My copy of the Kyoto Journal’s special tea issue, number 71, arrived a couple of days ago and I was immediately impressed with what a wonderful job they did putting it together. The issue is beautifully designed cover-to-cover and it makes optimal use of the perfect-bound book-like format of a magazine. It is more than just a collection of well-written articles with a bunch of pretty pictures; it is a lovely object in itself, one I will continue to pore through very thoroughly and attentively.
A complete list of the contents with summaries of each of the pieces can be found on the journal’s website. The articles span a wide range of topics, styles and different geographic regions, from the craftsmanship of teapots in Yixing, China to serving tea in a tent on the Black Rock Desert in Nevada during the annual Burning Man Arts Festival. Also included are some wonderful photographs from a mobile guerrilla chanoyu performance project by Pierre Sernet.
The online sections of content related to the issue include a review of two books that both look like they would be valuable to read, The Tea Ceremony and Women’s Empowerment in Modern Japan: Bodies Re-presenting the Past, by Etsuko Kato, and Japanese Tea Culture: Art, History and Practice, Morgan Pitelka, Editor. Excerpted from the review:
Both books also discuss in detail how chanoyu’s economic, social and cultural “capital” have developed and been manipulated to suit the needs the tea establishment. Tea as enterprise impacted clusters of complementary professionals (e.g. ceramic craftspeople and merchants) who were able to make a living sharing the practice, even if only limitedly, to a willing and impressionable populace.
If there was such a cultural complex as chanoyu a half century ago in the USA, it would have been studied as home economics. To elevate it to the status it enjoys in Japan would require patronage by someone as pop culturally powerful as Martha Stewart or Oprah Winfrey. This is clear from Kato’s feminist approach. For example she takes us to a Japanese department store “art” gallery exhibition entitled “Saint Rikyu”. More than just “big box” stores of today, in Japan they are to women in the tea world the equivalent of men’s social clubs: natural, “safe” places that present chanoyu as “high” art and socially acceptable places for women to gather in public outside the home and tea room. I was told by a tea informant that Japanese women were more liable to travel independently of their husbands and with their female friends to national or international destinations following their grand master teachers around in the name of tea. The delegations of dozens of middle age women chajins who have visited Los Angeles over the years is proof.
I would encourage anyone interested in tea and tea traditions to read all of the online related content, but while it’s still available, I strongly recommend trying to pick up a copy of the magazine itself, which contains a great deal of excellent content unavailable in any other form. It has a cover price of $12, which, in my opinion, is a great bargain. I imagine that there may be some bookstores that carry it, but you can buy it online from In Pursuit of Tea.
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As someone that has done a fair amount of content on tea, I have a lot of mixed thoughts on the way information is passed. With tea reviews or discussing a specific tea I have struggled with the question: how to talk about an individual tea or tea in general in an interesting or useful way.. Whether you like or dislike TeaDB episodes largely depends on whether you enjoy watching two particular people drink and binter. This is fine enough and it is certainly fun for Denny & I to create, but I’ll also agree with the sentiment that it’s not necessarily the most substantive way to review a tea in depth. There’s some signal but there’s also a lot of noise. Writing about a specific tea also isn’t easy and I think is actually very difficult to execute in a way that is actually consistently interesting or useful for people. Most people just want to know if you liked or didn’t like a specific tea. Making something that piques interest beyond that is a challenge and even if you don’t like them a place like Mei Leaf has succeeded in creating content that really does engage their viewers. You also have to consider that the majority of people have not had the tea or are even unfamiliar with the basic taste profile (i.e. Denny & I describing a traditionally stored pu’erh, when the audience has never had one).. Here are some phrases I dislike and hear frequently enough that I find them unhelpful and sometimes even counter-productive.
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