Respite in the Heat of Summer: Images from a Morning Tea Meditation

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The heat of a Summer’s morning sparked creativity, leading to improvisation. As has been my practice for the past few months, I’ve set out every Sunday morning into the island of Manhattan to offer a meditation paired with tea. Seeking to put into practice the notion of 一期一会 (In Japanese it’s ichi-go ichi-e, literally “one moment, one meeting”), I try to employ a variety of sensory cues to differentiate each gathering. From the scroll or flower in the alcove of the tearoom, to different tea, teaware, cups, or even waste water bowl, each will change in keeping with the subtle shifts that the seasons present. Beyond just the selection and using of a combination of utensils to set the tone and perhaps “tell a story” (known as 取り合わせ/とりあわせ toriawase in Japanese), this also helps to keep the setting fresh and, in the context of Buddhist mediation, encourage the cultivation of a “beginner’s mind” (初心, chūxīn in Chinese, shoshin in Japanese).

In moments like this, fresh-picked mulberry leaves become an accompaniment to the enjoyment of tea, inviting their refreshing verdant quality into the tearoom. Drops of dew, still present on their emerald surface, gleam in the soft light of the tearoom and cool the mind as cups of tea are sipped. Atypical to the usual wooden or metal cup stands often employed in a tea gathering, these humble leaves act to wake the mind and stir the curiosity of the guests. What a treat it is to enjoy something so ephemeral as this!

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With the chiming of the meditation bell the preparation of the tea begins. The participants sit in silence as the motions to make tea take place. The teapot is placed within a shallow bowl and warm water is poured from the kettle into its empty interior. The pot is lifted and held in the hands, rolled in a circular motion to warm its ceramic walls. After, the contents are distributed into the empty and waiting cups, warming them and adding to a sense of refreshing cleansing.

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The long, wiry leaves of a 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (Phoenix single bush oolong tea) are pulled from an antique Korean Goryeo-style incised celadon incense container and placed upon the concave hollow of a bamboo tea scoop. With a single motion, the leaves are then poured into the wide opening of the teapot. The residual heat from the water used to initially heat the teapot now works to activate the fragrance of the tea, a fresh 大烏葉 Dà wū yè (“Big Black Leaf”), releasing an incredibly subtle scent of orchids and magnolia into the air.

At this moment, I could not resist but to pick up the pot one more time and pass it to the guests to appreciate the beautiful aroma of this tea. This brief interlude within the beginning of the meditation became a means to further focus the sitters’ minds on the moment at hand.

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As the kettle comes to its first boil, the water is poured into the pot and over the leaves. In a matter of seconds, the tea is brewed and the teapot makes its way from cup to cup, filling each over a series of successive passes. This procedure helps to distribute the flavor of the tea evenly, so each cup tastes the same. As such, one does not need to use an additional serving vessel, or 公道杯 gōngdào bēi (“fairness cup”), as is typical in many modern tea settings.

As with the practice of mediation, tea, too, is a reductive process. Through modulating one’s practice to reduce and remove objects from the tea gathering, one further refines and clears the tea space and the mind of “things” to attach one’s self to. Simple practices like this not only reinforce being resourceful, but also stress a mindset of “doing more with less”, a mentality core to both Buddhism and gong fu cha.

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As the participants of this morning’s meditation take a moment to sip from their cups, their eyes naturally begin to move around the tearoom. Sparsely furnished and containing objects meant only for the making of tea, the presence of a flower and a work of calligraphy in the tea space act as focal points to aid in the deepening of one’s meditative practice.

For this morning, a fan decorated with a piece of calligraphy referring to the season helps to bring the sitter closer to the moment. Much like the mulberry leaves, the presence of a paper and bamboo fan on a warm Summer’s morning helps to further infer a sense of coolness into the room. It is as if the fan, while motionless in the alcove, is still able to produce a relaxing breeze, if only in the imagination of the guests.

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As time passes and each cup gradually empties, the gentle sound of the kettle coming to a boil heralds the beginning of a second and third steeping of the floral oolong in the small Yixing clay teapot. The clamor of the street outside subsides briefly and a beautiful sense of quietude is welcomed to sit with us in the room as we meditate. A light breeze mingles in the air and brings the scent of aloeswood incense to the guests.

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Steeping after steeping occurs, one after another. In this process, one finds a practice.

It is often said that in tea, one has to make a hundred bowls of tea before they can make a bowl of tea. Read literally, this statement makes no sense, but taken as a koan to aid in one’s meditation, the reality of this saying becomes clear.

After performing an action over and over again, one becomes more comfortable in it. After one sits cross-legged or in the lotus position for the first time, it may hurt one’s legs. However, if one makes a practice of it, the posture becomes more routine and more second nature. Similarly, the first time to meditate might seem difficult, and one’s mind might become preoccupied with questions of “Am I doing this right?”,  “Am I doing this wrong?”, or “Why can’t I focus”. However, as one’s body and mind adjust to the action, it, too, becomes more natural.

Tea, too, is like this. A tea not brewed before may present itself as a challenge. Naturally, questions of “Will I over-steep it?” or “Will I make it too bitter?” may arise. Yet, here, the focus is not the tea, but is the “I”. This fear or preoccupation with how one will perceive (or be perceived) is additional and ultimately distracting from the action of making tea. In truth, tea can over-steep and tea is naturally bitter. With practice, one will get more natural with bringing out tea’s flavors. In time, one will just steep tea. In this repetition of action, the “I” falls away and all that is left is the tea.

In steeping 大烏葉 Dà wū yè (“Big Black Leaf”) this morning, the actions of brewing the tea may seem repetitive, and, to some extent, this is true. Boiling the water, pouring the water, brewing the tea, and pouring the tea. Repeat.

However, as the challenge of brewing this tea results in the better understanding of the tea and how to access its myriad of flavors, a new sense of freedom develops. It is at this point that one no longer is attached to the notion of making the tea too bitter. Instead, one just makes the tea. With this mindset, aspects such as the teapot, the heat of the kettle, or even something as subtle as the temperature in the room can further inform each steeping. In this moment, the mind is fully open, ready to mindfully respond to everything it can perceive.

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With the tea fully brewed-out, its final flavors become just a sweet remembrance of its initial strength. After the last steeping, I conclude by pulling every leaf from the tiny Yixing clay teapot. This, too, helps those gathered to admire the tea and to focus on the moment. A minute later, as the mind settles, a final chime of the bell marks the end of this morning’s meditation.

At times like this, I cannot bring myself to speak. Instead, I let the moment convey its countless volumes. A poem in every sensation. A stanza comprised of sunshine written across the grass mat, collected in a teacup. Verses made of steam rising from a teapot and the smile of anticipation that forms on my face.

When tea accompanies meditation, it, too, becomes the meditation. With each rising of the kettle’s boil comes the potential for infinite possibilities. Each moment different from the last. Flavors from one steeping to the next change and transform, and the mind is left to explore itself. A fresh-picked mulberry leaf can become a tea cup stand and become a point of introspection upon one’s self in space and time. A paper fan can typify the moment and cool the mind. The simple act of brewing tea can awaken one during a warm Summer’s morning and become the means to cultivating a lifelong practice.

 

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EXCLUSIVE: History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Ming & Qing Period

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Beloved readers of Scotttea,

I’m excited to share the full video of Wednesday, July, 18th’s tea talk and interactive workshop “History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Ming and Qing Period” (1368-1912). Held at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, this event is part three of an ongoing series covering the history of tea, from its development as a folk medicine over 6000 years ago into the beverage we love today.

In this event, we discussed how the loose leaf teas have their origins in the monumental shifts that marked the period of the Ming in Qing, from experimentation in oxidation and pan-frying to inventive brewing techniques and international trade. We explored the impact scholars, poets, emperors, and artisans had on tea art and the development of gong fu cha (literally the “skill and challenge of brewing tea”). And we examined antique teawares from the Ming and Qing period and learn about the evolution of tea brewing, from teabowl to gaiwan to Yixing teapot.

This event included tea tastings of China’s famous teas accompanied by step-by-step demonstrations of Ming and Qing period tea preparation. Below, as a supplement to the almost three-hour long video, I’ve provided a listing of the contents of the presentation (featured in the first half of the lecture), as well as a list of the teas brewed (and how they were prepared).

“History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Ming & Qing Period”

Link to video

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Above is just a fraction of what is included in the 30+ slide presentation. Topics discussed were as follows:

  • China Before the Ming Period Tea in the Song & Yuan Period
  • China in the Ming Period
    • Tea in the Ming
    • Famous Kilns
    • Tea Technology: Gaiwan, Kettles, Braziers, Teapots
    • Tea and Globalization in the Ming
  • China in the Qing Period
    • Tea in the Qing
    • Tea Production Art & Craft of the Qing
    • Gong Fu Cha Tea Culture in the Qing and in the World

Teas tasted:

1st Tea: 2014 南糯山生普洱 Nán nuò shān shēng pǔ’ěr, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China (brewed in contemporary reproduction of Ming period Yixing gaiwan)

2nd Tea: 水仙 Shuǐxiān “Water Immortal” Wuyi Mountain yancha oolong, Wuyishan, Fujian, China (brewed in a early 2000s fang-gu-shape Yixing teapot)

3rd Tea: 八仙 Bāxiān “Eight Immortals” Phoenix Mountain dan cong oolong, Chaozhou, Guangdong, China (brewed in a 1990s shui ping hu-shape Yixing teapot)

4th Tea: 正山小種 Zhèng shān xiǎo zhǒng, Lapsang Souchong, Wuyishan, Fujian, China (brewed in a contemporary Jun-yao-glazed teapot)

5th Tea: Charcoal-roasted 鐵觀音 Tiě guānyīn “Iron Goddess of Mercy” Anxi-style oolong, Nantou, Taiwan (brewed in 19th century-early 20th century Si Ting Hu-shape Yixing teapot)

6th Tea: 野生大葉白茶 Yěshēng dàyè báichá Wild “Big Leaf” White Tea, Fuding, Fujian, China (brewed in contemporary Qing-shape Jingdezhen white porcelain gaiwan)

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Look out for more tea talks and workshops soon to be added to this blog. I regularly present and moderate at museums, universities, tea houses, cultural centers, etc. For speaking inquiries, feel free to reach out to scotttea888 (at) gmail.com.

 

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Hongcha, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Oolong, Pu-erh, Sencha, Tea, Tea Tasting, Vietnam, White Tea, Yellow Tea

EXCLUSIVE: All About Green, Yellow & White Tea

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Dearly Beloved Readers of Scotttea,

I am excited to share with you the tasting notes and LIVE video feed from my most recent tea talk and interactive workshop “All About Green, Yellow & White Tea”. Held in the intimate confines of Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, this tea gathering offered participants a “three hour tour” (literally three hours) of green, yellow and white teas from all over China, Korea and Japan. Beyond being a highly-caffeinated evening, the tea talk and workshop was also highly-immersive, as I offered up my tips and quips on tea history, production, and brewing styles.

Needless to say, I am forever grateful to both Floating Mountain Tea House and to the folks who attended and made this memorable evening happen. For all those who could not attend, I offer to you now, in all its glory, the full video and tea tasting lineup from “All About Green, Yellow & White Tea”!

“All About Green, Yellow & White Tea” (Link to video)

Teas Tasted:

1st Tea: Spring 2018 蒙頂甘露 Méngdǐng Gānlù, Meng Ding Shan, Sichuan
2nd Tea: Spring 2918 西湖龍井茶 Xīhú Lóngjǐng Chá, Hangzhou, Zhejiang
3rd Tea: Spring 2018 六安瓜片 Lù’ān Guāpiàn, Liu An, Anhui
4th Tea: Spring 2018 太平猴魁 Tài Píng Hóu Kuí, Hou Gang Village, Anhui
5th Tea: Spring 2018 야세작 Wild Sejak, Hwagae, South Korea
6th Tea: Spring 2018 かぶせ煎茶 Kabuse Sencha, Nara, Japan
7th Tea: Spring 2018 蒙頂黃芽 Méng dǐng huáng yá, Meng Ding Shan, Sichuan
8th Tea: 2000s 老單芽黃茶 Lǎo Dān Yá Huáng Chá, Yunnan or Sichuan
9th Tea: 2017-2018 芽寶 Yá bǎo, Nannuoshan, Yunnan
10th Tea: 2014 白牡丹茶餅 Bái mǔdān chá bǐng, Fuding, Fujian

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A Gift From Time

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Getting ready for tonight’s tea talk and workshop “All About Green, Yellow & White Tea” at Floating Mountain​ Tea House in Manhattan resulted in me finding a sealed canister of an early 2000s 單芽黃茶 (Dān Yá Huáng Chá, literally “Single Bud Yellow Tea”), most likely produced from the tea farms around Pu’er in Yunnan or Meng Ding Shan in Sichuan.

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The tea leaves, which hadn’t see the light of day for over a decade, still had a green and golden hue. They offered a light fragrance of fresh almonds and fall leaves. Upon the first infusion within a white porcelain gaiwan, the tea woke up from its long and gentle slumber, expressing subtle flavors of sweet sugar cane, rose water, and dried apricots.

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Yellow tea (黃茶 huáng chá), unlike green tea, is a bit unusual as it will receive a moderate level of oxidation during what is usually a very labor intensive process. As is the case with many teas, each type of yellow tea has its own very specific processing method. Some yellow teas, like 君山銀針 (Jūn Shān Yín Zhēn, literally “Jun Mountain Silver Needle”) will go through an initial drying (often in shade), a low-heat pan frying (lower than green tea so as not to fully halt enzymatic oxidation), and controlled oxidation, which often involves wrapping the tea leaves in paper to promote oxidation (蒙頂黃芽, Méng Dǐng Huáng Yá , “Meng Ding Yellow Bud” also uses this paper-wrapping method). The tea is then “finished” by a low-heat roasting. Other yellow teas, like 莫干黄芽 (Mò gàn huáng yá, “Mo Gan Yellow Bud”) are processed using full-sun drying and quick, high-heat pan frying, before being hand-kneaded and finished with indirect charcoal roasting.

The general result of these particular processing methods is a tea that is not as bright and grassy as a green tea (think flavors found in teas like 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn, 黄山毛峰 Huáng Shān Máo Fēng, or 龍井茶 Lóng Jǐng Chá), but is more floral and sometimes even raisin-like, akin to some oolong teas. However, given the diversity of leaf types used, the innate flavor given by the differences in climate and soil composition (“terroir”), and processing, each yellow tea ends up having its own distinctive flavor. While categorically smaller and less-known as other tea types, this makes yellow tea an interesting and exciting tea to explore.

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Although far more quiet than its fresh counterparts, this “re-discovered” aged yellow tea spoke volumes. Part history, part romance, drinking this tea both taught me about past production methods and reminded me of how tea was (and still is) a labor of love. How such attention to detail by an unknown “tea master” (the person who makes the tea), resulted in a tea that still has the ability to enchant a tea drinker after almost twenty years since it had been crafted is simply astonishing.

As I’ve said before, tea is a gift. As such, aged tea, such as this one, is a gift from time.

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Stay tuned tea blog readers, as I will be posting notes and video content from tonight’s tea talk and interactive workshop “All About Green, Yellow & White Tea” on the next blog post!

Stay thirsty, stay curious!

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Yellow Tea

Comparing the Flavor of Tea Can Lead to Greater Understanding

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This morning I was asked what book I might recommend to deepen one’s knowledge of tea. The answer I offered was to just drink tea. While not openly trying to emulate the Chan master Zhàozhōu Cōngshěn 趙州從諗 (778-897), who advised his students to “have a bowl of tea”, I was trying to point the person towards a form of understanding that comes only from direct experience.

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When one simply sits to drink tea, one can learn about the various factors that constitute a tea’s flavor. Weather, soil content, level and evenness of oxidation, even (and especially) the way the leaves were picked and processed will ultimately determine how a tea will taste. In the same way that the events of our own lives will affect our demeanor, our psychological bearing, or even our physical state, the life of a tea leaf can tell a story, even a history.

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Sitting down to brew a series of Wǔyíshān hóngchá (“red tea” from the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian), their “stories” were quite apparent. Between two varieties of 赤甘紅茶 (chì gān hóngchá, literally “red sweetness red tea”), the smaller leaves of the 小赤甘 (xiǎo chì gān, literally “small red sweetness”) were considerably sweeter and cleaner in flavor than those of its larger variation, the 大赤甘 (dà chì gān, or “large red sweetness”). Comparing these two teas to a traditionally-smoked 正山小種 (zhèng shān xiǎo zhǒng, Lapsang Souchong), the tale these teas told were all together quite different.

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Processing played a major part in each of the teas’ distinctive flavor profiles. For the two chì gān hóngchá, the tea leaves were simply picked, withered, rolled, pan-fired, and rolled again before they were dried and made ready to enjoy. This rather orthodox processing helps these teas to retain their natural sweetness that develops through oxidation, revealing flavors akin to that of a baked apple and dried red dates. The smaller, tender leaves of the xiǎo chì gān, with their more delicate sugars, offered flavors that were sweeter and more complex than the larger leaves of the dà chì gān, which were considerably more tannic and floral, resulting in a subsequently drier mouthfeel.

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While the leaf type of the zhèng shān xiǎo zhǒng may have appeared to be superficially quite similar to the two chì gān hóngchá, the “finishing” of this tea transformed it into something that is remarkably different. Achieved through a process of slowly smoking the dried tea leaves over a smoldering pinewood ash pit over the course of several days, the tea leaves are imparted with the characteristic flavors dried longan and smokey pine resin. When done well, this processing adds a complex layering of smokiness, balancing the sweeter fruit notes that naturally occur in the tea leaves with an almost peat-like quality found in a fine Islay Scotch whisky. In the case of this particular tea, the interplay of these robust and subtle flavors remained from the first steeping all the way through the last, becoming lighter, sweeter, and more delicate with each subsequent brewing.

 

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In an approach like gong fu cha, one is able to examine the leaves of a tea, take in its aroma, sip and savor its liqueur. Through this process, rudimentary know-how is slowly gained and one’s abilities to better understand a tea are eventually developed. While this may take years, the “knowledge” gained through direct experience becomes something beyond words on a page or anecdotes shared between a teacher to a student. It becomes a flavor that lingers in your psyche, a memory embedded in your action. You can always open a book, but to be able to listen to what tea can tell you takes discipline, patience, and a curious mind.

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In response to being asked about what books, podcasts, and videos I  have enjoyed for learning about and expanding my knowledge on tea, I offer this short list to you, my beloved readers. While certainly not comprehensive, for those just beginning their journey in tea, it is a wonderful “first step”.

Enjoy!

Books

Baisa-ō , and Norman Waddell. The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto. Counterpoint, 2008. (Link)

Hirota, Dennis. Wind in the Pines: Classic Writings of the Way of Tea as a Buddhist Path. Asian Humanities Press, 1995. (Link)

Mair, Victor H., and Erling Hoh. The True History of Tea. Thames & Hudson, 2009. (Link)

Sadler, A. L. Cha-No-Yu: the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Tuttle, 2001. (Link)

Sanmi, Sasaki. Chado the Way of Tea: A Japanese Tea Master’s Almanac. Tuttle Publishing, 2011. (Link)

Sen Sōshitsu. The Japanese Way of Tea: from Its Origins in China to Sen Rikyū. Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2000. (Link)

Shigenori, Chikamastsu. Stories from a Tearoom Window: Lore and Legnds of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Tuttle Publishing, 2011. (Link)

Yoo, Yang-Seok. The Book of Korean Tea: a Guide to the History, Culture and Philosophy of Korean Tea and the Tea Ceremony. The Myung Won Cultural Foundation, 2007. (Link)

Zhang, Jinghong. Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic. University of Washington Press, 2014. (Link)

Podcasts

Chinese History Podcast – “History of Tea” by Laszlo Montgomery (Link to Part 1 of 10)

Talking Tea: Conversations About Tea and Tea Culture by Ken Cohen (Link to homepage)

Videos

<<茶,一片树叶的故事>> (“Tea, The Story of a Leaf”). CCTV, 2013. (Link to Episode 1 of 6, in Chinese)

Gong Fu Tea|chA by So Han Fan, YouTube channel Tea House Ghost (Link to Episode 1 of a continuing series)

 

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Happy Interdependence Day

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When I was beginning my “training” in zen practice (sesshin, 接心, or also 摂心/攝心 literally “touching the heart-mind”) on a warm 4th of July years ago, a Buddhist friend of mine wished me a happy “Interdependence Day”. Slightly perplexed, he responded by noting that rather than celebrate our independence, our isolation from the world, it would make more sense to remind ourselves that we are never alone, nor completely dependent. Everything is connected and does, in part, rely upon one another to exist.

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Whether it’s a thought that arises or a great nation; something came before that allowed it to exist, and when it passes, it will transform into something else. In this vein, we are constantly shaped by our environment, not for better or for worse, but just naturally, without judgement (the judgement is extra).

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As I sit and ponder on this concept, I bring my thoughts towards tea. Paying homage to the concept of interdependence, I have chosen to make tea, a fine matcha, using a late 15th century Vietnamese teabowl decorated in the fashion made popular by the Ming court in China. The chasen (茶筅, tea whisk) and chashaku (茶杓, tea scoop) are both Japanese in origin, and the tea caddy, a cloisonné incense container, is 20th century Chinese.

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Motifs of flowers and butterflies are abundant, a fine reminder of cultures’ ability to constantly cross-pollinate, making the garden of the world more beautiful and giving it life.

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The teabowl, pulled from the famed 15th century Hội An wreck in the 1990s, revealed to the world a diversity of design and eclecticism of a past culture that rivals any contemporary civilization. The design, a with loose arabesque scroll and foliate motif culminates in a beautiful peony flow, blossoming in the center of the bowl.

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Painted in a cursory style, the flower is reminiscent of those favored in Ming China, the then-superpower of East Asia during the 15th century. However, the local touch shines through, shown in the distinctive grey-blue cobalt commonly used in Vietnam during this time. Pools of ferrous-colored purple bleed through, giving the image of the flower a depth and texture that is quintessentially of this period. The light circle around the image not only frames it but imparts a halo-like glow.

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The history of this teabowl does not end with its connection between Vietnam and Ming China of the 15th century. As tea, namely through the practice of tea ceremony (茶の湯, chanoyu), grew in popularity in Japan during the 16th century, this style of teaware became immensely popular with tea people.

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Favored for its elegant simplicity, Anam-yaki (安南焼, literally “Southern Peace ceramics” or “Vietnamese-ceramics”) was highly-collected by tea people of the late Muromachi and Edo periods, and highly-reproduced by Japanese artisans during the popularization of the tea ceremony. Unlike Chinese, Korean, or the native-produced chawan of Japan, Anam-yaki teabowls were a perfect balance of lightness, refinement, and rusticity that the masters of wabi-cha favored.

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The bright, electric-green foam of the fresh matcha contrasts against the clean, white interior of the Vietnamese teabowl, in a luminescent glow that seems to radiate outward. The deep concave of the bowl, too, adds to this, creating a striking shadow against the soft, dappled foam that rests within the chawan.

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After all the matcha has been enjoyed, the bowl empty and cleaned, one can turn it over to appreciate the dark “chocolate”-colored foot of the chawan. Yet another distinctive feature of Vietnamese teabowls, it showcases the nature of interdependence, that one culture can be influenced by another yet still celebrate that which makes their own culture unique.

In the mélange of an international history, the mixture of cultures creates a beautiful gumbo that produces inspiration, that produces art. In tea, there are no politics, just moments to appreciate one’s inter-connectedness. On this day, a happy Interdependence Day, let’s all celebrate in that.

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To all my readers of Scotttea, a blog begun by a son of immigrants, for a world of a thousand cultures, I offer this post in celebration of our interdependence. May we continue to remain strong in our diversity and love of inclusion, whether it be the simple inclusion of the occasional “matcha post” on an otherwise gong fu cha blog, or the inclusion of others into this global family. Let us not be defined by the borders on a map but by the boundlessness of our hearts.

My deepest thanks and continued gratitude to share with you.

 

 

 

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Matcha, Tea, Vietnam

The Heat of Summer. The Quietude of Tea. The Sound of Wind and Approaching Rain.

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As Summer deepens its presence tea, too, transforms. The 風炉 (furo, literally “wind brazier”) has long since replaced the sunken hearth in the tearoom and the hope of the host is to induce a sense of coolness in the guest. In this effort, the inventive nature of the tea person comes alive, from replacing the stoneware 水指 (mizusashi, “fresh water vessel”) with a plain well-bucket (木地釣瓶水指, kiji-tsurube) which has been soaked in water over night, to employing items made of clear glass or pieces that contain visual allusions to water (famous being the kettle lid rests (蓋置, futa-oki) in the shape of a crab in a river stream or that of water wheels).

The teabowl, too, changes its shape during Summer, becoming more shallow, allowing for the otherwise hot water pulled from the kettle to cool down, making the experience of holding the bowl and drinking the tea more enjoyable for the guest.

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As I make tea today, I use one such bowl, an antique Shigaraki-yaki (信楽焼) chawan. Light, informal, and perfectly imperfect with its pockmarked and vitrified surface, it offers-up a subtle reminder to enjoy the moment (and the heat) of a Summer’s day.

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I pair the chawan with an exposed-wood hira-natsume (平棗, a jujube fruit-shaped tea container in which its width is twice its height) and a chashaku (茶杓, tea scoop) hewn from a piece of smokey-hued bamboo. The wood of the natsume and chashaku seem to shine in a way that seems to add to the refreshment of the moment, reminiscent of the washed and weathered boards of an engawa (縁側, the open-air “veranda” that often surrounds old Japanese homes and temples).

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On closer inspection of the chashaku, it reveals a hidden landscape of mountains enveloped in mist. Caused by the natural pigmentation and aging of the bamboo, this chance shān shuǐ (山水, literally “mountain and water/mountain and river”) painting, contained within the slender frame of the chashaku (in a way akin to a tanzaku (短冊, a thin, vertical strip of paper often showcasing calligraphy or painting, often hung in the tokonoma alcolve)) offers an additional layer to the tea gathering. It is a landscape so minute that only the host and guest can observe it within the intimate confines of the tearoom. As such, it is an inferred space for both to travel through as they join together to enjoy tea.

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The faint hiss of the boiling water in the chagama, a sound poetically referred to as the sound of “wind in the pines” (松風, matsukaze), accompanies every action during the tea gathering. Not only the element with which the tea is brewed, water is also employed to “purify” the tea implements, from the chawan to the chasen (茶筅, tea whisk). In this process, the chasen is placed gently into the teabowl, itself filled with one hishaku(柄杓, bamboo ladle)’s-worth of boiled water. The tines are then lightly pressed against the center of the bowl, flexing them and testing their strength. In this patient act, the host is both checking for damages (that may result in particles of the whisk adulterating the guest’s tea) and cleansing the tea object in a manner that displays attentiveness and hospitality. Once complete, the chasen is left to sit upright, its thin bamboo tines, like blades of grass at dawn, are left moistened and refreshed.

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The Shigaraki-yaki chawan, once washed and wetted by the water from the chagama, sits ready to accept the powdered tea. Here, too, the act of cleansing has brought out a new sense of life and vitality from the tea object, revealing bright colors and a deep range of textures that once remained dormant. Born out of the laborious process of hand-feeding a wood-fueled anagama-kiln (窖窯, literally “cave kiln”), the Shigaraki-yaki chawan bears the distinctive marks and patterns that are the result of extreme heat.

As with the chashaku, the chawan, too, contains an inferred “landscape” (景色, keshiki in Japanese, literally “scenery”). Through the hand of the potter, a light and loosely-applied glaze was poured over the rim of the teabowl. The result gives the appearance of an undulating mountain range, articulated through the uneven dissipation and pooling of the yellow and blue-green-hued glass-like glaze (ビードロ, bidoro, from the Portuguese word vidoro meaning “vitrified”). This visual feature becomes yet another “vista” for the guest and host to admire during the tea gathering, offering a moment to pause and imagine the refreshing breezes that often blow through the mountains on a Summer’s day.

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Three scoops of bright, fragrant matcha are pulled out of the natsume (as is the practice within the Sōhen-ryū (宗偏流) school of chanoyu) and placed into the chawan. The presence of the powdered green tea against the rough, earthen-toned well of the teabowl is striking and seems other-worldly.

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Whisked and whipped with the chasen, the matcha is transformed into a bright and airy foam. Instantly, the aroma of the fresh green tea fills the space of the tearoom. One merely needs to breathe to take in its flavor.

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Picked-up and turned in the hands of the host so that the teabowl’s “face” (正面, shōmen in Japanese) greets the guest, the bowl of matcha is then left to sit between the two individuals. After a friendly bow of gratitude (offered simultaneously by both host and guest), the guest accepts the bowl of tea. Turning the bowl’s face away from their own out of respect to the chawan, the guest lifts the vessel to their lips. Within three slow sips, the bowl is savored, the freshly-prepared tea enjoyed to its last frothy dregs.

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The Shigaraki-yaki bowl is held quietly in the hands of the guest, the warmth of the tea it once contained still lingers within its earthenware body. The roughness of the clay, the unevenness of the glaze, and the words of a poem painted on its sides are all appreciated by the guest before the bowl is returned to the host for its final cleaning.

In the silence that follows, there remains a stillness that is the quintessence of a moment with tea. Although no physical distance has been crossed, both host and guest have traveled together. While no mountains have been climbed nor landscapes entered, they have both viewed vast vistas and wandered a path together. At journey’s end, no words need to be exchanged. No need for a thoughts nor response. Just to be quiet is enough.

In the heat of Summer, a moment to take tea offers a chance to to quiet the mind and to hear the faint sound of the wind and approaching rain.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Japan, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting