According to the Japanese calendar, spring this year started a day early on February 3rd. You might be baffled to think that spring has arrived during the coldest month of the year, but please just accept it because the Japanese have to do things ahead of time, never after the fact.
While I should be feeling cheerful and beginning to look for signs of spring in my garden every February, I have been quietly dreading the arrival of this month since I started learning the Way of Tea a number of years ago. Why? Because February is the ‘Opposite Month’. This is the month when guests sit on the left-hand side of the host instead of the standard right in the tearoom.
You might think what is the big deal. Well, it kind of is because everything in the tea preparation has to be done in reverse. Starting from entering the room with the left foot instead of the right, to placing the tea container on the left of the tea bowl that is usually positioned on the right.
There are many differences, but the movement of the feet is especially tricky. So the first day of practice is like being in the Monty Python sketch of the “Ministry of Silly Walks” in a kimono. This can be devastating for beginner students because the muscle memory they have painstakingly acquired over many months gets completely messed up come February.
The inverted tea preparation method was created by the 11th Grandmaster of Urasenke Tea School, Gengensai (1810-1877), who devised the procedure to be able to use a large sunken hearth called ‘dairo’ in the tearoom. Contrary to what I suspected, this reverse practice was not created to literally keep the tea students on their toes, but to use the large hearth that would keep the tearoom warm for guests during the coldest time of the year.
The first-ever dairo practice I did was all a blur, and come March, I was guaranteed to step into the tearoom with the wrong foot. When I whined about the dire consequences of opposite month to my teacher, I remember her saying something like “it’ll start to make sense after 5 years.” Of course, I thought, everything in tea takes so long.
But surprisingly when the dreaded February came last year, which was much longer than the 5 years that my teacher had mentioned, I had a strange feeling of not struggling as much as years past. After the practice, I thought about what was different because I still made a lot of mistakes. Then I realized that it was maybe because I was able to imagine the guests on my left. For many years, there were no guests in the tearoom in my mind because I could only focus on what I was doing with my body. Movements made more sense when I envisioned what should be done in the sight of guests, and what should be done out of their sight.
Recently, as dairo season approached once more, I pondered how amazing it must have been for the guests to have been invited to the first dairo tea gathering by Gengensai. How surprised they must have been when they got into the tearoom and all the utensils were set in reverse. How thrilled they must have been to see tea preparation from the other side, and to realize it was all devised to keep them warm.
For the record, I’m a big fan of Gengensai because he was also the first tea master to introduce the ryu-rei style, which allowed myself and Westerners to be served tea comfortably sitting in chairs. It’s a shame that I can never meet him, but how great that I can share his story with you here in America.
My tea teacher has not taught in person or remotely during the pandemic, so for the last few months the elder of my school has been graciously helping me practice at home via Zoom. And this week I’ll be starting my dairo practice. So why don’t you join me for opposite month? It could simply be by folding your clothes in a different way, or setting new rules to your daily walk. You might think it’s a bit childish, but introducing a different set of rules to my ritual and focusing on them have given me a new perspective, and a new way to feel. The effect is very similar to the feeling of being awakened after encountering a beautiful work of art.