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!