Tanabata Star Festival Tea Gathering

Sometimes Tea people plan for a gathering months- maybe years in advance. This was one of those times. I had been acquiring utensils and other things for years; each time thinking “Some day I will host a Tanabata gathering”. Circumstances led to this event happening sooner than I thought. The homestead where my Mother lived was being prepared for eventual sale since she was too old to live alone anymore. I made the decision to host a tea gathering on her patio next to her spacious back yard. I had amassed many things to make this event unique. The work to make this happen became weeks of preparation. Cleaning the garden clearing off the patio of the various ‘nick-nacks’ emptying the kitchen of the ‘kitsch’ and emptying the bathroom of everything was a major set of chores. Bringing up the various items needed for Tea was also a challenge full of sweat and toil. July is a hellish month in Utah with daytime temperatures reaching 103 F’ in the shade. July 7th was a work day so I held it on the 8th (Saturday) instead. I have five people to thank for their help above and beyond the call of duty. Rachel and her Mother, Laura McCullough, and Charles Galway are exemplary people whose contributions made this a very special occasion. Charles brought ‘misters’ that made clouds of fine spray float through the air to cool the guests. Rachel helped with her culinary talents, her Mother – and Charles helped get the equipment up to the house, and Laura helped to serve. We served 23 guests in four separate groups. Two groups met at different times earlier in the day and two met from late afternoon to evening.

The guests arrived at my our front yard to view the touch of a Japanese garden that was designed decades before. They made their way to the wooden back yard gate to enter an area with an umbrella and chairs. A tall bamboo plant decked with ornaments of paper greeted them. A basket with blank tanzaku cards was at hand for them to write their wishes on and to hang on the bamboo. A sign asked them to wait to be escorted to Tea. The misters sprayed delicate clouds of water to cool the guests from above next to the eves of the patio. Then Laura would come to escort them to the area to enter. A large red umbrthen they entered the ‘room’.

a Tea room was made using lengthy reed blinds on all sides to form walls that would let in a breeze. Purple felt covered the tumbling mat floor, with six table and chair sets where the guests would be seated were flanked by a Star Map on the opposite wall. Two small tables supported a bowl of salt that held a Meteorite from China, and a pad of white paper with the incense box in carved lacquer in the shape of a star. This style of Tea is called ‘Ryu Rei’ and is used for those who might not be able to sit on tatami mats without discomfort. The Ryu-Rei table was built for the 2002 Winter Olympics Tea Demonstrations and finally found some use at this event. Green felt covered its surface with adjacent tables needed to serve tea.

After the guests were seated, I came out and bowed to welcome them. Then I sat and explained the Tanabata festival, talked about the Star Map, and other objects and answered any questions. The Star map had a saying written by Robert Gillespie who is a Senior Astronomer for Clark Planetarium. On the copy of a Star map from 1661 he had written “We are all made from the dust of Stars”.

After this we served a light meal of summer foods with a bowl of rice that had a sprinkled ‘bridge’ of poppy seeds on top. Then came small moist cool towels and glasses of water. When all the guests were through we gently took everything away, asked them to wait in the ‘Machiai’ and made the room ready for Tea.

Each ‘seki’ (group gathering) had its own qualities, set backs, lessons, and delights. Before the 9 a.m. seki it was discovered that the new glass fresh water container leaked from a hairline crack. Water had soaked the whole table so we rushed back to my apartment to fetch a smaller crystal Mizusashi that was substituted. This threw me off of my game and the temae was a disaster. The ladle slipped out of my hand and sailed across to land on the floor between me and the first guest. Ah well…not much to do but go wash it off and continue.

The second seki was hotter and thank Gods for the misters. The big red umbrella had the local hummingbirds excited but they didn’t seem to know about the feeder meant for them that was nearby.

The third seki had guests who were unfamiliar with what ‘wagashi’ sweets were and poked at the bean paste with their picks. Some ate the food, some did not. It is hard to tell whether our menu was correct or not to their liking. I must confess that only five guests had any experience with tea in any way. The rest were encountering Cha no Yu for the first time. I usually tailor the gatherings for this. If I only hosted Tea for those initiated in its practices then I would not be hosting Teas at all. So I take it as it comes. Sadler Sensei brought a beautiful flower arrangement in a tall glass vase that I proudly placed next to the map.

The evening seki was very special…and very dramatic! Clouds had rolled in while the 9 p.m. guests were seating themselves. Winds buffeted the screens and made them bellow. An oil lamp was knocked over and poor Laura- who was a guest- had to hold back the screens from knocking her table over. It finally calmed down and Usucha was made by candle light. It was magical! It had been a clear night on the 7th so the two Star crossed lovers had already met and we did not worry about the clouds.

There seems to be five parts to Nodate Tea gatherings. The bringing together of things, the shipping things to the site and setting up, cooking etc, then the actual serving of Tea, then then taking everything down and shipping it back home, then the storing it all away. i am tired and there is still much to do; but there were a few moments where it was magical and surreal. i live for those moments.

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