Although there will be special tea ceremonies in the Matsue History Museum on Sundays until November 2, the main Matsue Castle Grand Tea Ceremony 2014 events were on the first Saturday and Sunday of October, with 11 different schools set up around the castle area. I was serving in the Omotesenke tent on Sunday, so I spend Saturday trying out a few different ones.

Despite the approaching typhoon, turnout was good. The people engineering the tents were quite professional, and when the rain and wind started getting harsher on Sunday, they had us patched right away. The weather was very good on Saturday, however ominous the sky was looking early that morning.

I started with the very first seating of the day at Houenryu, a school that has been doing a British-fushion style tea ceremony with koucha (red tea, or black tea, as most of the West calls it) for the past few years, but decided to go back to its sencha (steeped green tea) roots this year. Not all Japanese tea ceremonies use matcha (powdered green tea), after all!

This school tends to use a large array of flowers, though they’re sort of paying homage to their koucha displays even though they toned it back a bit for the sencha this year. There are pine trees throughout this level of the Matsue Castle mount, so many of the schools incorporate them into their design.

Rather than western style tea cups, the tools had more Chinese style. Unlike most other sencha styles, they give everyone a teapot to pour their own second cup (they merely refill the water at the appropriate time).

Although served in advance, the wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionery) is consumed after the first cup of sencha so that you can appreciate the natural sweetness of the tea with a clean palette, and then taste its bitter tones in the second cup. The wagashi‘s motif is changing leaf colors, though unfortunately I didn’t capture much of the green side in this photo–visually, it was my favorite wagashi I had that weekend.

I had to take a break later in the morning to go to something else I had scheduled, but thankfully I had some time to stroll through the shops and food stalls, and take a look at some pottery from all over Shimane prefecture.

Back in the early afternoon, there were longer waiting times, but you can typically make a reservation for a later ceremony–I got to use all three of my tickets, but even as a single guest instead of with a group, I’m glad I checked in advance what times were open instead of pushing my luck! I stopped in for some matcha next at the Urasenke tent. I practice Omotesenke, and they are like the two major branches of the tea ceremony. Similar, but opposite in subtle ways (or so I’ve been told).

Like most of the tents, they had some treasured tools set out to observe in the waiting area, as observing tools and decorations is a big part of the fun (at the end of each of the ceremonies, everyone crowds around to observe (like shown below), which is why part of the ceremony involves cleaning your tools off after you’ve used them.

Unfortunately, I am not well-versed enough yet to be able to tell you why each of these tools is special. The tea masters are supposed to know all that, though, and there typically is someone explaining all of the tools and decorations and their meanings while the tea is being prepared, but by the time the wagashi come out I’m usually too distracted to listen. I was distracted by the pretty pattern on the bowl they were served in, too.

I wish I could say I noticed for myself what parts of Ura are different from Omote, but like I said, I was typically distracted by other details of the experience–like the tastiness of the frothy tea.

Since I can usually get my fill of matcha anyday in Matsue, I tried out another place for a sencha ceremony in the afternoon–this time, Urakuryu (not related to Urasenke). Besides a wreath with a display of seasonal vegetables, they also had a flower arrangement with pomegranates which I liked.

The explanation of how to appreciate sencha was really nice at this, as was the tea itself. It was on the astringent side of the favor profile, though.

They also had my favorite wagashi of the weekend. It was soft and light in flavor with a soft texture, and just a hint of citrus flavor. I could get hooked on these–too bad they’re one of the many wagashi designed specifically for the Grand Tea Ceremony and not available at all times!

At least there will still be a few more special Sundays at the history museum!