Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Studio Show

A Studio Show

Recently I went to a semi-annual studio show/sale by a local ceramic artist, Willi Singleton. His work is close to my heart as a tea person because he was trained in Japan, and he fires his ceramics using a Japanese type of kiln called a nobori-gama (a climbing kiln).

A nobori-gama consists of several chambers, large enough to walk inside but not quite tall enough to stand up in, going progressively higher on a hillside. When it’s time to fire, you build the fire to the right temperature over a day or so, maintain the fire for three days, and then let it die down and cool over the last day. It’s an intensive process that requires a team of several people, because there has to be someone watching the fire 24 hours a day to make sure that the kiln doesn’t get too hot or two cold. It’s a very complex process that requires a lot of expertise, because you have to be able to judge the temperature of the fire by its color and to know when to make the fire hotter or colder to produce the right kiln effects. For tea people, ceramics like bowls and water containers fired this way have a texture and a visual impact that you just can’t duplicate with a gas kiln.

Willi makes his living selling his ceramics, and he does shows all over, including some exhibitions in Japan. He does a lot of functional objects like bowls, plates, and cups, and also (because he knows some local tea ceremony practitioners) some utensils specific for tea ceremony, like tea bowls, cold water jars, and sometimes tea containers. Most of the tea practitioners in the area have at least one or two of his things – some of us a bit more. We also use his bowls for classes and demonstrations. The students really tend to like his bowls – some will gravitate to his bowls over the Japanese ones. And some just like the fact that those pieces come from a local source.

I really enjoy that aspect of it, too. In Japan, there are a number of different ceramic-making centers, and a number of the different types of pottery are used in tea ceremony. To me, it’s wonderful to have a local artist who makes his wares in a traditional way, and to be able to use that in our tea gatherings. It brings the whole thing a little closer to home.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Robiraki Time Again

This past weekend was our Robiraki celebration, the opening of the winter hearth. This time of year the weather can be so variable around here, which is of particular concern in a house with no heat! But a tropical storm was just on its way out, so it was a little rainy, but not too cold. And the leaves were still on the trees, making for a beautiful day when the sun peeked out later.

For this gathering we tried something a little different – sumi shomo, in which the host invites the first guest to lay the charcoal fire. Of course, in a gathering you would never do this without arranging it with the first guest in advance; it’s very bad form to spring it on your guest as a surprise. In this case, most of our guests were inexperienced at doing the first guest role, which is a bit complicated, and so one of our teachers sat in as first guest. Because I was acting in the “host” role, I got to sit in and watch him lay the fire, which is something I very rarely get a chance to do. It was a great experience.

But probably the best part for me was actually being able to make tea. Last year about this time I suffered a knee injury, and it’s been a long, slow process of healing and getting my joints back in shape to sit seiza (kneeling). Even as recently as August, my knee wouldn’t bend completely into a sitting position – if I tried to kneel, my backside wouldn’t quite make it down to rest on my legs. But for Robiraki I was able to sit without a supporting bench and prepare thick tea (koicha) for the guests. I feel like I’m really “back,” even though I still have some work to do on my sitting and standing.

More importantly, I think the guests had a good time, too. We had nine total, which is a good, comfortable number – more than that (as is a necessity at big branches like New York) starts to feel a little impersonal. Less than that is fine, of course – you could have a tea gathering with just one guest if you wanted to – but it was good to see some old friends again, and to give some of our newer students a first-hand experience of how everything we’ve been teaching fits together. But even beyond the number of guests, everybody got along really well – there was a good feeling between the people who were there, which is the hardest thing to prepare for beforehand, but one of the most important aspects of a harmonious gathering.

Now it’s time to gather around the sunken hearth and think warm thoughts for the wintertime. It’s going to be a beautiful season coming up.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Aki Shigure (Autumn Shower)

This past weekend it turned cold and rainy here, and we were especially grateful for a warm cup of tea!

As I was passing by the tsukubai (the outdoor water basin where guests stop to wash their hands before coming into the tearoom) I saw the raindrops falling into the water, and it was such a pretty image that I thought I should write a poem about it. So here it is, with apologies to any real poets out there:

tsukubai filling
raindrops on cloudy water
waiting for red leaves

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Americans vs. Tradition

The other day I was talking with someone -- not about tea, just general conversation – and she said, “I’m a practical person. I don’t think that we should be bound by history or tradition. All I care about is what works.”

Probably most people in this country would agree with that statement. It’s ingrained into our culture, the image of the common-sense pioneer breaking new ground and leaving the old world behind. But when you practice tea ceremony, you have to put yourself in a different mindset.

History and tradition are part of the essence of tea. Most of the utensils that we use are modeled on utensils or designs that were used centuries ago. The practice itself has changed very little in the past four to five hundred years. And today tea ceremony is regarded in Japan as one of the bearers of traditional culture.

“Okay, fine,” you say. “But if it hasn’t changed, doesn’t that really mean that it’s stagnated? That the creativity has gone out of it? Why not experiment and put some new ideas into it?”

Here’s the thing. Even though I said “Americans” in the title of this post, this is the human condition: We all think that we’re right. That we know everything. When we’re young, we roll our eyes at the old fogies who try to tell us that we don’t know what we’re doing; when we get older, we roll our eyes at the young people who insist on doing things their own way. When we come into a new situation, we bring our past experience, and with it the conviction that our experience has taught us the best way to go about things.

But if all you’re ever thinking about is doing things your way, from your own experience – your own idea of what works – then you never really learn anything. Why use a tea scoop made from bamboo when a metal one would work? Why wear a kimono when Western clothes are more comfortable? Why worry about doing things in exactly the right sequence? These are things that you can’t learn unless you truly experience them, and you can’t truly experience them as long as you’re stuck in your preconceived notions.

The first thing you have to do if you’re setting out to become a tea person is leave your ego at the door and say to yourself, “I don’t know anything.” Put aside everything that you think you know about what “works,” what’s “right,” and be open. Do what your teacher tells you, and learn. If you keep going, then you’ll start to have those moments when everything comes together and you understand things that never made sense before. I’m not talking about learning facts, because as soon as you think, “Okay, now I know something about tea,” you’re sunk. You have to stop worrying about what you know and just keep practicing.

Once people have been studying tea for many years, have immersed themselves in the tradition, have had those experiences of understanding – then they’re ready to start creating and innovating. And to be a living practice, tea really needs that. But people who want to jump straight to the innovation without ever taking the time to understand what they’re doing are really just cheating themselves. Tradition in tea isn’t about chaining people down and ruining their fun; it’s about giving people something deep, and precious, and beautiful. Maybe accepting that it’s there is an act of faith. But on the other hand, if we didn’t sense how deep the practice runs, then I guess we wouldn’t have become tea people.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How Much Would You Pay for This Tea Jar?

Last week, this tea jar sold at auction at Christie’s . . .

. . . for $662,000.

So maybe you’re asking yourself, what is it, and why would anybody pay that much for it?

This is what’s called a chatsubo, or a tea storage jar. In the old days, they used these to transport tea leaves and store them until they were ready to grind and drink. I wrote in my last post about the special ceremony that involves the opening of the new tea for the year. During that ceremony, the chatsubo is put on display in the tearoom and given to the guests so that they can look at it more closely.

This particular jar is what’s called “o-meibutsu.” Meibutsu is a term that refers to certain very old tea utensils that came from China to Japan during the centuries when tea ceremony first became popular. These items were very highly valued by tea practitioners not for their intrinsic value, but for their aesthetic value.

This particular tea jar originally came from Chin during the Southern Song Dynasty in the 13th century. During the late sixteenth century – the lifetime of Sen no Rikyu – it was owned by a series of merchants/tea practitioners, and recorded in some famous tea diaries. In fact, there’s a letter from Rikyu himself that accompanied the piece at auction (the description I read didn’t say what the letter was about, but presumably it was an authentication of the jar). During the 17th century, it became the property of the Tokugawa shogunate (the military rulers of Japan), and then it passed through a variety of nobility and wealthy Japanese hands until it finally came to this auction. Like all meibutsu, it has a poetic name (mei), which is Chigusa, “Myriad of flowers.”

Recently, I was in a class where the teacher was talking about meibutsu. He said that in the old days, when those items were brought to Japan, the tea masters spent a lot of time really looking at the utensils used in tea and comparing their characteristics to determine which ones were the best, and for that reason we should study the same utensils so that we can learn from them. Of course, unlike the 16th-century tea masters who used meibutsu in their gatherings on a regular basis, the chance of someone in America seeing a meibutsu object outside of a museum is pretty darn slim. Mostly we rely on photos, and maybe a glimpse of one if we do visit a museum in Japan. That’s why it’s kind of exciting to me to think that we have a meibutsu object here in the United States. It’s like a living piece of tea history – or maybe even tea legend – is a little bit closer to home.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tasting Tea

In reply to one of my previous posts, someone asked me if tea ceremony practitioners are concerned with the taste of the tea at all, or if it’s mostly about the form and movement. In fact, tea people actually do a lot to try to make the best possible bowl for their guests.

It actually starts before the tea ever comes near a tearoom, in the fields where the tea is grown. Matcha, the powdered tea used in tea ceremony, is botanically the exact same plant that Lipton’s uses, camellia sinensis. The first difference between matcha and other types of tea is the way that it’s grown. It’s cultivated in the shade (not completely, because the plants do need some light, but the amount of light is strictly regulated), and the leaves are picked in May, when they’re still young. Camellia is an evergreen, but for the best tea the growers take the young leaves. The leaves are steamed to keep them green and then put into storage for six months, similar to the way wine is aged. As with wine, the aging process matures the taste – fresh tea doesn’t have the same complexity.

After the tea is aged, it’s put through a process that removes the stems and veins and then ground into a fine powder, about the consistency of flour. (In fact, in the old days they used grinding stones that were very similar to the ones used in milling flour.) So around November, the current year’s tea is ready to be opened and drunk. This is a special time in the tea world because it’s also the transition from summer to winter season, when we open the sunken hearth in the tearoom. There’s a special type of tea gathering performed only in November (often combined with the opening of the sunken hearth) in which the host will unseal a chatsubo, a ceramic tea storage jar, in front of the guests. Then, while the guests are eating their meal, they hear the sound of the host grinding the tea leaves, which are then used to prepare both thick and thin tea. However, these days most people buy their tea already powdered from the tea growers.

For the purpose of tea ceremony, there are two grades of matcha, usucha and koicha. Usucha means “thin tea;” it’s a lower grade of matcha, so the taste is more bitter, but still very good. If anyone has ever whisked a bowl of matcha for you, you’ve probably had usucha. Because the tea is powdered and you’re drinking the whole leaf, it’s stronger than steeped green teas like sencha, but still what we usually think of when we think of tea. Koicha, on the other hand, is exactly what the name says: “thick tea.” There’s more powdered tea mixed in with less water, and the end result is about the consistency of paint. For that reason, you want the best-tasting matcha you can get, and so the highest grades of matcha are reserved for koicha. Well, there’s no rule that says you can’t use koicha-grade tea for usucha, but it’s expensive – generally anywhere from $0.50 to $5 per gram.

Big matcha companies will often offer many different types and grades of koicha and usucha, each distinguished by its own poetic name. (For example, today I had an usucha whose poetic name was “sangetsu,” which means “moon and mountain.”) Like wine makers, tea growers will often blend tea from different sources to create a more consistent taste, but still, the taste of different teas is very distinctive. In fact, there’s even a type of tea gathering called chakabuki, in which the guests taste different teas, and then in a “blind tasting” try to remember the taste and correctly identify which tea is which.

When preparing for a gathering, the host pays careful attention to all of the factors that might affect the taste of the tea. Besides the tea itself, there’s the water. In the old days, particularly in Kyoto, which has been the center of tea culture since there was tea culture, the tea masters identified special wells that were thought to have the best possible water. To get the optimum taste, they would go to the wells before dawn to draw the water, even if the gathering was later in the day. These days it’s not so easy to get water from a special well, but we do make an effort to get the best-tasting water we can find.

Another factor is the sweets that are eaten right before the guest drinks the tea. We never serve sweets that have dairy in them, or that are greasy or oily, or that have a strong flavor, because that affects the taste of the tea. The best tea sweets are ones that complement the taste of the tea, and tea people spend a lot of time thinking about what will work and what won’t.

Yet another major factor (as with any type of tea) is the temperature of the water. Generally speaking, we aim for a temperature of around 180 degrees, but since we can’t whip out a thermometer and test the temperature in the middle of preparing tea, it’s up to the skill of the host to know when the water is too hot or too cold. That’s why during tea, we always carry a jar of cold water into the room and set it down next to the kettle – so if needed, we can cool down the water in the kettle so it doesn’t “burn” the tea.

But probably the most important thing that the host does to affect the taste of the tea is simply to create an atmosphere of tranquility in the room. One of the purposes (maybe the main purpose, depending on your point of view) of all the ritual surrounding the preparation of tea in chanoyu is to encourage the guests to relax and open their senses. Matcha tastes completely different in a tearoom than it does if you just whisk a bowl in your kitchen; the atmosphere, the sensory impressions, the person’s state of mind, everything about tea contributes to the main event, which is the moment that the first sip passes your lips. When we talk about the taste of tea, usually we’re talking about the literal flavor, but I think that any tea person would agree that the real taste of tea is in the heart, and not on the tongue.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

August Heat

Typically, we don’t have tea lessons in August. It’s not just that people tend to go on vacation; it’s the heat. Shofuso is a traditional-style Japanese house, which means, of course, no air conditioning. It was fine this year until the last week in July, when the weather turned very hot and humid.

In tea, we have techniques for dealing with hot weather, most of which revolve around tricking yourself and your guests into thinking that they’re not really melting into tiny liquid pools on the tatami mats. It falls under the deceptively simple heading of one of the seven rules of Rikyu: in the summer, suggest coolness.

In July and August tea people use utensils of cool-looking materials – glass is one that’s become popular in the past fifty years or so (which in tea terms makes it one of those newfangled innovations that them young ‘uns came up with). There are glass tea bowls, glass tea containers, glass tea scoops – almost any element of the tea ceremony can be done in glass. Other popular materials for the summer are dark wood and baskets, or anything unusual and playful. It’s no fun being serious when you’re hot, right?

There are also special kimonos for the hottest season of the year, made of a mesh fabric called “ro.” Of course, it’s good to choose colors that look cool, but the fabric itself also allows some breeze to come through, so instead of wearing body-covering underwear, a full-length under-robe, and a full-length kimono, it feels like you’re only wearing two layers of clothes in 95-degree weather. (Actually, I exaggerate – they do make ro kimono under-robes that, in combination with a ro kimono, do let the air in, and they’re a vast improvement over a normal kimono.)

However, Sasaki Sanmi’s tea almanac probably says it best: “Clear your mind of all mundane thoughts, and you will be able to find coolness. This is true; whether you can beat the hot weather or not depends on your state of mind.”

I’ll be raising a bowl of hot tea to you all!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Eido Roshi on Zen in Scrolls

At the Friends in Tea gathering last month, Eido Roshi, the head of the Daibosatsu, gave a talk commenting on the meaning of some famous Zen phrases that are often used on tea scrolls. I wanted to share some of the things he said here. I did my best to take the notes as accurately as possible, but I know there are some things missing, so for that I apologize.

Ichigo Ichie

“This expression is so enormous that I don’t have to tell you anything. … It’s often translated, ‘one time, one meeting.’ Literally, that is not inaccurate, but my interpretation is ‘unprecedented and unrepeatable.’ We have never before met here – unprecedented. Most likely, six years from now, there may be new faces. Hence, unrepeatable.”

Wa Kei Sei Jaku

[Usually translated “harmony, respect, purity, tranquility,” Roshi translates the second character “reverence” and the last one “extinction.”]

“Wa, kei, sei, jaku is a beautiful expression, but this order is wrong. Jaku is another way to say ‘Nirvana,’ which in English means ‘extinction.’ . . . We have a lot of deceptions, delusions, illusions, and even subconscious preconceived ideas. It is perhaps too idealistic to think that all these will be gone. If that happens, then wa, kei, and sei will be gone, too. But assuming that the preconceived ideas are extinguished [jaku], then wa, kei, and sei will happen.

“Some people translate ‘jaku’ as ‘tranquility,’ but tranquility is temporary. Of course, everything is temporary, but tranquility is particularly temporary. It should be translated ‘extinction.’ “


[This is not a word, but simply a circle drawn in a single stroke.]

“There are many ways to write this, but [it’s important to] do it in one breath – no inhalation, no exhalation. Quicker is better, more tasty.”

The enso is often written with a “san,” a poem or capping phrase accompanying the image. Usually the person who does the image and the person writing the capping phrase are different. Three common san that are often written with the enso are:

Tsuki ka dango ka oke no wa ka (Is it a moon or a dumpling or the ring of a wooden pail?) – “You can write anything here. Is it a bagel, or a doughnut, or just sembe?”

Nore ni te yoshi (It’s all right as it is) – “It’s all right as it is, whether it’s crooked or a perfect circle. A perfect circle is not so tasty as a crooked one.”

Kore nanzo! (What is this!)

“A Rinzai Zen master was constantly asking his students, ‘Who is it that hears? Who is it that tastes?’ . . . The other day I saw a photo in the paper of a painting in the Boston Museum. The title was, ‘Where are we from? Who are we? Where are we going?’ On one side was a baby, in the middle a young, strong man, and standing at the end was an old lady crouching. This is exactly the question, ‘Kore nanzo?’ It is undoubtedly the greatest question we can ask while we are living in this incarnation.”

Nichi Nichi Kore Kojitsu [Every day is a good day]

Konnichi Kore Kojitsu [Today is a good day]

“There was a Zen master named Unmon who said to his monks, ‘I do not ask anything before the 15th day of the month, but I will say something after the 15th day.’ And one monk said, ‘Nichi nichi kore kojitsu.’ It’s easily misinterpreted.”

Konnichi Buji [Today, no agenda]

“The real meaning of buji is:
bu = no, negation
ji = event, matter, happening

“Looking at our lives, birth is an event. It’s not a no-matter. Getting old is an event. Sickness, passing away, too. From morning to night, all day long, event, event, event. Up to this point, it’s easy [to understand].

“A few years ago I was translating the Genzai Roku into English. This buji is one of the main themes of the Genzai Roku, and I thought it needed explanation.

“We tend to think that by doing various practices we can reach a point where delusions disappear, and we think there’s nothing else to do. This view is a deception. How could reality be altered by practice? Yet, you may ask, if buji implies doing nothing, then why do we have to practice? Isn’t ‘doing nothing’ in the usual passive sense of the phrase enough? At the same time, isn’t every being one ji? And isn’t our very being the source of all our problems that exist? Can we negate or transcend our own limited being? When we completely realize the true nature of the universe, what seems to be ji is nothing other than buji. No matter what we do, [it’s nothing].

“The closest English word to ‘buji’ is ‘now.’ Can you improve on now? Of course not. At this moment, can you or your circumstances be otherwise? When you understand that the present moment is all there is, you have no choice but to come to a radical acceptance, and this radical acceptance is the most difficult part.

“Buji means ‘one with suchness’ – the unconditional nature of being ready to be, with nothing wanting, nothing superfluous.

“To understand what I have just said is not so difficult, but radical acceptance is hard, and therefore we need practice.

“Konnichi buji means ‘today I accept this is what it is.’ This is a dilemma. We want to make progress, and therefore we think, the more we practice the better we get. We cannot deny that. In one thousand years of practicing Zen, ten thousand years of practicing tea, there’s never a day when you’re ready. It’s always, not yet, not yet, not yet. But today, this is it. When those two come together – not yet / this is it – there’s no word for that, so we have to say radical acceptance.”

Tozan Sui Jo Ko [East mountain always walks on water]

Kumpu Minami Yori Kitari [Fragrant wind comes from the south]

“Sanmon asked Unmon, ‘Where do all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas come from?’

“Unmon said, ‘Tozan sui jo ko.’”

“Another monk said, ‘I would not have said it like that. I would have said, Kumpu minami yori kitari.’

“This you can understand even rationally.”

Den Kaku Biryo wo Shozu [A subtle coolness pervades the dharma hall]

“When you enter a tearoom, the firs thing you see is the tokonoma, and what the scroll there says determines the main theme of the gathering. At this morning’s chakai, there was a scroll that read ‘Sei gin no yo cha o niru,’ ‘Reciting poetry at night, boiling tea.’ Nowadays in modern society we cannot appreciate such a scene. In Western history the ancient period ends about the fifth century, when the Roman Empire was finished. After that, for nine hundred years we are in the Dark Age. Gradually, the Renaissance took place in the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth centuries. From then on, things changed. In the eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution was where life really changed – how long we live, how quickly we live. We forgot the memento mori [mementos of the dead]. This is where our tragedy began. There are improvements – we have modern civilization – but we also have to remember the memento mori. Even the mention of death is taboo [today]. This is really a serious matter.

“Okay, we are living in the modern age. Accept, appreciate. But it makes our minds artificially and mechanically unnatural. It makes it essential to come to Daibosatsu and set up the tearoom, even though you don’t chant or say poetry, to make an image of that through the imagination, we can go back to ancient days. This is what is the point of tea practice. . . .

“Truly these days, East and West are no longer distinguishable. Even the borders are becoming less and less. And for us, students of Zen and students of tea, what is really necessary is learning the nature of beauty and simplicity.

“For Rikyu, everything was beauty. Even his death was beauty for him.”

[Roshi referenced Rikyu’s death poem, his san, which is as follows:
Having lived for seventy years
I have now transcended my anger [toward Hideyoshi], totsu!
I have carried my treasure sword throughout my life
It could kill the Buddhas and the patriarchs
Now the time has come for me to throw it to heaven!]

Haku Un Onozukara Koraisu [White cloud comes and goes naturally]

Seizan Moto Fudo [Blue mountain does not move]

“There is a contrast here – white and blue. You can imagine the clouds and the mountain. But you have to think another way: not yet / this is it.

“Which one is the mountain? Which one is not yet? This is it.”

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Friends in Tea

Last week I was at a wonderful gathering of tea ceremony practitioners called Friends in Tea. It’s not sponsored by any one organization, or even any one school of tea ceremony – it’s a group of people who volunteer to put together a gathering every two years, always in a different place.

This time the gathering was held at the Dai Botsatsu Zendo, a Buddhist monastery in the Catskill Mountains in New York State. The setting is remote (about 20 miles from the nearest town, which itself is not that big) and beautiful – the monastery and its guest house overlook Beecher Lake, so named because the property used to be owned by the Beecher family (of Harriett Beecher Stowe fame).

The gathering was four days of workshops, discussions, and people doing tea for each other. Most of the participants had studied tea for a while, and so the idea behind the teas was not to worry about doing things perfectly, but to have fun drinking tea together. Some people got up at 6 a.m. to do chabako (picnic-style tea) outside; some people took tatami mats out to the patio to do tea out there. But probably my favorite story is about Eido Roshi coming for tea.

Eido Roshi is the head of the monastery and its partner Zen center in New York City. Whenever he comes into the room, everything else stops. He and some of the monks were invited to the opening tea gathering, but mid-way through the conference he paid us a surprise visit. Down in the main room of the guest house we had sign-up sheets for our “open tearoom” – people could sign up to either make tea or be a guest at someone else’s tea, depending on their preference. Roshi had signed up as a guest in a blank spot, meaning nobody had signed up to be a host yet. So, of course, we were obliged to find someone to make tea for him. No problem; we’re all tea people. The lucky host was Marjorie Yap, a tea teacher from Portland. However…

The open tearoom space was split into two sections. On one side was Roshi’s tea. On the other side, one of the other participants had signed up to do another tea. Now, I heard the stories afterwards second-hand, because I wasn’t there, but the way I heard it, while Roshi was sitting at a very quiet and serious koicha (thick tea) temae, on the other side of a set of shoji screens the second group was laughing and having a good time drinking usucha. Apparently every once in a while Roshi would look around as if to say, “Hey, I want to be over there where they’re having fun!”

After Roshi’s tea was finished, he came over to the other tea and sat in for a bit. They were using a huge Shino-ware bowl that actually belonged to Roshi’s personal collection (and which he allowed us to use for the conference). He told us that he had named the bowl “macho.” It’s not what you’re thinking. “Ma” here means “devil,” and “cho” means “transparent.” The idea is that drinking from the bowl makes your evil impulses fade more and more until they’re completely gone. (No word yet on whether it worked.)

More from Friends in Tea in posts to come…

Friday, June 5, 2009

Going to a Chaji

This weekend, I was invited to a chaji put on by one of our teachers, Drew Hanson.

“Chaji” literally means something like “tea event,” and it’s considered the culmination of tea practice. It’s more formal than a chakai (“meeting for tea”), which has a more flexible format. In a chaji, everything is carefully determined. It starts with a meal that has a set number of courses. When the first course is brought in, each person gets a tray with two bowls and a plate. One bowl has rice, one bowl has soup, and the plate has sashimi. Once everybody has their tray, they simultaneously take the lids off the two bowls, put them together, and set them off to one side of the tray. From that point onward, each step is carefully choreographed: What’s in each course, when it enters the room, and how it is served. Even the guests have to pay attention to the timing, because they have to eat certain things by the time the next course is served.

If you’re the host, the food is by far the most stressful part. The menu is planned months in advance, and the cooking begins days in advance, because each element of the meal requires special preparation. And, because some courses are served hot, the host needs helpers in the kitchen to make sure everything is ready at exactly the right moment.

The food at this gathering, by the way, was wonderful. It was in a very traditional Japanese style, but there were vegetables from his garden as well as seafood and even some things imported from Japan.

After the food came the laying of the charcoal, which is done in front of the guests. As the fire builds, the smell of incense fills the room. With the fire going, the host served sweets. The sweets were in a hydrangea shape – bean paste dyed blue, grated, and arranged on top of a red bean paste center. Then little cubes of clear kinton (a gelatin-like substance) laced with gold leaf are put on top of it so that it looks like dew. They were really beautiful, but not too beautiful to eat!

After the sweets came the break. At that point, we’d been in the tearoom for about two and a half hours, and we were all ready for a standing break – sitting seiza for that long is no joke. During the break, the scroll in the alcove was replaced with a flower arrangement in a vase that Drew’s friend Brandon had made from local bamboo.

When we came back in, we had koicha, or thick tea, followed by thin tea. The utensils had been chosen to reflect a theme, which was water. The bowl for thin tea had fish painted on it, and the character for “ocean” on the bottom of the inside of the bowl. The tea container also had a wave pattern on it, and the lid-rest was in the shape of three fish.

But more than anything else, it’s the people who really make a gathering. Knowing the amount of preparation and care that went into everything that happened was really touching, and being able to share it with good company made it even better. It’s hard to describe how it feels, to be sitting in a tearoom, drinking in harmony with everyone else, soaking in every detail with every one of your senses. But by the end, there’s do doubt about why a chaji is considered the ultimate tea experience.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Tea Things

After Yamada-sensei’s passing, I didn’t have a chance to write about the tea conference I was attending just before he died. It was an academic conference on tea ceremony hosted by Yale University, held in connection with an exhibition of rare tea ceremony utensils that had been donated to the university.

The conference had presenters from Japan and the U.S., including some experts in their field, and it was really interesting to get the different perspective on tea. For instance, one of the lectures was about the change in the types of ceramics that were found in archaeological digs from 16th century Japan, when the way of tea that we practice today was first starting to take hold. There was a much greater use in Japanese and Korean ceramics, where before the emphasis was on Chinese. Around the same time, there was a shift in the types of calligraphy used, away from Chinese poetry and towards a more Zen style, where the emphasis was on the way in which the characters were written rather than (or in addition to) the words themselves. There’s nothing surprising about that, of course, but it was fascinating to hear about how tea affected people’s daily life and collecting habits during that time period.

Most of the other lecture also centered around the objects used in tea, with the exception of one that I’ll talk about later. The focus on utensils wasn’t surprising, considering that we were at a museum, but it really made me stop and think about the way that tea practitioners approach doing tea.

On the one hand, tea philosophy emphasizes that objects are not the important thing – what’s important is the spirit that both host and guests bring to the gathering, and valuing the experience as it happens. On the other hand, tea practice also teaches us to respect the utensils that are used, to handle them carefully, and to show courtesy to the host by asking questions about each item. Respect for, and an understanding of, the utensils used in tea is an important part of the practice. The intent is to put the focus on the people behind the objects, not on the objects themselves, but in the real world, we end up talking a lot about the various utensils used, and in the process there’s a lot of emphasis put on objects.

That can have its good points. Making a tea bowl, for example, requires a lot of artistry, and I can’t help but think that a Japanese potter would get a kick out of knowing that somewhere on the other side of the planet, some crazy matcha-drinking Americans are oohing and aahing over his work. And from a historical perspective, the tea people who are lucky enough to own utensils from three or four hundred years ago might still use them, which is a tremendous opportunity for their guests to interact with the past.

On the other hand, I walked out of that conference wondering if maybe we talk too much about utensils and not enough about the way of tea itself. I think that sense of possessiveness is something that tea people really need to watch out for – just as the wonder of seeing a rare tea utensil is something to treasure.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In Memory: Hisashi Yamada

Hisashi Yamada-sensei, the former head of Urasenke New York, passed away this weekend. He was a huge supporter of the tea program at La Salle – in fact, without his help, Brother Keenan might never have been able to set up the tea house there. So in a way, it’s thanks to him that any of our group are practicing tea at all.

I’m embarrassed to say that I know very little about his personal history. Mostly I remember him from his visits to La Salle, especially at our New Year’s tea gatherings. Whenever he came, he was always the first guest. I remember that he was always full of funny stories and insights into whatever was going on, and he could communicate equally well in Japanese and English, so that the guests were comfortable no matter what their native language.

I remember that he was the one who taught me the difference between taking lessons and having a tea gathering: in lessons, you work to get every detail right, and you worry about everything; in a gathering, it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake. All that matters is the moment, and that you’re doing your best for your guests. (And, as a guest, if the host makes a mistake, it doesn’t matter – let it pass, and go on to the next moment.)

Yamada-sensei’s warmth, generosity, and tea spirit touched many lives, and did so much to spread that way of tea here in the United States. I hope that he is remembered as he deserves to be, as a truly great man.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Sakura Sunday

Sakura Sunday is the culmination of the Philadelphia Cherry Blossom Festival, a day of all types of Japanese cultural events – including tea ceremony, of course! We actually had two days of demonstrations, a private event at the Japanese House on Saturday, and the free public demonstrations on Sunday.

We were incredibly lucky with the weather. Normally, Philadelphia’s Cherry Blossom Festival is held a week after the one in Washington, D.C. In Washington, it’s just enough warmer than Philly that usually the timing turns out perfectly. However, this year Washington’s is the third weekend in April, and the second weekend in April is, of course, Easter. So Philadelphia’s was the first weekend in April, and we were all concerned that it would be too early for the actual cherry blossoms. But the week before we had a nice warm spell, and the day of the festival was clear, sunny, and in the 60s, so the trees were just starting to bloom.

Here’s a photo of the blossoms:

The public demonstrations went really well. We had two demos, and since there was only limited space in the room where we set up, the festival organizers had sign-up sheets. We not only filled up the space, but had people sitting on the floor to get in. The teas were done by Mariko-sensei, with Drew (in green kimono, with his back to the camera) demonstrating how to be the guest, myself narrating, and some help from students Mary Lynn (blue kimono) and Terry (pink kimono), and tea friend Brandon (kneeling to take a photo in this picture).

The guests seemed to really enjoy the tea, and asked a lot of good questions. It was great to be able to connect with them!

After the tea, it was almost closing time for the festival, but we all got to walk around for a little while and admire the day. Along the way, someone snapped a photo of three mysterious tea people in kimono:

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Memorial Tea

On Sunday we held a memorial tea in honor of Brother Joseph Keenan.

Brother Keenan was a member of the Christian Brothers and a professor of religion at La Salle University. In the 1980s, he became interested in tea ceremony and began studying at the New York branch of Urasenke, and spent a year studying in Japan. He was so passionate about tea ceremony that he convinced the university to allow one of the historic buildings on campus to be converted into a tea house, for which the Urasenke headquarters in Kyoto and the branch in New York donated the labor, the construction supplies, and the utensils. In the following years, hundreds of La Salle students and several dozen more members of the public got a chance to learn tea ceremony thanks to the university’s tea program, and countless more experienced demonstrations either at the university or performed by members of the tea program.

I was one of the La Salle students who took his class, and so he was my first tea teacher. I’ll never forget his sense of humor. It’s traditional at the end of each lesson to thank the teacher; he always used to joke that we had to thank him “whether you want to or not.” He started tea late in life, and after a while he had to have a knee replacement, but that didn’t stop him; he just sat on a hassock and kept going. He even took on extra hours of teaching and bought tea utensils with his own money to keep the program going.

In 1999, Brother Keenan died, the victim of a hit-and-run car accident. Teachers and students banded together to keep the program alive, and even after the university decided to end the program in 2007, we moved to Shofuso and kept whisking.

This year was the 10th anniversary of Brother Keenan’s death, and so we had a memorial tea for him. There were a number of students we couldn’t find, but our first guest was one of the early teachers at Urasenke La Salle, Yumiko Pakenham, and another one was the first student, Mariko Ono.

The gathering was very similar in format to a normal tea gathering, except that the tokonoma (the alcove where the scroll is hung and flowers arranged), there was no only a scroll but a portrait of Brother Keenan. On a small stand in front of the photo there was a vase with a flower arrangement and some space where tea and sweets would go later.

It was raining early in the day as everyone gathered. We started with hanayose, in which people who knew Brother Keenan came up and took flowers from a tray, arranging some in the vases that lined the tokonoma. We skipped the formal arrangement of charcoal in front of the guests (although we did use charcoal for the fire) and went straight into the food. Once the guests had eaten, there was a short break, and the sun actually came out! The air started to warm up and dry all the puddles, and it turned into a beautiful day.

After the break, Taeko-sensei made koicha (thick tea). The first bowl was presented to Brother Keenan (placed on the stand in front of his picture) and then she made tea for the guests. After koicha, usucha (thin tea) was prepared by Mariko-sensei, with some extra whipped in the kitchen by the assistants.

At the end of the gathering, we all took a little time to share memories of Brother Keenan before we went our separate ways. It was wonderful to be able to spend the time with some old friends, and also to share the memories. Without him, there would be no tea ceremony in the Philadelphia area. I hope he was looking down on us today and happy to know that the tradition is still strong.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Real People

The other day a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer e-mailed us wanting to do an article about tea ceremony. “Fantastic!” I thought. And then she said that she didn’t want to talk to any of our teachers or advanced students, but that what she was really looking for were “real people.”

So I pondered that for a bit, and I decided that it was probably just as well that I wasn’t a real person, because unreality is much more fun.

The reporter went on to explain that what she was looking for was a Westerner’s perspective on tea ceremony, and specifically someone from one of our beginner courses. No problem. I connected with her over the phone, and got her contact information for some of the people who went through our beginner’s course last year.

On Saturday, she came to Shofuso to observe our weekly lessons along with a photographer, who was Japanese (it turns out his father had studied tea ceremony, but he had no interest himself). The photographer was snapping away, and she sat in the corner, asking questions, but mostly just taking notes. She watched one of the students drink a bowl of tea, and then we offered one to her. She picked it up, sniffed it, took a sip, and said, “Well, it looks bad, smells awful, and tastes horrible. Why do people do this again?”

It was at this point that I started to become just a little bit afraid about the outcome of the article.

But we reassured her that there were, in fact, people who enjoyed drinking matcha in the world. We finished up the lesson and talked for a bit more about the practice of tea, and especially about the sweets, since she’s from the Food section.

The reporter did follow up with me later in the week to ask some questions about my tea experience. In situations like that I always feel inadequate. How do I convey what tea means to me in a way that makes sense to someone who’s never done it? I mean, I can talk until I’m blue in the face about inner tranquility and mental focus and liking the taste of tea, but it does really explain why I’ve spent nearly fifteen years of my life practicing tea ceremony?

The same question came up at a gathering of tea people a few years ago – why do we study tea? I struggled with the question for a bit, and finally the only answer I could come up with was, “Because it’s necessary.” They all understood.

The article for the Inquirer is scheduled to come out on March 26. That’s not guaranteed, of course, because editorial schedules change, but keep your eyes on the paper that day, just in case.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Contemporary Tea Houses

Recently, I got a copy of The Contemporary Tea House: Japan’s Top Architects Redefine a Tradition by Arata Isozaki, Tadao Ando, and Terunobu Fujimori, and I’ve been eating it up.

I should preface this by saying that anybody who studies tea ceremony – and probably some people who don’t! – inevitably start dreaming about having their own tea space. Regardless of whether we have the room or the money, or even if we have a tearoom or tea house already, we all have a plan in the back of our mind of what we would do if…

The great thing about this book is that it gives us all fuel to dream. The premise is pretty much what the title implies – several very well-known and talented architects re-envision tearooms. Some of them are in urban settings, like the loft in an apartment, or even the roof of a house in the city. Some of them are out in the country, built to blend with their surroundings. Some of them are very modern, made of concrete or plastic, while others are made of the more traditional plaster and wood.

I’m not saying that I like all of them. One of them looks like it was tastefully placed in a public restroom. (No names, but if you read the book, you’ll be able to pick it out.) And even the ones that I do like are only marginally usable.

For example, my favorite is Takasugi-an, which is literally a tea house on trees. Take a look here. The house is nineteen feet in the air, and according to the book, it “sways as much as one would expect when looking at it from outside.” I love the idea, but can you imagine trying to climb up that ladder in a kimono? Carrying tea utensils? And once you’re inside the tearoom, things don’t get much better. Because of the way the space is arranged, if you wanted to do a traditional tea ceremony, you’d have to sit with your back to the guests.

That’s a pretty common feature of the tearooms in the book – about half of them would require some major adaptation to use them for tea ceremony. But that’s okay, because practicality isn’t the point. The point is to inspire people to do what they can with the space they have, and to really challenge people’s image of how a tearoom should look. In the end, they share one commonality – a sense of tranquility and space, a place where you can go to sit and enjoy tea.

Anyhow, I highly recommend the book if you’re interested in tearooms, or even if you just want to look at some pretty pictures.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"Green" Ash

The following post was written by Drew Hanson.

One of the advantages of living in a house with a wood-burning fireplace and using it regularly during the winter season is the seemingly endless supply of ash that is produced. For some people, the thought of having to deal with ash is so repugnant that they install ‘instant-on’ gas fireplaces instead. I, on the other hand, revel in my good fortune. Not only have I judiciously incorporated ash into my garden soil, but I’ve also used it to make an ash glaze for my ceramic pieces. Most recently, however, I’ve recycled my ash in a new way by making batches of shimeshibai, the moist ash which is used on top of the basic ash formation in the ro (sunken hearth used in the tearoom in the wintertime).

During the ro season, I use charcoal almost exclusively in my sunken hearth. My choice to heat water in this way requires that I have a ready supply of moist ash. In the past, I ordered bags of ash from Japan and processed it in the traditional way into shimeshibai. This year, I decided to ‘do it myself.’

Like so many processes in tea, making shimeshibai is labor intensive; however, the end product is well worth the investment of time and energy. Its color is rich, and its fragrance is earthy and slightly spicy. And there’s the added pleasure of having used the fireplace ash in a ‘green’ way.

Here’s how I make my shimeshibai from ‘scratch.’

I don’t remove ash from the fireplace after each use. Rather, I pile it in the back corners, making ‘mountains’ similar to those that are created when ash is arranged in the ro. These mountains help to direct air flow down and under the burning logs, insuring a steady, hot flame. (I use my fireplace as a supplementary heat source.) More importantly, as the mountains grow with new additions of ash, their weight compacts the ash closer to their bottoms. This compacted ash is the ash I use for shimeshibai.

I carefully shovel out a bucketful from the bottom of one or both the mountain and then begin to sift it. First, I use a wide mesh sieve to remove any large cinders and other debris. Next, the ash is sifted through a medium mesh sieve. I use a regular kitchen strainer that I purchased for this purpose. Finally, I put the ash through the traditional Japanese sieve designed for ro ash. The difference in texture from first to last sifting is truly amazing.

Now it’s time to wash the ash. As I fill the bucket with water, I stir the mixture. Immediately, the very fine ash particles—the ‘flyaways’ as it were—start coming to the surface. I skim off these particles, and when the ash settles, I pour off the top water (which in itself may be used to water house plants) and refill the bucket. I continue filling, stirring, skimming and pouring until no more particles come to the surface. I fill the bucket with water one more time.

Next, I line a colander with a large piece of cotton fabric which I wet and wring out. Typically, I use a large kitchen towel made from a flour sack. I set the lined colander on top of another bucket, stir the ash/water mixture and pour it into the colander where it will drain for a day. On day two, I squeeze out any water remaining in the ash and dump the wet blob into a plastic dish pan.

I now bring approximately two and a half quarts of water to the boil, throw in a handful of houjicha and some whole cloves (10-12) and let the brew boil slowly for half an hour. I strain the tea over the ash and stir it well. The tea leaves and cloves go into the compost.

For the next three or four days, whenever I pass the ‘ash tea’ I give it a stir. Initially, the layer of ash is very difficult to incorporate into the liquid. However, over time it becomes easier, and after the second day of soaking, I can see that the ash has begun to change color. Four days into this part of the process, it’s time to drain the ash again. As I did the first time, I set up the colander, wet towel and bucket. I give the ash tea one final stir and then pour. This time I let the ash drain for two days and then dump it into the plastic pan and break it up into pieces.

Over the next several days, the pieces of ash will slowly begin to dry. I monitor the drying process very carefully, continuing to break the chunks down into smaller pieces. When the ash feels damp to the touch, not wet, it’s time to start working with it. I don a pair of rubber gloves and rub handfuls of ash between my palms. At this point, the ash resembles damp, dark cornmeal. After all the ash has been rubbed, I bring out the sieves and begin to sift it all again. This time, however, I use only two sieves—medium and fine mesh. I put the ash through the medium mesh twice, wait a day and then put it through the fine mesh.

Voila! Shimeshibai . . .

And only 10-12 days have gone by!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Gift of Tea

This past holiday season made me think about giving presents in the context of tea. I’m not talking about giving or receiving tea items (though that’s always nice!), but a way of thinking about tea: hosting a tea gathering for someone as a kind of “gift.”

As a student, when I started learning how to plan a tea gathering, my teachers told me that the most important thing to think about is your guests. What kind of food would your guests like to eat? What kind of bowl would they like to drink tea from? What would be meaningful for them?

It sounds easy, but it’s really not. When you practice tea, you gradually start to develop your own aesthetic. For example, some people really like colorful or playful tea utensils; some people prefer utensils that are asymmetrical, cracked, or even outright ugly, but which embody the wabi aesthetic that’s so valued by tea practitioners. Some people prefer exclusively Japanese utensils, while some prefer the creative challenge of sourcing local items that can be used in tea ceremony.

Is it better to hang a scroll in Japanese calligraphy that your guests can’t read, or a scroll written in English that’s aesthetically at odds with a Japanese-style room? The answer is to put yourself in your guests’ shoes, think about their experiences in tea, and do you best to choose what you think they would appreciate.

As the host, the temptation to show off during a tea gathering is enormous. It starts with good intentions – we’re all taught, from the first day we practice, that we should use try to use special utensils for our gatherings for the sake of our guests, to give them a memorable experience. And as new students, we can all remember the sense of wonder when our teachers brought out their rare, beautiful, artisan-made items. Experienced students know when the host brings out a special bowl or tea container, and they truly treasure the opportunity to hold it in their hands. When the time comes to host a gathering, we’re tempted to bring out our own favorite items, to share them with our fellow tea people.

So where’s the line between bringing out a tea bowl because you like it, and bringing it out because you think your guests will like it? Or, to put it a different way, where’s the line between serving your guests and serving your own ego? Can you put your personal preferences aside for the sake of your guests, if you know your guests would like something different? As a host, can you truly put your heart into making tea in a bowl you don’t like?

I struggle with this myself sometimes. But I truly believe that being able to put your guests’ taste first – to be able to make tea in a bowl that they like but that you don’t – is one of the keys to becoming a true tea person.