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.

Every region of Japan has a wealth of omiyage. These might be items to take home as your own souvenirs, but perhaps more characteristic are the individually packaged snacks meant to be shared by a large group, such as your colleagues. Though it is not enforced, some may consider it a pain to spend money on such things so as not to be the jerk who never brings back omiyage, but I find it fun to try to find things nobody has brought back yet. Sometimes this can be difficult, as every place has cheap cookies that taste the same all around the country and just have different mascots stamped on them. But sometimes you find something everyone is actually excited to receive.

On the flip side, sometimes you get the same thing more than once, and sometimes it’s from visitors to the office who have brought local products. There are some I am always excited to see, and Furoshiki Warabi Mochi is one of them.

A furoshiki is a wrapping cloth often made of decorative material historically used for wrapping your clothes when you visit a public bath, but which is now used in many aspects of Japanese culture. In the tea ceremony we make extensive use of them wrapping boxes which contain fine tools or for bagging up our purses and other items we don’t need in the tea room while enjoying the ceremony, and I use them at home for wrapping my kimono supplies. They are a very popular gift item, both as very Japanese-like souvenirs from Japan (especially given the wealth of designs and the fine silks they are often made of), and especially as wrapping for gifts. Instead of paper which is just going to be thrown again, furoshiki can be used again and again, and there are many stylish ways to wrap everything from boxes to wine bottles to oddly shaped objects. A furoshiki is now not only a very useful and pretty piece of fabric, but the sight of it almost screams something about gifts and gift-giving culture.

Warabi Mochi is a dumpling made with bracken starch. It’s extremely soft, not as chewy as gyuhi or tough like mochi made from rice flour. It is often covered in kinako, soybean flour (more like powder) which is lightly sweet and much more appetizing than the translated name suggests.

So what gives this its San’in flavor? The pear syrup you put on top! After all, Tottori is Japan’s ultimate pear spot.

Individual servings include three tiny blocks of warabi mochi, a packet of pear syrup, and a wooden stick with which to cleanly eat the sticky and powdery confection.

Doesn’t that look appetizing, especially at 3 in the afternoon when your brain is crying for a little confectionery boost? Stab those delectable morsels and enjoy the mix of fine powder, smooth syrup, and soft, soft, soft mochi textures.

A few months back I had the opportunity to meet with the Yamaguchi couple. Mrs. Yamaguchi is the president of Saiundo, one of the major local wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionery) producers in Matsue, which, along with Kyoto and Kanazawa, is one of the top cities known for wagashi. Saiundo operates in other parts of the San’in region as well, and they have also been involved in wagashi promotion abroad in places like New York City and Paris (see their English product descriptions here).

A motif that’s already come and passed, served with frothy matcha

The main Saiundo shop, a short walk west of Matsue JR Station.

Serving a wagashi market abroad comes with considerable challenges, especially when it comes to namagashi, fresh handcrafted sweets with constantly changing seasonal motifs (at Saiundo, they change every 10 days or so based on designs the artisans propose). Not only does it require educating new markets about the aesthetics of a dessert they may not be accustomed to the tastes of, but it requires having partners they can trust to retain the integrity of the company’s products, and even technical requirements such as special refrigeration. The weather can even provide challenges, as the ingredients used in wagashi are suited to the particular climate of Japan, and the humidity might not even be high enough to retain the right texture!

Within Japan, Matsue not only has the right seasonal weather for wagashi, but by my observation, they also seem to have the right cultural climate given the historical emphasis on tea culture (thanks, Lord Fumai). I asked about this, and asked business owners with a longer history in Matsue than I do, they expressed some challenges they face. A more Western-style sweet tooth has sweet most of Japan, so they have started providing Western style sweets in addition to their wagashi line-up so as to fit a wider range of occasions. Mr. Yamaguchi also mentioned the generation gap and that many high school students today say they hate azuki (sweet red beans), and key ingredient in the world of Japanese sweets. “That’s only because they haven’t had good azuki!” he insisted, obviously quite passionate about this topic.

I have to relate–after having a bad experience with azuki ice cream when I tried it when I was 12, I went almost a decade without being able to look at something the color of azuki without being disgusted. Having grown up in the US with only seeing beans used in hearty dishes like chili and never in sweets, it was also a bit of a mental thing to overcome. Thankfully, I now regularly eat–and enjoy!–wagashi with good quality azuki that retain their bean appearance, but I still am wary of processed azuki in mass-produced sweets.

Another challenge we talked about was the differences in taste. One of my favorite Saiundo products is “Manten,” a kanten (agar-agar, or vegetable gelatin) sweet with a starry sky motif only sold around summer. Because it stays fresh a little longer than hand-molded seasonal sweets, I brought one home to my family. They all thought it looked pretty and were excited to try it, but not a single person ate much. Something about the flavor didn’t sit will with them. Maybe it was not so much the light flavor, but the shocking lack of flavor from something that looked like it should be like Jell-o?

I often hear Japanese people say that Westerners probably don’t take a liking to Japanese sweets because they are used to much sweeter things like cake and cookies, but I’ve noticed that the opposite tends to be true. The first time I had fresh wagashi eight years ago it was too sweet for me to enjoy, despite my love of almost everything sweet. It felt like I was suffering to swallow something like sugar polished and packed into something even heavier and sweeter than any regular spoonful of raw sugar could be, and it made the matcha–which I already disliked due to my distaste of bitter things–taste even more sharply bitter than it otherwise would have been. Haha, my 18-year-old self, little did you know that you would go on to love both wagashi and matcha and consume them almost every week, but the experience still provides some insight I think most wagashi eaters or sellers have not always noticed.

It came up in the comments of my blog at some point and I wish I could remember and credit who said it (I have it narrowed down to a few of you in my mind!), but one of my readers made a very good point: western sweets dilute the sweetness with fats, but wagashi, naturally lower in fats, sugars, and artificial colors and flavors, have little to dilute the sweetness, thereby making wagashi very, very sweet to those who are not accustomed to them.

Perhaps if I had more familiarity with wagashi the first time I had one, I would have been more prepared for the sweetness, and I would have had more of an appreciation for it as edible craftsmanship. Craftsmanship with wagashi is something Saiundo and other wagashi shops in Matsue continue to encourage, and I happened to visit during an exhibition of edible sculptures. For instance, they occasional do weddings, and they had some examples of their personalized arrangements there.

And yes, those ones in front are what they look like–Shimane Prefecture’s official mascot, Shimanekko!

It’s very common to see wagashi sculptures that have plant motifs, like the following.



Camellia (tsubaki) are one of the representative flowers of Matsue, and this whole display is titled “Matsue.” The other key featured is the Horikawa Sightseeing Boat, which is seen at all daylight hours cruising around the Edo period moats than remain a key part of the city layout.

Speaking of celebrating local culture, two of the most impressive sculptures were of Izumo Taisha as it supposedly stood in the Kamakura Period, and a Yamata-no-Orochi mask as used in Iwami Kagura theater style. (However impressive, I’m not sure the sugar head spews real fire like the Iwami Kagura heads do.)

My favorite of all of the displays was this one that seemed to have a certain charm that reminded me of home. It probably felt western to me given the emphasis on fallen leaves, and given that wild squirrels are not really a thing in Japan.

Over the course of our conversation, a few small children came up to the second floor to view the displays, asking questions the whole time, like if these things were all wagashi and therefore all edible. Mr. Yamaguchi proudly answered each of their repeated questions, like “What color are wagashi usually?”

The comment they kept repeating to themselves was “wagashi sugoi… wagashi sugoi…

Wagashi are cool… wagashi are amazing…

When I write about traditional culture here in Matsue, I try to show some amount of nuanced appreciation for the aesthetics and history involved.

Sometimes, however, I just need to be a squealing fangirl for pretty things.

Please allow me to indulge a bit in this entry about a local wagashi shop called Tachibana, located off the southeastern banks of Lake Shinji, very close to the scientifically determined best sunset viewing spot (made obvious by the theater-like steps from which large crowds of people gather to admire the free show), a short stroll further south from the Shimane Art Museum. I had gone there after work one fine Tuesday to go see the Atelier Mourlot and 20th Century Lithography in Paris exhibition, and stopped many times a long the way to attempt to capture Lake Shinji’s late afternoon soft, glittery hues on my phone. A hopeless venture, really.





Upon arriving at the museum, I remembered that it is closed on Tuesdays. Oops.

I wandered around a bit, thought I might check out a restaurant in that area for dinner and then catch the sunset before going home, but I couldn’t spot the interesting looking restaurants I thought I had seen from car windows before. I found myself at Tachibana instead, and it was my second time there. I had been there before earlier this past January for this year’s Hatsugama (first tea ceremony of the new year) in the tea ceremony space upstairs. I was already charmed by this entrance way then in the middle of winter:

But being busy with the ceremony, I didn’t even notice this entry way.

Or this area facing the lake.

I’m glad no one was out there at the time so that they didn’t overhear my squeal of excitement, or exclamation of admiration, or whatever the sound that came out of me was. Forget restaurants, I decided. I was getting some sweets instead and I’d just backtrack to a combini for dinner.

Lately I’m a big fan of jellies (think gelatin, not jam) and yokan, as these aren’t too filling, they’re refreshing in hot and humid weather, and they last a long time so I can purchase them spontaneously but wait to enjoy them until later. That said, there were quite a few to choose from so I went back and forth for a long time before eventually deciding on a brown sugar yokan with kinako (roasted soybean flour–more appetizing than it sounds) topping, and a tomato and peach jelly. As suspected I wasn’t a big fan of tomato as a sweet when I tried it a week later, but the brown sugar yokan was the perfect amount of sweetness when I just needed a light pick-me-up. I would said I’d get it again, but the yokan served in little bamboo-model containers also looked tempting…

Speaking of tempting, I had to keep myself from squealing with delight over everything on display in there, much less splurge on all the other sweets on display as well. After making my I-sort-of-kept-myself-under-control-by-only-buying-two purchase, I asked the lady at the counter if I could take pictures, and when she said yes, I allowed myself to go a little crazier.

Ahem. Please excuse my excitement, but…

LOOK AT ALL THESE BEAUTIFUL NAMAGASHIIIII!!!!!!! I was so tempted to get one of those clear ones to hold up against the sunset scenery!!

And speaking of sunset scenery, look! THEY ALREADY MADE MATSUE SCENERY IN EDIBLE FORM!!!

And look! LOOK!! There are so-o-o-o-o-o many adorable higashi here!!


There are even MORE displays of sweets over here, and–what are those on the wall beyond them? Oh no, they don’t just sell sweet things here, they sell silk things too!! Too much aesthetic, ah, I can’t handle it!!

And right behind you, look, look! EVEN MORE SWEETS—and ceramics, kyaaaa!

I need to calm down. Well, I could certainly do so in the cafe space right there, but what sweet would I even choose to enjoy with some tea there? No, Buri-chan, resist, resist! You already made your purchase, get out of there! You still want to catch the sunset back at the art museum. Ah, but I suppose the view from these windows would be just as—no, Buri-chan, go, go! Get out of there!

I did talk myself out of staying there too long and indulging in wagashi all by myself. It’s not as if I don’t have a history of indulging in sweets all by myself when I’m out and about, but I’d like to avoid doing that too often. Besides the whole saving money and not eating too much sugar stuff, it’s such a waste to eat wagashi all by yourself too often. They’re meant to be a conversation piece. They’re made such that you enjoy them the presense of other people, to observe and appreciate them, and discuss their timeliness as a way of enjoying the moment with the company you have in that very moment.

Wagashi are best squealed about in company. Though we are divided by time and space, thanks for enjoying these with me to the limited extended that the virtual world allows and squealing with me in spirit.

It’s easy to get caught up in routine, to lose sight of the specialness in the scenery around me. I live very close to Matsue Castle and the preserved scenery of the area. I’ve walked Shiomi Nawate, one of the top 100 historic streets of Japan, many hundreds of times, at many times of day, in any kind of weather we get here. Yet for all those times, I still had not visited Yakumo-an’s dessert cafe annex tucked alongside the Samurai Residence a rainy morning this past July.

Yakumo-an is a famous Izumo Soba restaurant (one of many) found along Matsue’s preserved Edo-period street (one of many places to get Izumo Soba around there), and every weekend you see tourists pouring in to enjoy the garden scenery, subdued and retro atmosphere of the wooden buildings displaying the signatures of the famous people who have dined there, and of course, the array of Izumo Soba options. I’ve written about this famous local dish (and how to eat it) before. On a three day weekend, you always need to expect a long wait to get in. While they do serve dessert there as well, the cafe annex is a few openings later along the Edo era blackened wood and white walls, facing the northern moat of the castle.

The entrance to Yakumo-an’s Izumo Soba restaurant

The more subdued entrance to the Yakumo-an dessert cafe

It was a routine Sunday morning, and walking back along Shiomi Nawate with rain both freshly fallen and threatening to fall again, the wetness highlighted the contrast between the abundance of green and the dark black of the bark of the pines along the moat, with droplets lingering on all the pine needles. To the other side, the black trim along the wall was stark against the white-painted walls, and I looked up as I walked instead of straight forward. Why had I never noticed how many different trees were reaching out above the wall? Were those unripe persimmons growing there? Ah, little snails tucked under the black tiles at the top. Oh, pomegranates!




The cafe, unlike its restaurant counterpart, was quiet with only soft jazz and a little rushed gossip between the lady on duty and another lady who had come in to drop something off. I took a seat by the window to look out at the Samurai House and the bamboo forest behind it and watch the umbrella-bearing couples of various ages walk through and observe a taste of a middle ranking samurai’s lifestyle. That bamboo forest is one of my favorite spots to see lit up during Suitoro, the month-long lantern festival every October, but right now there are some orange flowers that have caught my attention against the deep summer greens.

Although the whole menu looks tasty, I decide to go with the signature item, the Fumai-ko (one guess who that is–only my personal favorite local historical figure.) I got it for the matcha jelly, but there was much more than that: ice cream, a fluffy mousse-like matcha concoction above the gelatanious portion, tsubu-an (sweetened and semi-crushed red azuki beans), some soft and tiny mochi (rice cakes), and a sweet source I could not place the flavor of. Thinking back, it may have been made with condensed milk like is sometimes poured on top of Japanese style kakigori (shaved ice).

I will be the first to admit that I’ll take a Western style dessert before a Japanese style dessert most of the time, especially given that I had a strong aversion to azuki for a long time. I didn’t even enjoy fresh and artistic wagashi the first time I had them five years before coming to Matsue. Life has gotten easier since learning to like it, and indeed, it’s gotten a lot better. How amazing is it that matcha and azuki go so well together? It’s hard to imagine a better harmony among the world of Japanese sweets, as if they are made for each other when sweetened a little.

The elements of these dessert harmonized such that every bit was best when at least one element was in combination with at least one other element. I like to have a bit of at least every part of a dish seperately to appreciate each flavor, but this was the kind of dish that was best in combination–any combination. The hardest part was savoring enough of each flavor so that I wasn’t left with too much of a single item for the last bite!

Like many cafes serving traditional Japanese desserts, it comes with a little cup of hot tea to wash it down, usually a bancha. This is picked at a later flush than other Japanese sencha so it is less astringent and more grassy and smooth. Although considered of lower and cheaper quality, this is a nice tea for everyday use, and it doesn’t conflict with sweet flavors. I always like observing the tea cups it is served in.

Maneki-neko (beckoning cats)

Very enthusiastic maneki-neko

I left not-over-hungry, not-over-full, chilled out in both a physical and emotional sense, and aware anew of the treasure trove of a street I live so close to.

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve served in an all-day tea event before at Ichibata Yakushi Temple by carrying the tea and sweets (o-hakobi), but the Matsue Castle Grand Tea Ceremony is one of the Top 3 (all three share this title, no one thing is chosen as Number 1) tea gatherings in Japan. Although I had done part of the preparing of the tea (o-temae) for my tea school’s private Hatsugama (New Years tea ceremony), this was my first time doing it in front of strangers–up to 50 of them at a time, though we served hundreds of people in one day.

Although most people only served once–twice if they were lucky–I wound up performing o-temae three times. By the end of the day the guests were dwindling, and we were already running out of the wagashi we had specially prepared and switched to some extras from one of the other tea schools. There was a huge lot of us in back with different jobs to do all day long, but we started the day with a cup of matcha, and made sure to end it that way, too. In the second to last serving there was only a handful of people (the rain and wind from the typhoon really started picking up towards the end of the day), so we had half the people serving go take a break and enjoy being served. Over the course of that seating, though, we had person after person after person dwindling in, which made o-hakobi with half the staff pretty confusing! Even the people who had finally had a break wound up drinking quickly so they could slip back and help make tea for all the late-comers.

After that one ended we figured the other half of the staff would take their break for the last serving, but I didn’t mind waiting until after the official part of things to have my cup–after all, no sense being understaffed when more people might wander in for that last-chance serving. Furthermore, I figured someone else would finally take a turn or have a chance to take their second turn doing o-temae, so I wanted to make sure that would go smoothly for them. But behold, no one felt like it and they were happy to have me do it.

So off I went to do it a third time! I’m afraid I might have exchange work to do next year, so there’s a good chance this is was my only chance–and I certainly got every drop of experience I could out of it.

The back-up wagashi we had (which I enjoyed the day before in the Urasenke tent), called “Unka” (Clouds and Flowers).


Look! The an is pink!

I’ll recap my serving experience a bit first, and then share a little about when I just went around as a guest the day before and tried out some other schools of tea!

Photo from last year's Daichakai taken by the very talented Bernice. Click for more photos!

Photo from last year’s Daichakai taken by the very talented Bernice. Click for more photos!

One of Japan’s three biggest tea gatherings takes place at Matsue Castle and the surrounding area on the first weekend of October every year, and both tea aficionados and novices come together to taste tea from a various of schools and observe their ceremonies. The Matsue Castle Grand Tea Ceremony, a.k.a. Matsue-jo Daichakai, will take place on October 4 and 5 this year, from 9:00am to 3:00pm–or until wagashi run out!

Speaking of wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionaries), it’s not only the various tea schools that will be making special preparations, but the wagashi vendors will also be preparing specially designed wagashi for this event. Those flavors, textures, shapes, and colors will vary across each tent, as will the tea being served. Although matcha (powdered green tea) will take center stage, some schools will instead serve sencha. The sencha schools might appear to have more of a Chinese twist, but two years ago one of the schools prepared koucha (red tea, or more commonly known in the West as black tea) with a distinctly British-Japanese flair!

There will be 11 schools of tea to choose from, each with their own tent. A ticket for one ceremony purchased at the venue is 900yen, or a ticket for three ceremonies will cost 2200yen when purchased in advance from tea vendors throughout the city (800yen tickets are also available in advance). The schools are:

Omotesenke
Urasenke
Mushakojisenke
Sansairyu
Fumairyu-Fumaikai*
Fumairyu-Daienkai*
Urakuryu
Ogasawararyu
Soshinryu
Hoenryu
Hayamiryu

(Recall Lord Matsudaira Fumai is the father of Fumai-ryu)

Comparing the different ways of preparing tea–be it in dainty ways or in warrior-like ways–is one of the best things about having so many schools all together at once. There will also be some special tea ceremonies held at the Matsue History Museum (just northeast of the castle) on the following Sundays from 9am to 3pm so you can try to catch some later that you couldn’t fit in during the big weekend: Oct 12, Oct 19, Oct 26, Nov 2. As much as I’ve liked the space in the history museum for tea ceremonies, I would hate for any tea lovers–or people curious about tea–to miss out on the atmosphere of the first weekend. This page from Bihada Sabo is in Japanese and a little old, but they have some good photos to give you an idea what the event is like.

My plan? Hopefully on Saturday I’ll get to squeeze in three ceremonies for schools I haven’t tried yet, though I might or might not be fitting in a naginata event nearby for part of the morning! There is always such a big line for the koucha ceremony if they have one, so I might head out early and try to get in on the first one. I’ve tried Soshinryu before, but it would be fun to see another sencha style, and round it out with matcha. Not sure which school to go with, but being in Matsue, I supposed one can’t go wrong with one of the Fumai-ryu schools.

As for Sunday, my time is spoken for–the large schools, like Omotesenke and Urasenke, trade out between different teachers/classrooms for who will take responsibility on what day, and my class will be serving tea in the Omotesenke tent. For me personally, that will mean serving wagashi and cups of tea to the guests for most of the day, but I’ll also have a chance to do the o-temae–the preparing of the tea in front of everyone! This will be my Daichakai debut!

I’m a little nervous, but I’ll do my best! Come and see me, and enjoy whatever other tea style styles your fancy while they’re all rounded up together at your convenience–beginners as well as experts welcome~

Side note: This year’s Little Mardi Gras parade in October 5 in the afternoon. Start your day with tea and end it with jazz.