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.