Hatsugama: The first tea of the year

Another Ordinary Day in Paradise

Mr. Maeda_1

(c) photo courtesy of Helen Hasenfeld

It is a chilly, sunny, Sunday afternoon. I am to join friends at Hatsugama, the first tea event of the year. I enter the 450 year old Daitokuji Monastery and see men and women wearing formal kimono. But, what is this? I don’t know any of these people. Are they’re thinking, “What is he doing here?” They are all happily chatting. Finally, a familiar face—Takeuchi-san walks into the room. I am so happy to see him. He doesn’t know anyone either, and we glom onto each other.

Later, twenty-five of us sit silently in the large tearoom as the host prepares thick tea in raku bowls. The calligraphy scroll in the tokonoma alcove reads Matsukaze—a classic tea term meaning “wind in the pines,” alluding to the sound of water boiling in the kettle. The person on my left reminds me that we met three years ago. His family runs a sweets shop downtown. The group discusses the raku tea bowls, the plum blossoms in the bamboo vase in the tokonoma, and today’s choice of sweets. We adjourn to another room for a kaiseki meal. A yuzen kimono painter calls, “Beimel-san! Remember me? We met at a moon viewing tea event last year.” He hands me his card and invites me to visit his studio sometime.

At lunch, I sit next to a potter who asks me about America, and I ask him about living in a pottery village. Some people move from guest to guest carrying hot sake in masterfully crafted, ceramic, sake-serving bottles, chatting with each guest separately. I see that I know one of the sake-pourers: he is my tea teacher, a true classic Japanese gentleman. And there is his son. He helped me last year in running an arts workshop for Americans. The woman sake- pourer is an architect who does historical restoration. The man over there is an NHK (National Public Radio) host. We met last year, too. There is much laughter and good natured “roasting.” Someone says that my bald head helps light up the room. Japanese teasing is so life affirming and accepting that I would feel left out if I were NOT teased.
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bowl by Otani Shiro

The multi-course meal is served in wooden, black-lacquered boxes, freshly cut bamboo cups and several styles of stoneware and porcelain. The tiny, numerous courses include meticulously presented seasonal vegetables, the freshest fish and the creamiest vegetable soup made with soy cream. Next comes thin whisked tea. Each of our bowls was made by a different potter.

It is now my turn to tease the biggest teaser, a man with a sake-induced, bright red face. I say, “With a red face like that, you look like the Shinto god of sake!” and we all laugh. There is much discussion as we study our individual bowls—the glaze, the motif, the shape of the foot, the signature, the color of any unglazed clay. Some of the potters are actually in the room. “Can you read this name?” “Yes. Ono-san made it. Hey Ono-san—this is a great bowl!” “That’s Tanaka-san’s bowl. What a playful guy. Hey, Tanaka-san!” Bowls are passed around and exchanged for viewing. Then comes another round of thin tea served in 25 different bowls.
Tsukigama 1-09 #2
yuzen painted silk by Moriya Takeshi

After the group photo, the yuzen textile artist shows us his kimono silk, decorated with hundreds of cleverly hand-painted, tiny fish in a purple sea. Everyone loves his work but roasts him anyway. “I’ll trade you these tea papers [$6.00 value] for your silk [$5000 value] and you can keep the change!”

As we put on our shoes to leave, several people whom I didn’t know three hours ago say, “Beimel-san—please come to the nijikai, [after party] at a pub around the corner.” I was a stranger when I walked in, but I leave as a member of the group. Another ordinary day in paradise.