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!


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Hello, Morgan.

I am glad that I recently discovered your blog.

I've recently been meditating on how different cultures adapt to the presence of tea, and the relationship between tea and culture. Japanese is such a perfect laboratory for the studying this effect!

I've been a tea enthusiast for quite a number of years, and only in the last couple of years has my understanding finally gone from seed to blossom, as it were. It's been such a delightful journey. I primarily drink Himalayan and Chinese tea, and I am very slowly learning Chinese tea preparation and learning about the world's great teas.

As an observation, the Chinese tea practitioners seem entirely focused on making the very best-tasting cup of tea possible, and all their efforts are bent toward that end. Thus, they spend endless hours searching for the very best pu-erh tea, and discussing its merit as it is aged, and the comparison between the 2002 and the 2003 vintages from a specific tea factory, and so on. Then the delightful chatter about wenxiangbei, Taiwanese-style sniffing cups, and howw they relate to the chadao; whether the use of Japanese bamboo charcoal really does dissolve some particulate matter into the water before boiling, to round out the edge of the water's flavor; and whether to allow that water to come to first, second, or third boil with the old-bush tea from the Phoenix mountains, for example. Endless tea reviews and discussions of particular vintages, and refinement of the practice to get the best flavor and aroma from these crazy leaves.

Now, in contrast, the Japanese tea practitioners spend very little time discussing the above, and instead focus almost entirely on the aesthetics of the act of tea ceremony itself, and the environment, and so on. I've very much enjoyed reading through your blog and soaking in the sheer beauty of Japanese tea ceremony. I experienced the Japanese way of tea a couple of times in college, at the University of Illinois Japan House; and again at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where tea ceremony is occasionally held. Lovely, truly.

And of the American tea practitioners? Well, of us, the less said, the better! (I say, smilingly.)

Anyway, I was wondering if you could write a bit about the actual tea you're drinking: where do you buy it, which are the best tea farms in your opinion, and what practices do you use to ensure you get the best flavor from the tea?

Again, delightful blog, and I feel I've grown a bit through the reading of it.


Steven Knoerr
The 39 Steeps blog

Morgan said...


Thanks so much for the kind comments -- I'm glad to know you're enjoying the blog!

I'm very interested in your experiences with Chinese teas. There is a certain element of that in Japanese tea ceremony (striving for the best taste possible), but you're right, there is also a much greater emphasis on the movements and the practice. Hopefully it all blends together into a harmonious whole.

I'll gladly write a bit more about the tea -- give me a few days to pull my thoughts together.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for your kind reply to my comment. I look forward to learning more about those leaves you are drinking!

sweetpersimmon said...

Thank you Morgan for that post. It has been sweltering here in Portland, and I have a ro kimono, but alas, it is polyester and feels like I am dressed in a plastic bag. By the way some students of Japanese tea ceremony do concentrate on the tea. There are gatherings where comparisons of matcha are made and flavors and discerning palates are celebrated. Chakabuki comes to mind...

Take care and keep up the good work.


Unknown said...

Margie, would you provide more information about Chakabuki? I looked online but couldn't figure out what I was looking for.

Are you part of this Chakabuki? I'm not a practitioner of Japanese tea, but I am quite interested to know more about it.