Over the course of my four years in Matsue, I put a lot of special effort into art, be it developing my hobbies or learning the ways of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Long-time readers of my blog will probably recall my adventures in competitive kimono dressing with regional contests in Kochi and Hiroshima and a shot at a world championship in Tokyo. However, since 2014, I limited my kimono practice to only occasional refreshers for getting myself dressed for tea ceremonies. Sure, I love the chance to dress up in traditional Japanese attire, be it for strolling around Izumo Taisha during my New Year shrine visit or taking part in Matsue’s early Edo inspired Warrior Parade. However, I chose to dedicate more time to tea ceremony practice.

I still keep in touch with Kimono-sensei, of course. It just so happened that when I called her for advice on behalf of a friend who was getting started with her first kimono that she asked if I happened to be open on May 29th, during the annual kimono show she and her kimono buddies put on at the Matsue English Garden. As luck would have it, I did happened to be open that day, and thankfully there was no prep necessary for showing up on stage as a hanamusubi (folding obi in the shapes of flowers) model.

Knowing this might be one of my last times to wear kimono for a while, Kimono-sensei specifically chose to have me model the tsubaki (camellia), because it is one of the representative flowers of Matsue. It just so happens that I’ve always had a very soft spot for tsubaki, so this made us all happy. After all, Kimono-sensei wanted me to have this as one more memory of Matsue.

tsubaki

Fast forward to June 26th, when I woke up at 4am to get ready for an Asagayu tea ceremony. Because it’s hot in summer, it’s an early morning tea ceremony served with a light breakfast instead of a full fancy meal. Having, yes, even something as humble as rice porridge can be made very, very fancy when you leave the menu to the discretion of an inn that’s been in operation since the Edo period, where even Lord Fumai himself was known to frequent. After breakfast, we had the very formal okoicha (thickly prepared tea) ceremony in a very small, intimate room, and then the more relaxed o’usu ceremony outside in the garden by the banks of where Lake Shinji meets the Ohashi River. The weather was beautifully sunny to the point of being uncomfortably warm, but the tools all had a cool sense to them—the mizusashi for fresh water was made of very clear glass, the dish for the sweets was silvery and reminiscent of the upcoming Tanabata festival, and there was an enormous green leaf across the table to give everything a refreshing hue.

But yes, I mentioned 4am. Because this was a morning tea ceremony, I had to wake up very early to do my hair and make up, and dress in my kimono with room for making mistakes. It was the first time I had used that hydrangea obi since my first tea ceremony in June 2013, when Tea-sensei gave me that obi. I had practiced with Kimono-sensei how to tie a regular taiko obi, but at that time I ended up asking for help after all. Then in June 2016, I had not practiced a taiko obi in forever, and with my busy schedule lately, I barely had tied to do one frustrating practice late the night before. The first shot I took at doing my obi in the morning was a failure, but on the second attempt I tried something else with it which would have made no sense to me before, but somehow trying new things to get the correct form didn’t feel odd. But hey, it worked, and I had about ten minutes of leeway before the taxi came!

Don't mind the snapshot of a laminated photo I received...

Don’t mind the snapshot of a laminated photo I received…

It was also my first time performing the okoicha ceremony. I did really well–almost flawless, with poise and calmness. I’d like to say it was the fruits of over three years of near-weekly tea ceremony practice, but it was mainly due to being so sleepy that I was seriously nodding off in the mizuya (preparation room). I simply was not alert enough to be nervous, so my hands moved automatically. Everyone said the tea was the perfect, too. I know my knowledge and practice of the tea ceremony is still shallow, but hey, I can say that I can practically perform a tea ceremony in my sleep.

This was also my official farewell party from my tea ceremony school. It was very nice to have a formal setting in which many people were gathered so I could express my thanks to them all at once, but I’ll still attend a couple practices before I leave to learn a couple things I should know as an official dues-paid member of the worldwide Omotosenke school of tea. I’ll be able to say a more personal farewell to my regular classmates then. A couple of my other classmates who had taught me a lot arranged for me to go make pottery with a lapsed student of our school who is a professional potter. As of writing this I still have yet to see how they turned out, but it was fun. He helped us make proper tea cups/bowls, and then with the remaining clay he left us to our imaginations. Well……… I’m interested to see how my, erm, very imaginative “flower vases(?)” turn out.

tougei

As part of that mid-June day, with off and on rain out in the mountainous area around Sada Shrine, the ladies who brought me along prepared a casual tea ceremony in the display room neighboring the workshop. They borrowed some pieces from the potter, and picked from persimmon leaves to place the summer sweets on, and we casually partook of a couple cups of tea while listening to the alternating sounds of bugs and rainfall and talking about the creativity and craftsmanship of his works and works that he admired other places.

It was one of those “Ah, this is Japan” moments. Or at least, “this is my life in Shimane, when I actually slow down and enjoy it” moments.

My job as a CIR has of course been very demanding at times, with a very wide variety of exciting and challenging work to do. On the flip side, when I haven’t been as busy, I’ve found many opportunities to use my art as part of my work. I made it a point to do this in my first year. I had always loved drawing and had dreamed for years of writing manga professionally, but for some reason it always felt like I had to keep my passion for anime and manga a secret if I ever wanted to be taken seriously. After some self-published manga I made right before I started the JET Program, I knew I wanted to embrace it and let myself put a little more effort into it, which is part of why I started on the Kojiki manga.

Although I saw it as a chance to improve over the course of the years it would take me to write the narrative I had in mind, it turns out I got more and more lazy with it over the course of the project, haha! But I was busy with other projects on the side. Besides the experimental and hastily drawn Tengu manga that won 2nd place in an international contest in 2014, I also fulfilled a long held dream by submitting a short story to a monthly shoujo manga magazine contest last summer. It did not win anything (as expected), but I got professional criticism on it, and was overall very satisfied with the experience. However, I feel it is safe to say that I have worked that dream out of my system—the process of using professional tools and making print-quality manga without assistants and while having a full time job was exhausting. There were many late nights spent on it, and many hours hunched over my work, and the emotional stress of knowing how undeveloped my art skills are due to lack of any practice on the basics. The professional criticism I asked for very aptly suggested I focus on the fundamentals of drawing, and I know myself well enough to know that I’m only interested in doing this as a hobby.

However, it is through actually doing it that I’ve figured this out, which is why I feel very satisfied instead of feeling like I’ve given up. Besides, it already felt I had my “debut” in my 1st year when this article came out in the local Sunday paper about my Kojiki project.

article2

Furthermore, I’ve branched out a lot, and tried out a lot of different styles and subject matters while I’ve made use of here at the office. I’ve become the go-to person for copyright-free illustrations on fliers and newsletters, so much so that when I walked into work one day and was told, “Buri-chan, we need you to draw Matsue Castle real fast,” it was only mildly startling.

A snapshot from my 1st year

A snapshot from my 1st year


happi
I'm really proud of this logo design too. I thought it was only going to be a CIR-made newsletter, but it turns out it's been used in foreign tourism material as well.

I’m really proud of this logo design too. I thought it was only going to be a CIR-made newsletter, but it turns out it’s been used in foreign tourism material as well.

I’m sure I’ll always continue drawing as a hobby, and I’ll likely have opportunities to use my kimono and tea ceremony practice in the future. It may not be quite as regularly as I use them now, but I have attained both deep and wide knowledge to take back with me.

However, the fact that I am leaving Japan soon really hit home when I was putting away my kimono materials after the tea ceremony the other day. I could pack this all up right now, I thought. That was probably the last time I’ll wear one for a while.

I’ve now been practicing the tea ceremony for three years!

Those are willow branches behind me hanging in the alcove as a New Years decoration, not wires hooking me up to the ceiling. I promise I am not a tea ceremony performing robot.

Those are willow branches behind me hanging in the alcove as a New Years decoration, not wires hooking me up to the ceiling. I promise I am not a tea ceremony performing robot.

Besides my obvious change in how I view tea tools, I’ve also picked up a lot more of the mindsets I’ve admired for a long time, which were the main reasons I wanted to try it in the first place. I’ve long since had difficulty living in the moment, letting my mind wander to times which my memory paints in nostalgic colors, or running ahead either to worries for the long term future to do my to-do list for when I am in an entirely different place from the present. Either way, it robs me of what is right in front of me, be it my lunch or a friend who I assume will always be there.

You can find a lot of meaning in the actions and elements of the tea ceremony. The ritualistic cleansing of the tools is done to show your guests that you are using clean tools, and the peaceful setting cleanses your guests’ senses–the soft sound of water boiling or the clack of the tea scoop against the tea bowl, the subdued decor and subtle harmonizing details, the scent of incense in the hearth, the texture of the tatami under your feet sliding along the floor, the refreshing and deep taste of the matcha. Each silent bow has its own message it communicates, from “I will now begin the ceremony” to “thank you for the delicious tea.” Both social rank and common humility are recognized in the tea room, but ultimately, it is an intimate time which the host and the guests share and enjoy together, never to come again in quite the same way. In both a literal and figurative sense, it is both bitter and sweet.

Indeed, it involves some “ceremony,” but the Japanese term 茶道 (sadou), can just as well be translated as “the way of tea.” It is a mindset, an approach. Perhaps the phrase you hear more often in Matsue, though, is not that it has 茶道 culture, but 茶の湯 (cha-no-yu) culture. This “hot water for tea” implies more than a noun, but something that flows.

If you want to learn about traditional Japanese culture, the tea ceremony has many of the elements you’d look for: pottery and other craftsmanship, scrolls with paintings and calligraphy, flower arranging, kimono, wagashi, and so on. Each one of those elements is its own world to dive into, and the tea ceremony ties them all together with its own depth that keeps getting deeper over the centuries.

Perhaps more important than its depth is its simplicity.

Ultimately, it’s about enjoying tea with your guests.

Right there, in the moment.

On my February 2016 visit to the Shimane Confectionery Training School, I served as the unskilled apprentice–I mean, as the hand model for a video they were taking, and I have the footage to share with you all! The subtitles, editing, and wasted wagashi are all my own unskilled doing, but hopefully this video will be helpful in appreciating the techniques the masters employ.

What does it take to be a wagashi master? That’s what I set out to find out!

I had taken part a couple times in the twice daily (except for Wednesdays) wagashi class at Karakoro Art Studio, and although they change the seasonal themes every month, they tend to teach the same two basic modeling techniques. This is nice, since anyone who enjoys working with a Play-Doh substance can quickly pick some new techniques for making completed works of tasty art as part of a busy day of tourism (I promise they smell nothing like Play-Doh and likely taste far better. Don’t eat Play-Doh, eat something nice). This is great if you’re visiting Matsue, one of the top three spots in Japan for wagashi culture and production. But what if you live here, and already consider yourself a master at eating them?

I dug a little deeper and found that through my conversation at Saiundo, one of the many famous wagashi companies in Matsue, that many students come from other prefectures–or even other countries!–to study the craft of wagashi in monthly classes held at the Shimane Confectionery Training School. The classes are offered for different skill levels, and I had the opportunity to participate in the final session of the year for a 2nd level class. We started in the morning with dorayaki, and then spent the afternoon sculpting bean pasted based sweets, both by the both and by our imaginations.

This is probably a good time to point out that I usually cook with my imagination. No, allow me to rephrase that. I “prepare food reasonable enough for consumption,” not “cook.” I especially do not “bake.” Baking is a matter of taking a handful of substances and transforming them into different substances. You know. “Alchemy.”

Seeing as I am not an alchemist, I was a little flustered when I realized I would be expected to concoct my own batch of dorayaki, which are like sandwiches made with pancakes and anko (sweet red bean paste, sometimes smooth (koshi-an), sometimes chunky (tsubu-an)). I thought I would just observe for the day, not put any ingredients to waste!

To my surprise, however, my dorayaki were a huge success. I did everything from sifting the flour (I guess people still do that), weighing the ingredients (oh, I guess that would usually help when you’re trying to perform alchemy), whisking them together (and I paid attention to when and how much of each ingredient to put in, really!), pouring the batter on the griddle (there’s a technique for flinging the batter onto a flat ladle, I learned), and flipping them such that they reach the right airy texture and retain their circular shape. I made lots and lots and lots of these things.


I was feeling pretty good about this success. Maybe, with a little care and practice, I could be an alchemist too! Surely that would be the hardest part, as I’m already creative and artistic enough for the visual components of making confectioneries, right?

Well…

Yeah, a little creativity is nice, but if you want to be a professional wagashi master–as in, someone who can actually manage to sell their work, and lots of it–you need more discipline than creativity.

You typically don’t sell individual wagashi. As the visual appeal and craftsmanship is just as important as their taste and texture, wagashi are typically something to eat in the company of someone else, so that you can appreciate the finer details together. That’s part of the goal of promoters of wagashi culture–to make people slow down and enjoy each other’s company. That part of the overall goal of the tea ceremony as well, since appreciating the visual elements of the ceremony is part of how the host and guests enjoy that moment spent together. Passing around a single wagashi for everyone to enjoy the view of, however, is not only a bit of a pain and impractical, but do you really want everyone breathing on the treat you are about to partake of, or let it get dried out in the air as you wait for everyone to look at it, or risk it falling to the tatami (or worse) as it gets passed around to everyone who wants to see it?

No! You typically see everyone at a tea ceremony eating the same sweet, and people casually hosting friends or bringing home wagashi to share with their family will typically get multiples of the same one. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and I’m sure there are people who like variety, but in general, you want everyone to have the same experience together of observing and tasting a unique piece of wagashi. I say “unique” to show they are usually seasonal designs which may only be available for a few weeks at a time, and will possibly never be sold again when the designs change in the following years. In order for everyone to enjoy that limited time wagashi, however, each wagashi sold needs to fit certain specs for the sake of consistency. The handmade effect is of course charming, of course, but as a customer you want a reasonable expectation of what you’re getting! That consistency, I learned, is very, very difficult to achieve.

A wagashi craftsman practices their techniques such that they can apply to any new and creative design, or any classic piece that people expect every year. These techniques are on professional tests, and the proof is in how well their wagashi fit the specs. In business, a few nice successes here and there won’t cut it. You need to have consistent successes. That is not only dependent on proper technique, but on the ingredients and on the environment in which you work as well. Even dry air will negatively affect them, so measures must be taken to ensure the proper humidity in the work space and in storage.

We didn’t work with each individual step that day, because the two bean-based pastes had already been prepared with just the right amount of sweetness. Although we didn’t have to worry about the taste, we needed to mix the colors ourselves and mold the sweets to go on display for the final presentation that evening.



There were issues and issues of monthly wagashi magazines set out for inspiration.

As I looked them over, the grandma-aged lady in attendance showed me the following pages and told me that each person would need to complete one of these sculptures.

Yes, those are all edible. See more wagashi statues here.

This lady tells jokes with a straight face and she took pleasure in how susceptible I am to that.

Ultimately, the final presentation would consist of one slanted-cut chrysanthemum of the teachers’ choosing done by the book–14 petals! It must be 14 petals!!–and two of each students’ choice. Many of them made designs that they liked in the magazines or that they had seen else where, while others started with a plan and made their own unique pieces, or just starting molding and seeing what they would come up with. (Like me. That’s all I could manage after working so hard on the chrysanthemum.

I’ll post a video next time about the process of making the chrysanthemum, as well as my results. As for the rest of this entry, let’s look at what those second-level students produced instead.








Mt. Fuji (volcano style) and Pikes Peak (plus Garden of the Gods)

In that time, the teacher was busy showing off a few other techniques as well. Sometimes it was instruct students who wanted to know how to making the wagashi in the magazines, sometimes it was to show off for my camera, and maybe some of it was for his own personal practice? Killing time? Killing material? I’m not sure. In any case, he was fun to watch.







As you’ll be able to tell more clearly in my upcoming entry, I’m not all that cut out for making wagashi. Maybe I won’t be a master at making them, but being a master at eating them’s not too bad.

There are so many firsts of the New Year often marked by the prefix hatsu (初), which means “first” or “new.” Hatsuburogu is one of the few that is not in popular use, as I just made this up for my first freshly written blog post of the year (scheduled entries are great for vacations, and I thoroughly enjoyed my New Year holiday hibernation).

Some things take place on the first day, like the Hatsu-hi-no-de (初日の出, first sunrise) and Hatsuyume (初夢, first dream), and quite often the Hatsuwarai (初笑い, first laugh). In my Hatsuyume I was laughing with my Grandpa, so I guess that covered two. I don’t have a great view of the sunrise from my apartment and the San’in region is much more well-known for its sunsets anyway, but I did kick myself out of bed to go take a look.

My Hatsumode (初詣, first shrine/temple visit) was to Izumo Taisha a couple days later. This was like the opposite experience of my first Hatsumode experience at Kamosu Shrine, which took place after midnight in the midst of a silent snowfall. This being Izumo Taisha during the daytime, we figured it would be so crowded that we could barely move and with our plans to rent kimono we feared it would rain, but it turns out all of Japan had lovely spring-like weather that day, and although the shrine grounds and surrounding area were very lively and the yatai (food stall) areas were too crowded for us to bother sticking around, we made very smooth, thorough rounds around the shrine. Out of all my visits to Izumo Taisha, I enjoyed this time the most.

hatsumode-biyori

kimono-asobi

izumo-taisha-mairi

wabbits

My Hatsugama (初釜, literally “first kettle” but refers to the first tea ceremony) is in a couple days. I’m very busy getting ready for it, since my classmates and I have our turn to serve as touban, the people “on duty” so to speak to prepare the ceremony and serve everyone. It’s more responsibility than I’ve ever been given in a tea ceremony, as usually the most I’ve done is otemae (preparing the tea in front of everyone) and ohakobi (serving tea and sweets to the guests). This time I’ll be doing everything from giving greetings and explaining the decor to serving sake and food in a formal kaiseki meal, but my responsibilities aren’t that heavy when compared to my classmates who are bringing all behind-the-scenes tool, ordering wagashi, arranging flowers, and everything else in addition to the tea preparation and serving we’ll do together! We’ll be hosting it in the place where I had my first Hatsugama experience two years ago.

I’ll be on the serving end instead of the receiving end of this set-up, probably in this very room.


Since it’s the Year of the Monkey, we’ll be using this Hear-No-See-No-Speak-No-Evil futaoki (a tool to rest your hishaku (ladle) on)


A musubi-yanagi (bound willow branch) decoration, a typical New Year decoration in the Omotesenke school. The circle stands for good things coming full circle once again.

At the time this entry is scheduled to post, I’ll be at my naginata Hatsugeiko (初稽古, first practice). The Shimane Prefecture Martial Arts Hall (the Shimane Budokan) puts on a big Saturday event for everyone from a variety of different disciplines to make a first practice at the same time, so the dojo is filled with all shouts of all kinds as people strike, guard, throw, and do whatever else their martial art calls for. Afterward, they serve zenzai, a traditional red bean and mochi soup to kick off the new year.

Last year was a really good year for me in practicing naginata. For instance, there are eight basic engi (set forms done with a partner), and of those, forms 6~8 are a little complicated and therefore usually only taught to high schoolers and adults. We learned 6 and 7 this year and will probably move on to 8 soon. I also borrowed a mask so that I could compete in my first sparring match at the Chuugoku region competition this past November. I lost, but it had to be called by the judges at the end of the match instead of being a clear loss partway through, and I feel I did really well. Actually, last year was my first time to have worn a mask and gotten any real sparring experience at all! There were some long training weekends with lots of pointers from teachers in other cities, and I passed my 1-kyuu test this past fall. I could potentially test for a shodan rank later this year (which, if you’re not familiar with kyuu and dan ranks, is like the equivalent of a first degree black belt), but it’s still hard to say.

Unfortunately the only photos I have of myself doing naginata are showing off my poor stances from a couple years ago. So here is a doodle I did a couple months ago instead, though the stance is still not right. The hands should be lower in chuudan stance.

The first calligraphy of the new year is also special. It’s called Hatsu—er, no. It’s called Kakizome, but still written with that character (書初め). I can’t say Shodo (calligraphy) is among my regular artistic pursuits, although I have been taught for fun a few times. It’s been forever since I held a brush and felt very stiff while writing my first characters on the Izumo style Japanese paper I made at the Abe Eishirou Kinenkan last year, 晃 (akiraka, clear like bright light) and 輝き (kagayaki, shining and radiance and sparkling and all that fun stuff), but then I let loose with a bunch of Zen phrases often used in the tea ceremony world.


蓬莱山
無事是貴人
福寿雙生
和敬清寂

Those were done shortly after watching the sunrise and drinking my first cup of tea of the year. I’d like to blame my poor character balance and stroke control on being blinded by the sunlight, but I suppose this is another year to improve.

At some point over the course of my tea lessons, Tea-sensei happened to mention using chocolate truffles for Christmas tea ceremonies. The mention of chocolate made me excited and very curious, and next thing you know, several months later we started planning a tea ceremony for Christmas 2014.

Although I was originally in this for the chocolate, Tea-sensei was excited to use it as a chance to bring out the tools and decorative items she usually doesn’t have any other chance to use. She and her husband run a shop that sells very expensive stuff, mostly with a traditional Japanese spin, but they are knowledgable of and collect wares from around the world. Although the Japanese tea ceremony tends to put a heavy emphasis on items made by Japanese craftsmen, as well as Korean and at time Chinese craftsmen, she occasionally uses things like incense containers from Thailand during practices, and she was looking forward to using her items from Europe and Africa for this ceremony.

Combining a holiday that feels both Western and modern with a traditional and very Japanese-feeling practice may strike people as odd, but the tea ceremony as we know it today actually owes a lot to the Catholic Mass. The founder of the three major schools of tea ceremony, Sen Rikyuu (1522-1591), although he was not a Christian convert, lived in a time when many samurai warlords were baptized Christians and welcomed the Portugese missionaries (this is before the attitudes at the top changed and then Christians were persucuted). Rikyu was therefore familiar with the religion and had attended Mass, which influenced part of the motions of the tea ceremony. Many early practitioners of the tea ceremony, most famously Takayama Ukon (aka Dom Justo Takayama), one of Rikyu’s seven closest followers, were Christians and viewed the tea ceremony through that angle. It’s very likely that Christmas tea ceremonies were celebrated regularly, like other seasonal occasions.

Tea-sensei, who is not Christian and has never had a foreign or Christian student before me, has done these a number of times in the past even if not consistently. There are some details she keeps consistent, such as one of the first details she mentioned after the chocolate truffles: in the tokonoma (decorative alcove) there is usually a seasonal scroll, which often has subjects heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. For a Christmas tea ceremony, however, they hang a painting of Mary and offer the tea before her first, and everyone bows in thanks for her having given birth to Jesus. The painting she chose was from her collection of African Christian art, of which I’ve seen a few items from but cannot recall the details of which items came from which countries.

She asked for my input at many steps of planning the ceremony, especially on what sorts of items to use for a traditional ceremony. “What sort of chawan should we use?” she asked, and off the cuff, I answered gold since baby Jesus received that from the Wise Men. She immediately made a mental note of it and asked what else he received, which lead to a discussion of the merits or demerits of using frankincense or mhyrr in a tea ceremony (in the end, we did not–that would be a little too overpowering).

I tried looking for material about what kinds of tools the tea ceremony practioners might have used back in the 16th century but found nothing, so I had to answer based on familiarity with a side of Christmas not often seen in Japan’s Santa and Snowman displays in shopping malls. She asked which flowers to use, and it seems she hadn’t even thought to use pointsettias or holly. Upon that suggestion, her husband made this wreath with a crucifix to hang in entry of the house, which would set the mood for everyone on their way to the tea room.

Because it was so close to the end of the year, when the students usually get together to do a massive cleaning of every knook and cranny of the tea rooms and all the tools for practice throughout the year, ten or so of us did that first before getting ready for the evening ceremony. I wore a dress instead of a kimono, as I was also taking advantage of the chance to use some nice Western style items I don’t usually have a good excuse to wear, and it was nice not to have to wear a kimono for performing the ceremony.

Performing the ceremony by candlelight, however, was very difficult. As nice as the atmosphere was, I could hardly see what I was doing, and I was not used to the very wide and heavy natsume (tea caddy) I was using, which was actually foreign pottery item instead of a Japanese laquerware piece. I wound up spilling a bunch of tea in my lap while trying to put the lid back in place, but thankfully, my dress was more forgiving to being coated in matcha powder than a kimono likely would have been. Oops. Not one of my more graceful moments. In the low light, however, hardly anyone could tell and thankfully I didn’t need to stand up until the end of ceremony and had a good chance to clean it up before letting it spill all over the tatami mats.

Moments like that are what make private ceremonies with your school mates very relaxed and fun, especially since it was a learning experience for everyone. With so many tools we were unfamiliar with, everyone took their time observing each one, and there was so much information that I could not keep organized in my head which tea bowl came from which European country, but I do recall interesting details such as chosing the tea bowl with the fish as a Christian symbol, which I wouldn’t have thought of using for Christmas. Although I am usually at the receiving end of all this information overload, I was also asked to explain some of the Christian symbolism and background they weren’t familiar with, and by the end of the night, everyone had learned something new in addition to enjoying the tea ceremony for the purely the tea aspect.

I had no explanation for the Christmas Cake, though. That’s a Japanese thing, and I doubt it’s the sort of thing Sen Rikyu would have used in a 16th century ceremony. I find it more sad for him and his guests that they didn’t have chocolate truffles.

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.

Spontaneously making a couple cups of tea during Hatsugama (New Year tea ceremony) 2015

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 green one is the bridal obi, but most people wouldn’t know that with a single glance. I sure didn’t.

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.

Not actually a photo from the day of the tea ceremony, just one of my better practices in the days leading up to it. The tail under the drum should be a little shorter and smoother, though…

With a near-perfect appearance of grace attained, I then promptly and quite noticeably bumped my head upon getting in the car.

This one was actually taken about 10 minutes before that happened.

“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.