Feb 2, 2014
I was looking at the blog on the Issoan tea site and it jogged my memory about a part of tea that is rarely thought of, or worked with...shimeshibai. The art of washing and preparing the ash -Shimeshibai- is done yearly at Konnichi-an. I started to look for more information online and found one entry that was made by an astute practitioner of tea named Drew Hanson in Philadelphia. Some of my memories were fragmented, so with the help of Soya Sensei of Portland Issoan tea school, and Drew's article, I was able to fill in the missing pieces. Since I was in need of a good ash cleaning I decided to do it 'off season' in March. But here is what I remember of what happened at Konnichi-an.
During the hottest part of the summer, the Gyotei and other high ranking students would gather all of the ash (furo and ro combined) and dump it all in large buckets and huge barrels. They would add water and start stirring. Meanwhile, some students would beg Midori-kai members and gakuen-sei members to come and help. But they always caught us in our kimono, or as we were off to teach English. Soon they would be skimming off all of the debris that had floated to the top. I knew that they spiced the clean ash somehow and spread the muddy mixture out onto large reed mats to dry in the hot sun. All of this took place behind the high walls of the inner confines of Urasenke. After the ash was processed it was used for the Ro first by being stored in air tight containers kept in a shady area. Other ash seemed to be sectioned out to be used for the furo. Some of the Gakuen sei were roped into helping and had told me some of the things that they had done to prepare the ash but my Japanese was horrid so some of the information was lost in translation.
One day, I was helping in the mizuya preparing for class and I wasn't too happy about it since one of the upper class men was mizuya cho and he was hard to deal with. Fresh ash must have been laid in the hearths because one of the rooms was due for Sumi temae. Shitabi had been set in the hearth and the heat let loose the spices that the ash had steeped in. The room filled with the most delightful scent. It was as if ko was not needed. It altered my mood and I immediately found one of the gakuen sei who I remember had helped wash the ash. I thanked him very much and informed him how wonderful the smell was. He had 'suffered honorably' and I think that he appreciated the recognition. Later I found one of the advanced students and thanked him also for his efforts.
For my own part, I have found it a bit messy but kind of fun to wash the ash. I followed the instructions that I garnered and did it in a large plastic bucket.
1. I emptied all of my ash into the bucket. Then added water and stirred, stirred, stirred. As foam and other stuff floated to the top I would skim it off and throw it away but Drew says that it might be good for plants...it is worth a try.
2. I let the ash sit for a day or two. Then I poured off the clear water and added more. More Stirring, skimming, and waiting.
3. After I poured off the second batch of clear water, I scooped it all out onto cookies sheets lined with tinfoil. I waited for it to dry; seeing as how this was all done in an off month (January/February- not July), and I live in an apartment, I decided to bake my mud filled cookies sheets at 150 degrees until it was dry enough to sift through my metal colander. After it was all sifted I put it into air tight containers to use when necessary
4. Since I only have furos (those who have Ro's are very lucky), I treat my ash differently. I sift the heck out of it with as fine of a metal colander as I could get. I have a big rubbermaid box for all of my ash stuff, tools, etc.. Once the ash is sifted, clean and fresh I put it into large plastic containers that can be sealed air tight. If you have a Ro then the ash will be sifted and rubbed with rubber gloved hands to the consistency of corn meal-then stored.
This is done yearly at Konnichi-an. It is a labour of love and a test of the resolve of the students and Gyo tei that teach and study at this amazing place. Their stores of spiced ash are vast and bountiful, my ash store is small, but I am thinking of going to local public fire pits and friend's BBQers for ash. It will have to go through the same process but ash is ash no matter where it comes from. It is valuable and stunning when haigata is carved into it. I guess that it is like getting the 'canvas' ready for a work of art carved by spoons, and brushes into mountains, valleys, and peaks inside the most beautiful fire pit ever seen.