experience there, from teachers to guests who hadn’t ever studied tea, and even some old friends. Even if everything wasn’t quite perfect (and in a four-hour tea gathering where every move you make is governed by a specific rule, the most important part of preparation is giving up the idea that you’re going to get it all right!), the guests all seemed to have a good time, which is the most important part. Tea is all about having an experience, and if you’re lucky, it’ll be a memory that people will treasure. Making that happen is worth all the work that goes into it, and more.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Preparing for Hatsugama

Although New Year’s Day has come and gone, we’re still gearing up for the beginning of our tea year – Hatsugama, the celebration of the first tea ceremony of the year.

Traditionally, this is done on New Year’s Day. If you’re truly hard-core, you can do Joyagama, the final tea of the year, the evening before, and then have another tea ceremony on January 1. We’re not that hard-core. Because many of our group have other plans for that time of year, and/or travel, we tend to have our first tea of the year late in January, and then start classes afterwards.

Hatsugama has become a challenge since our tea group moved to the Japanese House and Gardens. Because the Japanese House is, in fact, a traditional-style Japanese house, there’s no heat, which is an issue in Pennsylvania in January. After trying a couple of different solutions, we’re experimenting this year with having our gathering at the Horticultural Center, which is not in any way traditional Japanese architecture, but it has a nice, quiet room with windows to the outside and heat and running water and a number of other very attractive features for a winter gathering. We’ll see how it goes.

At this point, t-minus ten days, the menu is set, the utensils are chosen, the guests are invited, and we’re in the lull between the pre-gathering planning and the last-minute cooking rush. I’m really looking forward to this gathering, though – New Year’s is always a happy time of year, and a great time to enjoy the company of friends and renew ourselves.

I hope that you’re all enjoying the beginning of 2010 too!