Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sensei's New Year's Chakai: The Parlor Game

A chakai is a large tea gathering, designed to accommodate many people, in contrast to a chaji which may accommodate 1 - 5 guests at the most.

The chakai at Matsumoto Sensei's home in Los Angeles for hatsugama, literally the first kettle, at new year's is a huge undertaking involving some 30 assistants, students / members of sensei's Seian-kai, her tea club, as another blog will detail. To accommodate upwards of 120 guests, about eight sekis, like a "seating" in an exclusive restaurant, of 15 guests are accommodated in five "acts" that cycle through the first floor rooms and gardens of her home. The acts include the presentation of koicha and usucha, thick and thin tea preparations in her tea rooms, and a special tenshin, meal, during which time a parlor game is played to distribute gifts to the guests.  It is the latter "game" that will be discussed here.

"Tale of Genji" Theme. Reading the Scenario.
As it is the custom in Japan, guests present the host with a monetary gift in an appropriately celebratory envelope, of course, and the host reciprocates with something that is appropriate to the occasion. Because this is a crowd primarily of chajin, tea people, the gifts are utensils and other tea related items, including tea bowl, tea scoop, purification cloths and kaishi, a wad of papers used in many occasions by guest.

As the tenshin service comes to an end, two or three of sensei's students appear from behind the festival curtain (blocking the dining room from the house foyer) usually in some form of costume related to Japanese cultural history. One is holding a basket or box containing folded white strips of paper, the lots or fuda (cards), on which distinct phrases are written inside, usually in kanji, the Chinese characters, or kana, the phonetic alphabets. (Most recently there has also been translations in English.)

In this type of kujibiki (luck of the draw) each person is invited to select one paper and reveal the contents at the appropriate moment to the assembled The game officiants will read a line or poetry or story and stop at the place where one of the phrases will complete the idea. The person who has that phrase is given a gift, and the process continues until all gifts are distributed, one to each guest. In some years the game  is based upon key historic poetic phrases that are know by all educated Japanese people; in other cases, the phrases are lists related to the new zodiac year or other seasonal references. The entire process takes less than 10 minutes, after which the guests quickly leave to allow the assistants to prepare the room for the next seki. 
"Saru-San Hear - Speak - See No Evil" Theme.
Preparing Gift Tray

Because I am not educated in the Japanese cultural system, and cannot read the kanji, as jolly as the spirit of the game is -- certainly much lighter than the deep quietude of the tea presentations that preceded it -- I have never been able to participate without assistance for someone to explain what theme of the metaphorical puzzle is. I have admired the costumes for their creativity and frivolity without a doubt!

About 10 years into my study of tea -- about 1995, one of sensei's assistants came to four of us -- all non-Japanese -- after class on the Monday night before the third Sunday of January, sensei's official hatsugama date, and said that "Your group is going to be responsible for the parlor game that year." We four hakujin / gaijin, white folks / foreigners have never considered ourselves a "group", rather a few people who don't speak Japanese and who enjoy learning together because sensei will be encouraged to speak English to us in class. We were all in our 50s and yet had little else in common. We were each brought up and educated in different parts of the USA. Two of us had been to Japan, two had not. None of us knew any Japanese poetry or other Japanese literary references. What were we to do?

A quick discussion about the predicament revealed several key challenges: 1/ what did we all know in common; 2/ did Japanese women (most of the guests are women in their 50s+) know what we know; 3/ how were we going to actually do it?

"Wizard of Oz" Theme:
Lion, Dorothy, Tin Woodman, Scarecrow
Americans are a diverse bunch. Our culture is not as orderly, not to mention old, as that of Japan. We quickly considered what we knew in common -- Mickey Mouse, Superman -- then quickly what our Japanese colleagues might also know ... and we came up with theme: the classic Wizard of Oz film staring Judy Garland. We immediately set out to tell the story and have the phrases on the paper chits relate to the film.

Surrendering the Gift; Note Uchiwa
Cross Cultural Doesn't Always Work Well
But we had one other obstacle: language. Could we tell the story without verbal language? We went one better: we told the story without words by using still images from the iconic film made into uchiwa, the ubiquitous flat, round fan used in Japan, and had the same images reproduced for the inside of the chits instead of text. Additionally, each of us modified our formal kimono dressing and assumed one of the key characters in the show: Dorothy, Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow. The paper chits were drawn from Toto's basket.

The parlor game was a great hit, and we were satisfied that our "group" had passed yet another important cross cultural test. We informed everyone, however, that it was not possible to do another game as we couldn't imagine what the theme might be.