Sunday, November 25, 2012

The New Year of Tea and Robiraki

I've recently learned that November is the month for new tea in the Japanese Tea Ceremony.  The spring-picked teas are stored in jars like this one and allowed to rest until November, when the seal is broken and the fresh tea is ground into matcha (as needed).  Look at the beauty of the knots that tie the jar.  Each side is unique.  In November, we drink the year's freshest tea! A definite cause for a special tea ceremony.

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. 

14 comments:

Steph said...

The tea jar shown in this post belongs to Margie-sensei of the Issoan Tea School. Thank you!

Marilyn said...

The tea jar is gorgeous with the covering and knots.
I loved your explanation of this special event. How wonderful to have the opportunity to be included in a tea ceremony such as this. I can't even imagine sitting on this floor for so long.

The Teaist said...

Thanks for sharing this; a wonderful summary! Would love to experience this first hand.

How would you describe the taste difference between thin and thick matcha?

And oh, I totally get you on ritual. It's a very powerful thing.

Rosemary said...

Thank you for sharing this wonderful new journey.

cha sen said...

Yes, I too feel that enacting a ritual can be soothing. I wonder too if within the very narrow confines of a ritual like the chanoyu, one can find one's own unique spark of creativity. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Steph said...

Dear Teaist - That's a great question! Based on my newbie experience, here's how I describe the differences...

Koicha (thick tea moves slowly and luxuriously across my tongue. The flavor is intense, akin to steamed spinach, with a sweet aftertaste that lingers. That sweetness is important and a sign of good koicha. Since one uses a lot of matcha to make koicha, a superior grade is essential. If not, the bitterness would be amplified.

In contrast, usucha (thin tea)practically dances in my mouth. The whipped froth tickles my mouth as I take my first sip. The flavor is more earthy with a base of pleasant bitterness.

Both are very high in umami and delicious!

Would love to hear from others!

Steph said...

Dear Cha Sen - Yes, I believe that personal creativity can very much be a part of the tea ceremony. The more I learn, the more I see the opportunities for this. For example, the selection of tea utensils can make for a very unique tea experience. The host chooses the flowers and the scroll and provides the names of the sweets and other implements. In a full tea ceremony, a theme ties the event together and is revealed slowly throughout the ceremony. This requires a lot of imagination and personal thought. What I'm learning is that the more skilled I will become, the more opportunity for my personality to show through.

Finally, while each person performs the basic steps of the procedure in the same order and using the same technique, each person has a unique style about it that is noticeable. (I'm still bumbling along to find mine!) :-)

Thank you,
Stephanie

Angela McRae said...

Those amazing knots are the first thing I noticed. And how interesting to learn about the tea being allowed to rest until November! This sounds like a most unique ceremony, and now I have to ask you about one thing that has always puzzled me, and that's the drinking-after-others custom. I do "get" the obvious importance of the communal/sharing aspects, but ... right now, when half my co-workers have colds, I can't imagine sipping after anyone else. Is there not a health concern, or do you just assume those participating have the good sense not to come if they are sick?

Antiques And Teacups said...

What a wonderful experience! Thanks for sharing with us. The jar and the knots are lovely! Almost a shame to break it open...
Rut

Steph said...

Dear Angela - It's a good question, and I consulted with my instructor. First, you are right -common sense dictates that if you're sick, you stay home. There is also a fair bit of guest etiquette that one learns before attending an event like this. (I've been studying for nearly a year and just attended my first full tea ceremony.) One of the things learned is to bring your own moist linen closth to wipe where you drank. Tea does have antimicrobial properties, but I'm not sure to what extent that helps. Finally, I just trust the process and haven't picked up a cold yet. :-)

Cathy at Wives with Knives said...

I knew a tea ceremony was involved but didn't have any idea there was so much to it. You meal sounds lovely and I can imagine what a moving experience the ceremony was. Wonderful post, Steph.

amherstrose said...

There are so many nuances to this tea celebration! So much to absorb and take away from this experience. I would love to participate in this ceremony and experience this lovley ritual. Your description of this celebration drew me in and made me feel like I was there with you.
Thank you for sharing.

Mary Jane

Angela McRae said...

Thank you for that explanation, Steph! I had been wondering!

cha sen said...

Thanks for your reply to my musings, Steph. It is pretty great that the chanoyu enables you to combine both the wonders of an age-old tradition and your personal creativity.