Oct 30, 2008

In Praise of Shadows

As the days are getting longer, our tea classes are increasingly held in the darkness that fills the autumn evenings. At the Ryokusuido Tea Room, there is only a single light with a low wattage bulb in the tea room. I love the way that the light of this room reveals and hides at the same time.

I have often thought that this low light situation looks like the room is lit only by candlelight. It is quite romantic to have the corners of the tea room shrouded in the shadows and the face of the host softly lit with a mellow light. It concentrates the focus of the guests when the temaeza is all that is illuminated.

I have often thought of tea in the time of Rikyu. Without electricity, the tea room would have been quite dark in the evenings except what was shown by the light of a lamp or candle. The host and guests must pay more attention to sounds and to smells as the dependence on sight is diminished. The edges of the things are softened and the room itself seems to expand in the darkness. If one were to use charcoal to heat the water the glow from the coals is not visible with the lights on. Only in the darkness can we see the reflection of the charcoal on the black lacquer, and the chrysanthemum at the ends of the burning wood is revealed.

It now makes sense for the guests to go to the alcove or tokonoma to look at the scroll and then go to look at the kettle and utensils. It also makes sense to ask for haiken to look at the utensils close up as these things would only show a gleam of gold from across the room. And we get to touch them and savor the texture of the clay from the tea bowl or smoothness of the bamboo tea scoop.

There is something to be said for the bright light of day to penetrate the shoji and illuminate the tea room. But also do not forget the shadows of the evening to reveal what is hidden in the darkness at the edges of the tearoom.

Oct 27, 2008

Intimate Silence

In the previous post, The host revealed, and by questions at tea demonstrations, I have been asked again and again about how much talking is allowed at a tea ceremony. While talking is not forbidden, there are appropriate subjects and times that guests and host can communicate.

In America, we are not usually comfortable with silence and talk to fill it or cover the perceived awkwardness. It seems more friendly and attentive to comment and chat about what is going on in the tea room.

If there is conversation in the tea room, most of it will take place between the shokyaku or main guest, and the host. It is the responsibility of the shokyaku to speak for the guests and to anticipate the questions the guests may have and to time the conversations so that the harmony and flow of the ceremony is enhanced and not disrupted. Other guests may address the shokyaku to ask the host questions and the shokyaku will find an appropriate time to ask the host.

It is in fact, more respectful at a tea ceremony to be silent and pay careful attention as the host goes through the procedures for making tea. Conversation, questions and chat during this time takes attention away from what the host is doing. For the host, his full attention should be on serving the guests. And for the guests, their full attention should be on receiving what the host has prepared and appreciation for everything the host has done in preparation/

Communications are subtle and nuanced in the silence and unspoken feelings can be intensified by a mere glance or gesture. In many ways, this careful attention on both sides creates an intimacy that cannot be achieved through conversation and talking.

Oct 24, 2008

Workshop: How to Dress in Kimono

Have you always wanted to wear a kimono? For both men and women, come and learn how to dress and wear kimono properly. Everyone will be dressed in authentic kimono and obi. Ryokusuido has a new shipment of kimono, obi and haori. If you have your own kimono and obi, please bring them. Afterwards, you will attend a Japanese Tea Ceremony in the Ryokusuido Tea Room. Limited enrollment. Reserve your place now.

When: Tuesday, November 4, 2008 6:30 pm.
Fee: $25.00 Reservations required
Where: Nishiura Ryokusuido, 3826 NE Glisan St.
Portland, OR 97232

For more information and reservations, contact:
Margie Yap

Oct 16, 2008

Elusive scents, the way of Koh

I had an opportunity earlier this week to attend a lecture and demonstration on Kodo, the way of incense. Kodo is a traditional Japanese art, a ritual that is meditative in nature, but unlike chado, it is also playful. Kodo has deep roots in Japanese culture, dating back to the Heian period (794-1192). It is mentioned in the Tale of Genji and evokes images of the beauty and wonder of ancient Japan.

Mr. Kihachiro Nishura from Tokyo is a Kodo master, and he prepared for 60 people an abbreviated version of Genjiko, an incense ceremony where guests were given 3 different scents and had to distinguish if they were alike or different.

The incense used was wood incense called jinko (meaning sinking wood). It is rare and primarily found in Vietnam and Laos. How it is formed is mysterious and natural. A resinous tree is eaten by bugs and the tree exudes resin to protect itself. When the tree dies, it falls to the ground and over many years it decays and changes into jinko.

There are a few rules before starting an incense ceremony:

  1. Don’t eat anything spicy or wear perfume
  2. Wear clean socks
  3. No accessories (rings, watches and bracelets can damage the porcelain incense burners)
  4. No flowers or plants in the room
  5. Don’t talk too much – the answers should come from your own perceptions

The incense burners (koro) are prepared by placing a live charcoal in a bed of ash, covering it up and pressing an intricate pattern on top with special utensils. A chimney hole is poked down through the ash to the coal so heat escapes. Over the chimney hole is placed a special mica plate surrounded by silver. The tiny, tiny bit of incense wood about the size of the letter o here is placed on the mica plate. This gentle heat releases the fragrance from the resin. The guests hold the koro in the left palm and cover the top with the right hand, leaving a small hole formed by the thumb and first finger. By putting your nose up to this hole, inhale gently and smell the fragrance. Exhale by turning to the left and down

This is often described as “Listening to the incense.” Mr. Nishiura likened the enjoyment of incense to listening to music – there are top notes and low notes and it changes over time. There is an immersion into the experience. Because our sense of smell is one of the most primitive senses, it is connected closely to our memories and smells evoke emotions and feeling connected to those memories.

So the Genjiko game we played was 3 different kinds of incense woods each packaged in 3 times in small wrappers for a total of nine packages. Of these, three are chosen at random and prepared in different koro.

Comparing these, there are five possible configurations to the set:
  1. If each one of the three are different it is scored like this: | | | three vertical lines
  2. If each one is the same it is scored with three vertical lines all connected at the top (sorry I can’t do it on the keyboard).
  3. If the first and last are the same it is scored with three vertical lines with only the first and last connected at the top and the middle line a little shorter.
  4. If the first two are alike then the first two vertical lines are connected.
  5. And finally if the last two are alike then the last two vertical lines are connected.
To give more interest, kodo master can give poetic names to the combinations such as:
  1. Three vertical lines (all different): Evergreen trees
  2. Three vertical lines all connected (all the same): Dew on pampas grass
  3. First and third connected: Snow on a lonely peak
  4. First two connected: Sound of the koto
  5. Last two connected: Plum blossoms form the neighbor’s house.
It was a challenge not only in distinguishing the fragrances (you only get one inhalation), but also in memory – did this one have as sharp a note as the last one, or did it gently fade away at the end?

In the game, the guests write their answers on small folded pieces of paper. The recorder collects them all, scores them and writes a record (in calligraphy) of all the participants’ scores. Many rounds are played and the one with the highest score gets to take the record home.

Knowledge of literature and poetry, calligraphy, as well as memory and discernment all play a role in the enjoyment of kodo.

If you'd like to try kodo, I have some supplies at sweetpersimmon.com

Oct 9, 2008

The seven grasses of autumn

Aki no ni
sakitaru hana o
yubi orite
kaki kazoureba
nana kusa no hana

hagi ga hana
obana kuzubana
nadeshiko no hana
mata fujibakama
asagao no hana.

Flowers blossoming in the autumn fields
when I count them on my fingers
they number seven.

the flowers of the bush clover,
pampas grass, and arrowroot
dianthus, patrina,
also mistflower and morning glory.

In Japan, autumn is a time of mountains turning to magnificent crimson brocade, tapestries and cities glowing in wonderful autumn tints as the days grow cooler. From the earliest days, autumn has been extolled in Japanese poetry, painting, and design as well as enjoyed through foods that are available only in this season.

The seven grasses of autumn were often mentioned in the many verses of the Man’yoshu, the first collection of Japanese poetry and song. The images of autumn grasses presented in the Kokinshu, the first Imperial anthology of poetry compiled in 905, illustrates life in the Heian times in a way that could not be captured by painting. The subtle nuances of life and love at the time were illustrated with words alone, using nature and flowers to depict a clear picture of life in Hein Japan.

It is through the above poem by Yamanoue Okua, a court noble during 724-729, that the seven grasses of autumn have become well known.

from "An anthology of the seasonal feeling of chanoyu," by Michael A. Birch, Soei

Oct 6, 2008

Nagori, a lingering feeling

It seems like overnight, we went from the warm pleasant days of September to the chill showers of October. It is indeed fall as the leaves are in their full color against the cloudy grey skies of the Pacific Northwest.

In some ways, October is the perfect month for tea. There are so many themes to choose from, and the lingering nostalgia for the summer months makes October a wabi tea month. The broken and repaired teabowls, the slender mizusashi, the gyogodana which we only get to use this one month of the year. Traditionally, the tea jars that were packed full from last year are down to the end of tea this time of year. Mostly there are the broken and discarded leaves at the bottom of the jar. The brazier moves from the left side of the tatami mat to the middle to move the fire closer to the guests and ward off the chill. Soon the brazier will be put away and there is a general melancholy at the coming of winter. Looking at what remains, there is a nostalgic lingering feeling of farewell. This is called nagori.

In a way, the autumn is looked as the end-- end of bright summer days, the warmth of sun on our faces. As the days shorten and the rains come, we wish that summer could go on. But in many ways, autumn is the beginning. School starts in autumn, and for tea people, the new year of tea begins in autumn as we look forward to using the new tea leaves harvested in May. But now, with the coming of winter, there is an urge to use precious resources and not waste anything.