Building a charcoal fire

Rikyu says: Lay the charcoal so it boils the water.

When I first went to Japan to study the way of tea, I didn’t know how to build a charcoal fire. My sensei really did not teach us how to do it. We would have a charcoal fire for events such as Robiraki or Hatsugama, but always the senior students were the ones who did it.

One of the first lessons on building the fire, sensei taught us to choose the charcoal carefully. There are specific sizes in length and width for each piece and we had to learn the names of each one. We also had to learn the specific place each one had in the sumitori, the charcoal basket.

Once we had chosen the charcoal, the next step is to wash it. This must be done very gently and carefully. The charcoal still has the bark attached to it and when you wash it, you must be careful that it doesn’t break off.

Washing the charcoal minimizes the dust that causes sparks and the water adds oxygen to help the fire burn better. The charcoal should be dried overnight standing up on newspapers to help the water drain out of it.

Next the charcoal should be arranged in the sumitori. As I said previously, each charcoal has a specific place in the basket and as you build the fire, it comes out of the basket in a certain order. All of the rest of the fire building utensils are also arranged in the basket in a certain order so you can just take them out without fumbling around.

Three pieces of charcoal are reserved for the shitabi, or starter charcoal. I remember sensei said that you must choose these shitabi carefully, especially in the furo season because the first fire is built after the meal is served. The shitabi must last through the meal to start the fire.

Shitabi, the starter charcoal

Sensei said that the charcoal that isn’t perfect are the ones you should choose for shitabi. She said that the ugly ones with knots or twists have overcome hardship. These are the ones that last. Like people who have overcome hard times in their life, they are more resilient and better able to overcome obstacles and set backs. Those who have had an easy life may look good, but have a harder time dealing with adversity and burn faster.

Light the shitabi, and put them in the furo or ro. Hopefully, your ash form will help the fire breathe and keep it alive until it is time for the first laying of the charcoal.

When you lay the charcoal in the furo or ro, here are a few tips to help you build a better fire. Lay the charcoal so that they touch each other. If they are too far apart they will not catch fire. Also do not lay them too close together or they will smother and go out. By giving some space at the bottom near the ash, the air can get in to make the fire burn. Most of the charcoal should be placed inside the gotoku (trivet). Avoid placing the charcoal too high that it touches the bottom of the kettle.

The charcoal fire is the timing device for the chaji. The two layings of charcoal bring the fire to the perfect temperature to make the koicha, then you rebuild it and make usucha. When the fire dies down, you will know it because the sound of the boiling kettle stops. If the guests are paying attention, this is the signal to hopefully wrap up and not inconvenience the host to rebuild the fire to finish the tea.

It takes practice to build a good fire. It is a good idea to observe how the fire has burned when you take the kettle off at the end. It is also good to remember that no matter how beautifully you lay the charcoal, it is no good unless it can boil the water.

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Reading the room

Reading the room is something stand up comics are intimately familiar with. The difference between killing it and dying out there are vastly different. Jokes that get the biggest laugh with one audience may fall flat with another. How to handle a heckler and make them a part of your act is an art form that every comic needs to be good at, because sooner or later there will be a heckler in the audience. People are there to be entertained and have a laugh. If you are not funny or entertaining, audience feedback is instant. People are not shy about expressing approval or disapproval.

The same thing happens with live theater and public speaking. Presenters and actors know when they have lost the audience. They may not be as vocal as with comedians, but when people lose interest, you can feel it on stage or at the podium. Musicians and performers also know about reading the room. They have learned how to keep people engaged, energized and on their side.

The thing is, especially with public speakers, the speaker need not be slick and professional to hold an audience. I have seen terrible public speakers keep people on the edge of their seats. The presentation may take many wandering asides, or the story may make absolutely no sense, yet the audience will stay with the speaker, encourage them and give them energy.

The same thing happens with the host at a tea gathering. The host must learn to read the room. Like the terrible public speakers, a host at a tea gathering may not have a perfect and beautiful temae to keep the guests engaged. Learning to read the room and be flexible enough to keep the guests engaged is part of the art of tea.

I am reminded of the story of Rikyu and his disciple who went to a gathering. The host was very nervous and made many mistakes in his temae. His hand trembled and the tea scoop fell from the tea caddy, and without stopping to put straight the whisk which had rolled on the mat to his side, he presented the bowl of tea to Rikyu. The disciple snickered at the mistakes, but Rikyu said that the presentation of tea was the best he had ever seen. Later, on the way home, the disciple asked Rikyu what was so great about the presentation of tea. Rikyu replied that the host’s whole mind was so concentrated on giving me the bowl of tea before it cooled that he took no notice of the slips and accidents, but went straight on and finished serving it.
What is it about these stories that hold the guests and/or the audience in spite of the imperfections? For me, I have learned it is about authenticity, sincerity, and focus. In other words, kokoro. Showing up not just in your body, but in your mind, and your spirit. It is being present for your guests. It is about sincerely wanting to make the best tea for your guests rather than make no mistakes. It is about the focus on your guests, rather than how you look.

I believe guests show up to a tea gathering predisposed to want the host to do well. They are ready and eager to give the host their energy and focus. If they find themselves in the middle of a perfectly beautiful but cold temae, the energy of the room slips away a little at a time. If the focus of the host is to make no mistakes, the guests may have a good time, but not a memorable or life enhancing experience.

Nicely burning fire

One of the most memorable gatherings I have attended didn’t have beautiful or expensive dogu. The host’s temae was not perfect. But the host was masterful at reading the room, flexible to adjust himself to the guests, and the energy of the guests fed the host who returned it to the guests. I never wanted it to end. I just wanted to sit there at the nexus and feed on the energy and feelings of everyone in the room. We all could feel the kokoro.

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After the gathering

It has been the custom of my sensei and indeed myself, that after a chaji, chakai, or a demonstration of chanoyu, to make sure all students and helpers have a sweet and drink a bowl of tea before we clean up. After the guests leave, there is still so much to do. And yet, to take the time to serve everyone is important.

I understand in some venues we must clean up and be out of the building according to a timetable, but not before everyone has had the chance to enjoy sweets and tea.

Everyone on the host side has done their utmost to make the guests feel welcome and comfortable. So out of respect and appreciation for their time and work, they are served sweets and tea. This pause for sweets and tea takes only a moment. I think we need this pause before the bustle of cleaning up. Enjoying tea is not just for guests, but for hosts and host helpers as well.

I am reminded of  Ii Naosuke’s article, “Sitting alone in contemplation.”

After the gathering “One should, with a tranquil heart, return to the tearoom, now entering through the crawling in entrance. Sitting in solitude before the hearth, one should for a time, with the feeling that words yet remain to be spoken, consider how far the guests have gone in their return. One should reflect that this single encounter of a lifetime has now ended this day, never to recur, and perhaps partake of a bowl of tea alone. This is the practice that is the ultimate core of the gathering. This moment is one of stillness; there only the kettle for partner in conversation, and nothing else. It is indeed a realm that one must attain for oneself.”

Indeed, we have precious little time to “sit alone in contemplation.” There is so little stillness in our lives that are constantly in motion. After an intense experience, your resources and energy are at a low ebb. To take time to absorb the experience makes it all the more meaningful. This time of contemplation and stillness is nurturing and also refreshes our inner spirit and gives us energy and strength for whatever is to come next.

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The rhythm of temae

There is a regular rhythm in our daily lives. From the time we arise in the morning to when we go to sleep at night there is a certain rhythm to our day. Just as the rhythm of our heartbeat, the rhythm of our breathing regulates the processes of our bodies. The movements of our bodies, our energy, and our intention regulate the rhythm of temae.

I sometimes think of temae as a roller coaster. At the beginning, the cars start slowly climbing to the top of the first hill. The tension and excitement builds until we come to the top. For one indescribable moment at the top, the anticipation hangs before we drop down the other side.

Just as in temae during the purification of the utensils, the tension builds until the moment the guest turns the bowl to drink. The anticipation of how the guest will receive our tea hangs for a moment as the guest takes that first sip and down we go to the other side.

Then there is the build up for the next guests’ tea until all have had their bowl of tea. Up slowly, stop for a moment, down the other side, just like a roller coaster. During the closing, rinsing the bowl and whisk is going down until the anticipation starts to ramp up again as the first guest requests haiken.

The anticipation of seeing the utensils close up peaks as the host leaves the room and then haiken begins. Then we go climbing up again as the host returns to the room to tell the guests about the utensils. Down the other side as we realize the temae is coming to a close. This is a natural rhythm of temae.

Even within the high and low points of temae, there is a rhythm. For example, when whisking usucha, start slowly to incorporate the dry powdered tea into the hot water, whisk briskly to get bubbles forming and then slowly whisking across the top to pop the large bubbles before finishing in nonoji.

If the temae were all high excitement points one after another throughout the procedure, think how exhausting it would be. Taking advantage of these natural high and low points gives the guest some time to rest and recover for the next anticipated high point. Also, as the rhythm of the temae is varied, it provides more interest for the guests to pay attention as it flows from slowly to quicker to slower again.

And, Rikyu had something to say about the rhythm of temae. From the hundred poems of Rikyu:


Namaru to wa te-tsuzuki hayaku mata osoku tokoro-dokoro no sorowanu o iu

I have a couple of translations to English:

Putting a so-called accent in (namaru) means to do the steps with uneven rhythm, fast here, slow there.
What is called namaru is the quality of making tea with varied tempo.
Namaru describes the quality of making tea in which one procedure is done quickly and another slowly.


So when you are practicing your next temae, think of the rhythm of it, how it generates excitement for the guests and how to allow space for the guests to rest up for the next peak.

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The resistance

The resistance is our internal inertia that keeps us from achieving our goals, dreams and all the good things we strive for. The resistance is what stops us from doing the things we need to do that we know are good for us. It is what makes us hit the snooze button when we know we have to get up to go to work. I had to overcome the resistance when I had to drive across town to go to keiko. Just the thought of sitting in my car for an hour or more, facing bad weather, traffic and stress made me want to skip it altogether and go eat ice cream.

The resistance can take many forms

  • Procrastination – like the snooze button, procrastination is a big one for me. I can always put something off for 10 minutes, an hour, a day, a month or until next year.
  • Distraction – facing a major presentation at work, I can always find something to distract me from working on it, like rearranging my sock drawer or vacuuming the closet.
  • Confusion – Another form of my resistance takes the form of confusion. How can I move forward if I don’t understand it? If I don’t understand it, or am confused, I have to wait until I do understand what is going on or what I need to do.
  • Asking questions – I have so many questions that need to be answered before I can start. What if I run into a problem? How am I supposed to proceed? What do I do if I get stuck? What is the first thing I need to do?
  • Excuses, explanations, reasons – I can always come up with good excuses for not doing something. Likewise, I can always explain why I cannot do it, or why I cannot do it now. There just are so many reasons why I can’t. I just don’t have the time, money, space or bandwidth to do anything now.
  • Feeling inadequate – You know, I am just not experienced enough to take this on. I need more training, education, or a mentor to help me. I couldn’t do that because I am not talented, rich or driven enough to achieve anything.
  • Changing goals – I really didn’t want that, my new goal is this. When I looked at how difficult, time consuming, or how much responsibility it takes, maybe what I want to do is something else.
  • Following other people’s expectations – My mother always wanted me to be a doctor so I guess that is what I want to do. My family wouldn’t put up with me going after that goal, so I will do what they want.

The antidote for resistance is persistence

One of the things I admire about Mr. Sweetpersimmon is his tenacity. He will wrestle a problem to the ground and pin it. For the past 2 years he has been building me a tea room in our spare bedroom. He did not know how to build it and had never built one before. But he has persisted in drawing up plans, and working through each obstacle as it came up, and there were many, many obstacles.

From his own skill level, to sourcing material, to making things fit, to making all kinds of mistakes, he has persisted. Almost every day for the past two years, he has worked on this project. He has rebuilt sections of walls and solved problems where there were no instructions. He researched construction methods, consulted others, figured out answers to problems, and worked and reworked to recover from mistakes. Every day, if he was not actively working on the room, he thought about how to go about moving the project forward or trying to get out of a problem if he was stuck. He persisted.

Hold the vision

There are so many reasons to quit. What can overcome the urge to give up, quit and do something else? Why do entrepreneurs invest fortunes in time and money to build a company? Why do athletes train every day, or musicians spend hours, days, years in practice? It is the vision of something better, the sense that makes all the effort worthwhile is reaching for something beyond where you are today. Holding the vision, the goal, in front of you, and keeping it bright can help you persist. It can help you move through all of the resistance.

For me, I think I need to get into the car and drive across town to go to keiko. I look forward to that sweet and bowl of tea.

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