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Hatsugama tea ceremony

On January 14, 2024, I had the honor of attending the Hatsugama, the first tea ceremony of the year, at my new tea school. As a newcomer to the world of tea and a new member of the school, it was a great honor.



In the first picture, you can see my teacher squatting in the bottom right corner. He was the one who conducted the ceremonies, Usucha and Koicha. He is the head priest of the Eishunji Temple, a Buddhist temple in the southeast of Kyoto, and his name is Akihiro Yonezawa. In addition to his role as a priest, he is a member of the Urasenke Shikukai, president of the Sashishin-an Cultural Classroom, and a lecturer in the Tankosha Cultural Division Tea Ceremony. He has written several books on tea ceremony and is a well-known figure in the world of tea.

So you can imagine it was an honor for me to learn under his guidance or that of his wife, who also teaches.


 

What is Hatsugama (初釜)?


The term Hatsugama consists of the kanji characters Hatsu-初 meaning "first/new" and Kama-釜 meaning "kettle," essentially denoting the first tea kettle of the year and thus marking the start of the first cup of tea.

The exact format of this ceremony may vary depending on the school but typically occurs around January 10th. On this day, all participants dress festively in their finest kimonos. The patterns of the kimonos are kept subtle to not distract from the tea.

As Hatsugama is a festive gathering, New Year motifs can be found everywhere: in the flowers, the scrolls, the tea utensils, and the sweets. This is also the perfect moment for the host to showcase the best utensils, such as the most precious teacup or exquisite tea whisk.

In our case, a so-called Ao-Chasen was demonstrated. A tea whisk made from fresh bamboo, which is still green. Normally, bamboo is dried and has a dark to light brown appearance.

To enhance the overall experience of the tea ceremony, New Year motifs may include animals such as cranes and turtles, as well as the animal of the year in the Chinese zodiac (this year being the Dragon), as well as trees, especially pine. The crane is associated with 1,000 years, and the turtle with 10,000 years! Although these numbers are not to be taken literally, these animals are symbols of longevity and happiness due to their longevity.


Pines are evergreen trees that remain green all year round, thus being associated with eternal life. Additionally, pine trees can actually live up to 1,000 years, making them a symbol of longevity and immortality.


Hatsugama is typically celebrated as a complete tea ceremony – Chaji (茶事). Guests can look forward to a light Kaiseki course, including sake poured from a special vessel made and decorated specifically for this season. Afterwards, both strong tea - Koicha and light tea - Usucha are served.


Traditionally, Wakamizu - water drawn from a well very early in the morning - is used for this ceremony. It is believed that this water, used for the first tea of the year, protects against illness and helps ward off evil.


 

Flow in the Eishunji Temple


Machiai


As the tea ceremony itself takes place in my teacher's temple, the room for Buddhist ceremonies, which houses the main shrine, serves as the waiting room where guests gather. Here, introductions were made, and those in our group who already knew each other chatted relaxedly. For me, it was a good opportunity to look around and engage in conversation with the other guests.


Kaiseki - traditional New Year's meal


Afterwards, we moved into the main room, which is normally used for tea ceremony lessons. Small tables and chairs were set up in a U shape, with assigned seating. In Japan, "ranking order" still plays a significant role. This means the highest-ranking person sits furthest from the entrance and closest to the Tokonoma. The place where the scroll is hung and is considered the "place of the gods."

Then, seating was arranged counterclockwise. As a newcomer, I occupied the lowest position, sitting to the left of the highest-ranking person, with my back to the window. It was very interesting to see and experience what I had learned in the hotel, specifically in the restaurant, being applied in practice.

Once we were all seated, the host, my tea ceremony teacher, greeted us. After a brief explanation of how everything would proceed, the food was served. Traditional New Year's appetizers, tofu, fish, fresh vegetables, rice, and of course, sake. The sake was poured into thin red lacquered plates/bowls, which served as drinking vessels.


Koicha - thick tea


After we had finished eating and the sake had been distributed to all participants, we made our way through the garden, with a stop for a photo, to the first tea room. We crawled through the so-called "Nijiriguchi," a small entrance leading into the tea house itself. Then, seating was arranged according to hierarchy, with the highest-ranking person closest to the host. Now, my teacher prepared the Koicha, the thick tea, for the highest-ranking guest, while the other guests received tea prepared by the assistants.


Usucha - thin tea


After eating sweets in the traditional order and manner, drinking tea, and chatting a bit, we moved on to the next room for the Usucha ceremony, where the thinner tea is served. Here, there were Higashi, Japanese dry confectionery, in the most beautiful shapes and colors. After this ceremony was also concluded, we chatted a bit more with our host, and then it was back to the waiting room where it all began. Here, I had the chance to exchange business cards and chat a bit with the other guests before heading home.


Kaeri - farewell


This day was not only a unique experience but also a deep insight into ancient Japanese hierarchical society. There was a piece of old Samurai-era Japan in every movement, every word, every action. I am sincerely grateful for this experience and look forward to not only making progress in the tea ceremony itself but also delving deeper into Japan's history with each lesson.


 

For me, this experience was not just something new but also an entry into a new world here in Kyoto. Since then, I have been attending tea ceremony lessons once a week, always on Wednesdays. Small, small steps, but each time, a journey to the self and inner peace.

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