My apologies for the long absence! The last few months have been a tiring time for me, and the financial crisis hasn’t helped matters. However – as one of my sensei’s tea scrolls says, Nishi nishi kore koujitsu: every day is a good day (which I think is an exhortation to practice equanimity). We may prefer nice experiences over not-so-nice ones, but when it comes right down to it, life is precious and we are lucky to be breathing!

And it’s been a great Year of the Ox* so far. I was lucky to celebrate not one but two Hatsugama-s this month … one overseen by my own sensei, and one hosted by an affiliated Urasenke center in a nearby city. There’s nothing like enjoying two “First Kettles” of the year!

There’s always a very festive feeling at Hatsugama; the participants wear brighter, flashier kimono than usual (well, at least the women do), and there’s a lot of smiling and laughter, plus a sense of excitement. The toriawase or selection of tea utensils tends to focus around the zodiacal animal of the year, or traditional New Year/long-life motifs such as cranes and willow branches – or both. Now, oxen (or cows) aren’t the most poetic-looking creatures, but I’ve noticed that a lot of this year’s items feature the akabeko, a stylized folk toy that depicts a red calf. It’s cute as a button, and also rather mysterious (although a bit less so if you click through to the Wikipedia article to read about its origins). It also holds a rather special place in the Japanese heart.

Akebeko or red calf. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Now that so much is uncertain, in terms of jobs/investments/money and many other things besides, this seems to be a good time to make a New Year’s resolution or two about tea practice. One of mine is: I vow to be content with what I have. It’s so easy to be beguiled by tea utensils (I’m as guilty as anyone in this regard), but right now I am determined to practice contentment, and to really appreciate and enjoy – and share with others! – what I’ve already got. As Rikyu said: “Having one kettle you can make tea; it is foolish to possess many utensils.”

I also want to focus on what is really the heart of Tea, namely (among other things) the expression of genuine generosity on the part of the host, the expression of genuine gratitude on the part of the guest, and the meeting of the two in serene mindfulness. In that respect, it doesn’t matter whether the teabowl is a priceless heirloom or a piece of Tupperware. Rikyu: “Tea should not be an exhibition of what the tea man owns. Instead the sincerity of his heart should be expressed.”

And finally, I vow to put more effort into cultivating mindfulness. This means bringing my full attention to each moment, and – when my monkey-mind drifts away and I get caught in distraction – to return to the task at hand without self-recrimination, trying to see it as if for the first time. (As I learned in my first meditation retreat, when keeping my attention on my breathing for more than five seconds seemed purely impossible, each breath offers the opportunity to reawaken.) Rikyu: “When using your right hand, your attention should also be on the left hand.”

P.S. Nearly forgot. I will drink up all my matcha while it’s still good and fresh! :-)

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*Did you know that while it’s possible to wish someone Happy New Year in Japanese (the usual phrase being Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu), there’s actually no way to say “Happy Year of the Ox [or zodiacal animal of choice]“? The best I could manage was Akemooshite omoodetou gozaimoosu. (Oh, well. At least my Japanese-pun-loving friends enjoyed it.)

In May 2008, Sen Genshitsu – the past grand master of the Urasenke school of Japanese tea ceremony (also my school, as it happens) – made an historic visit to Seattle, Washington. As he is now in his eighties, it was apparent that this might be his last visit to the Pacific Northwest. Therefore, several students from my tea group made a special effort to go and see him. From all accounts, his talks were wonderfully inspiring, and everyone who went was very glad that they did so. They were also won over by his considerable personal warmth, which – in tandem with his unprecedented willingness to share the tea ceremony with foreigners – is surely one of the factors that has permitted the Way of Tea to spread so extensively outside Japan.

After the visit ended, I learned that there were at least two students in our group who had not gone because they did not know who he was! These students (who are both non-speakers of Japanese) already knew that Sen Soushitsu was the penultimate grand master (o-iemoto) of Urasenke, and they were also familiar with the name Hounsai Daisousho from the haiken dialogues in the tearoom. However, they did not realize who this Sen Genshitsu was, or why it might be worth putting aside the time and funds to go and hear him. Imagine their shock when they realized that all three names referred to the same individual, and that they had missed their chance to meet him in person!

Non-Japanese students may not realize that in Japan, a person may have more than one name over a lifetime.* This is particularly the case for those in high positions and/or those whose function is religious in whole or part. In the case of the grand masters of tea, multiple names are the norm. This can be extremely confusing to anyone who is unfamiliar with this tradition.

In the following notes, I will try (according to my limited understanding) to summarize the various names used to refer to these individuals, and to explain the reasons behind them. As I know little Japanese and have pieced this together from primarily English-language sources (some of which seem to be contradictory), it’s probable that there may be errors! I would be grateful if anyone reading this who sees any factual mistakes can kindly contact me so that I can ensure it is 100% correct.

The most important thing to remember is that the “name” Sen Soushitsu (千宗室) is effectively an hereditary title that refers to the current grand master of Urasenke (裏千家). Sen (千) is the family name (as inherited from the great 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyuu). According to Japanese tradition, the family name precedes the given name; thus, you will usually see SEN Soushitsu (which is similar to saying “SMITH, John”) rather than Soushitsu Sen.

Hounsai, the 15th (previous) grand master

  • Given name at birth: Masaoki.
  • Zen name (bestowed in adulthood at Daitoku-ji temple): Hounsai Genshu Soko koji. Herbert Plutschow says that every grand master-to-be must “undergo Zen training and [...] become a Zen monk [as a] prerequisite for assuming the role of Urasenke grand master”; this necessarily involves giving up one’s childhood name and assuming a tea name. The first part of the Zen name – in this case, Hounsai – will also serve as the tea name.
  • Heir-apparent title (bestowed in 1950, in anticipation of his becoming iemoto): Wakasousho. Wakasousho (若宗匠), “Young Master”, is the title given to the appointed successor of the current grand master.
  • Ceremonial name upon becoming o-iemoto (1964-2002): Hounsai (鵬雲斎 or “Hounsai” means Phoenix Cloud).
  • Title upon becoming o-iemoto (1964-2002): Sen Soushitsu.
  • Title upon yielding the post of grand master to his son (2003 onward): Sen Genshitsu (千玄室).
  • Ceremonial name (2003 onward): Hounsai Daisousho. The title Daisousho (大宗匠) refers to his status as the previous o-iemoto, and means “Great Master”.

He may also be referred to as Sen Genshitsu Daisousho or, more simply, as Daisosho. The Chado Encyclopedia also gives his “personal name” as Housou Soushitsu XV, while Wikipedia gives it as Hansou Soushitsu XV.

Zabousai, the 16th (current) grand master

  • Given name at birth: Masayuki.
  • Zen name (bestowed in adulthood at Daitoku-ji temple): Zabousai Genmoku Soshi koji. So far I have been unable to determine exactly what 坐忘斎 or “Zabousai” means in English.
  • Heir-apparent title (bestowed in 1982, in anticipation of his becoming iemoto): Wakasousho (here given in full as Wakasousho Sen Soshi).
  • Ceremonial name upon becoming o-iemoto (2003-present): Zabousai.
  • Title upon becoming o-iemoto (2003-present): Sen Soushitsu.

And Wikipedia gives his personal name as Genmoku Soushitsu XV; presumably the “Genmoku” comes from his Zen name. No wonder we students sometimes get confused!

The above information was taken from the Urasenke Konnichian website. For more biographical history on these two most recent grand masters of Urasenke, please consult that webpage. Some additional details were taken from Herbert Plutschow’s book The Grand Tea Master: A biography of Hounsai Soushitsu Sen XV, the Chado Encyclopedia entries on Hounsai and Zabousai, and the Wikipedia article on the Urasenke lineage.

An aside on transliteration

The lengthened -o sound found in certain Japanese words is transliterated here as -ou (as in Soushitsu, Zabousai, Wakasousho, Daisousho). Another way to represent this long -o sound is with a macron (a stroke above the vowel, indicating that the vowel is lengthened); however, this requires a special character that is not present in all font sets. Furthermore, readers should be aware that these words are often transliterated without any indication of vowel lengthening, however, so that it is very common to see Soshitsu, Zabosai, Wakasosho, and Daisosho.

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*And after the end of their life; there is also the Japanese Buddhist tradition of giving the individual a Buddhist “posthumous name”, or kaimyo.

The ladle (hishaku) is always held with the right hand

Hello – and yes, I’ve been absent for a month! The reason is that I developed a nasty case of Repetitive Strain Syndrome (the not-so-fun version of RSS). The culprit? Too much time spent on the computer at work and at home. Since the pain that radiated through my neck, shoulder and right arm was pretty intense (sometimes it felt like a Doberman was gnawing through my shoulderblade), I didn’t find it too hard to take the doctor’s advice: avoid going anywhere near your computer keyboard and mouse!

But the shoulder and arm pain also presented certain… challenges when it came to tea practice. Right is right when it comes to the Way of Tea. When you’re in the tearoom, there are certain actions you must always perform with your right hand. For the first time in my tea life, I actually felt grateful for the pain that arose in my legs and feet when sitting seiza. It was a welcome distraction from the shoulder pain I felt when ladling hot water into the teabowl!

No place for lefties

The tearoom, and the way we move about in it when performing the Way of Tea, was constructed with right-handed persons in mind. That is the simple truth – unpalatable though it may be to southpaws! The position of the ro (sunken hearth), the placement of the fukusa (silken cleansing cloth) in the obi, the alignment of the various tea utensils on the tatami: all these and more are arranged under the matter-of-fact assumption that all tea people use their right hand as their dominant hand. In fact, you could argue that the left side is slightly taboo, since that is the side used for pouring away waste water and to “hide” the waste water vessel (kensui) from the guests. In general, the right hand is the hand of activity, of purposefulness; the left hand functions as a support, an auxiliary, only. It is the hand that does the cleaning up.

It is literally impossible to consider reordering the tearoom so that the positioning of the equipment and utensils could better suit a left-handed person. It would be like moving into Alice’s looking-glass world, or possibly a tea version of Bizarro World, where everything is done backwards or in reverse (“Us do opposite of all Earthly things!”). It is that unthinkable. I suppose that someone might design a mirror-image tearoom at home, for personal use, but any traditional Japanese tea person who saw it would likely be both amused and shocked at the idea.

I have often wondered what it must be like for left-handed tea students. Is it seriously challenging, when you’re a lefty, to perform movements that require higher-than-normal dexterity (sorry) such as hiki-bishaku?* Or do such things become second nature when you’ve done them frequently enough? None of my fellow tea students has shown signs of left-handedness outside the tearoom, so there is no one in my tea community that I can ask. I’ve even tried playing at “reverse tea” at home, just to see what it was like. The effect was most disconcerting.

If you are a left-handed student of tea, how do you feel about the right-handedness of the tearoom? Has it been difficult for you? Have there been any rewards – for example, an increase in mindfulness because it is not possible to perform such movements unthinkingly with the non-dominant hand? Please share your thoughts!
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*This is the series of movements that you use, in the summer season, to return the ladle to the kettle after pouring cold rinse-water into the teabowl. Hiki-bishaku is said to emulate an archer as she draws her bow. Of all the ways in which the ladle (hishaku) is handled, this is the one that tea students find to be most challenging.

Three of the icons available from Hybridworks

Want a gorgeous Japanese theme for your desktop?

Hybridworks is offering a free theme called Yoritsuki. It includes two wallpapers and 35 desktop icons – several of which are tea-related. The theme is available for both Windows and Mac OS X. (Yoritsuki, the author tells us, “is the name of a fictional Japanese-style inn.”)

And even if you’re not into tea or things Japanese, I recommend taking a peek because this creation is stunningly gorgeous.

Go to the Hybridworks homepage and select Yoritsuki from the navigation bar at upper right. When the Flash animation finishes loading, click Enter to view the wallpaper. Then click Change the time to switch the wallpaper from daytime to night.

You will now want to say “Wow” in Japanese. The word is Sugoi!

From this view, you can download a Zip file containing the entire theme.

To skip straight to a page describing what you’ll be downloading, go here. But frankly, it’s more fun to discover the theme via the above animation.

Continuing the previous posting…

Haikening (examining) the chawan

5 – Is the interior sloping inwards towards the bottom?

Avoid a chawan whose interior walls meet the bottom at a precise 90-degree angle. You don’t want there to be any corners of the chawan which cannot be reached by the whisk, otherwise the tea will contain undissolved clots of matcha. That’s not much fun for the person drinking it! Even a chawan that shows little evidence of curves on the outside will have an interior that slopes towards the bottom, if it is made with its true function in mind.

The best way to judge a chawan’s appropriateness for matcha preparation, of course, is to whisk some matcha in it. Obviously, you can’t do that when looking online! However, if you’re considering a bowl in person (particularly if it’s western-made), you have a little more leeway.

One member of the Yahoo group wakeiseijaku describes her habit of carrying a whisk (chasen) in her purse – I assume it’s stored inside a whisk case! – and evaluating any candidate bowls by “air-whisking” with it. This is preferable to handing over a wodge of money, getting the bowl home, and discovering that the diameter is just a little too narrow to manipulate the whisk, or the proportions just a little too confined…

Questions 4 and 5 belong to a larger, more general, and arguably vaguer consideration:

6 – Is the chawan well proportioned?

Traditional Japanese potters have settled on a range of chawan shapes for a reason: they work well. A well-shaped chawan is a pleasure to prepare tea in and to drink tea from. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t buy a bowl of an unusual shape, but you are always safe in selecting one of the traditional styles (e.g. the V-shaped Ido style, which was modelled on the Korean rice bowl of Rikyu’s time).

7 – Is the bowl a reasonable weight?

Bowls in Chadou shouldn’t be too heavy. I can’t even give you an ideal weight here – it’s something you “know” when handling a bowl. So this is a bit of a question mark. In general, Raku ware is lighter in weight than other pottery such as Kyoyaki, Bizen, Shigaraki, Hagi, Mino, and so forth. If the bowl strikes you as leaden when you weigh it in your hand, it’s too heavy.

Having said the above… many if not most of these concerns may not be relevant to you if you are a non-practitioner of tea ceremony.

And having given a sort of chapter-and-verse response, I’d like to add this:

I really feel that one of the best things we can do is to take chances with pottery, and to learn what works (or doesn’t) by working with it. By doing this, you’ll know experientially what to look for and what to avoid. Looked at this way, there are no “mistakes”, just learning opportunities.

If a bowl’s price is not high, and you really love the look of it, why not buy it and see whether it meets your needs? If you find you don’t care for it as a matcha bowl, you can always use it for other purposes (to hold sweets, nuts, etc.) – or simply enjoy displaying it.

Also, I’m a big believer in buying pottery that speaks to your spirit. If a piece strongly appeals to you, and you would feel badly if you let the opportunity pass, I think you should yield to passion and buy it.

In which case I’m saying yes, yes, yes!

References:
Jaanus webpage on chawan, with cross-section of the chawan showing its parts and their Japanese names

Some great reference articles on e-yakimono.net:
A Guide to Styles
Keshiki – Ceramic Landscapes
Clays
Glazes
Techniques
Kodai – What’s the Fuss about the Foot
The Box – Don’t Throw It Away
Caring for Your Pottery
Tips on Displaying Your Pottery
Thoughts of a chawan collector

I was asked to evaluate a chawan (Japanese teabowl for matcha) by a friend on the TeaChat forum recently. In my reply, I explained why I personally would be reluctant to buy it. My friend asked if I would be willing to share my comments with others. I didn’t want to single out a particular potter’s chawan as a “bad example” (plus, I’m hardly infallible in these matters). Instead, I’ve rewritten my comments as this generic checklist, which may be handy for anyone who is thinking about purchasing a chawan.

A chawan ... but is it what you want?

If there are any senior Chadou practitioners out there who would like to correct or expand on any of these points, I welcome your feedback.

1 – Is the surface of the bowl (especially the interior) smooth or rough?

Most people who want teabowls for matcha – and all practitioners of Japanese tea ceremony (a.k.a. Chadou, the Way of Tea) – should give preference to bowls whose interior surfaces are smooth. Some bowls can be very rough in texture; for example, Shigaraki wares are frequently somewhat pebbly. If there are bumps on the interior, they can cause problems when whisking the matcha – especially if they are convex (“outies”) and not concave (“innies”).

I have a friend who has never used the visually stunning Shigaraki bowl that she purchased for a huge sum; once she got it home, she was chagrined to realize that the gritty texture on the interior would cut a bamboo whisk to shreds. However, if the surface of the chawan you’re considering has pits rather than bumps, and they’re not too deep, it may not be too much of an issue for you.

2 – Is the edge of the bowl smooth?

Similarly, the edge of the bowl should be smooth. In Chadou, a rough or irregular edge be an issue for two reasons.

First, you as host must be able to wipe the edge of the bowl smoothly with the chakin (small linen cloth) as part of the tea ceremony; with a rough edge, this can be next to impossible.

Secondly, you need to present the guest with a comfortable drinking surface, and it’s not generally pleasant to drink from a cup whose rim is jagged or coarse. If the chawan under consideration has any “jags” in the rim, or any other impediments to smoothness (pits, carbuncles, grooves), again I would have questions about that.

Still, if you’re simply making tea for yourself alone, these points may not be that relevant.

3 – Can the foot be gripped easily?

If you are buying a bowl via the Internet, this is something that you will have to judge from the photographs. Any seller of chawan-s who is familiar with Chadou knows that the foot is very important, and will provide at least one good photograph of the foot ring.

Why does this matter? The tea host needs to be able to pour the rinse water out of the bowl one-handedly, by placing the left thumb on the lip and the other fingers within the ring of the foot. A foot that is too shallow, or awkwardly made in some way, is to be avoided because there is a very real danger of dropping the bowl and damaging it.

Even if you are not interested in Chadou, there are two more considerations. Firstly, the foot should be being level and stable (you don’t want the bowl to rock while you’re whisking!). Secondly, the base of the foot should be smooth, since if it is roughened, it may scratch some surfaces on which it is placed such as lacquered shelves or serving trays. (In some cases, fortunately, it is possible to sand the foot, using sandpaper, and make the rough surface smoother.)

There are various types of foot (koudai in Japanese). Some of these can be seen in an article on e-yakimono.net called Kodai – What’s the Fuss about the Foot. There is one type, known as kabuto (helmet), in which the clay at the centre of the bowl’s base comes to a sharp little point. This point is shallower than the foot ring itself; in fact it’s mainly decorative. (I’ll try to post a photo at some point.) However, Sensei – my teacher – does not care for the kabuto style because, she says, tea practitioners with sensitive fingers may find it a little painful to hold (especially when pouring out the rinse water as host).

So… even the “approved” foot styles are not liked by everyone. It helps to see chawan-s in real life, and to hold them, to really understand what to look for!

4 – Are the dimensions of the bowl appropriate?

Chawan dimensions can vary, so the answer to this question is not always obvious. Typical bowls are between 4.5″ and 5″ in diameter at the rim, while the larger bowls (such as those made from raku) can be a little wider still. The height is typically between 3″ and 4″, but does not often go much beyond that. The reasons for these dimensions is so that that the whisk has enough room to “work” inside the bowl without actually splashing about too much.

In Chadou, the only time you get really wide bowls (over 5″) is in the hottest months of summer, when bowls known as natsujawan (summer bowls) or hirajawan (shallow bowls) make an appearance. With these, the idea is to actually allow the tea to cool a little bit, prior to the guest’s drinking it, by offering more surface area. These bowls are not only wide, but considerably more shallow, with a typical height of 2.5″. They are sometimes slightly V-shaped in appearance, too. It can be challenging to whisk matcha effectively in such a shallow bowl.

There are three other types of bowls that you may sometimes see:

  • Tsutsu-jawan, or “tube [shaped] teabowl”. This is a narrower, taller chawan that is traditionally used only in the coldest month of winter – which is February by Japanese reckoning.
  • The second type is called either ko-jawan (“small teabowl”) or nodate-jawan (“teabowl for outdoors”). This is a smaller bowl that is considered more portable; it may be carried either in a bag with smaller-than-average utensils (including a collapsible teascoop!), or packed away in a special chabako or “tea box”. (I own two nodate-jawan; they are, respectively, 3.75″-4″ in diameter and 2.5″-3″ in height.)
  • Tenmoku-jawan (also transliterated as Temmoku). This is a V-shaped bowl with a very tiny foot. In traditional tea ceremony, this type of chawan is reserved for serving to “nobles”, and it requires a special stand called a dai. Unless you are studying Chadou, it’s unlikely that you will ever need one of these.

In the case of both tsutsu-jawan and nodate-jawan, a smaller-than-average tea whisk is required because a full-sized specimen will simply not fit into the chawan. It’s unlikely that you will come across many of these two chawan types, but it is good to recognize them when you do.

So when you are evaluating a teabowl, try to work out whether it is neutrally shaped (= can be used any time of year), it will hold in the heat (wintertime), or it will allow the tea to cool (summertime).

To be continued…

A Nezumi-Shino chawan made by a Japanese potter (and one that fulfils the traditional criteria):

Nezumi-Shino chawan

A chashitsu (tearoom) in autumn

Someone asked me on another forum: “Since you allow me to ask, I would like to know what can drive someone to study Chadou, the japanese way of tea? I mean it is a long, never-ending journey. You not only make tea, you have to explore every aspect of japanese tea culture. It is physically demanding, practice can be fastidious, it is time- and money-consuming. Would you share your personal impulse?”

I’m a little embarrassed to say that my interest began with Japanese design and textiles, rather than Chadou (the Way of Tea) per se. I attended a public tea presentation largely so that I could take a peek at the kimono and obi! But I quickly became intrigued by the ceremony itself. In particular, I loved the slow and meditative pace, the beauty of the movements, and the graciousness with which tea was served to all of the guests (including me). A second tea presentation took place a couple of weeks later, and thanks to that one I was completely enchanted. I asked the tea sensei whether I might become a student, she said Yes, and that was that.

As a new student, I struggled with – but also enjoyed – the physical precision that is required for learning the various temae, or tea procedures. (I’m not a naturally graceful person, so this really was work at times!) To perform the movements right, you really have to be mindful. I often describe the Way of Tea as a moving meditation, and that’s really what it is: when you slow down your movements and bring mindfulness to them, the mind naturally calms down and becomes concentrated. In that sense, I find that Tea is also a spiritually refreshing practice.

Gradually, I also came to appreciate the heart of Tea, its philosophy or motivation, which is all about graciousness and generosity. The aim of the host is to do everything he or she can to make the guests’ experience in the tearoom as perfect and beautiful as possible. (Every movement should be imbued with this aspiration.) The aim of the guests is to watch appreciatively and to receive everything mindfully and with gratitude. When the two come together over a bowl of tea, you have a communion of hearts which is very lovely indeed.

Ultimately I noticed that that the practice of Tea was having an effect on my behaviour in daily life. Basically, I began thinking more about how to be considerate of others. I also began treating the objects I use in daily life with more care and deliberation, as though they were/are objects as precious as tea utensils. This wasn’t intentional, just a by-product of Tea practice. But having even a little taste of “tea mind” in daily life is a really welcome thing!

I’m lucky to have a teacher who embodies the heart of Tea – she is endlessly patient, considerate, and loving with her students. She is not at all attached to the beauty of the implements used in the tearoom, but uses them only as a way of welcoming the guests and making their experience in the tearoom a delightful one. So I never had the impression (as I think some people do) that tea ceremony is an empty practice that is performed by rote in a mechanical way. “Good” Tea really is the opposite of this.

When I was first asked this question, I thought for a long time about how to answer. The “easy” answer is that Tea is a microcosm of Japanese culture, or even a doorway to it. It’s often said that to master Tea one must also learn about incense, calligraphy, kimono, lacquerware, pottery and so forth… all of which are very enjoyable studies. And this is certainly true; I love learning about all these things (with pottery, kimono and incense at the top of the list). But to be honest, I learned to appreciate these things as deeply as I do only because I discovered Tea first.

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