Monday, January 17, 2011

Ōbukucha 大福茶

Ōbukucha (oh-buku-cha) holds a special place in my green tea heart.

When I first started studying Sadō in Japan my sensei requested I write a letter each month about one thing from practice or tea gatherings that captured my fascination.

The letters built up over time, and out of the blue one day I received one in return from my sensei. In excruciatingly envious handwriting, like a cross-section of a flowing stream, the letter unfolded to tell the meaning behind the tradition of drinking a special tea called ‘ōbukucha’. Everyone drinks this tea at ‘Hatsugama’, the New Year’s Tea Gathering.



Picture of Emperor Murakami. Source here.


“Emperor Murakami (926-967) was a devout worshipper of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy (Rokuhara Kanzeon). At the time of serious illness, the Goddess appeared to the sick Emperor in a dream and directed him to drink a special tea to heal his illness. Emperor Murakami followed the Goddess’ message and he soon made a complete recovery.

“After this happening, shrines and temples began conducting a ceremony at New Year’s time of drinking ōbukucha tea for a year’s perfect health. This tradition continues today.

“Ōbukucha was originally written 王服茶 representing the fact the Emperor originally savoured the tonic (王 ‘ō’ = Emperor, 服 ‘fuku’ = to drink, 茶 ’cha’ = tea). Over time, the original charaters were exchanged with more auspicious characters with the same pronunciation 大福茶 (大 ‘ō’ = lots, big, wide, many, 福 ‘fuku’ = fortune, good luck 茶 ’cha’ = tea). (Note when putting the character ‘fuku’ after another character, the pronunciation of ‘f’ changes to a ‘b’.)

“The ingredients of ōbukucha vary between different traditions. In the Ueda Sōko Tradition the ingredients are: matcha powdered green tea (thin), umeboshi pickled plum, kuromame black bean, and sanshō.”

I kid you not, the brew tastes so delicious that you feel momentarily invincible in the afterglow of finishing your dose (!). The sour (umeboshi), sweet (kuromame), and hot (sanshō) make a brilliant symphony of flavours with the bitter matcha.

We continue this tradition in Melbourne, though with a bit of tweaking here and there as in Japan the ōbukucha ceremony is performed in the middle of winter when the sunken hearth is in use. Down in the southern hemisphere we are in summer and have to perform the ceremony with the brazier.

While we drink as a group at Hatsugama, we wish for each others good health for the year. Everyone savours the once-a year-taste, and takes home the happiness the over 1400 year old tradition brings.

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