Thursday, October 23, 2008

October Tea

The leaves are changing colors in our area now, a stunning visual reminder that the weather is getting colder and that soon, the trees will be bare and the snow will be falling.

In the tearoom, we’re also experiencing a transition. In October – and only in October –tea practitioners have the option of doing a style of tea called “Nakaoki.” Nakaoki literally means “placing in the middle,” which is a reference to the location of the furo, the brazier which holds the fire.

So let’s take a moment to review. In the wintertime, the fire is contained in a sunken pit in the middle of the floor called a ro. That way, the fire is close to the guests, and helps them to keep warm (very important in the days before central heating!). In the summertime, the fire is moved to a raised brazier called a furo and moved away from the guests to help them keep cool. (If you’re thinking, “What about the host?” the answer is, the host suffers. That’s his job.)

In Nakaoki, the furo finds a middle ground – directly in front of the host, closer to the guest but still not too close for a warm October day. That affects the position of all the other utensils, of course, but for the guest, the net effect is the same: the water is boiled, the tea whisked, and the wonderous beverage served.

There are little seasonal practices like this in almost every season, each designed in their own way to accommodate the weather conditions. But October is a particularly special month, not only because of the changing of the leaves (giving tea people an opportunity to do chabako, or picnic-style tea) but because it’s the transition from summer to winter season. November, when the sunken hearth is opened, is kind of like the “New Year” of tea ceremony (although we also celebrate the calendar New Year in January). It’s the time when the tea which was picked earlier this year is ground into powder and used for the first time.

But there will be time to think about that later. Right now, the mornings are crisp, the sun is radiant on the changing leaves, and tea people everywhere are enjoying a special taste of October. Come join us!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Depth of Field

The following post was written by Drew Hanson, one of the tea instructors at Shofuso.

In tea (as in life in general) revelations can occur when they’re least expected. Walking down to the tea house yesterday—a walk I’ve taken hundreds of times—I was suddenly struck by the almost uncanny visual ‘depth of field’ I was looking into after making the last turn on the path leading from the middle garden to the lower garden. Finally, after almost 11 years, the mature landscape made sense.

Oh, from the beginning, we were very careful in our selection of plant materials and their placement in this part of the garden, which in a more classical Japanese setting would be called the roji. Our tea house, Boukakuan, sits in a very dark corner of the property, shaded by massive, almost 300-year old sycamore trees.

Because of a series of turns, the path to the tea house seems longer than it really is. But it’s what one sees after making that last turning that justifies the agony of choosing plants and shrubs and the seemingly endless wait for them to mature. We wanted to create the illusion of distance and to ‘manufacture’ light at the same time. Making the first happen was easy. The second was more of a challenge.

But we met it. We decided to harness the power of ‘reflective’ light both to illuminate and give depth to the garden. Plants with leaf variegation: green and white, green and cream, green and yellow; all have found their way into the landscape design, offsetting and enriching the solid greens and blue greens of already existing plantings. Choosing them, however, was the hard part. We live in agricultural zone 6A/B and have to contend with cold (but not frigid) winter temperatures and hot, humid and often (in the last few years anyway) dry summer conditions.

Ultimately we selected variegated broad leaf evergreens like Acuba japonica and Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki,’ mixed in a variegated cedar and several grasses like Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’ as well as deciduous woody shrubs displaying unusual variegation, a non-invasive Japanese Fleeceflower and Boehmeria nipononvea ‘Kogane Mushi,’ for example. But all our specimens were babies, none more than a foot tall. How was it all going to look? Would we get the effects we were hoping for?

In landscaping, a rule of thumb is: visualize the garden as it will look in five years, position the plant materials accordingly, put them in the ground and wait. We did. What we also did well in advance of setting out the plants was to consider the sun’s movement, its relative position in the sky in both summer and winter. Remember: we wanted to bring as much reflected light into the garden as possible.

Faith got us through the first five years. The babies grew, but our goal wasn’t going to be reached for another few years. And yesterday I got it! I really got it! Rounding that last turn, I saw the tea house in the ‘distance,’ nestled in its dark corner, illuminated by the reflected light of the plants surrounding it and looking for all the world as if it had been there for as long as our house has been on the property, and that’s 233 years.