My First Big Chakai

I would like to introduce a guest blogger, one of my newer students, David.  He generously agreed to write a post about his experience of our recent 35th Anniversary Chakai in Portland, Oregon. 
IMG_2388As I write this, I’m sitting in my sunny tea nook, surrounded by special gifts, each of which is in some way connected with tea.To my left sits a tiny ceramic frog on a tiny ceramic watermelon, which — after being soaked in water — will spit when you pour hot tea on it.  This was given to me by a friend I met through my love of puer.  Next to it is a lovely Persian jar made of embossed, enameled metal, given to me by a friend I met through practicing the Taiwanese Wu-Wo Tea Ceremony.
To my right, I’m burning incense that was a gift from my Sensei in a holder that was a gift from one of my Sempai, Michelle.
And, at the center of my tea table, I have a beautiful ceramic bowl, all earth- and water-tones, dappled both in its glaze, and with afternoon sunlight filtered through leaves.
This bowl was given to me at Urasenke Tankokai Portland’s 35th Anniversary Celebration.  And to me, the bowl feels like an emblem of the generosity that is at the core of the Spirit of Tea, as well as of the care, consideration, and thoughtful attention to detail with which that whole event was imbued.

The Preparations

I’d never been to a chakai of this size before, let alone helped plan one, so it was fascinating to get a tiny glimpse into the shocking amount of work and preparation that goes into creating a peaceful, easy environment for each and every guest.IMG_8122

Margie Sensei always tells us students that you face yourself in the tearoom, and I’ve been on the lookout for The Thing that will be my personal Oni to face.  When we started gearing up for this event, I thought I might have found it in the form of Big, Public Tea Events.At the planning and practice meeting I attended prior to the big day, I had the experience of being a foreigner in my own city — at a loss linguistically, culturally, and in terms of how I could possibly be of any use to this endeavor.Much of the spoken and written communication that day was in Japanese.  I felt disoriented, and wondered not only if I would come away with any more insight than that with which I’d arrived, but also if I would have any idea what I was supposed to do at the time of the actual event.

By the end of the day, however, I felt reassured.  After the practice set-up, and the primary meeting, we broke up into our assigned work groups.  I’d be in the mizuya for Ryurei.

Margie Sensei helped me figure this out, as well as who and where my fellow workers were.  When I joined them, I was relieved to find that none of us knew what was going on with perfect clarity, but — together — we figured it all out.  My mizuya cho, Ouchida Sensei, asked me if I could whisk tea.  I said I could, with a feeling of near-elation that I might actually be able to do something worthwhile, and she told me, “Good!  That’s what you’ll do.”

It was decided.

IMG_8244The Chakai

As one of the lowliest members of our Tankokai, very little of the overall burden fell on my shoulders.  But, when the big day arrived, I found that the event was so carefully crafted that I ended up feeling my small jobs were truly significant.
Along with making tea in the Ryurei mizuya, I had been assigned the post of greeting guests at the roadway, to make sure they knew where to turn.  The turn was a lot harder to miss if there was someone in kimono standing there with a look of anticipation.  (It was also fun to watch the faces of other drivers as they passed, staring quizzically, or doing full-on double-takes.)Once I’d guided the last of the guests into the lovely, winding drive, my Sempai, Sean, came and brought me back down to the venue, where we workers all dispersed to our stations to prepare for tea.
IMG_8278My mizuya ran very smoothly under Ouchida  Sensei’s direction, and I even got some useful instruction to take back with me into my own practice.  We stood preparing sweets plates, and whisking bowl after bowl of tea for the guests at Ryurei.  Between warming bowls, we could catch a fleeting glimpse or two of the people we were serving, as well as hear snatches of David Sensei’s thoughtful tea room greetings and discussion of the tokonoma and dogu.
IMG_2375There were at least four seatings scheduled in our room, and I’d been a little worried about us workers’ ability to get a lunch break.  I needn’t have been; it all worked smoothly into the schedule, and we got to enjoy the buffet that had been laid out for our guests in a little nook set aside just for us.IMG_2397
IMG_2367IMG_8273To be honest, much of the setup, service, and breakdown of the actual chakai passed in a bit of a blur.  We were each focused on our jobs, and on the comfort of our guests, which is just as it should be.  However, after tea had ended, and we were well on our way to having the rooms returned to their original state  (what a magical transformation that had been!) I got the chance to join my Sempai Stephanie and Michelle for a stroll around the lovely grounds of the place we’d selected for the event.There were ponds, connected under a wooden bridge, in which a pair of swans had taken up residence.  There were ancient looking evergreens, and rhododendrons in full-bloom.  The honey locusts were snowing their white petals down on us, and I think each of us had the chance to really breathe in the tranquility of the place.

The Banquet

Along with the chakai, I had chosen to take part in the banquet at Portland City Grill.  And — again — I became a bit nervous; this time because it turned out I’d be the only one of my cohort of students attending.And — again — I had nothing to worry about.  Every aspect of the evening had been built around our comfort, and the celebration of the occasion.  There was food and drink ready for us when we arrived; a beautiful, expansive view of Portland and its surrounds; and friendly faces ready to include me in the warm mood.
IMG_8310Once all the guests had arrived, we found our seats, and found that our seating arrangements had been given the same care as everything else.  I had only met one or two of my table mates once or twice before, but by the end of the night, we were laughing and sharing stories like we’d known each other for years.I was so proud to be Margie Sensei’s student as I watched her dispatch her duties as our Master of Ceremonies for the evening.  She set a wonderful tone, gave warm introductions to our special guests, and took care of all the logistics and other announcements that needed to be conveyed.We had several very special speakers: Senior members of our own organization, sharing their love for the tea and community that chad? provides, and passing down precious bits of our history to younger students such as myself; the Consul General of Japan for Portland, who gave a very heartfelt speech, telling of his own relationship with tea and Japan; and a representative from the Urasenke foundation and Iemoto, who gave a lovely talk of her own, and presented us with generous sentiments and a generous gift from Oiemoto himself.

At the end of the evening, Margie Sensei led a few of us in thanking and bowing our guests on their way as they left.  Far from feeling I’d been useless (or worse), I came away with the feeling I’d contributed to a really special day for a great number of people, a day they could remember fondly as they went about their lives.  And as I sit here, warming a teapot in my simple, beautiful bowl, it occurs to me that this is exactly the reason I’m spending my time and energy to learn these complex and eternal procedures: It’s so I can give people I care about the simple, ephemeral, but somehow enduring pleasure of a bowl of tea.IMG_8270

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