Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Grand Master's Tea

One of the highlights of my trip to Japan was the opportunity to watch the Grand Master (Oiemoto) of Urasenke, Zabosai, do tea. The occasion was a kencha, a tea offering to Shinto deities. Oiemoto does them several times per year, and I just happened to be at Midorikai during one of them.

This particular one was at Omi Jingu, a Shinto shrine in the foothills surrounding Kyoto. Omi Jingu contains a shrine to Emperor Tenji, who was the first emperor to put a clock in the Imperial Palace. This shrine (and this gathering) is thought to be especially good for people who need to be on time.

We gathered at Urasenke and rode a bus out to the shrine, arriving, in proper tea fashion, ridiculously early. The Midorikai group was joined by the students from the Japanese-language program, all of us in our formal montsuki kimonos (with a crest embroidered on the back of the neck, just underneath the collar). We went up a set of stairs to a rectangular courtyard, where there was a raised platform with tatami (woven grass) mats and tea utensils set up for Oiemoto, and benches around the edges. We sat off to one side; there were various VIPs in the seats next to the platform. I was in a spot where I could actually see Oiemoto do tea, which I gather is pretty unusual.

It’s hard to describe the experience. I mean, in the back of your mind, there’s an awareness that this is The Man, at least in the Urasenke world – the heir to the family tradition, a man who’s been doing tea ceremony since he was old enough to hold a tea scoop. From that perspective, his tea is almost ordinary. But there’s a kind of quiet power behind all of his movements; you simultaneously get the sense that he’s done this a thousand times before and that he’s completely focused on every move and detail.

The kencha itself was done in the context of a Shinto ritual. A line of Shinto priests in white preceded Oiemoto into the shrine, and one of them ritually called on the gods and blessed the people there. Oiemoto prepared the tea, and then he carried the bowl across the courtyard and up the second set of steps to the shrine area, where one of the priests was waiting. I couldn’t see what he did up there, but then he came back down and made a second bowl of tea, which was likewise carried up the steps and given in offering. Once he was done, the Shinto priests finished the ritual, and we all went off to another area to some tea sittings sponsored by local tea groups.

I really feel privileged to have been there, not just to see Oiemoto do tea, but to see a little piece of tea in its cultural context – not just the living, everyday practice that happens right here in Philadelphia and all across the world, but being able to connect it to the other places and ways in which it’s practiced. That was an ongoing theme throughout the rest of time I was there, too.

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