Monday, January 2, 2012

Of Okiro and Encouraging Friends

Some time ago, I had an email conversation with a Facebook tea friend, Rebecca Cragg, owner of Camellia Teas of Ottowa. I lamented that our chashitsu didn't have a proper ro, or sunken hearth. Our grand chashitsu plan is to raise the floor so that we can have a sunken hearth, but that is several years and many dollars away from realization.

"Make an okiro!" she said.

I confess, I had never heard of an okiro. So I did a little homework and learned that okiro are "above-ground" hearths that sit on top of the floor or tatami for rooms that can't accommodate sunken hearths.

Rebecca encouraged me by sending me photos, descriptions and diagrams of okiro she had constructed. With her crafty skills and a little help from Home Depot (they cut her lumber to specification), she assembled and finished two okiro. Most clever of all, she lined them with a cement compound so she could practice sumitemae. (Some okiro have electric inserts, much like electric furo.) We planned to make our okiro using an old ro-buchi (the top frame of the ro), an electric element from a broken furo and a metal ro insert that Harvey-sensei believed was somewhere in storage among many boxes of assorted tea equipment that we had been given stewardship of several years before.

We came to the Tea Ceremony in 1986 while in college at Humboldt State University. We enrolled in "Zen Cultural History," taught by Dr. Lloyd Fulton and his Sensei, Hirose-sensei, of Tokyo. We were hooked. For many years, Hirose-sensei returned each spring to co-teach the course with Dr. Fulton until her health interfered with her ability to travel. Even then, some of her students would come from Japan to help teach Cha-no-yu in her stead, and after several years of study with Hirose-sensei and her students, Harvey was also teaching Cha-no-yu.

As a tireless champion of Japanese culture and architecture, Dr. Fulton had built several tea rooms, a tea house modeled after Tai-an (Sen no Rikyu's tea hut in Kyoto), a portable tea pavilion, and amassed a diverse collection of equipment for the Tea ceremony. One of the tea rooms he built had a raised floor which accomodated a ro, complete with an electric element. It was this this ro that Harvey remembered having the metal insert that he believed we could convert into an okiro.

In 2001, Dr. Fulton unexpectedly passed away. After his estate was settled, his son entrusted us with Dr. Fulton's dogu and related equipment so that we could continue to teach and share Japanese Tea ceremony. With the help of the Ink People Center for the Arts, an arts and culture non-profit organization (NPO), we created Horai Center for the Study of Pacific Culture. At the time we lived in a small two-bedroom house, and we didn't have the space for a tea room at our home, let alone for storing all the dogu, tatami, books and assorted curiosities. Items were inventoried and moved into a storage unit, and we kept out only a few items that we needed for weekly Tea practice.

Several years later, we moved into our current home, a larger house with space for a tea room. We still had to store many of the large items -- such as tatami -- in the infrequently-visited, seldom-tidied storage unit. My nose itched at the thought of digging through dusty boxes in search of this mysterious metal ro insert, but I was encouraged by the thought of practicing ro-temae on a regular basis and anticipated creating an okiro similar to those made by Rebecca. After a surprisingly short and not-too-dusty search -- and to my everlasting delight -- I discovered that although we did not have the metal insert we had two electric okiro! Both units are functional, but one wooden frame needs repair.

 Thank goodness for inspirational friends!

One okiro, no waiting!

This little okiro needs repair.

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