One Grass Hut | Marjorie Yap
Marjorie Yap has the makings of a very serious instructor and the warmth of a friend you've known since childhood. With a lithe frame standing at about 5'2", she spends hours every day preparing tea, sitting in seiza ("proper sitting" on your knees,) planning for the week's curriculum, and contemplating with eyes that sparkle when talking about Chado.
Chado is translated to "the path or way of tea," and to most Chanoyu practitioners, the way of tea is depicted in our daily lives. To study Chanoyu (tea ceremony) is to study the way of life, and every week I witness Sensei's brow shoot up and furrow as she evangelizes for this brightly colored tea.
Issoan, Sensei's tea school, means "one grass hut" and was given its name to exemplify the impermanence of the wabi tea aesthetic. Positioned at the bottom of a small hill in a quiet suburban cul-de-sac, Issoan sits unassumingly amongst its surroundings. Issoan is where Margie lives, literally and metaphorically; with the help of her husband, Craig Tenney, a small bedroom in their Beaverton, Oregon home was transformed into a traditional, five-mat tearoom. Its wood joinery, paper shoji panels, and everything in between were all crafted by Craig, who learned Japanese woodworking specifically for this project. "There is only one place in the room where metal screws were used. Let's see if you can find them." Sensei said during our first class. We all took a moment to look around the room but would fail to locate them for months.
In the corner of the tea room is a small alcove, called a tokonoma, that displays fresh flowers and a Zen Buddhist hanging scroll. The naturally placed floral arrangement is called chabana, meaning "tea flowers," and is one of my favorite details to observe each class. Under the raised tatami floor of the tea room is additional space for a winter hearth and storage for more of Margie's dogu (tea accessories.) On one shoji panel in the north side of the room is a punctured piece of paper, damaged by a prior student. "Don't worry about that," Margie said, "it's very wabi, and in Chado, we like wabi." Me — still very worried — barely moved my body for the rest of class.
In any culture, we are judged by the little things we do, and my time in the tea room was the first time I noticed how much space I occupied with my presence, and not in a good way. At that moment, I realized that Chado would force me to face myself with an acute awareness I've never had before. To put it simply, the plainness and precision enforces attention to oneself. Sensei once wrote, "The practice room is where you are trained as a human... the principal aim of your training is to enable you, when the time comes, to perform tea splendidly and without shame."
One bit of tea lore that sticks with me is a story of Sen Rikyū, the father of Chado, attending a tea gathering in Uji. The host was so thrilled and nervous to host the tea master that he knocked the chashaku (tea scoop) off the natsume (tea container), followed by dropping the chasen (tea whisk) on the tatami floor. Rikyū was pleased and praised the host for being so focused on serving great tea that he didn't even notice those small mistakes. In the end, I believe the spirit of the interaction, or the best etiquette, is true thoughtfulness.
It can be hard to push past the nonchalantness of Western culture, but Chado provides the etiquette and constraint I needed but didn't know how to obtain. Every week, without fail, I find myself wanting to wear kimono, speak softly, perform graceful movements, and make a good bowl of tea. I haven't fully caught Sensei's commitment and zeal, but I've truly fallen for Chado.
It's usually on your way up to the tea room after you've entered Issoan, removed your shoes, and put on your white tabi (split-toe) socks before you notice the smell of incense in the air. After much attention, you begin to distinguish all the subtleties and different aromas. Much like the hundreds of other procedures in Chanoyu, even the incense (koro) changes with the seasons. The smoke blends with the old-world feeling of the traditional tea room, and Sensei's impeccably dressed kimono helps transport you to a different time. There's no music, just the sounds emanating from outside an open window, or if you listen closely, the barely simmering water in a kettle; that sound is called matsukaze, meaning "wind in the pines." In a poem by the Urasenke third-generation tea master, Sen Sotan, he wrote, "If asked the nature of Chanoyu, say it is the sound of windblown pines in a black and white painting."
With more than 40 years of experience in tea, Margie's devotion is unshaken. She has managed to create a space that feels relaxed and casual despite the seriousness that comes along with performing Chanoyu. In any given class, the tearoom and mizuya are full of students who've pilgrimed for over an hour to receive lessons, some even joining virtually from across the world. We are her disciples, and I know she hopes we will take the teachings of Chado with us wherever we go.
I hope this look into the story of Margie Sensei and her "one grass hut" encourages you to dip your toe into new mindful practices in your life. If you're in the Portland, Oregon, area, consider reaching out to Margie Sensei and experience Chanoyu — I'll see you there!
Hello Margie Sensei! Would you mind telling our readers a bit about how you got started learning Chado?
Hello Alex, thank you I for inviting me to talk with you. My family is from Hawaii and I grew up with a neighbor whose grandmother taught tea. Sometimes as a kid, she would feed us tea sweets. But I really got interested in high school after reading the book, "Shogun." There is a chapter in it that describes the preparation by a samurai and the tea ceremony he conducts to reconcile with his wife. I was hooked on that. Later after college, I was at the Portland Japanese Garden and there was a tea ceremony demonstration. It was there that I met my teacher, Minako-sensei.
When was the moment you knew you wanted to be a teacher? How did you know the type of teacher you wanted to be?
It was very early in my studies that I thought I wanted to be a tea teacher, even though I really didn't know what it was all about. I just knew that it had offered me something I didn't have in my life and I wanted to share it with everybody. But Chado is such a wide cultural study and deep spiritually, it can be intimidating to think you can be a teacher. After about 15 years, when I finally told Minako-sensei that I wanted to teach, she said I needed to go to Japan to train at the headquarters.
Can you give us a view into your time at the Midorikai School for Urasenke Chanoyu in Kyoto? What did your average day look like?
The Midorikai program is part of the Urasenke Chado College and is accredited by the Japanese Ministry of Education. They accept only4-5 foreign students per semester. A typical day starts at 6 am with zazen meditation, changing into kimono, then breakfast and toban or chores to prepare the school and tea rooms for practice. This includes cleaning, gardening and setting up things for the day. Roll-call is next, and then two, hour-and-a-half lectures, cleaning class rooms in between lectures. Then half hour for lunch, and preparation for afternoon, including things like heating water, sifting tea and getting utensils set up for the day's lesson. Lessons in the tea room are typically 4 hours in the afternoon, then cleaning up the tea rooms, putting away utensils and inspection by senior students. Then changing from kimono and dinner. After dinner, there is clean up of the cafeteria, including dish washing and putting food away. After this there is preparation and cleaning of the tea rooms for the next day practice, including preparation of the ashes for the charcoal fires used to heat water for the next day. By then, it is about 9:30pm and they turn out the lights at 10. This was 6 days a week. Sunday was personal time, a day to do laundry, write letters home, any shopping. However, we were on call in case they wanted us to present tea to foreigners, or attend some other ceremony by the Grand tea master.
Tell us about transitioning from student to teacher. Any challenges?
I have been teaching nearly 20 years now. When I first started teaching, I was not sure that I was even qualified to teach anything about tea ceremony. With the encouragement of my then sensei, Bonnie Mitchell-sensei, she told me that after 20 years as a student, it was time to step up and that I knew more about tea than any person just starting out. I also had about two years training under Tim Olson-sensei teaching the lab for beginners from his University of Washington Chado class. Tea is so wide and so deep, nobody will know everything about it. Now, I just try to expose students to things that I have learned and pass on things I have learned from my own sensei.
Your given Chamei (tea name) is “Soya”. What does this mean and how did you earn this name?
After demonstrating that you have done the nearly 150 different procedures of tea, your sensei can apply to the Grand Tea Master for an artistic name or Chamei. Some people think it is the culmination of a tea career, but with it comes a license to teach so I view it as the beginning of a new phase in a tea career. The Grand Tea master himself chooses a name for applicants. The first part of the name is "Sō" which is from the Grand Tea Master's name Soshitsu. The second part of my name, ya, is the personal part. The "ya" part is an old character for spring, meaning growing and abundant.
You have students located all around the world who attend virtually. How did you adapt such an intimate and immersive experience over video? Any significant challenges?
I began to teach over video because of the Covid pandemic. The tea room is such a closed intimate space, that I had to close the tea room in March 2020. Immediately, I thought of school children going online and I thought I could adapt my lessons to video. I think many of my students needed the structure of lessons to continue while everyone was sequestered at home and going crazy because we were not able to do normal activities. One of the challenges of teaching online, is that not everyone has a tea room and proper tea utensils. We had to get creative with creating tea spaces at home and adapting utensils to do tea. Some students used tape on a carpet to simulate tatami, some used pizza plates to use as trays. Everyone had an assignment to put together a traveling tea box using utensils that can be found around the house, such as shoe boxes and cereal bowls. I was one of the few teachers teaching online at the time. When other students around the world found out I was teaching tea online, they asked to become my students. One thing I did not do is take on beginners for online lessons. I think it is just too hard in the beginning to understand and execute the first steps in learning chado.
Out of all the historical mediums attached to Chado (calligraphy, incense, kimono, chabana, confections etc.) Which has become your favorite practice aside from making tea?
I am a generalist, so I try to be competent in as many of the practices as I can, but I have always had a love of calligraphy. About 9 years ago, I started calligraphy lessons with Fujii-sensei, and felt like a beginner again, but I have learned so much not only about calligraphy, but he taught me Zen sayings and history as well.
You've run your own tea blog, Sweet Persimmon, since 2007. What made you decide to write about your experience in Chado? How'd you come up with the name?
The tea blog was sort of an accidental thing when I began it. There were questions and things we didn't have time to cover in classes, so I told the students, I'd do a write up and put it online. I didn't know much about blogs at the time. I thought you could only find it if I personally gave out the address, kind of like a phone number. But I began to get comments and emails from people I didn't know. I couldn't figure out how they found me until one of my students said you could google tea ceremony and entries for the blog came up in the listings. It has changed over time, and I have written many things about Chado, how it changed my life, and life lessons I have learned from Chado among others. The name SweetPersimmon came about when I gave my husband a persimmon for the first time, and he tasted it. He said, "that is a sweet persimmon." Every fall when persimmons are in season we still enjoy eating them. My husband named his furniture company SweetPersimmon, and I have become known as SweetPersimmon online.
I know you are a history buff; name a specific moment in tea history that's really stuck with you. What makes it so memorable to you?
After World War 2, Tantansai, the 14th generation Grand Tea Master sent his first born son to study at University of Hawaii. This was only 5 years after the war ended and Japan was under occupation. Can you imagine sending your first born and heir, with all the hopes and dreams of your family to go study with the enemy? It was during this time the Hounsai, the 15th Generation Grand Tea Master developed his life mission, "Peacefulness through a bowl of tea", and began a worldwide effort to bring tea and tea values to foster peace in the world. He did this by demonstrating tea to foreigners and training teachers to spread tea outside of Japan. I have greatly benefited from this effort, including a scholarship to study at Midorikai. I have also embraced this mission and I want to bring the peacefulness of the tea room to as many people as I can.
There are so many different forms of tea procedure; do you have a favorite form of temae or season to make tea?
Yes there are more than 150 different procedures for making tea, called temae. After learning all of them, my favorite two are ryakubon, or beginning tray style, and hira-demae, the beginning procedure in the tea room are my favorites. There are no embellishments in these procedures, but all of elements of all the subsequent procedures are present. If you can master these two procedures, then you can make tea efficiently and elegantly and it sets you up for all the rest of the procedures.
What type of other passions and interests do you have beyond teaching Chado?
I was well known for starting many things and jumping in with both feet, but losing interest after a short time. There are so many projects unfinished around my house, but through tea, I have learned to limit the number and go deeper and longer into an area that interests me. During Covid, like many people, we re-did our yard and I became passionate about gardening. Growing food for the family and having flowers for the tea room have been immensely satisfying. I also began to teach myself watercolor painting. My mother was a painter, and it was intimidating to do something that she was so good at. She worked in oil and acrylic, so I thought watercolor would be less intimidating. Lately, I have also become interested in fountain pens, and have revived letter writing. A part of the etiquette of tea is writing thank you notes, so an original watercolor painting with hand written note is a lovely way to say thank you.
Describe your favorite Chawan (tea bowl) and Natsume. What makes it so important to you?
My favorite chawan is a bowl from Minako sensei, my first teacher, who passed away 19 years ago. This tea bowl, was one of her favorites and we used it for 15 years in class. It is well worn, and stained from all the tea that was made and drank from it. It evokes so many memories of classes with her and my fellow classmates, some of whom have also passed away.
Think of an object in your home that has the most significance to you. Could you share with us what it is and the memory behind it?
I tend to not get to attached to objects, (other than Minako-sensei's tea bowl). When I first got married, I told my husband not to buy me things, but buy me experiences instead. He has been true to that and very creative about buying me experiences indeed. But the thing that has the most significance to me is the tea room that he built in our spare bedroom. I had been doing tea and teaching with tatami on the floor for 25 years, and in 2017, be began to build me a tea room. It took him 2 and a half years working everyday to complete it. It is a magnificent tea room and it transports you to Japan. It is a love letter to me from him, knowing how passionate I am about tea. Now I can make many memories in it and share those memories with my students.
Do you have a few words for anyone who is interested in Chado?
A few words, oh my. I could talk for days about Chado. However, for anyone interested in Chado, come and see what it is about. Experience the tranquility and beauty of this ancient practice, and perhaps we can together create "peacefulness through a bowl of tea."
Lastly, what do you want your students to take away from their time at Issoan? How do you want to be remembered?
I think every student comes to tea for different reasons and will take away different things depending on their interests and personality. For me tea has had a transformative influence on my own life that I want to share with as many people as I can. A few things I hope to instill in students as they learn the way of tea is consideration for others, gratitude in all its forms, a tranquil and safe space to to learn something new, and a lifelong attitude towards learning. How do I want to be remembered? An enthusiastic, passionate person who brought a little bit of light into other people's lives.
In honor of Margie's first teacher, Minako-sensei.