Nov 3, 2009

Robiraki, Opening the Winter Hearth

The new year for tea is upon us. Frost is forming and the mountain passes are filling with snow. The landscape and people are preparing for winter cold. Once again the fire moves to the sunken hearth and laying charcoal for the first time is celebrated at Robiraki. The chatsubo, the tea container that has held the tea leaves since the harvest in May, is brought out and opened in a ceremony called Kuchikiri. The sealed jar is displayed in the tea room as the guests enter. The host takes the jar from the mesh bag, allows the guests to see the seal before he/she opens the seal and takes out the tea leaves to be ground for tea that day. Then the jar is sealed up again.

There are two ways to display the chatsubo: in the mesh bag as noted above and with the three decorative knots, formal in front, semiformal to the right, and informal to the left. This is a beautiful way to display the chatsubo if you are not going to take the tea out of the jar in front of the guests.

The laying of the charcoal is always a feature of Robiraki, emphasizing the warmth of the winter hearth. Laying the sumi (charcoal) for the ro season is larger than for the furo (summer) season. It is usually laid at the beginning of the chaji (tea gathering) and all through the meal, the charcoal is heating the water in the kettle. Ro sized kettles are larger and it takes more time and charcoal to heat them up.

Another seasonal treat is the sweets for Robiraki. That is zenzai. It is kind of a sweet bean soup served hot in lacquer bowls. Sometimes there is bit of mochi or chestnuts in the soup.

Timing for Robiraki is sometimes a mystery. There are various ways to think about it: approximately 88 days from the time of the tea harvest is the time to open up the chatsubo, so timing robiraki for this allows for a kuchi kiri as well as robiraki. I think it was Rikyu who said that "when the yuzu (citron) turns yellow it is the time to open the ro.

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