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Urasenke DC held a 炉開き, or opening-of-the-winter-hearth, tea ceremony yesterday. The lingering heat of Indian summer gave the event an anachronous feel. The mild air hardly induces one to close the windows and huddle 'round the fireplace.

I described the general form of the ceremony in my post about last year's event, so I won't repeat it here. I opted not to wear a kimono since this ceremony is pretty low-key, and dressing in a kimono is a big to-do for me, involving assistants and armloads of accoutrements. This turns out to have been a wise decision, as most guests didn't wear kimono, and one who did wound up having almost everything re-done by a kimono-dressing expert.

I love the smell of the charcoal. It's too expensive to use on a regular basis—electric heaters substitute—but it's essential to this ceremony. Apparently the construction of the house our sensei is renting prevents the sunken hearth from being as deep as a standard one, so she has to arrange the charcoal in an unorthodox way, flatter rather than upright.

I also love eating お汁粉, a sweet, warm, soupy dish with azuki beans and mochi. The trick to eating it, I learned this year, seems to be to make a token effort at using your 黒文字 (imagine using chopsticks to pick up frictionless rice) and then just drink from the edge of the bowl. The tea was different from the usual; it was more bitter, balancing the very sweet dish preceding it.

The 掛け物 on the alcove wall was perhaps the most unusual I've ever seen: one rectangle, one triangle, and one circle. We debated the meaning, from representational (sake cup, mountain, sun?) to abstract (denizens of Flatland?). Sensei told us those three shapes are meant to represent the entire universe. The viewer is to think about the shapes of things around her and—if I understand correctly—how everything can be considered in terms of simple forms.

I don't know the names for the types of tea bowls used. The first one was what I think of as wabi–sabi style: simple, rough, with a calm color palette. It had a flared base that one guest compared to bajohai, a form of sake cup meant to be easily gripped by horseback-riders who want to drink on the go. The second tea bowl was a stylistic opposite of the first: an elaborate rose-colored landscape à la Johnson Brothers that would look at home in a Victorian drawing room, if Victorians had drunk tea from bowls rather than cups. Both tea bowls were made in the UK.

The natsume, or tea container, was made of wood but attracted attention with its abalone-inlaid lid and smattering of pockmarks. The chashaku, or tea scoop, was one our instructor had carved herself from bamboo. (Next Sunday we'll have a chashaku-making workshop, and we've already been warned to bring band-aids along with our knives.)

As a final bonus, a guest (and classmate) gave me a package of 羊羹, having remembered a mention I made of not having had a chance to try it from among the enormous variety of traditional sweets in 京都市.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 7th, 2005 11:28 pm (UTC)
I really liked the idea of tea ceremony when I was in Japan. Actually sitting on my knees for and extended period of time, however...that was not nice for the 6 foot-tall gaijin at all.

The best one I went to was at one of my student's houses. Her grandmother was a tea-ceremony and ikebana teacher, and encouraged her granddaughter to bring me to a few beginner classes so she could practice her English a little. Most of her tea paraphernalia was in the wabi-sabi vein, which is by far my favorite. And doing it in someone's specially-prepared tea room in their house - it was just a really good experience all around. ANd you are right - the charcoal is really, really nice.

That being said, for just sheer enjoyment, I do prefer the less-formal Chinese tea ceremony. I have a hard time calling it a "ceremony," though, after spending a few hours on my knees properly appreciating tea scoops and scrolls and mochi.
Nov. 9th, 2005 02:05 am (UTC)
I have trouble sitting seiza for more than five minutes at a stretch, too, but then, so does everyone else I know who's been studying tea ceremony for less than a decade or two—gaijin or not.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )