The first day of winter and
the sound of a kettle singing
is heard from a window.
‘Er, um, sensei’ she ventured, ‘I’ll not be in class next week, I’m afraid. There’s a tea party in Kyoto that I’m going to. We’re opening the ro.’ Of all the fresh excuses students make (and, truth be told, there aren’t that many), this one I found quite delightful.
In the warmer seasons, portable braziers (furo) are used in tea ceremony, but come winter the traditional tea room has a special ceremony to open the ro, a sunken hearth built into the floor. The tatami cover is lifted and a special ceremonial kettle is lowered onto the smouldering bamboo charcoal which keeps its warmth better in that small, enclosed space.
As autumn deepens into winter and the yuzu (citron) change their colours, this, the tea master Rikyu taught, is the time to open the hearth (ro) and refresh and renew ourselves for the ‘coming of the beloved and joyous winter.’
The seasons are eloquent in Japan; the very elements speak. For example, there are various degrees of experiencing the cold in Japanese. You can feel a little cold (yaya samu), or you can have skin-tingling cold (hada samu), be ‘almost-not quite-am-I?’ cold (uso zamu) or you may feel the cold keenly (mi ni shimu). There are, also, I’ve learned, varieties and names for different qualities of rain to be aware of with seasonal changes. The November rain showers are called shigure. To be sitting around the ro, listening to the sound of the shigure raindrops on a wooden pent roof is regarded with special fondness.
When the ro is opened there is a lingering feeling, a longing, for the furo — time is passing; each change of season encourages us to remember this. We remember; we resist remembering; we surrender, let the feelings roll, and avail ourselves to the enchantments of the now. Are not our hearts enlivened by the beautiful pine needles that have fallen in the garden, by the fresh bracken ropes tying together the bamboo fence that encloses the sacred ritual area, and by those tongs we’ve not seen for a while, lying beside the charcoal ash receptacle? Look at the new tatami mats and the clean white shoji paper in the windows; how soft and bright the light that comes through; how cozy the room! All is fresh and clean, elegant and refined both inside and outside the tea room.
May it be so in our hearts, too, as we welcome the gracious turning of our beautiful planet.