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.

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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.

Matsue is often called Mizu-no-Miyako (水の都: City of Water) not only for its place nestled between the 5th and 7th largest lakes in Japan as well four different onsen and border along the Sea of Japan, but especially for the castle canals. Many Edo period castle canals have since been filled in or reduced to only their inner moat, but Matsue retains both inner and outer moats. Many of the streets around the city have been designs around working with the moats to protect the castle and may attacks difficult for intruding armies. Those streets are still the same as well, and though they never needed to prevent an army from advancing an attack, I suppose they are helpful for preventing vehicles from speeding too fast through town.

Pretty typical Matsue scene at Shiomi Nawate, a preserved historic street along the north moat, where the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat always passes. These are some of my favorite pine trees in the world, though this photo doesn’t do them justice.

Another thing that hasn’t changed much since the Edo era is the local people’s love of tea, especially the tea ceremony. Lord Fumai‘s influence remains very present, and not in a gimmicky way. While the Grand Tea Ceremony (大茶会) on the Matsue Castle grounds on the first weekend of October is nationally famous, there are other tea ceremonies and tea events that welcome hundreds of guests throughout the year.

This spring, in a style very fitting for the city of water and tea, there was a floating tea house set up at the northwest corner of the castle mount, called this Ohoribata Chaseki (お堀端茶席, a little clumsy to translate but something like “Tea on the Moat” at its simplest and “A Tea Ceremony on the Banks of the Horikawa” at its most pretentious.)


Held over the course of two spring weekends, anyone could stop in and buy a ¥1000 ticket. It just so happened to be an Omotesenke style ceremony, the style I practice, so I brought my tea-tools to be prepared. This was not necessary, as it was set up for any guest to relax and enjoy themselves, with all the utensils provided and handy explanation from a master as the host prepared the tea. During large public ceremonies that anyone can attend without any previous tea knowledge, usually the host only prepares the first one or two cups of tea while others prepare the rest of the tea in the back so as to speed up the process a bit. In a more private ceremony, the host would prepare the tea for everyone. Another difference is that in a private ceremony the guests would pass along the sweets and come forward to take the tea themselves, but in a public ceremony not everyone knows how to do this, so everything is brought directly to the guests. Therefore, a public ceremony requires a lot more manpower backstage–usually this is a very tiny space, but set apart so as to be non-intrusive to the ceremony.

We started with wagashi right away as we enjoyed the shade and coolness at the water’s edge. This was the first was someone uncomfortably warm days, but the atmosphere inside the tea room was perfect.

As the host wordlessly prepared the tea, another tea master explained the ceremony, decor, and tools to the guests in a way that both practitioners and laypeople could appreciate.

Tea ceremony and the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat. It could only get more Matsue-like if there was En-musubi tied in or something.

After the abbreviated ceremony, we were invited to observe the tools.

The chawan (tea bowl) is Rakuzan pottery. Along with Fujina and Sodeshi, this is one of the three representative styles of Matsue pottery, and it was a favorite of Lord Fumai’s. This particular bowl was made by the father of the current head of the Rakuzan school.

The natsume (tea caddy) is Yakumo-nuri, a local style of lacquerware. One of the characteristics of Yakumo-nuri is that the pattern gets brighter as the piece ages. The chashaku (tea scoop) is also local craftsmanship, and it was made from wood that was removed from the castle during renovations several years ago. Hence, the individual name of this chashaku is “Chidori” (plover) because Matsue Castle is nicknamed Chidori-jo (Plover Castle). For other styles of chashaku, the host can choose from a selection of gomei seasonal names, so a single chashaku can have multiple names. This special type of chashaku, however, doesn’t change identities with the seasons.

They say that the shape of the tea remaining in the tea caddy says a lot about how steady–or unsteady–the hand of the host was.

The ceremony felt very brief, but it was gratifying that the master explaining the ceremony could tell I practice the ceremony–and lucky that he didn’t notice me forget a few bows during the sped-up process, oops! Though this ceremony wasn’t hosted by my school, naturally, everyone knew my Omotesenke teacher by name. There were many other tea events going on that weekend, including a longer, reservation-only ceremony at Gesshouji Temple (where Lord Fumai is buried) that included a meal, but I had other things to do. Nonetheless, my things to do put me on the same route as a few of the ladies who attended the same ceremony I did and who were off to enjoy the ceremony at Gesshouji, and it was fun to enjoy the weather, the spring flowers, and general talk of tea on the way.

Please enjoy this daily series of comics about my tea ceremony adventures while I’m on vacation! I will reply to comments when I get back.