Sunday, November 30, 2008

Warmth in Your Hand

I heard a story on the radio the other day about a psychological study done by Yale University. The study showed that people who are holding something warm in their hands are more likely to perceive other people as “warm,” and therefore more likely to behave in a friendly, generous way. Here’s a link if you want to read the whole story.

Of course, I immediately thought of tea. In the tearoom, when a guest is about to drink a bowl of tea, they rest the bowl on their left hand and wrap their right hand around the side for support, so the bowl is less likely to fall.

If the guests are in the proper frame of mind—that is, if they’ve been watching the host prepare the tea, and allowed their mind to slip into the harmony of the movements—then they’re already in a heightened state of awareness. It’s hard to describe, but the tea tastes different when it’s drunk as part of a tea ceremony. You taste more of the nuances, whether the tea is fresh and grassy or more earthy and complex; whether it was whipped into a thick foam or whether it’s thinner and more woody. You feel the shape of the bowl in your hand, whether the shoulder at the bottom is round or square, whether the texture is rough or smooth, whether the clay around the rim is thick or thin.

Of course, that’s the ideal. If you study tea ceremony with a teacher, then the vast majority of the time you’re drinking tea in a classroom setting. Everybody has their good days and their bad days, the times when they’re paying attention and the times when they’re just going through the motions. That affects the taste of the tea, too. I know if it’s been a while since I’ve had matcha, I approach my first bowl with much more attention (and gratitude!) than my third or fourth bowl of the day.

But I think there really is something visceral about sitting with your hands wrapped around a warm bowl of tea, something that’s comforting even when it’s 90 degrees outside and the room isn’t air conditioned. I never thought about it before, but I think that the warmth of the liquid does add to the experience of drinking tea. Everything combines to give us a feeling of fellowship as we drink the tea together, and isn’t that the goal?

And since I was drinking a nice cup of sencha as I wrote this, I’ll be thinking of you all warmly until next time…

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Robiraki Accomplished!

Sunday was our Robiraki gathering. The day before it had been rainy but amazingly warm, up close to 70 degrees. We were crossing our fingers that the weather would hold out, but overnight the temperature plummeted. Sunday was sunny with highs in the 50s, which was okay, except for the gusts of chilly wind.

We had to keep a close eye on the weather because the site where we held the gathering – also the place where we hold our lessons – has no central heating (or plumbing, for that matter, which is a challenge all its own). It’s a reproduction of a 16-century Japanese house with a garden and koi pond. It’s a beautiful place to be at any time of year, and by a tiny Robiraki miracle, some of the maple leaves held on to add some color to the garden. One of our big fears was that the weather would turn freezing suddenly, and that our guests would be so cold they couldn’t enjoy themselves. (The house is wired with electricity, so we can use space heaters, but they aren’t much help in the big room.) But fortunately, the weather was fine, especially with a charcoal fire in the middle of the gathering. That sumi kicks out a lot of heat!

The crew of hosts and servers arrived at 9 a.m. to open the house and begin setting up. We had to carry all our tea utensils and serving dishes into the house, as well as the food itself. The tea utensils were set up in the kitchen of the tearoom, and we put tables on the veranda near the door to set up our serving area. It was convenient for serving, but we had the occasional wind gust sending things blowing away and keeping us on our toes.

There’s always little glitches that happen on the day of a gathering. Somebody forgets some crucial piece of equipment, somebody forgets to set up something in the tearoom, or the preparations take too long and you’re just not ready by the time the guests arrive. Amazingly, not one of those things happened this time. We did have a guest come who we weren’t expecting, but that worked out, since another guest never arrived. The number of guests is actually a major concern, because when you’re serving food, the trays are set up for the exact number of people who are coming. An extra person can throw the entire gathering off if the hosts don’t have enough food or extra trays. (If there’s one person too few, the kitchen helpers just eat the extra food.)

The guests arrived just before noon and gathered in the waiting area. Just as we were about to begin, our big glitch – the fire alarm went off! There was no fire, fortunately; the fire alarms at the house are equipped with particle detectors, and as nearly as we could tell, it was being set off by the particles carried in by the wind, which was unusually strong. Fortunately, we got it shut off quickly, and we began without a hitch.

Due to a fractured leg, I can’t sit seiza (kneeling) right now, so for the first time in many years, I wasn’t able to come into the tearoom to do tea or even to serve the food. It was hard for me to judge how things were going in the room, but based on reports from Drew and Mary Lynn, who laid the charcoal and prepared the tea, everything went fine.

The gathering started with the laying of the charcoal, followed by serving the meal. The food in the bento box was served cold, but it was followed by a serving of soup. The soup is tricky, because it includes dumpling that have to be warmed beforehand, and it has to be served piping hot in the tearoom. So once the guests got their initial serving of food, we had to rush to get the soup into the bowls and out to the guests before it got too cold.

In a more formal gathering, there would be several more courses of food, but we decided to keep it simple so that the gathering didn’t take too long. This time of year, it starts getting dark around 4:30 in the afternoon, and the house has (you guessed it) no electric lights.

After the food, we served sweets in anticipation of drinking the thick tea, or koicha. Then there was a break.

The break was supposed to be fairly brief, but just as we were breaking, the fire alarm went off again, and this time nothing we did would make it shut off. Half an hour and many phone calls later, we finally got the system shut down and could go on!

The next phase was thick tea, which was made by Drew. Usually, the host makes tea for everybody in the same bowl, and the bowl is passed around, with everybody sharing. Because there were so many people at this gathering, we did a variation in which you use two bowls, the first one for the first half of the guests, and the second one for the second half.

Once the thick tea was served, there was thin tea, or usucha. This tea was prepared by one of our students, Mary Lynn – her first time making tea during a gathering like this, and she did a great job. I assisted in whipping extra bowls of tea in the kitchen so that she didn’t have to do all 13 by herself, although I think she could have done it if she needed to!

After that, the gathering was over. It was just around 3:30, and after we said our final goodbyes, we really had to race the darkness to get everything cleaned and packed up before it got too dark to see. We did it, though, and just as the final light left the sky, we locked up and headed off on our separate ways, happy that the guests all enjoyed themselves and had some good tea.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Preparing for a Gathering

This week, our tea group is in the middle of preparations for an annual celebration called Robiraki. November is the month when we switch from summer season, when we heat the water in a raised brazier, to the winter season, when we use a sunken hearth. Normally, this celebration is held at the very beginning of November, but because of various schedule conflicts, we put it off until this weekend.

In a lot of ways, Robiraki is like the “New Year” of the tea world. The weather is getting colder, the last of the leaves are falling, and we’re just cracking open the tea that was harvested this past spring. Unlike the calendar New Year in January, which is a flashy, festive occasion, Robiraki is more subdued – it’s a time to embrace the season and look ahead to the bare coldness of winter.

Planning a tea gathering is a lot like planning a large party – there’s the guest list to coodinate, invitations to send, food to cook, and an added dimension, utensils to choose. Every item that’s used in the gathering, from the tea scoop and tea container to the scroll that hangs in the alcove, is carefully chosen to fit the season, and it all has to match – not in the sense of being the same color or pattern, but in the sense of being harmonious when you put them next to each other. For example, you wouldn’t want to put a very small tea bowl next to a very large tea container, because the proportions would look strange. You also wouldn’t want to put something bright and colorful next to something that was very worn and dull – the “mood” of the pieces needs to match, too.

The past couple of days for me have been all about food. I’m sharing the cooking responsibilities with Drew, one of the other teachers, but there’s still a lot to do. Even shopping can be a challenge. We try to incorporate as much traditional Japanese food as possible into our gatherings, but there are a lot of things that we just can’t get here. I’m lucky that there’s a small Japanese grocery store not too far from my neighborhood, and a larger Korean grocery store nearby. If we’re doing a big meal for the gathering, we trek up to New York, where there’s an even larger Japanese grocery store called Mitsuwa. However, that’s about a two-hour drive each way, so I don’t go very often.

Yesterday was shopping – running around and getting all the various foods we’ll need – and today I did most of the cooking. The most time-consuming thing was cutting the carrots; I’m trying out a new flower design that was meant to look like a chrysanthemum. I’m not sure it succeeded, but we’ll see how it goes over with my co-hosts on the day of the gathering.

Tonight I sifted the tea (two different kinds), and also the ash for the hearth. We’re using charcoal to heat the tea instead of electricity, which means that a couple of days ago, I washed the charcoal so there’s no excess dust (dust can create sparks, which are a big no-no in a room covered with dry grass mats!). Drew has been washing a portion of the ash so that it’ll still be moist when he lays the fire in front of the guests (creating a color contrast).

There’s still more to do tomorrow, but the biggest challenge is to make sure that we don’t forget to bring anything on the day of the gathering. Wish us luck!