Cha-do, the Japanese "Way of Tea", is neither ancient nor exotic, neither sacred nor profane.
In fact, it is extremely ordinary, orderly and essential.
In practice, it is "simply" making sure you have properly heated the water for the tea, literally cha-no-yu.
In its atmosphere of heightened awareness and hospitality, host and guest ultimately transpose roles and unite. It is this very give-and-receive dynamic exchange that makes the world a wonderful place.
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”
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
Turning Japanese? I Hardly Think そ
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) ...
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.
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
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.
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.