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!