Dec 28, 2007

Silence of the looms

I enjoy collecting and wearing kimono for tea. I feel comfortable and wear kimono whenever I am teaching tea, in the tea room or sometimes just around the house.
When I lived in Kyoto, Japan, I lived near the district called the Nishijin. It is a famous area in the city known for fabric. Not just any fabric, but designers here, for generations, have produced the most beautiful brocade and woven fabrics used in obi and kimono.

Everyday when I would walk to class, I could hear the sounds of the jacquard looms chink-a-chink-a-chink in the homes where the fabric was woven. But I returned to Kyoto last autumn and walked through my old neighborhood for two days. I didn’t hear any looms working in the homes – not a single one.

Ladies don’t wear kimono very often in Japan any more. Just for formal occasions or when they are going to something traditional like a tea ceremony. Some Japanese women that I have taught don’t know how to put a kimono on because they have never done so by themselves. And certainly, women don’t buy wardrobes of kimono – one for every season – any more. With men it is even more rare to dress in kimono – though it seems like hakama is still worn for many martial arts.

So many of the kimono shops have closed and the shops that supplied the accessories for kimono – hair ornaments, zori shoes, fans, combs, sashes and woven cords have also gone away. I met with a seventh generation kimono designer last November. He is the last of his family to design and make kimono. When he retires, the shop will close.

Like many of Japan’s traditional crafts, the kimono is a dying art. The children of the craftsmen no longer want to carry on the business and finding apprentices is getting harder and harder. Young people no longer want to put in the long hours and the many years it takes to master a craft that has little meaning in the modern world. It is getting harder for these craftsmen to make a living practicing their craft. Though we would like to preserve it, I am afraid that soon we will see very little of kimono, obi and accessories.

Last year, The Washington Post had an excellent article, Twilight for the Kimono about the Nishijin and the the art of kimono.

Dec 26, 2007

The year for fire

Since ancient time in Japan, poetry has played a major role in cultural life and continues to be widely practiced today. One direct way that poetry influences chado is the Emperor’s annual poetic theme, called chokudai.

Poetic themes have been designated for poetry gatherings since the Heian period (794-1185). At the new year, it was the custom for poems from each province to be presented to the Emperor. The poems were thought to embody the spirit of each area and add to the Emperor’s spirit. In return, the Emperor’s spirit, embodied in his poem, was given to all the country.

Today, the Imperial Poetry Reading takes place in the Tokyo Imperial Palace in early January. Several poems are selected from the thousands submitted and are read or chanted in the traditional lyrical style before the Imperial family. Those whose poems have been selected are invited as guests and the Emperor’s poem is read last.

Last year the poetic theme was moon. The chokudai for 2008 is hi or fire. Why not compose a poem on new year’s day to commemorate the year? Everyone remembers writing haiku in grade school. Try to write a short fire poem with 5-7-5 syllables per line. Or try writing a poem in the classical waka style with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables per line.

Besides poems with the theme, every year craftsmen who make tea utensils use the chokudai to commemorate the year. I wonder what the new year will bring with the theme of fire? Will it mean that people will get fired up? I have a feeling that 2008 will be a very exciting and passionate one. For me, I hope so.

Dec 24, 2007

The place to practice

There is a scroll that is often used in the tea room: Jiki shin kore do jo. It means the pure and simple heart is the place to practice.

When studying tea, it often comes up that people do not have a tea room, there is no place to practice and they cannot study chanoyu. When I first began to study chanoyu, I measured out a four and a half mat tea room on my living room floor and used masking tape to mark the mats. I used my stovetop kettle and a ceramic cereal bowl and a carved wooden popsicle stick to practice making tea.

Chanoyu developed in Japan and originally took place in a tatami mat room, but it is a living tradition that has adapted with the times. Gengensai developed the ryurei or table style tea that can take place in any room or even out of doors. There is also chabako, a traveling tea set you can use to make tea anywhere. I have taken my chabako on hikes in the mountains, to parks, and other outdoor venues. With a thermos of hot water and a chabako, tea ceremony can be done anywhere.

The beginning tea procedure, ryakubon can be done without a tatami mat room. I have a set in my living room and have used it to make tea for guests on the coffee table with an ordinary tea kettle of hot water on a trivet. I even had a ryakubon set at the office that I used to make tea for my collegues, or even just myself when I needed to take a 15 minute break in a busy day.

The point is that you do not have to have all the utensils to practice chanoyu. Just use what you have, adapt the rest and make good tea for your guests.

Dec 20, 2007

The return to the light

I have been looking forward to the solstice this year, and looking back on my writing, it seems to be preoccupied with light and sun lately. It must have something to do with getting up and going to work in the dark, and coming home in the dark. With overcast skies and fog all day or drenching rain in the last week , even during the daylight hours, it seems more like twilight. When I was out walking at lunch time, I saw a patch of blue sky yesterday. But you had to be looking in the right place, and it was just for a few seconds before the grey clouds covered it up again. I tell you, I have treasured that little patch of blue. I keep remembering it, where I was standing when I saw it and grateful for that little bit of hope. No wonder pagan societies all over the world throughout history celebrated the winter solstice, calculated it, marked it, waited for it. It is the turn of the world back to the light. The natural rhythms of the seasons coming around again. So in the deep, dark days of winter, we make the turn once again to light and hope. The pendulum will swing again in the other direction and in six months we will once again be sitting in the sun.

Bless you all this holiday season.

Dec 18, 2007

Bonenkai and preparing for the New Year

The end of the year is fast approaching. The Japanese have a tradition of preparing for the new year by cleaning and settling up so that one can begin the new year with a clean slate.

One such tradition is Bonenkai ("forget the past year" parties). The idea behind Bonenkai is to hold a party where lots of food and plenty of alcohol are served, to help wash away all the unpleasantness of the past year, review accomplishments and begin the new year with a clean slate. Bonenkai are a must for every work group. There may be parties for one department, the whole company, clients, etc. Options for these parties range from snack food and drinks to lavish social gatherings on a cruise ship sailing around the Sumida River in Tokyo complete with live music and dancing. There may be parties for other groups as well, such as judo or chess clubs or former classmates.

Another tradition is O-soji (big cleaning). According to ancient belief, Toshigami (God of the Year) visits every home at New Year's, so many preparations are devoted to being ready to receive him. These preparations include paying off debts, saying you’re sorry to mend relationships, and thoroughly cleaning the house, office, or classroom. Floors and walls are scrubbed, rooms and desks are tidied, and borrowed items are returned. School children always clean their school, but for o-soji they make a game of running across the floors pushing damp towels with their hands.

By mid-December people are busy addressing nengajo (New Year's postcards) to send to business associates and clients as well as friends and family. They are available in a great variety of styles, like American Christmas cards. Creative or ambitious people make their own. All postcards dropped off at the Post Office by a specified date are delivered on New Year's morning by an army of temporary workers hired for this one special day. It takes an army: four billion nengajo are sent annually. To add to the excitement, the Post Office prints cards with lottery numbers on one side and a blank side to be decorated by the sender. A lottery drawing is televised in mid-January, with thousands of prizes awarded.

Most stores close for several days at New Year's, so in the days before refrigeration a variety of preserved foods became part of traditional New Year's meals. The most important of these is mochi, or pounded glutinous rice. Mochi will keep for several days and is also tasty grilled. These days it is possible to buy mochi at the grocery store or to make it with an electric pounding appliance, but the very best mochi is made the old-fashioned way: hot steamy rice is put in a heavy wooden or granite usu (mortar) and pounded with a large wooden kine (pestle or mallet). Rice has been the most important crop in Japan for centuries, the key to prosperity and a full belly, and pounding rice brings out its sacred essence. The final result is a soft, smooth, and chewy dough-like glob that is pinched into small balls. It may be filled with sweet bean paste, dropped like dumplings into soup, or used in a hundred other ways (depending on the region). Mochituski (mochi pounding) is a family or community event, with people taking turns at pounding, while another person with courage and care reaches into the bowl between hits to turn the rice.

The final act of wiping the slate clean is played out at Buddhist temples all over the country, starting before midnight on December 31. In a ceremony called Joya no Kane, temple bells are rung one hundred and eight times to welcome the new year and obliterate the sins or troublesome desires of the past year. One explanation of this precise number is that, according to Buddhist teaching, there are six senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, and cognition; these have three natures: good, bad, and neutral. Each of these 18 attributes has both positive and negative aspects that can exist in the past, present, or future. Thus you have 6 × 3 × 2 × 3 or 108 reasons to toll the bell. People visit the temple grounds before midnight to watch and listen, or maybe be invited to climb a ladder to take a turn striking the huge iron bell. Those who prefer a televised ceremony from the warmth of their home can watch a team of thirty monks toll the seventy-four-ton bell at the Chion-in Temple in Kyoto. At some temples, people go to get a piece of string to be lit at the temple fires to take home and light the home fires for New Year’s day. The string must be twirled all the way home to keep it lit.

Dec 11, 2007

The Legend of the 47 Ronin

On December 14th Gishi-sai no cha is a tea gathering to honor the memory of the 47 Ronin of Akō.

The legend recounts the most famous case involving the samurai code of honor, Bushidō. Loyalty, control, sacrifice, persistence, and honor: in the legend, these virtues were etched forever into the soul of the Japanese people. The tale, known as Chūshingura, is celebrated in stories, plays, books, woodblock prints, statues, movies and television.

The story begins with Asano Naganori of Akō, a samurai lord, who was summoned to the Shogun’s palace in the city of Edo, now Tokyo. Under the watchful eye of his tutor, Lord Kira, master of palace protocol, Asano was given court responsibilities. Friction between the two men was constant. Asano refused to pay the bribes that Kira demanded for his services. Kira used every opportunity to publicly humiliate Asano. After two months of abuse, Asano’s tolerance was gone. He drew his sword against Kira within the palace walls – a grievous offense – and attempted but failed to kill him. The punishment for this was inflexible: Asano was ordered to commit seppuku, a ritual act of suicide.

Upon his death, Asano’s estate was confiscated, his family was disinherited, and his 321 samurai retainers were ordered to disband, thus becoming ronin or masterless warriors. Many of them, in a secret blood oath, swore to avenge their Lord’s disgrace and restore his rightful honor. Headed by their general Oishi, they undertook nearly two years of great self-sacrifice and carefully conceived ruses to disguise their real purpose. Oishi himself moved to Kyoto, where he became an infamous drunk and gambler, all to deceive the Shogun’s police and Kira’s many spies.

The ruses worked. Kira and his allies finally relaxed their suspicions of Oishi and his men. On a winter night, December 14th, 1702, 47 of the Ronin met in Edo. They marched to Kira’s mansion, announcing themselves to those inside with Oishi’s beating of the Asano war drum. In the great battle that followed, the 47 stormed Kira’s mansion and attacked Kira’s 61 armed guards. In the course of a 1 ½ hour battle, they were able to subdue or kill all of Kira’s men without any fatalities of their own. Finding Kira, the brought him to a courtyard and offered him the chance to honorably commit seppuku. Kira was not able to commit seppuku, so the 47 Ronin beheaded him and a whistle signaled that he was dead. Then to symbolize the completion of their mission, the 47 Ronin returned to Asano’s grave at Sengaku-ji Temple and set the head of Kira before it, declaring their Lord’s honor redeemed.

Prepared to die for this deed, the 47 Ronin proclaimed what they had done to the Shogun’s court authorities. The Shogun himself, though sympathetic to their heroic act, was nonetheless on the horns of a dilemma. To pardon them would be to condone future vendettas. After 47 days of deliberation, the decision was made that each of the 47 was ordered to honorably commit seppuku, instead of being executed as criminals.

On February 4, 1703, each of the Asano warriors committed seppuku, dignifying themselves in their valiant sacrifice. Upon their deaths, these loyal 47 men were buried side-by-side with their master at Sengaku-ji Temple.

The clothes and arms they wore are still preserved in the temple to this day, along with the drum and whistle; the armor was all home-made, as they had not wanted to arouse suspicion by purchasing any. The tombs became a place of great veneration, and people flocked there to pray. The smoke of incense offered by sincere worshippers has been ascending there for 304 years.

Dec 8, 2007

Back to one again

Keiko to wa ichi yori narai ju o shiri ju yori kaeru moto no sono ichi.

Rikyu’s wrote one hundred poems on the way of tea, and this one is translated as:
In tea practice, you learn from one to ten. When you reach ten you return to the original one.

Because chanoyu is wide – it covers many, many things, and deep – it can be a profound spiritual path, there are always things to learn. This poem reminds us too, that no matter how far we think we have progressed, we return to the original one again. That is, the lessons we thought we learned in the beginning of study we go back and re-learn again. This has been so true in my own study. After 15 years of study, I went to Japan where I started from the very beginning to learn how to walk and sit in the tea room. I learned how to bow the correct way again, and I learned again to clean. Even in the most advanced tea workshops with high ranking teachers and students, every seminar begins with warigeko – the basics.

But it was not just these physical things that I re-learned again. The lessons that I first learned in chanoyu about humility, thinking of others and doing things the right way came back to me in the first months of intensive study in Japan.

After many years of study, I thought that I pretty much knew a lot about chanoyu and I was one of the more advanced students of my sensei. But in Japan, I was little more than a tadpole just out of the egg. I quickly had to re-learn these lessons again and again.

Each time we return to the beginning, it is really not the beginning again. It is the same lessons presented so that I can take it in at a deeper level and so enrich my understanding of myself and how I interact with the world.

Dec 3, 2007

Japanese for the tea room

Learning the Japanese words during tea class is not necessary, but it does help with the discipline of learning something new. At the request of my current students here is the basic Japanese for receiving tea properly in the tea room:

Opening salutation (aisatsu), entire class:
"Ohayo gozaimasu [morning] (OR “Konnichi wa [daytime],” “Konban wa [evening]”) Okeiko yoroshiku onegai itashimasu." (Teacher, please instruct us)

Closing salutation (aisatsu), entire class:
"Sensei, okeiko domo arigato gozaimashita." (Thank you for the lesson)

To the host, after being invited to be the guest:
"Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu."

To the teacher before being invited to be the guest by the host:
"Sensei, okyaku okeiko yoroshiku onegai itashimasu." (Please do me the favor--i.e. of instructing me)

When the host invites you to take your sweet:
"[Okashi] chodai itashimasu." (I will partake of this sweet)

When you bring the bowl back to your place:
If there is a guest to your right (who has already drunk tea):
"Oshoban itashimasu." (May I join you?)

If there is a guest to your left:
"Osakini." (Excuse me for going first)

To the host:
"Otemae chodai itashimasu." (I will partake of your temae-- i.e., the tea and its preparation)

To stop the host from making more tea (spoken as the host empties the rinse water into the kensui):
"Oshimai kudasai." (Please conclude)