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Kuchi-Kiri: A New Season of Tea

Kuchikiri-no-chaji // 口切の茶事

tea ceremony celebrating the breaking of the seal on a jar of new tea.

In Japan, there is an important Tea Ceremony ritual that takes place in late November. It is considered one of the most formal tea events and a basic model for the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

The kuchikiri ceremony is held to break the seal of a special tea urn called a chatsubo which was filled with tea leaves picked in May and allowed to mature for half a year.

“Kuchikiri” literally means “mouth cutting” in Japanese.

The act of breaking this seal of the jar is called Kuchikiri and is accompanied by a full tea ceremony or Chaji with a meal (kaiseki), thick tea (koicha) and thin tea (usucha).

Filling the Chatsubo

In early Summer, during the tea harvest, top quality tea leaves picked specifically for the tea ceremony are carefully selected by a chashi (master tea maker) who places freshly picked green tea for thick tea in a specially made paper bag and places it in a beautifully decorated pot (chatsubo) together with other green tea for thin tea.

The master then carefully closes the mouth of the pot and stamps the paper sealing the lid and the jar together with his hanko (signature seal). On the back of the box containing the tea jar a piece of paper called an iri-nikki (record of contents) is affixed stating the names of the teas included within the jar.

The jar is then returned to its owner along with a congratulatory gift where it is stored in a cool place. This might be in or around the teahouse or cooling cellar. In the past, it would have been stored in the ground or in the mountains.

The green tea inside the pot is well matured and ready for use after about 6 months.

The Kuchikiri ceremony is traditionally performed on or around the 10th day of the 10th month according to the lunar calendar, which falls on around mid November.

Around this time, the new year of tea starts and the Ro is used for the first time indicating the beginning of winter. At this time, to celebrate the beginning of a new season of tea, the seal of the chatsubo (tea urn) is cut with a special knife (pictured below) and the new, fresh tea is selected by the main guest.

There are two kinds of kuchi-kiri ceremonies:

(1) The nai-kuchi-kiri is when the chashi's seal is cut for the first time. To be invited to a nai-kuchi-kiri is considered a great honour.

(2) The second kuchi-kiri is much simpler. The once unsealed jar is resealed and marked with the host's seal. This second kuchi-kiri is held several times, until the koicha (thick tea) is done.

The tea event (Chaji) in this season of both Kuchikiri and Kairo (opening of the hearth) begins at noon and continue for about 4 hours with charcoal ceremony, Kaiseki cuisine, koicha (thick tea) and usucha (thin tea).

At the beginning of the ritual the host brings out the iri-nikki (record of contents) and hands it over to the main guest who chooses which tea they'd like for the ceremony. The chatsubo (tea urn) is then placed next to the Ro along with the knife and other implements.

Once opened, the tea pouch is removed and taken into the kitchen or mizuya (water preparation room) where it is placed into a tea-grinding mortar in preparation for the first serving of thick tea.

At homes with an ancestral shrine the first bowl of tea made is an offering.

While the tea is being ground the kaiseki (meal) is served.

This year, although I did not get to attend a full official kuchikiri no chaji, I was still able to experience the cutting of the chatsubo kuchi as well as the elaborate procedure associated with removing and placement of the colourful jar cover and cords.

It was a great priviledge to gain further insight into the various rituals and ceremonies involved within the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

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