I have a secret tea room in my heart.
I carry it with me everywhere I go.
I can sit inside it comfortably
In the quiet of my soul,
Listening to water
Bring stillness to life.
It’s a magic place where time stands still,
Made of paper thin light.
I was once talking to two colleagues at work. We were standing in triangle, taking up part of a corridor between cubicles. As we were chatting, I saw out of the corner of my eye that someone, S, was coming towards us. I saw from her body language that she was distracted and impatient, and I realised that she was a few steps away from crashing into my colleague M, whose back was turned to her. Without interrupting our conversation, I stepped forward and slipped my arm around M’s shoulders and pulled her into a one-armed hug, stepping back to give S enough room to push past. M, this sweet 60-year-old lady, was a little confused but gave me a cuddle, and then we stepped apart and kept talking like nothing had happened.
The only person who saw what happened was someone at a distant cubicle, who came up to me and said “Smooth”. I smiled and said nothing. It was perhaps the best application of Wu Wei that I have ever done.
My tea ceremony teacher normally lives in Japan, but she returns to Perth several times a year and holds lessons for a few weeks at a time. This morning was the first lesson in two months, and it was such a pleasure to be back in the tea room, especially after the hectic weekend, where we performed otemae at the Fusion Festival. (Tea ceremony just isn’t the same when you’re yelling instructions over people in a conga line blowing whistles as they march past the tent.)
Normally after every lesson I write down every new thing I’ve learned, or want to remember for the next session. I thought it might be interesting that I record them here on my blog rather than on my phone, so that you might have an insight into the myriad of tiny details that make up a masterful performance. Note that I’ve been doing tea ceremony for nearly four years, and I have quite a comprehensive knowledge of several different ceremonies and numerous variations of each of them. And yet, today’s lesson is a typical example of just how much I have yet to learn. I am very lucky to have a teacher who is patient enough to answer my questions as I strive for mastery.
So here is a list of all the things I learned (or clarified) today. It’s easier for me to use the Japanese terminology, so I’ll provide a translation for the first time I use each term. Forgive me that it becomes a little complicated if you’re unfamiliar with the terminology.
- When holding a bowl of okashi (sweets), don’t just hold it by the rim. If possible, place your hands on the sides of the bowl to hold it firmly. This is also how you should hold it when rotating the bowl towards the main guest.
- After serving a guest, the ohanto (assistant) first withdraws (rather than spreads) their right knee slightly, before moving their left knee to meet it and then swinging the feet as the assistant prepares to stand.
- When there is an otana (shelf) and you are returning to the entrance, step back right, left, right (and turn), and step across the threshold with the left foot. (This is reversed when taking the kensui (waste water receptacle) from the room.)
- Also, make sure that you are moving back with every step and not just shuffling on the spot (so make a little more room to retreat when you first step on the mat). Also make sure your left foot is pointing straight when you step across the mat.
- If there is an ohanto, they enter when the host moves the kensui forwards. They set their empty tea bowl by their left knee, and then bow with all the guests.
- When purifying the ochaire (tea container), you do indeed rest the ofukusa (silk cloth) in the palm of the hand for the third wipe across the surface of the lid.
- When performing chasen toshi (whisk purification), hold the chasen about 5-6 inches above the ochawan (bowl) rather than eye-height.
- After discarding the water from chasen toshi, reach for the chakin (cloth) while the ochawan is still over the kensui.
- When wiping the ochawan, hold the chakin so that there’s about a centimetre of space above the rim. This makes it easier to wipe rough bowls.
- The guests can eat their okashi when the host picks up the chashaku (tea scoop) to add matcha (tea powder) to the bowl. Although this is the correct timing, you must take your cue from the main guest. If they have not yet eaten their sweet, you must wait for them until they remember.
- When scooping the matcha, take care not to gouge a hole in the “mountain”. Cut cleanly from the peak to the base at the same angle to keep the powder presentable, because the guest may ask to admire the utensils.
- When removing the lid of the mizuzashi (water container), you don’t have to keep it inside the otana. You can grasp the lid in your right hand, sit up straight and then adjust it before leaning forward and placing it correctly.
- As a guest, once you have finished your tea you place the ochawan on the tatami (mat) further away from you. Once you have finished admiring the bowl, you may take it onto your mat and place it next to your left knee with the shomen (front) facing you. If an assistant comes to take it, you rotate the shomen to face them and place it on the farther mat. Remember, the tatami in front of the hanging scroll is only for the main guest, so if you are the second guest place it on the left of the divider.
- If you are the second guest receiving tea, you do not need to bow and say “Kekko na ofuku kagende“. If you did, the host would have to stop whatever they were doing and bow back to you. It is politer, then, to let them continue with the ceremony and perform a small bow while holding the bowl in both hands after the first sip.
- When moving the hishaku (large bamboo scoop) from the mizuzashi to the okama (kettle), the path of the cup is more like a right-angled triangle than a rectangle. It comes out perpendicular to the otana, then goes straight to the front of the okama. The path is reversed on the way back if you are using more than one scoop of water.
- After using the hishaku to add cold water to the okama (or after yugaishi (scooping hot water)), you can wait a little for one drop of water to fall before returning to watching the mirror position and putting the lid back on.
- When using the hishaku, the best hand position is to have the index finger straight and all other fingers curled at the first two knuckles (as in the opening movements of the Tiger Crane form). Ideally, the host should strive to keep a straight line between the hishaku and their forearm.
- When you are going to kazari (display the tea utensils on the shelf), the cup of the hishaku sits not on the rim of the kensui, but just past it. (When you are not displaying anything and simply returing the chaire to the top shelf, the cup sits on the rim.)
- When performing a kazari with the tea bowl, you need to wring and refold the chakin quickly and gracefully. To this end, keep the right hand stable and use the left hand to untwist it (either going forwards or backwards as needed).
- When displaying the hishaku, place the cup down with the kiridome (tip) pressed into the palm. When you lay the handle down, turn the hand palm-up and lay it gently on the shelf.
- When doing sou kazari (display everything), once you have displayed everything you can on the shelf without leaving, reset the kan (rings). That is to say, reset the kan just before you leave with the kensui.
- The word for the iron kettle is yakan.
- When resetting the ochaire between performances, as well as resetting the mountain of tea, make sure to wipe any stray tea powder from the inside and outside of the rim.
- From what I understand, Edosenke (the style of tea ceremony from Edo/Tokyo that I practice) is probably a little simplified compared to other schools. The 7th generation master of Omotesenke (one of the three major styles of tea ceremony taught by great-grandson of Sen no Rikyuu) asked his top student to leave Kyoto and establish a school in Edo. The version of Omotesenke he taught was a little simpler to better suit the people of Edo.
Now that I’ve written it all down, it sure looks like a lot! It humbly reminds me of how much I know already, to be refining these tiny details in my pursuit of excellence. It’s easy to see how chanoyu is a lifetime journey!