Tuesday, May 19, 2015
SASAKI SANMI: A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
Chado The Way of Tea: A Japanese Tea Master’s Almanac
By Sasaki Sanmi
Translated by Shaun McCabe and Isasaki Satoko
(Boston USA, Tuttle 2002)
REVIEW BY LAUREN W. DEUTSCH
KYOTO JOURNAL 54
Tuttle Publishing, the New England / Tokyo bookmaker who has been keeping the sumi smoking for Okakura Tenshin’s Book of Tea seemingly forever, has recently snapped out of an all too long pop culture daze to help circulate some of the Japanese culture classics in English translation. Their reissue (In larger format facsimile) of A. L. Sadler’s Cha-No-Yu The Japanese Tea Ceremony (first published in 1933) is welcome simply for the fact that the print is now about 10 point, almost a 30% increase. Tuttle issued in 2001 a translation by Kyoto garden experts Marc Peter Keane and Jiro Takei of the millennium-old Sakutei: Records of Garden Making by a Japanese court noble, considered the oldest book on gardening in the world.
And now the piece d’ resistance … Sasaki Sanmi’s Chado, a humongous volume of translation of the 20th century tea master / journalist / intellectual who spent a great deal of effort (must have) writing down what to the rest of us was mandated as “oral transmission”. How this man secured permission from his patrons, the Sen Family (the book has a Forward by Urasenke's Hounsai Oiemoto, Sen Soshitsu XV), to put down this material into writing and publish it may be the only stone left unturned.
Although he wishes us to read it like a novel, a story, it’s most easily penetrated with an indiscriminate finger looking to get away from the mundane by taking a little sojourn into an idyllic world, where everything is just perfect. Perfect in the way the Japanese tea folks can do perfect. That “casual” perfect which make it look like everything just simply happened. Finally the code is cracked into English.
Unlike The Farmers’ Almanac, the American classic booklet (in comparison) which is a handbook on working with or around the forces of nature in the buff (nature, that is), this accounting of correspondences, reflections and references, is more a study in how nature must be. (There is no hope for someone who can’t resist buying a flocked pink pine Christmas tree in the desert.) One might say there’s no room for weeds, but in fact there are appropriate weeds as well. (I knew that.)
The confidant of the 14th Generation oiemoto (grand master) Tantansai of the Urasenke tea school, Sanmi (1893 – 1969) informs one’s effort toward deep appropriateness by using the device of listing to build a case for ambiance, much like the authors of Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book.
There are 12 chapters, one per month, listing in nine sections of myriad features ( utensils, poetic references, events, memorial days, flowers and weeds for tea, cakes, cuisine and foodstuffs, words and meisu, just lists and more lists of related this and thats). It leaves nothing unaccounted for: consider holding a lovely July asachaji (early morning tea gathering) … For the haboki (a feather brush used to dust the hearth from wayward ash during the charcoal laying rituals), “Do not forget the idea of using the feathers of a light red heron, a snowy heron or silver pheasant.” (You have been warned.)
Sanmi’s text is narrative as well, a boon for neophyte tea students wrestling with the haiken (inspection) of utensils, as much as it is for the masters who are looking for a new theme for a new moon viewing chaji. We have a sense that all is quite lovely indeed.
The translators profess to not be poets, and this reader cannot vouch for their accuracy or sensitivity in this account as she cannot read the original. It must at least be “accurate” as the Oiemoto would never agree to participate in a project if it were not. One bi-lingual tea teacher commented that the language is much too pretty. Another chajin took issue with the selection of an image of yet another geisha making tea on the cover.
Enough with this premise that tea is frozen in time and space. But, now with this book, chado in the hands of the unJapanese, it is anything but that at all. We are grateful.