Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Do you truly know Rikyu?

Is Rikyu really a superior man as a tea master?  The Rikyu you know might be an idol.  As I learn more about chanoyu, The Way of Tea, I found out that the character and anecdotes of Rikyu might not be all true. 

During a long history of chanoyu, Rikyu was kind of deified.   Some of the stories nowadays regarding Rikyu are from unreliable historical sources which are 南方録Nanporoku and 茶話指月集Sawashigetushu written after his death.  Rikyu was a very tall guy and he learned the tea from Jouo Takeno.  These are common understandings.  However, I was surprised to learn that there is no evidence about them.  There is not any historical verification to proof that Rikyu and Jouo actually met.  Another surprise is that in Rikyu’s time, people didn’t sit seiza (sit on their legs) during the tea ceremony.  They sit at ease.  I wonder how they performed the ceremony without seiza.  Can you imagine it?

Do you know the episode of the Morning Glory Tea Ceremony?
One day, Hideyoshi (the ruler) heard that the Morning Glory's (flower) at Rikyu's residence were beautiful.  He wanted to view them and asked Rikyu whether he could visit.  When Hideyoshi arrived at Rikyu's residence, there were no Morning Glory's at all.  Rikyu took the puzzled Hideyoshi to his tea room.  There, Hideyoshi saw just one Morning Glory.  Rikyu had cut all the other Morning Glory's down to highlight the most beautiful flower.  It was sitting in a non-decorated space, looking very vivid and impressive.  Hideyoshi praised him saying "You are a great master, Rikyu."  (Dec.2012, SpaceALC)
This is one of the famous anecdotes of Rikyu.  Many of these type of stories we know now are from茶話指月集Sawashigetushu.  It is written by Soan Kusumi who is a disciple of a disciple of Rikyu’s grandchild if I remember right.  You will wonder how reliable the stories are, which have been passed through the generations. 

Even the popular book, “The Book of Tea” written in English by Tenshin Okakura includes some stories from茶話指月集Sawashigetushu.  We might not really know the real Rikyu.  He is still a mystery.  However, there is no doubting the fact that Rikyu innovated and formed the foundation of chanoyu.  He actually created raku teabowl and nijiriguchi (crawl-through doorway).  I admit that the adoration of Rikyu helped to develop and continue our tea culture.  It is a part of our history.  He might not be as superior as we imagine him to be.  That’s why I find him so curious. 

“Cha” by Souoku Sen
“Rikyu-no “wabi” towananika” by Asao Kodu
“Rikyu nyumon” by Soshin Kimura

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tea ceremony manners for guests 2

Continuation from the previous entry

3.    Enjoy your sweets before tea.
Oftentimes, sweets are served in one container.    You take one piece and place it on your kaishi paper with the chopsticks come along with the container.  Put back the chopsticks onto the container and pass it to the next guest.   You eat it before the tea is served.  If you cannot eat the whole sweet, you can wrap it with kaishi paper and take it home.  You don’t leave it there.

4.    Avoid drinking the tea from the front of tea bowl.
The side that has a design or pattern is the front of the tea bowl.  It is considered important.  To show your respect, avoid drinking from the front.  If the tea bowl is handed facing you with its front, turn it about 90 degrees and drink the tea from the side of the bowl.

5.    Observe the bowl at a low position.
You have a chance to observe the tea bowl after drinking the tea.  You hold it with both hands and treat it close to the floor if by any chance you slip it off from your hands.  If you want to see the bottom, you flip it while making sure some tea residue does not drip.  You do not hold the bowl up above your head to look at the bottom.   The value of the bowl might be worth a lot.  Imagine how you, the host, would feel if your guest carelessly held up your precious tea bowl above his head.

A significant fascination of the tea ceremony is the non-verbal communication that creates intimacy with others.   The host sincerely treats you with utmost hospitality with his precious utensils.   You should respond him with the respect and proper etiquette he deserves.   If the host sees you treating his bowl with care, he will gratefully acknowledge your consideration.  The manners are there to help you properly interact with others.  Now that you know the five rules, it’s your turn to experience the one of a kind ceremony!  Enjoy!!

1.    Take off your watch and accessories.
2.    Do not seat at the first and the last seats.
3.    Enjoy your sweets before tea.
4.    Avoid drinking the tea from the front of tea bowl.
5.    Observe the bowl at a low position.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Tea ceremony manners for guests 1

Would you like to attend a Japanese tea ceremony?  As a guest of the ceremony all you have to do is simply enjoy the tea and spread. However, there are hundreds of etiquette one should know when in the ceremony.  Don’t worry.  I’ll lay down the five most basic rules that you should know for attending your first ceremony!

1.    Take off your watch and accessories.
2.    Do not seat at the first and the last seats.
3.    Enjoy your sweet before tea.
4.    Avoid drinking the tea from the front of tea bowl.
5.    Observe the bowl at a low position.

1.    Take off your watch and accessories.
The host might serve you the tea with his treasured tea bowl.  You do not want to damage it with your rings or with your accessories.  It is the well-known reason, but I also think that, in the tea room, there is no need for you to glam up or be bound by time.  Take off your watch and accessories before getting into the tea room.

2.    Do not seat at the first and the last seats.
The main (first) guest and the last guest have special roles to do during the ceremony.  So, it’s better to avoid sitting the first and the last position.  Usually, the nearest seat to the tokonoma alcove is the position for the main guest. 

As you can see, the rules are not so difficult.  I’ll talk about the rest in the next entry.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Tea production region for a good quality tea

Which region in Japan do you think produces quality tea?  Uji or Waduka in Kyoto?  Yame in Fukuoka?  Have you ever heard of Asamiya in Siga?  Tea lovers are well aware that Asamiya produces excellent quality tea.  Sad to say, that I haven’t heard of it. 

I finally had a chance to visit an Asamiya tea farm and a tea shop in Siga when I attending a tea studying tour.  It is said that mountain regions are ideal for producing tea because of its big difference in the temperature between day and night.  The farmer showed us around his field. The well known notion made sense when I finally got to observe the actual field.  Look at the picture above and notice the tea plants are grown on the slopes.  To get to this place, you drive up the narrow winding road.  Large machineries used in the regular farms are useless here.  Farmers need much effort in taking care of growing and harvesting manually.  Why do they make tea in such hard places?  Simply, for the quality of the tea! 

According the farmer, when buying Asamiya tea, you need to be careful of imitations.  Asamiya is not a large production region, so their tea is distributed only to a few limited channels.  The famous tea shop in Kyoto, Ippodo also uses authentic Asamiya tea. 

During the study tour, we were offered to try the Asamiya tea at the farm, which was the super-premium tea that had won a prize in a contest.  It was regular-steamed sencha with a great aroma.  Its’ water was slightly red, which is considered not good for sencha.   However the taste was incredible!!  I was drawn to the distinctive and amorous umami with a nutty note.  The most surprising thing was that although this tea definitely has bitterness, the wooden like aroma made it flavorful, not astringent at all.  Would you believe that you find the bitterness tasty?  The distinctive umami and tasty bitterness merge to create a profound flavor that registers a prominent impression on your palate.  I got another taste of Asamiya at the tea shop.  It was also premium tea with the same bitterness and luscious flavor.  I really fell in love with Asamiya tea so I wanted to introduce in this blog.

Unfortunately, the two Asamiya teas that I tried were quite expensive; I can’t afford the pleasure of always drinking them. I wonder if regular-quality Asamiya has the similar flavor.  If you have tried Asamiya tea, tell me, how do you like it?