初釜• Tea for the New Year

Started my beloved Tea lessons for 2018 last week and once again, am reminded of how beautiful a Way (or Path if you think about the word 道) I’ve come to walk along.

Hatsugama literally means the first boiling of water for tea for the year and to celebrate that, T-Sensei decided we would do a ceremony with a Daisu 台子 or large utensil stand which is something like a grander/bigger version of the Tana or stand used to display the utensils. Of course this was way advanced for me and I’d never seen anything like it before but what I love is that he always tries to introduce me to something that, though not suitable for me right this moment to learn, would be good for me to get a taste of for the future. And also to keep things interesting (for himself as well, I’m sure). It definitely takes the pressure of ‘performing’ or trying to do things as perfectly as possible because performing a ceremony you’ve learnt quite a bit and are already supposed to know inevitably brings up some amount of anxiety I would imagine in anyone. I started off the session thinking this is just for exposure so no stress, since I wouldn’t need to hectically try to commit anything to memory and in the end, it went by so smoothly and enjoyably.

With the 台子 came a special holder that displayed the Hishaku or water scoop along with chopsticks with metal tips (symbolic of the chopsticks used for the charcoal ceremonies) and even taking the chopsticks out was a ritual in itself. It was beautiful because after removing the chopsticks from the 12 o’clock position of the holder, you would have to keep the chopsticks in your hand almost like a calligraphy brush, keeping it only about 2cm away from the ground while making a steady, sweeping motion in bringing the chopsticks to their resting point by the side of the 台子. Almost as if you were writing a really grand word with Japanese calligraphy ink. The arrangement of the Kensui (waste water receptacle) was also different from usual but in the end… just like the other ceremonies, they all make sense. They all follow the overarching rules of:

– presenting whatever beautiful pieces need to be presented first
– taking out the equipment and putting them in their rightful places to be used for the making of the tea
– cleansing of the equipment
– the making of the tea itself
– cleansing of the equipment
– putting back the equipment that needs to be displayed on the display shelf
– remove whatever needs to be removed back to the kitchen so that whatever remains can be appreciated in their full glory without any distracting pieces

I’m started to learn more and more that it is through this entire process of ‘curating’ in a way, that the host can show his/her consideration and thought for the guests. The idea of the host and guest’s hearts coming together as one in the tea room facilitated by the spirit of hospitality from the host and the guest’s openness of heart to those sentiments is something that I’ve been reading and thinking about in a beautiful book written by the former Urasenke Grand Master XV, Sen Genshitsu, called Sen Genshitsu Talks About The Enjoyment of Tea. It’s amazing how pretty much every part that appears complex in 茶道 is really based on simple principles such as wanting to creating the best encounter possible for host and guest. Because there is only one of such an encounter in this life.

It’s funny though that I do learn pretty interesting random facts as well, such as the 3 stages of Cooking that water goes through. The first stage is when the bubbles appear on the bottom surface of the kettle. The second stage is when the bubbles start to appear in the middle of the water but have not yet come up to the surface. The third stage is the when the bubbles have burst through the top surface and the water is boiling away from bottom to top. That is when you know the water is ready. Apparently when the Japanese first starting learning about tea that had been imported from China along with manuals, pretty much 3/4 of those manuals were not about the making of the tea, but were about the right preparation of the water for the tea. I can imagine that in those days that would have been of utmost priority given the sanitary conditions hundreds of years ago. These days however, how often do we do something as simple as watching the water in the kettle when it boils? Or listen out to the different sounds as the water goes through stages of cooking? Each stage is so different and I’ve only started paying attention to such details after starting Tea lessons.

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Of course, the best part of the entire session was when it suddenly started snowing right towards the end. Not just little teeny drips of snow that I’ve seen a lot of in Berlin but actual proper huge snowflakes that came blowing down to the streets. Watching it from T-Sensei’s living room and seeing the fresh white snowflakes tumble aimlessly onto the verdant green leaves of his plants on the balcony… what a sight for the heart. ❤

Fast forward to the next day when I attend the Hatsugama ceremony carried out at the museum by the Urasenke teachers. Lots of lovely sights that the teachers definitely worked hard to coordinate and create. I could imagine it being a scene out of a tea room in Japan, really. Everything of course, was rich with symbolism. Unfortunately, while the Sensei was explaining it in German to everyone, I had been taken into the changing room by an older Japanese lady who had very quickly spotted that my Kimono had not been put together properly and I was showing too much of my torso haha oops so she kindly helped redo most of it.

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What I managed to check online though was with regards to these symbols:
In the tokonoma
– knotted willow – symbolizes abundance for its many buds and perseverance because it will stay alive for many days without water. The longer it flows, the more happiness we can enjoy as well
– Pine – symbolises longevity
– the plant that was used in the flower vase along the pine was actually the Camelia flower which green tea is made from
– Ebi (海老, shrimp) signifies old people because they have hige (ひげ, mustache) and koshi ga magatteiru (腰が曲がっている, are hunchbacked), so eating them is believed to impart a long life.
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We enjoyed a great meal with tons of small dishes each with meaning (of course!). Of the few that I managed to look up:

– Kobumaki (昆布巻き, rolled kelp with fish in it) which is supposed to symbolise Happiness
– Renkon (レンコン, lotus root) which is supposed to enable us to look through the future because it has holes in it
– kuromame (黒豆, black beans) means we will be able to work hard (mameni-hataraku マメに働く)

Really rather hilariously, I contributed the little barrel shaped rice ball for this year’s meal. Definitely looks better than it tastes. And the story behind it was that initially when N-Sensei had sent us all the email stating the list of food items that were required and if we could volunteer to bring stuff on the list, I had hesitated because I wasn’t sure exactly how I should cook the items. In the end as more and more people offered to bring the food items, there were only a few left, one of which was the rice. So then I thought, well, it’s Japanese rice right, how hard can it be? We eat Japanese rice at home all the time and it wouldn’t be too hard to cook rice for everyone and maybe I’ll just bring a big bowl of it along to the museum. So I offered to be the bearer of rice.

Well, turns out nothing in Japanese tea ceremony can ever be that simple. What was I thinking!! And when will I ever learn?!! Perhaps never. That’s why the evening before, I found myself in the kitchen, struggling to force those grains of insanely sticky rice together into a roll using cling wrap and the sushi mat, in order to get them into rolls where I would then refrigerate them overnight to be easy enough to cut the next morning. Turns out that there was a small print to the Rice item on the list. The small print read Tawara shape or barrel shaped onigiri style which apparently is extremely easy to make if you have one of those handy plastic moulds, according to N-Sensei. Which for someone like me who has never really made any decent shaped onigiri in my life, I did not possess. My sis was right in stating that I probably should have just borrowed it from the teacher. But I hadn’t really thought of that till the last minute and it was a bit late to go all the way to her place just for the mould. Those grains of rice were pretty much EVERYWHERE. But thankfully, they didn’t self-disintegrate in the fridge overnight as I had so feared and in the morning, I was able to slice them up and finally reshape them again to appear like little barrels.

Tragicomically, even though the teacher said to prepare 3 rice balls each for each guest (and estimated of 14 of us in total), the rice balls I made ended up way too big for 3 to fit onto the delicate lacquered tray for each person. In the end, only 1 ball was used per person. Leaving me with a nice tray of 30+ rice balls that I brought back home. D was nice about it though and promptly decided on garlic fried rice for dinner that night which turned out sooo good. ^_^ So in the end… everything turned out alright. Though in between it was quite a harrowing experience. That’s life isn’t it? Or at least the life I find myself getting into all the time.

It was the full works this time with our meal, thick tea ceremony carried out by N-Sensei, followed by thin tea ceremony carried out by V, who also received a 茶道 certificate that day. It was probably close to 5 and a half or 6 hours that we all spent at the tea room… so I was absolutely zonked out after that~

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Possibly my favourite part of the entire occasion though, was this part at the end when it was no longer the official Tea Ceremony but just a short time before everyone would disperse and go their separate ways. Each person gets to drink a bowl of thin tea. Someone fills the bowls with matcha and pours hot water in them and you whisk it up to a nice froth before giving it to someone else to drink. So you can’t make one for yourself and can only drink the Tea made for you by someone else. Quite a lovely idea, no? 😉 It’s the time when everyone is most at ease… and I definitely enjoy chatting with the other tea lovers. There are so many different types of people who have all come to this path for one reason or another. What I love though, is that feeling of unspoken communion. That we are all on this path together and we understand that freakish 茶道 loving nature in ourselves. We are all tea freaks, as T-Sensei would say. And after having met many of these students for a few times over the past few months, conversation has gotten easier and more interesting and I so look forward to the next Tea lesson, if only to meet some of these people again.

To a wonderful Tea year ahead~






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