I’ve served in an all-day tea event before at Ichibata Yakushi Temple by carrying the tea and sweets (o-hakobi), but the Matsue Castle Grand Tea Ceremony is one of the Top 3 (all three share this title, no one thing is chosen as Number 1) tea gatherings in Japan. Although I had done part of the preparing of the tea (o-temae) for my tea school’s private Hatsugama (New Years tea ceremony), this was my first time doing it in front of strangers–up to 50 of them at a time, though we served hundreds of people in one day.

I’ll admit, the tension was somewhat lower during this last ceremony. We had a decent number of people, but there were all tired and concerned about the wind and rain that was picking up outside the tent. The shoukyaku (guest of honor who drinks the tea prepared in front of everyone instead of the tea prepared in back) this time was a very talkative lady, so I guess that made me feel more relaxed as well. She also recognized me from when I attended the tea ceremony in the tea room floating on the Matsue Castle moat a few months ago, too, so I got to start my o-temae with an extra smile and bow to say, “Yes, that was me. Hello again!”

But really, the lack of tension and the tiredness from the full day of ceremonies, made me more relaxed than I had been during my previous two o-temae. I hate to put it this way considering how a lot of the tea ceremony revolves around caring about your guests having a good time, but to some extent, I didn’t care as much anymore–I still wanted them to enjoy themselves and the moment, but I just didn’t care as much about making mistakes and being caught (and judged) for them, and I was working somewhat automatically instead of running through nental checklists of everything to keep in mind at every step. Perhaps I achieved some state of “no mind” because I wound up unlocking my potential for a smooth and graceful o-temae.

I could tell I did a good job (however unappetizing–but cleaner–the cup of tea I wound up making was), and afterward when I enjoyed a cup a tea I had many people from the other schools who were watching tell me how good it was (after not having enjoyed such comments earlier in the day after my more nervous attempts). While chatting with one of the teachers next to me, I asked about the chatty shoukyaku–turns out she is another Omotesenke teacher, and she had been in charge of the Omotesenke tent the day before! She also had glowing praise for my o-temae, but afterward I made sure to go over and say hello (especially now that I knew who she was), and amid all the praise, I had to ask about the taste of the tea.

Her expression and tone changed a bit when she replied, “Well, I’m used to cups of tea like that…”

For as pretty as my performance was, the core of the ceremony still escapes me–I didn’t manage to make a tasty cup of tea!

Surprisingly, most of my lessons don’t focus very much on the actual preparation of the tea. We’ll address the amount of matcha powder to put in, the amount of water, the angle at which to hold the chasen (tea whisk) and the amount of time to stir, but taste is not really the measure of success. You can tell just by looking at the color and the froth on top whether or not you’ve made a good cup and can be happy to serve that to your guests, but there is something very disappointing about a dark green liquid with some random collections of bubbles on top on visible clouds of powder floating within. If I could hold the chasen more upright and stir it longer I feel I could make much better tea, but I was too concerned about form and the taste and texture were sacrified.

Well, I’m back to regular practice again for a while, and will be moving on to thick tea instead of thin tea soon–I expect to learn a lot more about the tea stirring techinque!

This photo was taken in the Urasenke tent, but the Omotesenke tent in which I served was set up in a similar way, so that the shoukyaku can see everything you’re doing.

Tomorrow I’ll have some photos from the places were I simply enjoyed the ceremonies as a guest–this makes me so glad it’s a two-day event.

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