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.