Shinto ChaXi

We hiked up behind one of the largest Shinto complexes in Southern Kyoto, walking along a stream, and stroling just fast enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

We came to a beautiful spot on one of the many branching trails, Shinto shrines in every direction, and made chaxi by one we found captivating.

Quite a nice session, and our last in Japan. Just as I was getting use to having matcha at the end of our chaxi’s too…

I’m so happy Mr. Koike has taken to the idea of chaxi. I think by the time I return (with Institute members), he will have a group up and running, making matcha in nature all over Japan. One can hope!

– Jason

Matcha Production at the ShunSho Factory

I was quite right to conjecture that matcha, even at its (available) best, is subject to very mechanized production. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; tea drinkers demand matcha of a certain quality, and companies rise and find methods to meet demand; much of the matcha is very good. One of the best producers, a suplier to the SanSenke, is the Kanbayashi Shunsho Honten of Uji. This factory traces it’s history back 450 years. We got to spend some time with the owner touring the facilities.

Originally, all matcha was ground fresh for each ChaJi, using a small stone or mettle hand grinders similar in style to those used in China during the late Tang / early Song dynasties. In fact, many of the originals used in Japan were produced in China; I’t is strange to say, but I have always discounted the trade between Japan and China during tea’s early days (as a drink / ceremony, don’t take that as a reference to the Shang), but it was actually thriving. This influenced Japan so greatly that to this day teaware is often called Tang ware.  With the growth of Chanoyu, producers began to sell pre-ground matcha made with stone turns:

This method of making matcha continues to this day for higher quality production, though I’m not sure if anyone would be able to recognize it without knowing its antecedent…

Close by the 450 year old original factory, which is now only a museum, there is a nice new shiny factory. Those are actually stone grinders covered in matcha and turned by a motorized belt. The mettle funnels are filled with raw tea to be matcha-ized, and each row is a different grade. The air smells not so faintly of matcha, such that it satisfies my thirst for it just by breathing. The factory produces some very high quality matcha; its just hard for me (personally) to see and drink hand processed Chinese and Korean tea, and allow it to be compared with this… though I would rather this matcha than non-stone ground matcha, or ‘food grade’ matcha (flavoring), and if this is what is used by the Senke perhaps it is better than hand ground matcha (uneven grind, no heat produced, coarser, etc)? I have not had enough experience to know.

Matcha is without a doubt an art form in its own right, and with its (obvious/necessary) relationship to Chanoyu it only becomes a higher art. My time in japan and my experiences with Japanese tea ceremony have only led me to a greater and deeper understanding of these traditions.

– Jason

Omotesenke – Success!

And you thought I was done after these 2 punches? My meeting with the Secretary General of Omotosenke, Mr. Uzuoka, was an honor, went indubitably well, and extended far beyond me dwelling on their architecture.

I am overjoyed to announce that the Omotesenke Chanoyu School, the oldest school in the Sen Family line, has accepted our proposal for a Strategic Partnership with The Tea Institute at Penn State. This partnership includes the training of 10 students per semester at Penn State by a Professor of Omotosenke (4 days per month, we will expand to larger classes as our members gain rank), research cooperation on historical, anthropological, and architectural projects, and a new Summer Experiential Learning Opportunity at Fushin’an in Kyoto.

The Tea Institute now has Strategic Partnerships with all of the SanSenke: Omotosenke, Urasenke, and Mushanokojisenke (in NYC); and with EdoSenke (in Japan). This is a huge step for the Institute, allowing our students to train in Chanoyu with the school of their choice, and giving these lineages the ability to teach, present, and show Penn State University’s 45,000+ students their tradition. We know more than a few will join.

While this is quite an achievement, we have a long way yet to go. It is my goal to see all of these lineages work with the Institute to find permanent, year round instructors for the training of Penn State students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding community, and the infrastructure of Japanese tea houses to support it.  At the same time, I will be working to expand our Summer Experiential Learning Opportunities to Urasenke and Mushanokojisenke.

I want to thank everyone who has been involved thus far with the Institute (I could not have done it without you), and I invite anyone who would like to get involved, near or far, to contact me (I don’t want to do it without you). We are always looking for support.

– Jason

Japanese Architecture

Let me be upfront. Until this experience, I never understood Japanese Architecture. It didn’t click. I liked the gardens (who doesn’t like the gardens?), but their drab stucco-esq mud brown colors of walls, and their sizing never made me feel at “home” (though I did like the proportions). Fushin’an, the 2 1/2 mat tea room built by Rikyu himself, changed that.

Fushin’an was used by Rikyu over the course of his later life, and he even served tea to Hideyoshi there before being ordered to commit ritual suicide by him. He did that, seppuku, here in this room. It has quite the air of history to it, and after studying tea for so long (6 years is a joke really…), it was much more than  I ever started out to accomplish just to sit in a spot where Rikyu has sit. Though the photo does little good in communicating this spaces beauty, its wabi charm, its 3 styles of roof and mash of paper walls or its “innovative” (for a tea house) sliding windows, it changed the way I view, understand, and appreciate Japanese architecture.

It was seeing the aesthetic of their architecture in perfection that allowed me to see what all other buildings, shrines, and structures had been aiming for. This might seem an overstatement; but consider that until you have seen one of the “Grand Buildings” of a style, let it be the United States Capital Building, or Versailles, or Red Fort or the Taj Mahal, or the Doges Palace, you can’t envision what the perfection of a western home or building would look like. Imagine trying to judge the aesthetic implementation of a sky scrapper (this is what you should be doing every time you see a skyscraper – it makes going to Asia very difficult) without ever having seen the Empire State Building.

Fushin’an was perfection. The buildings had no natural ends, extending themselves into the garden, and the gardens adding no contrast from the inside to the outside, just adding to the feeling of tranquility. The screens and sliding doors to control and change the sizes of the rooms; great for having large or small tea parties.

The last thing I will mention is Wabi – there is a general misunderstanding of it in the west, and even in Japan. We all know the literal meaning of it, and the general Idea behind it: cold and withered, or “to those who speak of the beauty of the full moon on a cloudless night, I wish to show them the beauty of a waning moon only partially visible though the clouds”. That’s all well and good. It is that everyone, myself included, is surprised by the use of Shin ware (formal ware), with gold leaf, and lacquer, and silver Sake pots. How can silver be wabi?

Rikyu was the father of Chanoyu; he and his patron Hideyoshi the Shogun (the one who ordered his death) were immensely rich. Chanoyu, even to this day, is primarily practiced by the wealthy; in earlier times it was only practiced by the wealthy.

Thus the use of un-guided ware, or ware lacking a patterning, or ware that took natural form over the refined and even shapes of Chinese ware, were enough to constitute Wabi. Wabi never got to the level of un-refined. Chanoyu is never unrefined. Wabi is exactly what is should be; an extension of the natural form for the aesthetic implementation of a phenomenon (let me limit this as a working definition).  Chanoyu has so greatly influenced arts and architecture in japan though its ideal of Wabi, that it is now inseparable as an independent aesthetic feature of Japanese life.

It only took a visit to Fushin’an to understand that.

– Jason

Cormorant Fishing on the GiFu River

For the last 1,300 years (since the end of the Tang Dynasty), river runners have been fishing for sweetfish (ayu) on the Gifu river. Using Cormorants.

The birds are tied to a rope and controlled off the bow of the boat by a Fishing Master. This is a serious skill, and in times past, the quality of the catch was so high that the first “harvest” so to speak was sent to the emperor. This lead to the Fishing Masters receiving the title Cormorant Fishermen of the Imperial Household Agency and to the river being protected by Imperial decree; the river is still clean and unpolluted to this day!

The hunt starts at night. about 6 fishing boats take off led by a pine fire hanging over the birds at the bow; this attracts the fish, lights the way, and the sparks keep the birds active. It is visually stunning.

What could make this better? Being on your own boat on the river following these Master Fisherman on their hunt while eating bento box and drinking beer.

Nothing like a relaxing night on the water watching some birds fish by fire.

Though the towns (cities) on the Gifu no longer support themselves from the fishing industry, the birds are a huge tourist draw, primarily for the Japanese themselves.

This was a fun experience.

– Jason