Thursday, October 20, 2016


Zenshuji’s Annual Chasen Kuyo
(Tea Ceremony Whisk Commemoration)

November 6, 11am - 4pm

Tea practitioners and the public is invited.

You don't have to go to Kyoto for authentic Japanese Zen Tea Ceremony culture. Zenshuji Soto Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo, Downtown Los Angeles, invites the general public to attend its annual Chasen Kuyo, celebration of the chasen, the bamboo tea whisk used to make a bowl of matcha (powdered green tea). The event attracts practitioners of all Japanese tea ceremony schools in the region in seasonal kimono.

This chakai (tea ceremony gathering) combines two distinct temae (tea procedures) in the temple's tea venues and a superbly prepared chaseki (meal for tea ceremony) incorporating seasonal shojin riori (vegetarian temple cuisine) crafted by the temple's chefs.

Chanoyu (tea ceremony is not often enjoyed outside Japan in its original context, that of a Zen Buddhist Temple. Zenshuji, one of the oldest and most prominent Zen temples in North America, is unique to host this event. The day begins with a solemn Buddhist service in the hondo (main sanctuary) offering tea in appreciation of the efforts of the humble hand-tool. A talk about Zen and Chado (the "Way of Tea") will follow chanting of traditional Buddhist sutras.


 English language explanation of the events will be provided for newcomers. Chairs will be available.

 Reservations are limited: $55 per person donation. No walk-ins are permitted on the day of the event.

Payment in full by check should be made in advance to Zenshuji Sado-bu and sent to 123 S. Hewitt Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012. For more information, call 213.624.8658.

Zenshuji's Sado-bu (Tea Ritual organization) is headed by Hiromi Sosei Yamashita, sensei, a senior student of the Chado Urasenke Distinguished Tea Master and USA/NEA National Heritage Fellow Sosei Matsumoto Sensei, of Los Angeles. The Zenshuji Sado-bu presented chanoyu demonstrations at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and has been active for over 30 years.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Shedding Light on the "Ancient" Japanese Tea Ceremony

Please see my post of the same title in my other blog Trads in Contempo Life.

Thanks to Mamoru Fujiwara for the inspiration!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

CHA no YU no CHA no YU no CHA no YU no CHA no YU ...yes!

The Source of the Water. The Source of the Practice.

"Sensei," the novice monk asked his teacher in the heat of summer, "Which really came first? The tea or the water?"

 "OY! It's getting cold," was the wise reply.

What is commonly referred to as the “Japanese Tea Ceremony”, is literally, “tea’s hot water”. Sen no Rikyu (1522-1592), the founder of our Way of Tea, admonished practitioners to pay strict attention to the source of water for tea, to draw it from a pure source at an auspicious time of day.

For the "Water Pavilion" Project of CURRENT:LA the first Los Angeles Public Art Biennial, we practitioners of chado (the Way of Tea), have been invited by Rirkrit Tiravanija to perform demonstrations in the structure (below) being built over the LA River in Sepulveda Basin Park near Lake Balboa. We will source precious water from the Los Angeles River that has been purified on site through modern methods and is potable, another of the important aspects of his presentation.

As our water is from the many streams feeding the L.A. River, the sources of the practice are the many streams of Zen Buddhism. As if to fortell Los Angeles’ unique cultural diversity, the great teacher Eihei Dogen Zenji (1200 – 1253) wrote in the Sansui-Kyo (Mountains and Rivers Sutra), “Ikken Shisui” (One View, Four [Different kinds of] Water). This can be interpreted as not only is there is water in the world, but there is a world in water. It is not just in water.

Presentation on July 16 (2-3pm) and July 17 (3 - 4pm), 6300 Balboa Ave., Van Nuys

In addition to its practical use in the host’s making a bowl of green tea for a guest, the notion of “water” will be reflected in the thematic aspects of today’s presentation of two distinct procedures appropriate to the summer season and auspicious occasion.

Meisuidate 名水点 Koichademae: The formal preparation of matcha (powdered green tea) utilizing water drawn from a famous source. Upon entering the space, the guest notices the tsurube, an unfinished well bucket made of hinoki cypress with special paper decorations to denote the purity of the water. This prompts a request to taste the water from the well bucket before the hot water is added from the kettle to make a bowl of tea.

Araijakin 洗茶巾 Usuchademae: As it is summertime, we will do an informal preparation utilizing a rather shallow tea bowl that is brought into the preparation area filled with water. A broad leaf (habuta), with dew drops, stands in for the lid on the fresh water container, all done to evoke a sense of coolness.

Additionally, poetic names of utensils will reflect the greater understanding and realization of the purpose of the gathering ... just that the host makes a bowl of tea for the guest. The guest receives the bowl of tea from the host.

Thus, the fundamental embodiment of tea preparation, Wa. Kei. Sei. Jaku. (Harmony. Respect. Purity. Tranquility.), we hope will be realized.

Friday, June 17, 2016

2016 Chanoyu Demonstrations in Los Angeles

I am getting inquiries about where people can see chanoyu demonstrations. Many Buddhist temples with chado clubs had demonstrations during obon. There are a few other ways to see tea practiced as a demonstration.

I'll begin the list here and continue to add to it. All will expect a donation (usually $5/person for a bowl of tea and sweet. Free to observe; Chasenkuyo includes a service and meal @ $50/person)


  • Varies (check calendar) Hunting Gardens Seifuan Tea House (not usually open to the public) (spring 2016)
  • November 6, @ Zenshuji Chasenkuyo (advance reservations required)

Monday, March 21, 2016

Turning Japanese? I Hardly Think そ: Review: Making Tea, Making Japan Kristin Surak

Review: Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism Practice by Kristin Surak (Stanford CA, Stanford University Press, 2013) 
What’s all this fuss about Japanese tea anyway?” begins a quiz I give to students after I do a demonstration in conjunction with their Japanese culture curriculum. I usually don’t don kimono, not only because there’s not lots of prep time, but also because it sends a different message than what I hope they will experience.
Why are we studying the culture of other people? I my youth it was because it was out of my regular “ordinary” experience; it seemed exotic and either made my own daily existence look better or different. Since beginning my study of chanoyu in 1985, and being one of only a few Occidental people who has stuck it out, I can now say that it is within my regular “ordinary” experience. 
My friends seem to think that I’ve turned Japanese, but that is categorically impossible as Kristin Surak’s new book that explores how chanoyu has molded and been molded by the core essence of Japanese-ness: 
The tea practice – the preparation procedures and modes interaction at lessons – began to mold my foreign body into forms regarded as distinctively Japanese.
Turning Japanese? I Hardly Think
As a left-handed, cross-country skiing Jewish feminist, such a transformation is not likely, but something has happened and for some reason it has made its impact.
Perhaps the best test has been during numerous subsequent visits to Japan. When I mention upon first encounter with a Japanese native that I have been studying chanoyu since that time with a distinguished tea master, people stop what they are doing, inhale slightly through the teeth and a type of relief mixed with fear comes over the person with whom I am conversing: Relief that I may understand them at their core. Fear that I may ask them a questions or, perhaps worse, that I may invite them to participate in a tea gathering, an activity about which they in fact never cared too much for or about which they may know very little.
When I would be invited to join other tea folks to do a demonstration at the annual Japan Expo in Los Angeles, I am usually stopped during my break time walking around to see the other exhibitions / demonstrations by an arguably Japanese (language accent) ...

"You wear kimono yourself?"
To which I usually replied, pulling the neckline out a bit in the front and peering down into the chasm of my décolletage that has been stuffed into the coquettishly kokeshi tubular form, much like those devices that produce perfectly round hard boiled eggs that are then sliced and served in airplane salads ... 
 "I'm the only one in there."
Of course, this questions is literally a translation from Japanese into English, as "mono" means "thing/object" and "ki" refers to the verb "to wear", so a kimono is a thing to wear, but it has tremendous cultural implications. 
A sister tea practitioner social anthropologist Kristin Surak has written an important and essential book that will help the curious place the impact of chanoyu where it belongs in Japan, smack dab in the middle of the culture. While the finger that points to the moon is “only” the finger, tea is absolutely tea and the ritual is reasonably identified as and of Japan (even though it is also of China and Korea). Like a horse with a wandering soul, it takes a strong trainer to keep it on course. This has been the work of many aficionados for more than 450 years. 
Likewise, there is a Zen Buddhist parable that states the taste of Tea and Zen are one ... or maybe it's One. There are many tea practitioners who can't possibly practice the forms without kimono. The garb does support the torso while sitting seiza, and the temae gestures do specifically accommodate and even enable the long sleeves -- doing double duty as pockets -- to be seen as a type of prop. The folds become essential "pockets" for various cloths and papers used by both host and guest.
Couquettish Kokeshi
Some might call me an "Orientalist" to the extent that I still find many aspects of Asian cultures, especially Japanese, very attractive. I used to like to wear my kimono as I have some beautiful ones, but as I've aged my body type just is not made for this cut of cloth. I stick to haori for formal Western wear.
When I began practicing chanoyu, I had lost quite a bit of weight and, for my first public demonstration, several of the Japanese ladies who were helping me dress, were muttering about how many towels it was going to take to fill up waistline. From them on I learned how to dress myself so I could avoid that stuffy feeling.
As my body filled itself out naturally over time, I know now why the obijime is worn low on the obi if one is of middle age and older. While it may be a sign that one is young and available for marriage if it sits mid-way, the lower position is more likely practical to hold fast to the extra material when more of the long sash is need to circumnavigate the midriff, leaving much less "extra" flap to tuck upward behind the "pillow".
And there is the matter of the various useful, however unglamorous strings that I have inherited from various kind women who took pity on my not having an appropriate kimono trousseau, including koshihimo, strings, usually pink or white but mine is light blue and purple wave pattern, are a formal description of these unsung heroes. I can also measure my girth and have had to resort to pretty serious knots.
There is nothing useful to be said about zori, except that if there are puddles, get high ones, but otherwise one really doesn't need them most of the time for tea ceremony events in a home. I usually wear men's varieties to accommodate the essential tabi, or use Birkenstock sandals so I can drive my car.

Presto! Everything Up My Sleeve!

I've always felt that inspecting the fukusa for koicha was like the floating "zombie ball" magic trick. In fact, I've been thinking about substituting one of those special magical cloths for a fukusa.

What do people see in the Japanese tea ceremony that makes them want us to do a demonstration on a stage?

The gestures themselves are so minuscule, mostly happening between the shoulders and waists of two people seated in a 9' square hut.

Chanoyu is not a spectator sport.

Even if eyes could penetrate the walls, nothing much happens ... water boils, steam rises, whisking inside a small bowl, a slurp, bowing. Pretty mundane.

I am of the opinion that it is the kimono that is of greater interest to those who have not seen the procedures.

Our bodies are choreographed through chado practice to accommodate the design of kimono sleeve, trying to naturally not droop our arms and elbows while our posture is erect handling the hishaku, fukusa, etc.

However overtly voluminous, there is nothing up my sleeves, to quote an oft heard phrase in magic acts, but they clearly figure prominently in the attractiveness, dare one say, the mystique, of the presentation. An amateur magician could not get away with such an outfit. S/he would be suspect immediately.

Sleeves are more receptacles for "trash" than repositories for the dieus ex machina of the "trick". That place is reserved in the breast fold of the kimono, in plane view of the guest. Holding kaishi and kobukusa in the flap of one's kimono provides easy access to these objects during the course of the temae, but is not very good magician styling.

In 1986, having been bitten only a year prior by the bug of chado, I was privileged to witness a kencha presented by then Hounsai Oiemoto, Sen Soshitsu XV, onstage at the Japan America Theatre in Los Angeles. From my vantage in the balcony, I saw this rather tall man seated in front of the daisu. While I had only once seen the set up at my sensei's tea room for hatsugama, I knew that there was very little room to remove the hibashi and hishaku from the shakutate under the top shelf. Yet, what I "saw" was the daisu stretching upward to accommodate these long handled utensils in the hand of this hardly diminutive man with long sleeved black haori. When I mentioned my experience to a more senior student, I was advised not to try to copy the oiemoto's temae. That was very good "magician" styling for sure.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

In Praise of Chasen

There is such a distinct beauty in a chasen crafted in Japan compared to those mass produced now in China. I can actually make better tea with the former. The material feels good in the hand. (Yet I must admit that having a chasen readily available in Los Angeles -- thank you Co-opportunity Market, Whole Foods, Asian culture museums and gift shops! -- is a blessing these days.)

I have continued to wonder about the history of chasen making. Several years ago I read in Misiko Hane's "Peasants, Rebels, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan" (New York. Pantheon. 1982) that chasens were made by folks who were considered burakumin. It brought back an odd experience I had when inquiring about wanting to visit a maker of this most beautiful hand tool when I first visited Midorikai as a guest student. Thinking my enthusiasm to know more about the sources of chadogo would be well met, I felt my query was dismissed for some uncomfortable (for them, not me) reason. "Too far away. Out of town."

I recently inquired of Ted Fowler, a retired professor of Japanese culture who has studied caste systems. He confirmed for me that

 "All of the crafts you mention -- low-paying but requiring a goodly amount of skill -- were often associated with
burakumin in the past.  Many of these artifacts are no longer made domestically, and so the current situation is a bit different. It is important, i believe, to stress
the immense contribution made by non-caste groups to Japanese culture -- culture that we look on today as sanctified by the patina of 'tradition' or 'traditional arts.'"

Nonetheless, I am in awe without hesitation at the legacy of craftsmanship shown in this video about the making of chasen today byTango Tanimura, the 20th generation of the fabled family. Situated like 95% of all chasen makers in Japan in Takayama village in Nara, the family's name is recorded as having been patronized by the Tokugawa Shogun, among other notables. Jun Tanimura has a Facebook page.

Studio KotoKoto in San Diego CA has a great English language account about this family's work. Another good source of information about Takayama village chasen making is here.