January in Japan is full of firsts, often signified by the prefix hatsu (初). Among tea practicioners, the first tea ceremony of the year is one of the most festive, and is called Hatsugama (初釜), literally, “first kettle.” Having started practicing the tea ceremony last April, this was my first Hatsugama. Not only that, but it was my first time preparing the tea outside of regular practices.

My omotesenke school had ours on the 18th with 18 participants, and in a city like Matsue where the matcha flows like the canals that trace their way around town, I can imagine we were not the first. It seems a lot of places were booked out the previous weekend, but we held ours in the Matsue Club, overlooking the Ohashi river that bisects the north and south sides of town.

I had passed by this building many times before while walking alongside the river, but like many spaces in Japan, I had never imagined how much bigger it was on the inside. They even had a tsukubai set up next to the tea room. Trivial Japanese time! The tsukubai (蹲), the stone wash basin found in Japanese gardens, is so-called because you need to crouch down (tsukubau 蹲う) next to it.

After cleansing, we greeted each other and entered the tea room.

Can you spot the two CIRs?

The day started with preparing the charcoal for the fire under the kettle. During this part of the ceremony, all the guests sit closely so as to observe how the different kinds of charcoal are arranged to prepare the fire, and what a pleasing red glow they have to warm us up during one of the coldest months of the year.

This was followed by okoicha, the highest grade of matcha prepared to about the thickness of paint. This is shared among three guests or so at a time. While the tea master is preparing the tea, the guests partake of a wagashi (Japanese confections). In the case of omotesenke, New Year sweets are green on the inside and white on the outside, like pine branches covered in snow.

Note the “Yanagiwa” next to the scroll. This is a ring made of willow branches, one of many festive New Year decorations. Gold and silver are also indicative of New Years, and we used heavy gold-painted tea cups for the thick tea.

Following okoicha, we changed some tools and decorations out to get ready for o-usu, the thinner style of matcha that is more commonly consumed–and, thus far, the only kind I know how to prepare. Speaking of preparation…

Setting my tools in place.

Sporting my “I’m trying really hard to look relaxed” face.

I’m about to take the whisk I just cleansed out of the tea cup, which is why it is vertical. In Omotosenke, we whisk it diagonally instead of vertically.

Now to bring in the tea.

I wonder how the tea I made tasted?
Note the kan-botan in the decorative alcove. These are winter peonies, and peonies are big stuff here in Shimane.

I don’t think I made any major mistakes, but it felt like it went by really fast! Given the number of participants, the tea-making responsibilities are split up among a handful of people so I only did the first part of the ceremony before switching out with a few other relative beginners, but although it wasn’t as smooth as I would have liked and I felt nervous, I think it was a success (I’m feeling a little more self-conscious after seeing the photos, though!). I wonder how many more chances I’ll get like this throughout 2014? There’s still nine months to prepare for the Dai-Chakai at Matsue Castle…

After the two types of tea ceremonies, we started our kaiseki meal (though this would usually be eaten before drinking tea). Kaiseki can refer to any sophisticated Japanese meal served in courses, and I’ve enjoyed a number of kaiseki meals at restaurants and ryokan around Matsue for fancy work parties, but this was my first time receiving it in tea ceremony style.

Thankfully I had a teacher sitting near me to explain all the steps as we went along, and though we were all fairly relaxed since most of us are classmates who are already acquainted with each other, there was a higher level of formality than I’ve ever had at a work-party (which I already find amusingly formal before the sake starts flowing. Speaking of, there was plenty of sake at this tea party, too).

I did my best, but I could not stay in seiza for very long by that point. My knees still need more training! If I take part in Hatsugama 2015, it will serve as a good comparison for how much better I get over the course of this year.

I’m ready, 2014! Bring on more matcha!