Tea ceremony imagery

I like the little similes and stories we hear in the tea room.

  • When carrying a heavy mizusashi water jar, we’re taught to hold it low and at a slightly down-forward angle, which makes for a natural and stable position. One shouldn’t, however, extend the arms all the way, as this would be “like carrying the enemy’s head to present to the Daimyō”.

  • Tea people prize the senses, and so the host pours water from the ladle slow & steady, from a certain distance (“about one ladlecup”), to give rise to a pleasing sound “like that of a mountain stream”. When doing this, however, one shouldn’t move the ladle upwards as the water falls, for it would look “like an oil seller”.

  • When wiping the bowl with a chakin cloth napkin, the host can make a discreet swipe to clear the “dewdrop” hanging from the side where water was poured. But don’t overdo it, or you’ll look “like a parent wiping a baby”.

  • One of the distinctive features of Sen-style tea ceremony are the multiple methods of setting down the ladle on the kettle:

    • The oldest, and simplest, technique is oki-bishaku “placed ladle”: the host simply holds the handle by the sides and lowers it to rest.
    • After scooping cold water, the method differs. The host will pull her fingers so as to slide along the handle, then hold the tip by the fingertips, and only then lower the ladle. This is called hiki-bishaku “pulled ladle”.
    • The third method is used after making tea. The host lets the handle rest between thumb and index finger, with all fingers extended and the palm outwards, like the “sword hand” of martial arts. This is kiri-bishaku “cutting ladle”.

    These three movements are often said to be inspired by archery techniques. Oki-bishaku is like taking an arrow from the quiver, hiki-bishaku is like pulling it in the bow, and kiri-bishaku is like letting it go. However, when I look at videos of kyūdo techniques, they don’t see to be that similar.

  • Chinese-style tea powder jars, chaire, have an ivory lid with gold foil in the underside. When cleaning a chaire to present it to the guest, the host turns it over and looks at the gold foil, before setting it down in the tatami. One story say they used to believe gold would react to poison, and so this inspection would be a safety measure: if the tea was poisoned, the foil would be stained. What I find interesting is that the gesture is only performed after the guest has drank the tea. “I’m afraid I have bad news…”

  • We should avoid stepping on the borders of tatami. I’d think the rationale of this rule would be simply to avoid wear on the sewn borders (if you’ve ever seen old tatami you know what I mean). But my old teacher had a much more colourful explanation. There’s a space between the tatami and the base floor, she said, and in this space there used to be hidden ninjas. And, like all martial artists know, the sole of the left foot is the “fountain of life”; one stab there would make you bleed to death. So they avoided stepping on the tatami borders because otherwise they’d be easy prey to potential assassins.

  • Speaking of martial arts, a tea image from the other side: Kendō fencers are taught to slightly squeeze the sword handle inwards as they hit, to stabilize the cut. This inwards rotation is described graphically as chakin-shibori “wringing the chakin”, referring to the way tea people squeeze the small, white cloth napkin. It’s indeed wrung inwards in a similar manner.

  • The mother of all tea similes is undoubtedly the sound of water boiling in the kettle: the famous “wind in the pines”. Sen Sōtan took it one step deeper in what probably remains the best description of the tea ceremony:

    Chanoyu to wa
    Ikanaru Koto to
    Hito toeba
    Sumie ni kakishi
    Matsu-Kaze no Oto

    If asked
    the nature of chanoyu,
    say it’s the sound
    of windblown pines
    in a painting.

    …even if it is a riff on an earlier verse by Ikkyū on the Mind. (Version and translation by Dennis Hirota.)

3 thoughts on “Tea ceremony imagery

  1. i love these tea posts of yours.
    the ninja part sounds a bit too colourful, but it’s a way cooler explanation than ‘the border of the tatami is too delicate and will sink if you keep on stepping on it’.

    “Tea people prize the senses, and so the host pours water from the ladle slow & steady, from a certain distance (“about one ladlecup”), to give rise to a pleasing sound “like that of a mountain stream””
    this is way too hard to do and I never know what I’m doing in this part. Some people make it sounds beautiful (like you), but when I do it, it sounds like peeing, I hate it.

    “What I find interesting is that the gesture is only performed after the guest has drank the tea. “I’m afraid I have bad news…””
    The guest wouldn’t be alive to hear it depending on the poison, so at least you wouldn’t be blamed because you wouldn’t have seen it was poisoned.

    “One shouldn’t, however, extend the arms all the way, as this would be “like carrying the enemy’s head to present to the Daimyō”.”
    jesus. i guess this is the most gory explanation for anything sadō-related that i’ve ever seen.

  2. I personally was more bothered by the baby butt thing. Not exactly what I wanted to think about in the tea room, but oh well…

    Come to think of, I guess the sounds of “tiny, lyrical waterfall by a refreshing mountain stream in a summer day” and “peeing” are almost the same, & the difference is, as Master Onion used to say, all in the mind. Sincerity is what counts; as long as you’re doing all you can for the guest, it’s all ok.

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