Saturday, November 24, 2012

Inaugural Celebration

Well, we did it! On November 10 and 11, we had an inaugural celebration for our new kyokai (association).

The first day was a dinner with tea preceding. The event was held in a private club in downtown Philadelphia, and because they normally aren’t open on weekends we had the whole place to ourselves. We had usucha in one of the meeting rooms prepared ryurei style, which means that the host and assistant were seated at a low table (one designed especially for this purpose) and the guests were seated at tables with chairs. Here are a couple of photos of the tea setup. The first one is Drew Hanson, one of our teachers, sitting behind the table (misonodana), and the second is Azusa Matono, one of our senior students, making tea there:

In an adjoining room, the Living Room, we had cocktails and sushi. Like the rest of the club, the Living Room is decorated in colonial style, with beautiful paintings, mahogany tables, a piano, and other period furniture. For this event we had a touch of Japanese in that a koto player, Motoko Yost, very generously donated her time to play for us.

The dinner was held upstairs in the dining room, where Kayoko Hirota Sensei, of the Urasenke Tankokai North America Head Office in New York, presented our president, Dr. Frank Chance, with a certificate showing our new status and also a gift of money from the Sen family – that is, the grand master of the Urasenke School, Oiemoto Sen Soshitsu (Zabosai) and the former grand master, Daisosho Sen Genshitsu (Hounsai), and the rest of their family.

We had a full house for the dinner, a mix of new friends and old, including some former students we hadn’t seen in years, two teachers from the very beginning of our tea group’s establishment at La Salle (Yumiko Pakenham and Janet Ikeda), and a group of students from the newly established tea institute at Penn State University.

On Sunday, we had more formal tea gatherings at Shofuso. Because the space is fairly small (being a Japanese house!) and we had around fifty people to accommodate, we broke the gathering up into three separate groups: Two smaller rooms with koicha (thick tea) and the largest space with usucha (thin tea). The guests would start with either usucha or koicha and then switch. Taeko Shervin Sensei was doing koicha in the actual tea room of the house (also the smallest space); Drew Hanson was doing koicha in a ten-mat room off of the veranda, and I was doing usucha in the fifteen-mat room, also just off of the veranda.

Here’s a picture of the usucha space:

We were incredibly lucky in terms of weather. In November the weather in this area can change very quickly, and of course we had Hurricane Sandy coming through just two weeks before. It was very cold the previous weekend, but the weekend of the tea it was not only sunny but in the 60s! The only downside is that the pond off of the veranda, the centerpiece of the garden, had been drained for maintenance, but the garden was still beautiful.

I won’t attempt to describe the utensils we used, because with three separate rooms going there was so much! But for the sweets, in the koicha sittings we had kooringiku mochi – red bean paste covered with yuzu-flavored rice dough (mochi), covered with a flaked type of mochi that looks like large flakes of snow. For usucha, we had a type of sweet that’s made of sugar and agar-agar with a jelly like consistency (kangoori) in two shapes: red maple leaves and yellow gingko leaves (which also had white bean paste in them). The third sweet was made from a green soybean flour (suhamako) and shaped like chrysanthemum leaves.

 We were very lucky to have so many people coming out and giving us their good wishes, and hopefully they all had a good time! 

(And a big thank you to Miyo Moriuchi, who took all of the photos above except for the first one, which was by Keijiroh Yamaguchi.)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

We Exist!

There’s big news for our tea group that as of today is officially official: We have been approved as a kyokai, that is, a chapter of our parent school, Urasenke.

What does this mean in laypeople’s terms? First of all, it’s recognition for our group. Rather than our tea students and teachers being members of Urasenke New York, we’re an independent organization, which means little things like being invited to official Urasenke events in the U.S. and abroad, and big things like being able to send our students to study in the main school in Kyoto. It means some responsibilities, like maintaining a high profile in the Philadelphia area and continuing to reach out and do demonstrations, gatherings, and be involved in the community. It also means some benefits, like getting referrals from Kyoto and also support for our classes.

We’ve been working on this for a while now, and after some false starts and a lot of preparation, our application was approved this summer, with our official start date being today, September 1, 2012.

It’s especially apropos because it was twenty-five years ago—to the month, actually—that Brother Joseph Keenan officially established the tea group at La Salle University that would become our kyokai. He passed on a few years back, but I’d like to think that he’s watching over us, and that he’ll be there in spirit when we celebrate our inauguration as Chado Urasenke Tankokai Philadelphia. (I know, it’s a mouthful, right? But that’s the naming convention established by Urasenke, and if you know anything about Japanese culture, you know that the keyword is “conformity.” Just call us Urasenke Philadelphia. It feels good to be saying that after all these years!)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Borrowed Water

In tea ceremony we use a bamboo scoop (chashaku) to measure the powdered tea into the bowl before adding hot water and whisking it into a foam. The chashaku is an important part of tea ceremony. Although they may all look the same at first glance, there are small variations in shape, weight, and balance that add up to make each one unique.

If a chashaku has a particularly good character, it might be given a poetic name (mei). Usually the name is based—as you might have guessed from the translation!—on an image from Japanese poetry. My sensei told me about one classic mei that’s especially appropriate for this time of year: morai mizu.

Like most mei based on a poem, this phrase is tough to translate. This particular one is from a haiku by Chiyojo (1703-1785). The Japanese version is:

Asago ni
Tsurube toraete
Morai mizu

Here’s a translation from an anthology of Japanese poetry:

With the well bucket
Taken over by morning glories
I go begging water

But although it’s very evocative, the translation doesn’t capture the full meaning of the original. Let’s break it down.

Asago is easy; it means morning glory. Tsurube is a well bucket. Ni . . . toraete is a little bit trickier. The literal translation would be “is taken,” but in Japanese, that particular verb form gives the action a negative feeling – a sense of being inconvenienced by the action. That’s reinforced by the use of the verb toru, “to take,” which can also mean “to steal.” So you could interpret the first part of the poem as “a morning glory has taken my well bucket” or, more indignantly, as “that morning glory stole my well bucket!”

Now we come to the crucial line of the poem: morai mizu. Mizu is easy enough; it means water. Morai is a form of the verb morau, which is usually translated “to receive,” but it suggests gratitude for having been given something.

So a more literal translation might be something like:

A morning glory
Has taken my bucket
A gift of water

But to fully understand the meaning, especially in the context of tea ceremony, we need to visualize the story behind it. The poet woke one morning and went out to draw some water from her well, but discovered that a morning glory had wound its way around the bucket. Unwilling to disturb the flower, she went to her neighbor’s house and asked to borrow some water.

What a great image for summer! When you’re preparing tea during a tea ceremony, you want to give your guests a psychological feeling of coolness, and in this one phrase you’re evoking a fresh morning, water, and delicate flowers that will fade in the heat of high noon.

Although it’s not a literal translation, I like using “borrowed water” for morai mizu because it also brings up the image of going to a neighbor to “borrow a cup of sugar” – a visit, a chat, a little gift that makes someone’s day a bit brighter. Just like a good tea ceremony!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Together for Tanabata

Tanabata, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a Japanese festival. According to legend, there was a princess who used to weave beautiful cloth. Her father, the sky god, loved the cloth, and she worked hard every day to make more. However, because she worked so hard, she never got to go out and meet people. Her father was sorry to see her so sad, and he introduced her to a cowherd. The two fell instantly in love and married, but then the weaver stopped making her cloth and the cowherd let his cattle wander free. The sky god grew angry that he put them on opposite sides of a river (the Milky Way) and forbade them from seeing each other. This made his daughter so sad that he finally relented and allowed them to see each other for one day a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. This is the date of Tanabata.

This year our group held its first Tanabata tea, and we were really pleased with the number of people who came, particularly since it was a horribly hot day, with a high around 100 degrees and very humid. Fortunately, our event was in the evening, so it had cooled off at least a little bit.

The tea was held at Shofuso, and here I need to stop and put in a photo of the garden in the evening light, taken courtesy of the fabulous Terry S.:

Before the tea started, we had everyone write their wishes on a piece of colored paper, which we then tied to a piece of bamboo that the staff of Shofuso had put near the entrance to the house. Of course, this was modest compared to the type of decorations you’d see in Japan, but by the time we were done it was full of wishes! Taeko Shervin-sensei also made some decorations to add.

Once the gathering started, we had the guests sitting so that they could look out on the pond and the waterfall. We served koicha (thick tea) and then usucha (thin tea) with sweets for both. The sweets for koicha were called midori no hoshi (green stars) and were taken from a recipe developed by Glenn Pereira of Urasenke Boston. My batch came out a little more blue than green, but this will give you the idea:

And here are some pictures of the tea itself:

 By the time we were finished it was dark outside, and everyone made their way back to the cars with lanterns (since Shofuso is a traditional-style Japanese house, there are no interior lights). It was a beautiful way to celebrate this holiday, and we were lucky to have such wonderful people to celebrate with!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


I was talking to a member of a local taiko drumming group the other day, and she mentioned that a lot of American women tend to become interested in taiko because it makes them feel empowered. That really made me think about tea ceremony in comparison, because I honestly believe that no one, anywhere, in the entire history of the practice we know as chado, has ever come out of a tea room and said, “YES! Today I feel powerful!”

Part of that is by design. The philosophy of chado puts a lot of stress on the virtues of humility and self-discipline. Students are taught, from their very first lesson, to sit quietly, to follow a very specific set of rules, to keep your mind on what you’re doing and treat practice seriously. Some teachers are stricter about enforcing discipline than others, but ultimately, it’s about more than rules, it’s about an attitude. At its heart, tea ceremony is about achieving a state of tranquility – inner balance, if you will – by taking your focus off of yourself. At first, you focus on the rules. Then, on your state of mind. Then, on the other people in the room. Ultimately, the goal is to forget yourself completely.

That’s pretty much the opposite of empowerment, if you think about it, and in Western culture we tend to think of that as a bad thing. But maybe the real message of tea is that there are other goals one can pursue. Harmony. Tranquility. Respect. Purity of spirit. I guess that’s tea in a nutshell, ne? The pursuit of inner peace, even if only in moments.

(Not that I don’t enjoy a good drumming session now and then – it does get the adrenaline flowing!)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Happy Anniversary, San Francisco!

I was privileged to be able to attend the joint anniversary of two Urasenke institutions in San Francisco: The 60th anniversary of the San Francisco Tankokai (Urasenke chapter) and the 30th anniversary of the official branch. Being celebrated on a tight schedule, they had a day packed full of wonderful tea events.

The day started out with Zabosai Oiemoto, the 16th generation head of the Urasenke school, preparing kencha at a local Buddhist church. Kencha is a tea ceremony where the tea prepared is offered to someone who has passed on, usually a family member, although last year Daisosho (the former head of Urasenke) did an offering tea in Hawaii for the people who died at Pearl Harbor. Oiemoto does these on a regular basis in Japan, but it’s very rare to see one in this country.

It’s really amazing to watch his temae, the way he prepares tea. It’s hard to put into words, because it’s not just about the movements, but the way that he moves, and the focus and mental attitude he maintains. I think it’s really the sum total of a lifetime of doing tea, the way that the practice just sinks into every part of his body and comes out whenever he prepares tea, without him having to think about it. (We weren't allowed to take photos while any of the tea gatherings were actually going on, but the organizers had a professional photographer taking pictures, so I'll post some when I get them.)

After the kencha we had sweets, thin tea, and thick tea. Not necessarily in that order, because, at a rough estimate, there were about 350 people in attendance, and that’s a lot of tea! I was in the first thick tea sitting, which was preceded by sweets. Because it was the first sitting, Oiemoto was there, and he acted as the first guest, drinking the tea prepared by the host and asking questions about the utensils. He got to drink from a bowl by Ohi Chozaemon IX (the past head of one of the branches of the Raku family), but the rest of us got a treat, too. The person who did the temae, Kinoshita Michiko, made 30 different wood-fired bowls specifically at this gathering.

The organizers of the event made a special effort to choose utensils that reflected the local area, especially for the thin tea sitting. There was a wonderful moment during the preparation of tea, which I need to take a moment to explain for those not familiar with tea ceremony. When the host begins to prepare tea, the front of the bowl is facing the host. (Some bowls, as with the one used for this particular gathering, have designs painted on them with a distinct front and back, and the bowl is intended to be viewed from the front.) So throughout the beginning of the tea, up to the point where the host whisks the tea in the bowl, the front was hidden, and then, just as she was preparing to serve the tea to the guests, she turned the front to face the audience – and we could see that the bowl had a design of the Golden Gate Bridge on it. The bowl was commissioned especially for this gathering from the artist Nakamura Shuho. The association also commissioned a number of copies of the bowl (I would estimate somewhere between 20 and 30) for the guests to drink from.

Here's a picture from the thin tea setup:

The calligraphy for the scroll was done by Zabosai Oiemoto; it reads "Shosei keion o fukumu," which means "The pine wind contains auspicious sounds." The incense container (below the scroll and to the left) depicts a Victorian house in San Francisco; the flowers were red camellia and white dogwood in a glass vase made by a studio in Berkeley. In the foreground is the mizusashi (cold water container) in the shape of a bag of treasures.

Following the teas was a lecture from Oiemoto where he talked a bit about the philosophy of tea. Afterward, his daughter, Makiko Sen, prepared tea for the audience, with his nephew, Koichiro Izumi, and his cousin (I’m sorry, I didn’t get a chance to write down his name) as guests. I had seen Makiko Sen do tea in Washington DC, but it was wonderful to see her do it again – like her father, she seems to exude tea ceremony in a way that’s at once beautiful and effortless. While she was doing tea, Oiemoto was providing a commentary on the finer points of temae.

The whole day was capped off by a wonderful banquet, where we had a chance to catch up with old tea friends and meet up with new ones. I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone in the San Francisco tea community who worked on this event, particularly Larry Tiscornia of the San Francisco Tankokai and Christy Bartlett of the San Francisco Urasenke Foundation. I know it must have been a huge amount of work, and I think everyone really appreciated it!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Even More Sakura!

This was a busy weekend for our entire tea group, but an exciting one.

At Shofuso, they’ve just celebrated the opening of the Sakura Pavilion, which consists of two outbuildings that date back to the 1876 Centennial celebration. One of them was renovated into a classroom, and the other will be a storage room. They’ve been working hard to get the area ready for the dedication this weekend, and the classroom is still missing some finishing touches, but it looks lovely. On Saturday they had a sake cask-breaking with the mayor in attendance. The weather took a turn for the colder and it was rainy, but there was still a really good turnout.

Today, however, was the big tea day. Based on the early cherry bloom times and the weather, we’d figured that this would be a good weekend to hold our sakura hanami, our cherry blossom viewing tea. As it happened, the cherry trees around the Hort Center hit their peak last week, but there were still a lot of blossoms holding on in the area. It wasn’t as cold today as yesterday, but we decided to hold the gathering indoors at Shofuso, since the ground was still wet.

We did, however, try to position the guests so that they could still see some cherries. This is the view from the spot where the guests were sitting:

The gathering itself was very simple. I did a temae called hana chabako, which is intended specifically for sitting outside under the trees for a flower-viewing, especially at cherry blossom time. It’s a “picnic-style” tea where all of the utensils are smaller than usual, and they’re packed into a little box that can be carried around easily.

Chabako is a casual type of tea ceremony, so you can only prepare thin tea (usucha), which is less formal than thick tea (koicha). Because this was a special gathering, though, we had a couple different types of sweets. Brandon Forsht, one of our association vice presidents, made a sweet that looked like cherry petals on the grass (it was very beautiful!), and I made a dry sweet (kangoori, which is jelly-like on the inside but has a crunchy exterior) that was also cherry blossom-shaped.

The chabako set I used was a combination of old and new: The box itself, along with two of the lacquer pieces, were ones that I had never used before; they were a present from my mother, and I was saving them for a special occasion. The ceramic pieces, however – the bowl, the sweet container, and the container for the wiping cloth – were all from a set that I had gotten from one of my teachers, that had originally belonged to her grandmother. It was an honor to have the set, and to be able to share it with tea friends.

But that wasn’t the only tea event to happen today. Only a few days ago, Taeko-sensei was asked to prepare tea for a member of the Japanese House of Representatives who was in town visiting. It turns out that he went to Drexel University in Philadelphia, and so he comes back every once in a while.

As one of my fellow tea people said, we’re beginning to feel like an official Urasenke chapter already!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Visit to a New Chashitsu

This weekend several members of our tea group were privileged to be invited to the opening of a new tearoom in Washington, D.C. The tearoom is located in an office building in the downtown area, a few blocks away from the White House. From the outside it looks like any other office, but once you go down a long hallway and into the tea space, you’re greeted by an open area where they can (and did, while we were there) have a ryuurei tana set up. (Ryuurei is a type of temae where tea is done sitting at a low table, with the host and guests sitting on stools. Because of the weight of the table and chairs and the potential for damage to a tatami mat, this is usually done in a room without tatami flooring.)

In a traditional tearoom, the guests will travel from the waiting area through a roji, a path leading through a garden, and then into the tearoom itself. In this particular arrangement, we stepped outside onto a deck overlooking the city, where a roji-style space had been set up (with the path but no living plants). We walked down the path and then entered the tea space from the outside, coming in and viewing the alcove with the scroll and the kettle and other utensils that had been set out.

The tearoom is set up in two parts; a main eight-mat room with the tokonoma (alcove) and the hearth at one end, and a six-mat room at the other. Removable doors either separate the two rooms or are removed to create one, as they were for the opening tea.

Urasenke provided the resources to build the room, and as a further show of support the head of the school (Oiemoto) sent his wife, daughter, and nephew to celebrate the opening – he himself was unable to come because it’s Rikyuki, the time when tea people remember the passing of the founder of our school (his ancestor, going back sixteen generations) and he’s not allowed to leave Japan at this time. (Someone said that he’s prevented from leaving the country by law, but I’m not certain about that.)

During the opening, we were honored to have Oiemoto’s daughter prepare tea for us, while her mother sat in the room and acted as assistant, and explanations were provided by a gyotei (high-level sensei) from Kyoto who also flew in for the event. In addition to everything else, Oiemoto personally wrote the calligraphy for a scroll that was given as a gift to the Washington tea association.

After being served tea and sweets, we were given a chance to take a closer look at the details of the room. One very nice touch was that on the crossbeam dividing the room, there are five types of wood. One type of wood was used to inlay cherry blossoms into the wood, so that anyone who visits the room will remember that the room was completed at cherry blossom time.

Speaking of, I also got a chance to visit the Tidal Basin area, where the Washington D.C. cherry blossoms are planted. They were just past full bloom when we got there – starting to shed their petals, but still very beautiful. Here are some photos:

I’m not sure what type of cherry trees these are, but they’re a bit different from the type we have planted in Philadelphia. Take a look. This first photo is from Washington:

And this is from a previous year’s bloom in Philadelphia:

All in all, it was a wonderful weekend, and we were all thrilled to be invited to this opening and very jealous of the Washington group’s beautiful new tearoom! Hopefully they’ll be able to use it in prosperity for many years to come.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Waiting for Cherry Blossoms

I don’t know how many of you are in the Philadelphia area, but if you are you’ve surely noticed how incredibly warm this winter has been. We’ve had a little snow, and short bursts of cold weather, but the majority of January and February has been like today – sunny with high temperatures in the 50s.

As you can imagine, this has all kinds of implications, but for tea people the big question is what’s going to happen with the cherry blossoms. The mid-Atlantic region has a climate very similar to Kyoto’s, which is great for tea ceremony because our seasonal changes track pretty well with the traditional tea calendar. So at the same time that the cherry trees are blooming in Japan, they’re also blooming here. Of course, cherry blossoms are a much bigger deal in Japan, but we have celebrations here also.

The biggest celebration in the region is actually in Washington, D.C., where they have a lot of cherry trees and a huge annual festival. Philadelphia also has a respectable-size celebration, which I’ve talked about in previous posts. The planners of those events just have to use past bloom times as a guide – in Washington it’s around April 7th, and a week later in Philadelphia. But there can be a huge variation in those dates depending on the weather, and calculating bloom times is quite the science. (If you want an idea of how much of a science, check out this open-access research article on calculating bloom times in Washington DC.)

Depending on other events, our group will try to set aside some time to get together for a little tea under the cherry blossoms, so right now I’m eyeing our local foliage for blooming clues. I keep a cherry blossom log. There are cherry trees blooming all over our area, especially around the Horticultural Center, where the Philadelphia Cherry Blossom Festival is held, so as I see trees in different areas blooming I make a note of the date and any unusual weather that may have affected them. I haven’t been doing this very long, so I can’t even claim to be scientific here, but my guess is that we’re going to see peak bloom in the third or fourth week of March. Let’s see how I do!