In parallel, November is when the tea room is reconfigured and the sunken hearth becomes the center, literally and figuratively. (In the warmer months, we use a different type of brazier.) The ceremony that celebrates the opening of the hearth and the year's new tea is called Robiraki. I had the privilege of attending my tea school's Robiraki celebration recently and it was wonderful!
My attempt to describe this doesn't give the full picture. I'm writing a detailed account for my mother, and it's up to four pages already. I'll try to be brief here. :-) In short, this was my first "full" tea ceremony experience which means that it included a meal, thick tea and thin tea. The event was almost three hours. Thank goodness I had been practicing sitting on my knees!
The guests gathered in the waiting area and enjoyed hot water scented with puffed rice, served in beautiful sand colored cups with sky blue interiors. When it was time, our first guest (our guide for the event) led us into the tea room. We entered in a kneeling position, then stood and walked to appreciate the the scroll and the utensils. Having settled ourselves in our places on the tatami mats, our host (Margie-sensei) entered the room and greeted each of us with a personal welcome.
Next she served us a wonderful meal of seasonally-appropriate foods, including a soup with vegetables, mushrooms and lily flowers; rice pressed into beautiful shapes; a pillow of spinach served on a shiso leaf with grilled eggplant and drizzled in hoisin sauce; roasted chestnuts and kelp; a Japanese root vegetable and pickled fuyu persimmon. We sipped a delicious sake, served cold in a very flat bowl (like a saucer). Once we finished, we dropped our chopsticks in unison to signal to the host. After the dishes had been removed, we were treated to a very special and traditional sweet called zenzai, adzuki beans in a sweet, syrupy soup. Delicious!
We exited the tea room to stretch our legs while our host prepared for the central part of the experience, making the thick tea (koicha). This is the most formal time of the event. Upon hearing the singing bowl, we returned to the tea room. A lovely incense aroma greeted us. Margie-sensei entered with the tea-making implements. She purified the items, this being for the symbolic purpose of preparing our hearts and minds as everything came into the tea room already cleaned. She carefully warmed the tea bowl and whisk and then added the correct amount of matcha powder. Since this is November, we drank fresh tea of a superior grade for koicha. She added hot water and kneaded the tea ~100 strokes until it became shiny and the right consistency. She placed the bowl to her right, at the side of the hearth, and that is the signal the tea is ready.
The first guest retrieved the bowl. She excused herself for drinking before me, then thanked the host for preparing the tea. After lifting the bowl in gratitude, she enjoyed her first sip. She took about three sips then wiped the tea bowl where she has drank. She passed the bowl to me and I repeated the process, then passing to the final guest. The lingering sweetness from the zenzai mingled with the subtle bitterness of the tea in a way that was most pleasing. When the last guest finished, he returned the bowl to the first guest and in order, we each had a chance to admire the bowl. Koicha is typically served in a black raku tea bowl and the verdant green against the black was striking.
Margie-sensei then tidied up the utensils and closed this portion of the ceremony by removing the implements. We took another stretch break while she prepared for thin tea, usucha. (This is the portion of the tea ceremony that I am currently learning, and there are many variations. I will be studying this for some time!) She returned to the room with another type of sweet, senbei. It's a lightly sweetened and flaky rice cracker. She also brought in a new tea bowl, this one in shino style, and other tea-making tools. She purified things once again and invited the first guest to enjoy her sweet. With thin tea, each guest is made her/his own bowl of tea. After the first guest enjoyed her sweet and tea, it was my turn. The senbei was delicious and light, and again its flavors complement the usucha. Usucha is made with less matcha powder than koicha. In the style that I am studying (Urasenke), it is whipped until a wonderful froth forms on top. After I finished the tea, I looked at the bowl in detail and appreciated its beauty. Once we have each enjoyed our bowl of tea, Margie-sensi closed the ceremony.
It was an honor to participate in this tea ceremony. Margie-sensei has given so much of her life to studying the way of tea. I am drawn to this experience for the ritual of things. After this experience, I find myself deeply soothed and centered, and quietly joyful. Making and drinking a bowl of tea can be transforming.