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Please see visit-Matsue.com for more details~~

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.

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.

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.

On September 27th, the moon was at its biggest and brightest, the closest it would be to the earth for 2015. On this day, many people in Japan practiced Tsukimi–quite literally, “moon viewing.”

But this story doesn’t take place on the 27th. It takes place on the 26th.

Being a big fan of our closest celestial friend and one to take notice of it at any time of year, I always loved that there are so many cultural activities in east Asia surrounding the act of viewing the moon. I have spent four previous harvest moons in Japan and noticed all the specials in the stores from Tsukimi Burgers (burgers with egg, because the egg is round like the moon) to dango with rabbits on the packages (instead of a man on the moon, the shadows are said to resemble a rabbit bounding rice cake, though please allow me to point out it should be a hare and not a rabbit because rabbits are not native to Japan). However, I had never engaged in the act of offering dango to the moon, appreciating susuki (pampas grass) decorations under the moonlight, or anything the tea ceremony offers surrounding this nature-viewing event.

Unsurprisingly, there are many tools and tastes set aside specifically for moon viewing, or in celebration of the moon. For instance, chestnuts and sweet potatoes are also in season around this time, so they are often incorporated in the decorations or sweets. Furthermore, the containers for tea that might usually have a gold interior instead have a silver interior because the moon is associated with a silver color. Then of course, you have a plethora of scrolls and tea bowls inspired by the moon or by viewing it, thereby making for a wide of array of decorations that are only used at this time of year.

Of course I was looking forward to all of that, but I was not entirely looking forward to the ceremony itself. Or rather, I was not not looking forward to putting on a kimono immediately after returning from a week out of town, fighting with the obi I had been having trouble with, and somehow looking presentable for a five hour ceremony after a five hour bus ride. Ironically, Japan’s “silver week” of three holidays in a row fell into the same week as the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, meaning my plans were stacked right on top of each other. A bit of an oversight on my part, and I cursed my over-confidence in my time management abilities as I hurriedly showered and ironed my kimono and tried to control my not-fully-dried hair. Luck was on my side, however, because I managed to tie my obi alright on the first try and only had the obi-age left to tie in the taxi.

I did not, however, bring a camera. Please bear with my verbal account instead of photos that would not do justice to a the night scene anyway.

We–about twenty people–held the ceremony at a restaurant built in the mid Edo period called Rinsuitei, which has a tea ceremony appropriate tsukubai (water basin) in the garden over looking the mouth of the Ohashi River and Lake Shinji. We heard many stories about this building and its history as the night went on, such as how they had switched to a lower tsukubai in recent years, as the term refers to a place where one must “stoop down” into a humble position as they wash their hands. Originally, they had a tall one in place, as the feudal lords of Matsue would often visit that place. They could not be expected to stoop down. Instead, they would stand there as one servant poured the water over their hands, and another would dry them with a towel. Even in hand-washing, a lord cannot be expected to get his own hands dirty. Obviously.

Our space was spread across enough rooms that we had three moon and moon-viewing related scrolls to view, as well as multiple spots for seasonal plants as decorations—in the waiting area in the hall where gourds were on display, along the hallways where Chinese lantern plants were rich in red and gold tones, in the waiting room where a flush array of wild flowers looked just as wild as if they were still in the dirt, in the alcove surrounded by windows where plump vegetables and dumplings were offered before the moon, and in the ceremony room itself, where there was a hanging boat vase set on the floor of the tokonoma (decorative alcove). I’ve seen these used hanging in the tokonoma, but this one was set with its chains trailing it like waves, implying that the boat had stopped so that the people (or in this case, flowers) on board could view the moon.

We started with the arrangement of the charcoal to prepare for the ceremony, and that is a ceremony in and of itself. This was followed by dinner, and it was the most delicious tea ceremony meal I have had yet. I even enjoyed the sake, which I typically don’t have much of a taste for! I had very pleasant conversation with O-san, the very kind old man who started practicing tea ceremony the year before I did.

While the three hosts who set everything up for us were cleaning up after dinner and preparing for the tea, the rest of us headed back out into the garden and the waiting room. The moon was visible over the roof of the annex next to us, making its only appearance from behind the clouds that we could see. The clouds surrounding it nonetheless lit up just as brightly.

The fourth generation owner of Rinsuitei joined us for the koicha (thick tea, most formal) part of the ceremony so that he could explain the scrolls and their meanings to us. He went us to tell us more about the feudal lords that dined there back in the day, and that the sign with the name of the establishment hanging inside the tea room was the calligraphy of Lord Fumai. O-san and I sat on either side of him, highlighting his words with expressions of “ehhhhhh?” to show our appreciation for the newly acquired knowledge.

“What we really don’t know much about is why my great-grandfather purchased this place in the Meiji Period.”
“Oh? There’s no information about that? He must have been rich to purchase it.”
“Yes, but we have no idea what he was doing before that to have gotten so rich,” he finished with an expression that suggested dubious ideas he may have entertained throughout the years.

The thick tea was extremely smooth and left a sweet aftertaste that spread throughout my palette, and we observed the tools by candlelight. The dim lights highlighted the silent movements of the host preparing the tea, providing just enough illumination to see each other’s faces.

We turned the lights back on during the more relaxed usu-cha (thin tea) portion, so we all got a very good look at the tea cups passed around, the one being served to the highest guest showing off an Edo craftsman’s sense of humor since you had to finish drinking all the tea before you could see the moon (the character 月 written on the bottom of the bowl). Part way through, as often happens in parties for twenty people or so among a school or two, some of the other students were asked to jump in and prepare tea for the other guests so that the busy hosts could have a break. I was one of these, and I could tell by using the tools–the sleek dark tea scoop, the textured tea caddy–that they were of a higher caliber than what I usually use in practice.

We shared the dango which one of the hosts had made as the moon offering, and to wash it down, most of us had second cups of the thinly prepared matcha. Because using and observing a variety of tools and decorations is part of the fun of the tea ceremony, the hosts asked everyone before they set out the second cups of tea before them, “This is different from the tea bowl you had before, right? If not, I’ll give it to the person next to you and get a new one.” I really, really liked the second bowl I used and perhaps took more time than usually granted to observe it, as it was like two bowls in one, or one melted over the first one or something.

The evening ran long, and the shy 14th day moon hid behind the clouds for most of the celebration. Despite all the caffeine, I was feeling much more relaxed at the end of the ceremony than I was when I arrived that afternoon. It reminded me why I was attracted to the tea ceremony in the first place.

It grounds you to the moment, treating each one as something that will never come again. It’s a brief respite from the world, cleansing all your senses with the quiet sounds of water, the sweet and bitter tastes and fragrances, and the carefully selected tools and decor to behold in your hands or just with your eyes. Despite the respite, it grounds you to your place in time and space, and brings you together with good company as you take in the details of the moment and appreciate those details together.

There may be more tsukimi tea ceremonies in the future, but this one is now in the past, a moment never to be repeated, but one I’ll remember for a long time.

I had a little tea party with some of my favorite trees in Matsue. I’ve written about these unusual trees before, if the photos from that entry are any point of comparison, then this year I got to them a little bit early and the fringe-like petals had not yet gotten so long.


When most people think of the Nanjyamonjya (an affectionate nickname to the effect of “what-the-tree-is-this?”, whereas its usual name is hitotsubatago) as the line of full, fluffy trees near the Otemae entrance to Matsue Castle, at the southeast corner.

There are also a few on the quieter western side, nestled between the plum and camellia gardens.

nanjya

I started my little tea party in the sunny patch under the most sparse of the trees, mostly using miniature tools I had received as gifts, and enjoying some seasonal sweets from Saiundo, one of the major wagashi producers in Matsue. Every time the wind blew, I was surrounded by falling white petals that made little thumping sounds against my hat. Playful sparrows hopped around above, and I had the view of the nearby sunlight nanjyamonjya and the lush nanjyamonja a short distance away in the shadows.


Despite the various tea events going on, such as the temporary tea house on the castle moat, this was rather unceremonious. Although Matsue is a prime spot for a number of schools of the tea ceremony, in its general daily tea culture, they embrace very casual matcha drinking. Hence, I took it easy.

I made sure to have that second cup, though! I had that one over by the main entrance, as more and more Sunday tourists gradually started making their trips up to the castle tower. These trees are one the first things you see upon entering, so there were comments over and over and over about the sight of them.

“Wow! Look at those trees!”
“What is that?”
“How pretty…”
“They’re so fluffy.”
Hi-to-tsu-ba-ta-go… hmm, never heard of it.”
“Oh, looks like it’s also called nanjyamonjya. Hahaha, nanjyamonjya!
Nanjyamonjya!

Their curiosity upon seeing these trees was justified, as Matsue Castle is one of only about six places in Japan where these trees are found.

There was also the more typical Matsue Castle views to enjoy–the tower itself, the ninomaru area of the inner keep, the majestic castle walls in the bright sunshine.


But enjoying the tea and the petals was nice enough already.

Until next year, fluffy trees.

This is a story about one of the chilling spots in a ghost-story laden town, and how the custom of drinking two cups of tea at time started in Matsue:

In the 13th year of the Keicho Period (1608), when there was difficulty in constructing the first Matsue Ohashi Bridge, a man named Gensuke happened to cross at the wrong time and was sacrificed as a human pillar. It was thought that if there was a human sacrifice, then the bridge would be stable. It could have been anyone, so they decided to toss over the first man who crossed wearing a certain kind of trousers.

It’s hard to say whether this story is fact or fiction, or whether Gensuke really was the victim’s name, but the story caught on enough that there is a memorial stone for him on the south bank of the Ohashi River, by which a famous cherry tree blooms. Though not the original, one of the middle pillars on the east side of the Matsue Ohashi Bridge is sometimes still called “Gensuke-bashira” (Gensuke Pillar). I can’t say for sure which one it is, though.

It is said that on that morning as he was having tea, his wife asked, “Why don’t you have another cup and take your time before you leave?” To which he replied, “I have to hurry and get to work,” and then left after having finished one cup. If he had stayed for the second cup, perhaps he would not have crossed the bridge at the wrong time and would not have been sacrificed. That story spread, and Matsue’s custom of drinking two cups of tea was born.

Or perhaps he could have been saved by wearing a different pair of trousers, but that hasn’t had quite the same cultural impact.

Even without the interesting story to go along with it, Matsue Ohashi is my favorite of the four bridges connecting the northern city center with the southern city center (with a fifth further east). It is the second one to the east from Lake Shinji, and that route takes you between two charming shopping streets, and the granite railings and lanterns give it a nice atmosphere. It’s also the best spot from which to view the O-bon lanterns floating down the Ohashi River every August.


Memorial pillar in nearby Gensuke Park



It’s any given dinner party that’s been running late, and the little seafood restaurant with decorative scrolls, flowers, and dolls throughout the room we’re taking up has served us matcha (green tea made from powdered tea leaves) at the end of the meal. Casual though the setting is, my tea ceremony training kicks in, so I’m sitting formally in seiza and turn the cup two times clockwise before downing it in three sips or so.

A talkative man sitting on the other side of the table takes notice. “You drank the tea very well.”

“Ah… well… yes. Thank you.”

A friend smiles and fills in for him that I practice tea, which leads us to finding out he and I both practice the omotesenke school of tea and that he knows my teacher. As we talk a bit more, he lets us all in on an open secret: “Actually, in Matsue, you’re a little uncultured if you don’t know how to drink matcha. Most people have at least a little practice.”

This isn’t surprising to me, and I’ve heard similar comments from many other people. I’ve spent time in other parts of Japan and had wide social groups there, but here in Matsue, a much larger proportion of my social circle has practiced the tea ceremony to some extent, or at least has enough passing familiarity to know the basics and be able to explain them, be it to foreign guests or Japanese guests from parts of Japan where the tea ceremony seems more archaic. That’s not to say everyone is an expert (though there are plenty to be found here).

However, to say that Matsue is stiff about tea rituals would be incorrect. Rather, Matsue’s tea culture started to take a strong hold when the tea ceremony had already developed into something like a Pokemon trading card frenzy, in which rich people were all seeking the fanciest of tools, and artisans and merchants were selling off second-rate tea cups for exorbitant prices given the amount of prestige they could associate with their use. In many ways, the the world of tea (chanoyu) had become a world of ego and showing off ownership of expensive tools.

19-year-old Matsudaira Harusato (later known by his tea name, Fumai), grew up in the bustling city of Edo (later known as Tokyo) and saw the ebbs and flows of high culture there. As much as he was accused of having his head stuck in his tea cups instead of on preparing to be the lord of the financially troubled Matsue domain, he wrote “Mudagoto” (“Useless Words”), which was a criticism of modern tea culture, in which he stated:

Making chanoyu a luxury, exhausting beauty to make it splendid is a distressful thing… rather, it can be made an adjutant to governing the country well.

In response, Matsue’s popular tea culture cuts many of the frills. Although there are many social elements tied directly to a system of hierarchy and harmony and a wealth of tools enough to fill 18 volumes worth of “Kokon Meibutsu Ruiju” (“Classified Collection of Famous Utensils of Ancient and Modern Times”), ultimately, chanoyu is about drinking tea.

It’s not to say that no one drinks sencha (green tea made from steeped leaves), but the uncited but often quoted fact that Matsue drinks more matcha per capita than the rest of Japan does is also unsurprising. Besides the Grand Tea Ceremony every fall and other tea events throughout the year, on a walk between JR Matsue Station and Matsue Castle I can already call to mind seven or eight casual places you can stop in for a quick cup of matcha with wagashi refreshment, and that’s before you even get to the ten or so other places that come to mind once you get to the castle area and beyond. Quite often I wander in just to take a look at tools and I wind up being served a cup of matcha I didn’t order.

When I hang out at people’s houses, a lot of them have working knowledge of how to prepare matcha and have at least one decent tea cup and chasen (tea whisk) with which to serve tea. While being served a cup of sencha while visiting people may be common elsewhere, many homes here regularly serve matcha, not just for special occasions. What’s more, it’s a local custom to serve two cups of tea, not just one.

There are a couple reasons for this. First, back in Edo period, especially when Fumai was the ruling lord, he gave the domain a financial overhaul and then Matsue had extra cash on hand with which to indulge in tea culture. Besides documenting the aforementioned list of valuable tea tools and compiling a treasure trove for the domain of over 800 exquisite tools, the common people had more money to afford to drink matcha. While different kinds of sencha are made from different flushes of leaves from different parts of the tea bush grown in different conditions, matcha is made from only the very top leaves in stricter conditions, and the best grades of thick matcha only use the very, very top leaves. Hence, drinking matcha on a regular basis will take a bigger chunk out of your household budget than regularly drinking sencha will, but the townspeople grew quite a taste for it.

Given the city’s proximity away from the more active trade and travel routes and relative self-sustainability with local rice and seafood, the culture here was less influenced by the changes going on outside of the region, and therefore had a strong base for a self-developed culture. This is still evident today, as while much of the rest of Japan is caught in a post-bubble era, in the San’in region, it’s more like, “bubble? What bubble?”

But why serve two cups of matcha at a time? There’s an early Edo period reason for that I’ll touch on in the next entry. In the meantime, it’s always worth taking a look at the flip side of all of this. Although matcha is part of the cultural face of Matsue, people are individuals, each with their own lifestyles that may or may not fit an image of the city.

On a visit to an elementary after-school club, the students prepared matcha for us as thanks for the things we had prepared for them before. It was quite an affair—there were old, broken chasen everywhere, yokan chomped on from the ends of toothpicks, and cups/tea bowls for everyone. It seems the kids were supposed to bring their own. Some had beautiful chawan that they brought to school in sleek wooden boxes labeled with the tea bowls’ credentials, while others brought miso soup bowls or tupperware. There was frustration as they could not get the tea to froth, and a handful of the kids who had some experience walked around all their schoolmates and the cups of hot tea everything to go grab the chasen and froth everyone elses’ tea. A friend of one of the club members told me later that they had originally planned to serve manjuu, but something went haywire and they switched to cutting up youkan at the last minute. There were a couple hushed complaints about the taste of matcha while the kids snapped at each other to hurry up because the guests’ tea was getting cold. This was after we had already waited in the office for a little while as the kids did all the preparation.

Serving matcha to us as an introduction to Japanese culture was something the kids thought of a long time ago, and only when asked directly by the teacher if I had ever tried matcha before did I admit that I practice the tea ceremony. As expected, that made her and the few students who were paying attention a little embarrassed, but the teacher played it off well by pointing out loudly to the rest of the club members that I am so interested in Japanese culture.

However, instead of stopping there, I really appreciate what she said next.

“Most of these kids have never had matcha, believe it or not. Even though it’s Japanese culture, a lot of Japanese people pay no attention to it at all. Kids, a show of hands, please. How many of you drink matcha at home?”

Out of 20-something kids, less than a third raise their hands.

The teacher’s point is proved. As nice as it feels to celebrate surface culture, one should always be aware of the culture of how people actually live their personal lives. Still, I can’t help but think there would be fewer hands going up in other places.

That’s still a lot of matcha.