Here’s a little update about my progress in the Japanese arts, specifically in managing to put on my own clothes for practicing the tea ceremony.
Although you may remember that I have participated in competitive kimono dressing (wait, what?! See here, here, and here), I am not that confident in basic obi skills. Or rather, seeing as I have always been bested even by origami, I do not have a natural talent for things like folding the obi. The more basic the obi appears, the more difficult it is for me to do. Unlike the florid designs I’ve done for competitions, basic styles used for tea ceremonies are more subdued, and provided less flexibility in fixing mistakes. By this, I’m referring to the very basic taiko (“drum” shaped) style many people picture when they think of kimono. More specifically, lately I’ve been working on nijuudaiko, which has two layers on the outermost fold of the drum instead of one.
Though I have had lessons for doing these basic styles, I always forget over periods of no use, and try though I might, I often can’t get them to look right and have usually asked for help prior to the tea ceremonies I’ve attended or served in. No, people don’t mind helping, but yes, I do find it embarrassing. By the time I got about two and a half years into my practice, I knew I did not want that help anymore, and did my best to get myself dressed all by myself. Though regular practice no longer fits into my schedule, I’ve occasionally gone back to my old classroom for refreshers.
In September I attended a moon viewing tea ceremony. I had squeezed a couple of classroom practices a few weeks beforehand, as I was losing hope in being able to fold my newly purchased obi on my own with only the Internet to help me. The first time I went I worked with one of Kimono-sensei’s friends who was taking over the class while she wasn’t feeling well, and she found it a little odd to work with (good, it wasn’t just me who thought something was off!), but she taught me a method that seemed a little simpler than standard nijuudaiko, but a simple Internet search is not revealing it as an orthodox method.
For precaution’s sake and because I wanted to say hello to good old Kimono-sensei once she was feeling better, I went to class again the following week to show her the obi in question, which she had already heard about from the friend who taught me the week before. With one look, she exclaimed, “Buri-chan, why do you have a bridal obi?!”
No surprises to justify that, just a simple misunderstanding on the part of the new employee at the used kimono shop who told me it was an obi for nijuudaiko. Kimono-sensei showed me how it was a thinner width than usual, and therefore would look too small for regular use. Having a packed schedule with travel and no time to find a new obi or practice using a new one, I decided to stick with it just for that one upcoming ceremony. After all, it was private (but there were still a number of people I didn’t know through my school) and in low light (but people still had chances to admire each other’s ensembles, which meant I needed to point out the error in my ways anyway so that they wouldn’t be duped like many of us already were by the slightly-too-narrow bridal obi).
The good news, however, is that I was able to put it on mostly correctly in the very short time I had between getting home from a 5-hour bus ride and catching Tea-sensei’s taxi to the tea ceremony.
My schedule continued to stay very busy following the moon viewing tea ceremony, so once again, I was concerned I wouldn’t have much of a chance to find and purchase a new and appropriate obi, much less learn to use it before serving all day in the Ichibata Yakushi Tea Ceremony in November. That was the first one I had ever served back in 2013, but still being a bit of a newb, I only went back and forth serving and removing cups of tea and sweets for the hundreds of guests we had throughout the day as opposed to performing the ceremony myself. Two years of experience later I felt really good about performing the ceremony portion and making the tea for the guest of honor, but I still didn’t feel very assured dressing myself correctly, especially in front of so many guests in a public setting. Tea-sensei lent me a proper nijuudaiko and assured me someone would be able to put it on for me if I could not, but I promised that I would practice.
And practice I did.
Practice I did, so many times. I consulted YouTube-sensei a number of times, only to find that there were so many methods that differed from what Kimono-sensei had taught me by hand–literally, by grabbing my hands and putting them in the right places. Without having seen the process I did before and without being physically corrected while watching instructional videos, I was frustrated by being unable to compare what was different about the methods in the first place.
There were many weekend afternoons when I quit part-way without having been able to make anything half-way functional, and there were times when I mentally ran away from practicing at all. It would be hopeless for me to teach myself, and actually do it nicely enough to be presentable, especially with all the extra attention I already attract by being the obvious foreign student my tea school. I’m not the only one who is unconfident about putting on kimono, or even in performing the ceremony well, and I’ve put their nerves at ease by jokingly telling them not to worry because I’ll attract attention away from their mistakes. For as many whispers as I hear as I serve in public ceremonies (typically positive and genuinely surprised), I known I’ll not be judged as harshly if I get something wrong, but I still want to get things as close to right as I can. But with all those eyes on me, surely it would be better just to give up on the kimono practice and let someone more consistent handle it while I just focus on practicing making tea, right??
So I said to myself in my head many times when quitting part-way through my self-guided practices, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my schoolmates either by asking for help every single time. That stubbornness pushed me to try the obi one more time each time I wanted to quit, and little by little, I had something that was actually… well… functional?
A little… hmm… fluffy? Balloon-like? Tilted? But functional. Functional is a good start.
I kept at it, and I kept looking for more instructional videos. I’m grateful I can understand Japanese well enough now to listen as I practice instead of depending on subtitles (and that it gives me more options for instructional materials), even though things like origami instructions never even made sense to me in perfect English. Yet at some point, the videos started to make sense. At some point, I saw how the nijuudaiko came together, and it was no longer mystifying. After that point, my functional obi, although not perfect, became closer and closer and closer to… well, if not perfect, then at least reliable.
Come the weekend of the big tea ceremony, I was relieved the day before to see some a lot of nijuudaiko examples in real life for mental reference, and perhaps even more relieved to see that very few people had gotten it “perfect.” Since then, I’ve also caught on that a lot of my senpai who have been practicing tea for years still make appointments at beauty studios to be dressed up before tea ceremonies. When it comes down to it, a kimono is literally a “thing to wear” and before fitting some fanciful ideal, it is a functional garment. Even with well-tailored Western style clothes, we don’t always look like we’re modeling for a catalog when we wear them, yet they serve their purpose in clothing up and making our appearance appropriate for the setting anyway. Kimono are the same, and they are generally put into use away from a competition stage where perfection is of the essence.
I woke up at 4:30 the next morning to get ready, but in one try, my obi and I were ready with time to spare before Tea-sensei and Tea-senpai came to pick me up. Tea-senpai, who also studies with Kimono-sensei and knew how hard I had been working on it, told me right away that it looked great, as did Tea-sensei.
With a near-perfect appearance of grace attained, I then promptly and quite noticeably bumped my head upon getting in the car.
“Pride comes before a fall” could describe the rest of that day pretty well too. Although originally scheduled for 13, we put on 15 tea ceremonies, and for the most part, I nailed it every time. Serving the guests directly throughout most of the day (ohakobi), performing the ceremony and making the tea in front of them twice (otemae), and even in my interactions while away from our tea room–not only did my ensemble look praise-worthy all day, but I had the charm to match in my speech and poise.
Just as I was feeling quite caught up in my awesomeness, I volunteered to perform the ceremony in our rather spur-of-the-moment final ceremony, especially considering everyone had already performed it twice. As I confidently started my third otemae of the day, I dropped the hishaku (ladle) on the floor as I was putting down my tools.
Oops. That threw off my groove. In an effort to cover my little mistake, the nice teacher from another school who was giving the welcome greetings and explaining the tools and decor we had that day instead drew more attention to it by saying I was likely very nervous because, as they could see, I was a foreigner. But nonetheless I was very good at the tea ceremony (really, don’t be fooled by that fallen hishaku, which other people had dropped throughout the day too because we weren’t practiced with the kensui that was so slick!), and I was also very good at Japanese, and I was also very good at kimono and put it on all by myself! “So please, don’t judge the poor gaikokujin too harshly!” it sounded like, but that was me being sensitive, and the already curious guests likely wanted to know more about my tea ceremony practice anyway. He summed up his comments with his own sort of experienced grace, pointing out that more and more, the Japanese tea ceremony is becoming an international hobby. He’s absolutely right about that, and in both the worlds of the tea ceremony and of kimono, people recognize the appeal it has abroad and are very, very happy to see that there are practitioners around the world.
I mostly recovered and did things calmly and smoothly but towards the end when I started prepping the tools for the guests to inspect, I started reaching for the natsume (tea caddy) before placing the hishaku and futa-oki in their proper places, and started turning the front of the natsume towards the guests before I had even cleaned it off, which was a silly thing to do that I had never done before. Oh well. My saving grace was that I had mostly made my mistakes with grace, so perhaps people who weren’t practitioners themselves wouldn’t have known any better (or so I can hope).
Although my efforts (mostly) paid off, I am still humbled by how much there is that I still do not know and still cannot do, and how I am at the mercy of people with decades of experience to point me in the right directions and enlighten me. Two of my classmates and I are responsible for putting on our New Year tea ceremony next month, and for the first time, I’ll serve a full kaiseki meal in ceremonious style. It’ll be quite a learning experience.
……..and I still don’t know what obi I’m going to use.