This past Saturday, Manns Winery in Komoro city opened its traditional Japanese garden to tea ceremony and the Heian period poetry game kyoku sui no utage. I was invited by my koto teacher who played the accompanying music for the festivities. But it wasn’t until yesterday that we exchanged notes on the ornate and relatively rare Heian game which can be difficult to fully understand even for locals like my teacher who took part in the ceremony.
For me, with limited Japanese and even less context to Saturday’s events before arriving, wandering into the winery’s expansive green lawn felt like Japanese historical reenactment meets Sunday brunch and polo game. Kimono clad guests shaded themselves with lace parasols and colorful umbrellas while peering into the landscaped lower garden. Below, honorary participants were seated under lacquer red parasols in decadent deep purple and orange robes, gleaning with silver and gold threads. Attendants with long platted hair circled around the camera men, journalists, and participants in a reserved, but constant motion.
Hein period costumes are used in kyoku sui no utage because it is originally a Heian period game for nobles, particularly of the imperial court. Saturday’s version was a combination of formal ceremony for nobles and informal community gathering with tea.
After the Heian processional played kyoku sui no utage and received tea, hundreds of guests strolled the garden and struck up conversation. One woman and I discovered that we live in neighboring villages. Later she wrangled her grandson over, one of my elementary school students, to practice his English which was sticky but proudly spot on despite his ice cream lined lips and ruffled energy which comes from summer play.
曲水の宴 Kyoku sui no utage: The Hein Poetry Game:
As the koto music played, announcements were read, and dancers danced, the honorary few, in robes and make-up, wrote wakas, or Japanese poems. Kyoku sui no utage is basically a game where participants compose a poem and use a sprout of bamboo to catch a small saucer of sake floated down stream to them. In this instance, assistants brought the sake to those composing the poems, I assume because they were enacting the role of nobility, but after the formal ceremony finished, all of the guests were invited to partake. Seated on straw mats that felt like lily pads, guests leaned over the garden’s small stream reaching for the multi-colored ducks carrying sake in sip sized red saucers.
Once the enacting imperial court and corresponding formality had finished, kyoku sui no utage really felt more like a game. The sweets, drink, and playfully novel objective of catching your sake with the bamboo stick (which was easily floated by at hands reach) was all pleasantries: a characteristic you might suspect from a 12th century game for nobles. Also, many of Saturday’s poems were simple and sweet without much verbose language or ambiguity. Even my poem, written in bad Japanese, reading “today gave me many good feelings. I love summer. Thank you!” seemed to fit in alongside the other guests’ poetry who also thanked the organizers for the fun day or depicted summer drawings.
野点Nodate Outdoor Tea Ceremony
After kyoku sui no utage, guests strolled around the gardens and reserved seats to receive tea. Because only twelve or so people could be served at a time, we experienced a two hour wait for our tea. However, after coffee in the winery restaurant and a bento of oden, rice, and seafoods (shrimp, scallop, and battered squishy maybe octopus piece), the time passed quickly before we were seated at the nodate outdoor tea ceremony.
In traditional tea ceremony style, every detail of setting, utensils, and decorations were taken into consideration by the host for the guest’s delight and enjoyment. During this event, ikebana, fresh flower arrangements were designed and trimmed for each set of guests seated. A small scroll with seasonally appropriate poetry was hung upon the guest of honor’s red parasol. And the utensils used to prepare the tea were of course chosen for the occasion and displayed after use for the guests to admire as they left.
Before receiving tea, it is customary to eat a small sweet to enhance or balance the green tea which can sometimes be bitter. Saturday’s nodate served a skillfully chosen sweet in the shape of a fish and water, which were both seasonally and setting appropriate as guests were seated to the side of a flowing waterfall and pond.
More traditional tea in the indoor tea house was also served with ikebana flower arrangement, scroll, and delicious flower shaped sweets.
All of this at a winery…in Komoro…in Nagano prefecture…
It may seem like an event like this, shrouded in Hein costumes and entrenched in traditional ritual, should take place in Kyoto, Japan’s capital for traditional arts and culture. However, the local and community feel at the winery was all Nagano. The fact that it was held at a winery, a seemingly counterintuitive location for a traditional Japanese ceremony, reflects the creative confluence and contemporary practice of traditional culture in day to day Nagano life. Reporters and ice cream stained elementary schoolers are perfect reminders that traditional arts in Japan are thriving without being romanticized freeze frames unrelated to normal life.
Access to Manns Winery: