February Seasonal Notes

February 2009

incense curls
up the tea room wall
breathe deeply

“At dawn, spring is the at its best, the night opens slowly, the rim of the mountain grows light where the sky meets them.  My heart flows out toward the thin purple clouds trailing in the dim light of the morning.” Makura no soshi, the Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon.

The chaji most appropriate to February, the month of the most severe cold, the akatsuki no chaji, dawn tea gathering.  The invitation is for four in the morning, and everything is arranged so that when the guests arrive the lights in the roji are the remaining lights of the night and the kettle simmering in the hearth is from the evening before.  During shozumi, the water in the kettle is changed. Toward the end of the kaiseki, the meal, the candles are removed from the tea room.  The skylight or tsukiage mado, is opened and the dawn light floods the tea room.  The change from yin to yang is complete.

It is one of the most difficult chaji to perform with the host needing to be up all night.  It is said that this is a chaji only for experts, and so is rarely done.

February 2008

how quickly
the days are passing
plum blossoms

February, the coldest month of the year.  It is proving true here in the Pacific Northwest this year.  Snow and rain mixed, even on the valley floor.  Looking for flowers for the tea room even the camellias are still in tight bud.  Ah, but I spied an old plum tree in the neighborhood with blossoms on the branches.  I understand why the Japanese so love the plum.  While nothing else is blooming, the little white blossoms are proclaiming spring.  It is a sign that the grey, cold weather will soon be chased by the warm Southern breezes.

While we imagine the spring warmth to come, it is still cold and the large hearth or dairo is used to keep our guests warm.  The dairo was the idea of Gengensai, the eleventh master of Urasenke. It is large enough to have a fire and the second laying of charcoal on the far side, so the host doesn’t have to leave the room (and open the door so cold air enters the room) The dairo at Urasenke is in the room next to Totsutotsusai.  It is only used in February.  It is a six mat room and the procedure for laying the fire and making tea is reversed, gyakugatte.  I had the opportunity to practice this when I studied at Midorikai, and it is a humbling temae that made me feel like a beginner again. My footwork was all messed up and with some things (not all) in reverse, I didn’t know where to put things or which hand to use. I recommend practice.

I enjoy so much the tsutsu jawan, the tall cylindrical teabowls, in February, too.  The challenge in making tea in these bowls not spilling water when pouring it into the bowl and whisking in such a narrow bowl to get a good froth.  But the guests linger over the tea and there is time for good conversation.
February 2007

paperwhites
blooming indoors in
a blue bowl
Around February 3 is Setsubun, the last day of winter and the beginning of spring in the lunar calendar. After everyone returns home for the day all the windows and doors in the house are opened. Roasted soybeans in a square box are tossed out of the house while shouting “oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi” or “out with the demons, in with good fortune.”

February is the month of plum blossoms, both white (hakubai) and red (kobai). The uguisu (nightingale) goes with the plum and the willow begins to bud. Many utensils will have these motifs.  It is also the coldest month of the year so you will see large mouth kettles that the steam rises into the room when the lid is removed. February is the month of the Dairo, or large hearth, so heat from the fire spreads through the room. You will also see tsutsu jawan or tall cylindrical tea bowls that retain the heat of the tea to warm your hands.

In Kyoto, Kitano shrine is famous for scholar Sugawara Michizane.  He was exiled, but he so loved the plum blossoms of the capital that it is said a branch of plum blossoms flew from Kyoto to him in exile. A good poetic name for late February is tobi ume, or flying plum. On the 25th at Kitano shrine in the Plum Grove, the geisha of Kamishichiken the will host outdoor tea ceremonies, but dress warmly.

References:

An Anthology of the Seasonal Feeling in Chanoyu, by Michael A. Birch

Chado: The Way of Tea, A Japanese Tea Master’s Almanac, translated from the Japanese by Shaun McCabe and Iwasaki Satoko.

Notes from Midorikai lectures, 1996-1997

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