This summer we have been fortunate to be able to burn charcoal and do sumidemae. We can’t make tea if the charcoal doesn’t boil the water. For some reason, the water boiled with charcoal tastes better, sounds better and the steam is more consistently fluffy and pretty.
Of course, it all begins with the haigata or ash form. The first time I saw the ash form, I thought it was some kind of cardboard, and I stuck my finger in the front of it and spoiled the look of it. Making the haigata takes patience and practice.
When I was at Midorikai we got to burn sumi everyday, and that means one of the chores after dinner was to do the haigata for the next day. Fortunately for me, I like to do it, and my fellow students didn’t, so I did many ash forms during the furo season as I could. When we switched to the ro season, I bought a furo, ash, gotoku and practiced in my room just about every night.
I think we got one lesson on ash forms and the rest of the year we were left to discover for ourselves how to do it by practice and experience. Sometimes one of the teachers would come up to the mizuya after dinner and drop the haisaji (ash spooon) in the middle of the haigata. If the spoon stood upright in the ash, it was too hard packed and the fire couldn’t breathe. If the spoon fell over in the ash, it was soft enough for the fire to burn. Of course, either way, you had to do it over again.
A few things I learned about doing haigata:
- Don’t spend more than 45 minutes playing with the ash. The more you work it, the more it gets packed down. Torigai-sensei used to say, “Better an ugly haigata that breathes, than a beautiful one that is too packed down.”
- There are three main tools to form the ash. The wide flat tool, the curved tool and the spear point tool. I use the wide flat tool for maybe 75-80% of the time.
- Let the ash tool do most of the work. You really are not pushing down on the ash spoon to smooth it out. Just lay the tool down gently on the ash and drag it across the surface of the ash. You will get a beautiful smooth surface without it getting too packed down.
- I usually start smoothing the front, then the back then the U shaped valley in the center. Make sure the valley is deep enough to accommodate the height of the charcoal, plus the width of the kudazumi and edazumi so it won’t get crushed when you put the kettle on the gotoku.
- Sometimes the angle of what you want to do is very awkward. Learn to use your left hand to work the right side of the form. You may have to re-grip the tool in a different place to get the angle you want.
- The only place that is okay to pack down the ash is right behind the maegawara (front tile). This helps hold the mae gawara in place.
- Pay special attention to the corners and the points of the mountains. It takes practice to make these smooth and sharp.
- Smoothing and cutting around the gotoku and maegawara are the trickiest. The mountain in the front should look like there is no interruption in the line and it looks like it goes right through the gotoku.
If you get a chance to work the ash, it becomes very meditative and sometimes addicting. Relax and it will show in the final product. Good luck.