My performance of “Yuki” as the host of the thin tea ceremony (usuchaseki)

I’m a little behind in my posting. On January 14, 2007, I had my first major performance as host in a tea ceremony for hatsugama. Hatsugama is the first tea ceremony of the year, with much pomp and circumstance, at least with my teacher, Matsumoto Soei. To effectively pomp myself up for the performance, much effort went into my outrageous hair and trailing sleeve “furisode” kimono.

Usually, hatsugama tea ceremonies take place at a teacher’s home or in a traditional Japanese setting. However, my teacher and her older sister have continued a tradition established by their mother by holding their hatsugama at hotels in a effort to adjust to the times and to accommodate the many students and their guests efficiently. In this version, guests usually sit at tables and the host will perform on a small stage. Afterwards, a full course meal of French cuisine is served and the students do skits, perform a sort of talent show, and have party games in a banquet hall to top off the occasion.

To prepare for the event, at 8:00 the night before hatsugama, Tanaka-san, one of the most advanced students of my tea teacher, took a few of us students with her into Gion, the entertainment district. The street we found ourselves walking down was lined with traditional tea houses, with geisha running into them, and contemporary clubs, with hosts in fantastically sculpted hair standing outside to lure in customers. Tanaka-san turned into an apartment complex with us prim and proper tea ceremony students in tow, led us up the stairs to the second floor, and opened the door to a normal-looking apartment.

The room inside was packed with women getting their hair done. The row closest to the mirrors was having the finishing touches done to their hairstyles while the second row was getting their hair put up in curlers. Near the door we came in, women were blow-drying their still wet hair from having washed it next door. On the far side was a room no larger than a closet, in which women were being helped into kimono. The women who came into the room looked tired and worn. The women who went out looked fabulous and confident. This was the backstage area for the show going on downstairs in the street.

We took our turns and in a half hour we were walking down the street with our own hair fantastically done up. Yet I was wondering how gorgeous this Gibson girl tuck really looked on me. I felt like I needed a tight corset and a bustle skirt that fell all the way to the floor.

Gibson Girl

Gibson Girl

Instead of in a Victorian dress, I was at the hotel at 8:00 the next morning getting wrapped up in yards of fine hand-painted silk and intricate golden brocade, the formal kimono of a young woman, with sleeves hanging almost to the floor and an obi sash tied in a large butterfly on my back. Unlike normal kimono, which I have become familiar with wearing, this get up threw me off balance, and the only way to move was in teetering mini-steps in the unusually high zori sandals (though not to be compared with those of a maiko in height) .

My performance was of the Yuki “snow” version of the chabako (a box in which all the necessary items for a tea ceremony are held) tea ceremony for thin matcha tea. I seem to be developing a yuki theme. In this tea ceremony, the tea bowl and tea caddy are both in silk brocade pouches, nested one within the other inside the chabako. To do the performance, a set of stylized knots needs to be learned for the brocade pouches and all of the utensils are placed in a formation very different from that a standard ceremony.

Despite its complexity, I had less than a month to prepare, because I spent half of December in Germany for Christmas. But focusing so intensely on one version of the tea ceremony was clarifying, since usually I don’t have a chance to focus on one version for more than one or two lessons before moving on to the next one.

On the day of hatsugama, I was confident though not a little nervous about my upcoming performance. Thankfully, it was a success! I only made one mistake in taking the chashaku (tea spoon) out of its silk case a little too late in the sequence, but no one noticed. One more thing I want to work on I noticed while looking later at pictures of the performance. Although I had good posture, the angle I held myself at, such as when leaning forward, was occasionally a little unnatural or overdone.

After this first performance, I look forward to doing it again. Through actual performance, the details of movement become clearer. But is there a step beyond the movements in which grace and elegance appear like they do in Noh? That level beyond the form is probably a kind of moving meditation in tea ceremony. How long will I need before I move beyond the forms to experience that level?

Despite my own uncertainty, I seem to have moved into the ranks of “veteran” students according to Matsumoto-sensei. Last fall, I was awarded the novice license, which opens the gates to learning more difficult ceremonies. Also having newer students look to me for direction and finding myself translating and half teaching lessons at Iori certainly gives me incentive to continue learning as thoroughly and as much as I can.

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