Opening of the Tea Jar

IMG_3566With the beginning of November comes the opening of a new year in tea. In the ancient lunar calendar of twenty-four seasons, this period is known as 立冬 Rittō, the beginning of Winter. In the tearoom, this is greeted with the shifting to the 炉 ro. Just as important, this change sees the grinding of new 碾茶 tencha.

IMG_3565Harvested in Spring, the tea leaves remain stored in a large earthenware tea jar (茶壺 cha-tsubo), which has been sealed to avoid oxidation and spoilage. During a special 茶事 chaji called 口切 kuchi-kiri (lit. “mouth-cutting”), the paper seal which covers the opening of the cha-tsubo is cut open and a portion of the “fresh tea” is ground to produce the first 抹茶 matcha of the year.

IMG_3563For practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu, this “first” bowl of tea will be the freshest they will have for the next 365 days and is, not surprisingly, viewed as something quite special.

IMG_3562On this cold November day, I eagerly bring my iron kettle to a boil and arrange my tearoom to prepare a bowl of tea. Placed alone in front of my 水指 mizusashi is a small 瀬戸焼 Seto-yaki 肩衝茶入 katatsuki chaire (“shouldered” tea container). Wrapped in a brocaded silk 仕服 shifuku pouch, upon which are woven images of Tang-period Silk Road traders on horseback, the small ceramic container holds a measured portion of freshly-ground matcha to prepare a single bowl of 濃茶 koicha.

IMG_3558Entering the tearoom, I bring with me a 黒楽茶碗 kuro-Raku chawan from the kiln of modern master potter 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III.

FC791911-0F63-4D40-8FDD-697AAC3DDF5FAs I ready the wares to prepare a bowl of tea, I begin the process of unwrapping the chaire, drawing its silk cord and peeling it out from the shifuku.

8C3AB5D5-3E32-4AF0-B316-89F8341AC479Next I cleanse the 茶杓 chashaku and place it across the lid of the chaire. After, I cleanse the teabowl, warming it with the hot water ladled from the iron kettle, rolling it slowly in my hands to feel the heat of the water penetrate the ceramic.

196D0A98-4E19-4751-9E0B-3DB4DEF20AF6I pause as I pick up the chashaku once again, and offer to my guest a seasonal tea sweet, 勝栗 kachi-guri (dried chestnut), served upon a small Taiwanese celadon tea leaf-viewing vessel.

77F7296D-DA9D-4AD5-BEC7-3170AF75A807To prepare the bowl of koicha, I first dig-out three scoops of tea from the chaire.

IMG_3561Finally, setting the chashaku atop the edge of the chawan, I tilt the tea container and let the remaining tea cascade out into the teabowl, emptying entirely it in a gesture of giving one’s self fully to their guest.

D26DF3AA-DDCB-4A78-8E19-F008412A24A9Pouring only a small portion of hot water into the teabowl, I begin to slowly knead the tea powder into a thick, aromatic paste. Adding a bit more water into the bowl, I continue to methodically press the 茶筅 chasen back and forth through the thick tea until it produces an even, lacquer-like concoction.

A5E13B47-C9FB-4F0E-9865-9E0FEC739F63Lifting the tea whisk from the finished bowl of koicha, thick tea liquid still clings to its cut bamboo tines.

396CCDD0-5E9D-44AF-AD4C-3034E07B847DPeering down into the teabowl, the koicha reflects back up at me like a shiny bronze mirror. Passing the chawan to my guest, we exchange a deep bowl, both caught in anticipation. As they take a sip, I eat one of the chestnuts. A moment passes and they pass the bowl back to me with just enough tea remaining in it for me to share a sip. Wiping the rim of the bowl with a thick folded piece of paper, I set the chawan back down before me. Before I cleanse it, I offer to produce an informal bowl of 薄茶 usucha with the residual matcha.

IMG_3559Finally whisked, I pass the chawan back to my guest and with three hearty sips they finish the bowl of tea.

15EAE73B-EC25-4927-8343-949394F685F0For a moment, we enjoy inspecting the hand-shaped Raku teabowl. In its deep, black glaze and uneven surface we are left to imagine the boundless possibilities this next year will hold for us. What changes will come with each progressing season? How will we give ourselves fully to this moment?

IMG_3560Cleansing the teaware one final time, I set the chaire beside the teabowl. I add cool water from the mizusashi to the boiling iron kettle and close it with its bronze lid.

B2DA84F2-C9B6-44C4-98EB-8D16D7A28B4CIn a parting 拝見 haiken, I set the chaire, chashaku, and shifuku atop a wooden tray. The textures of the swirling grains of the mulberry wood frame the objects like the edges of some intricately-rendered image of an esoteric Buddhist mandala.

IMG_3567Implements for understanding time and space. Cutting through each moment fearlessly.

IMG_3568Opening up a treasure and grinding its contents to dust. Savoring its creation as an offering. Observing this creation as a fading memory never to be replicated again.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

All That Heralds Winter

IMG_3461When does a season change? How does one know? One may reference a calendar, yet the demarcated days and months can only tell so much. Seasons, like all things in life, transform slowly, almost imperceptibly. Yet, as if by magic, they can also suddenly appear. A night of cold wind can pull down all of Autumn’s leaves, revealing in morning barren treetops. October’s crystal blue skies become dark and grey by early November. During a frigid rain shower, the first flecks of snow can appear.

Those more closely attune to nature’s cycle will perceive this. The last of Summer’s dragonflies now float dead along the stream’s edge. The bell cricket grows silent and buried itself in the cold earth. The songbirds begin to change into their drab Winter’s plumage. The geese continue their migration.

Practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu, kept in constant vigil of the subtle seasonal shifts, feel this change too. For them, the coming of Winter heralds the beginning of the new tea year. 畳 tatami mats are resurfaced, 障子 shōji screens are refitted with fresh paper. The sunken 炉 ro hearth is opened. When this all happens is up to much debate and no exact date is given. 千利休 Sen no Rikyū famously said “seeing 柚子yuzu (citron) change their colors, one could open 囲炉裏 irori (the sunken hearth).” Indeed, such a subtle change as this was just enough to signal the beginning of Winter and a new year of tea.

For me, I closed October with the putting-away of the 風炉 furo. Alas, it wasn’t until today, when the wind felt particularly cold, that I decided to shift into the ro setting. Since I do not have a fully-outfitted 茶室 chashitsu, I opt to use a highly informal 火鉢 hibachi as my sunken hearth. Cut from a single burl of 桐 kiri (paulownia), with a copper-lined recess for ash, the hibachi is an unusual feature in my tearoom. Wishing to maintain a level of informality with my first use of my makeshift ro, I decide to prepare a bowl of tea on the bright, clean expanse of wood flooring in my New York City apartment.

F6A0D7D5-98BE-467A-8647-E38B542BE0D2For my teabowl, I select a blush-colored 萩焼茶碗 Hagi-yaki chawan. For a tea container, I bring out a multi-hued 若狭塗棗 Wakasa-nuri natsume, its colors echoing the last of the gold and crimson leaves of Autumn. In the minimal space of my tearoom, the light of the overcast day stretches shadows across the wooden floor.

871EA691-9083-4983-8CE8-F3F898A3465FArranging objects along an angle, the teaware is spread out within the space between the 指 mizusashi and the hibachi. This distance seems both more intimate and dynamic, setting teawares along invisible lines, drawing both host and guest closer to the warmth of the hearth. First, the natsume and 茶杓 chashaku are cleansed.

73449357-4DD5-435F-8A01-DD21FDA46385Next, the lid of the iron kettle is removed and hot water is drawn out to purify and warm the chawan.

88DB2902-4090-4F7C-973D-19D8B395EAB4Three scoops of 抹茶 matcha are issued out into the center of the teabowl, and water is ladled from the 茶釜 chagama to chawan in a series of fluid motions.

E282B5EC-C6AB-42E2-A377-1C2F61121F75I whisk the tea into a fine foam. In this moment, the space of my tearoom seems still and time feels strangely infinite. Setting the 茶筅 chasen down, a terrific silence arises and, for a brief period of time, I am caught in a quiet meditation. All action ceases. All thoughts drop by the wayside. What remains is the warmth of the hibachi and the faint aroma of tea.

9E47DBC4-2D24-4BB5-9B15-A145D17088A4Looking down, I peer upon the tea and tea objects as if I were miles above them. Lifting the teabowl to my lips, I offer a silent gesture of thanks to all of the factors that brought me to this moment, finite and infinite as they may be.

EE6A8429-E57A-495A-B10A-BC3056113320A few seconds pass and three sips of tea from the Hagi-yaki chawan empties it completely, save for some foamy dregs.

A4A5EC26-D363-42DB-A37A-10CC969AB3FEIn the last moments of my first use of the Winter’s hearth, I cleanse the chasen and chawan, and wipe the residual tea dust from the chashaku with the deep purple silk of my 袱紗 fukusa. Following a final scoop of cold water which is drawn from the mizusashi and placed into the boiling water of the chagama, I slide the lid over the top of the kettle. The sound it produces is a sonorous, metallic ring which acts like a call to closure, marking the end of a moment with tea and heralding the beginning of Winter.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

Remnants of the Year

IMG_3215In the final days of October, Autumn slowly begins to give way to the chill of Winter. The light rain that falls makes patterns on the ground and feels cooler, more biting than it had earlier in the month. The splendor of Autumn’s leaves still hangs in the canopies of trees outside my window, yet some trees begin to look more barren, creating a spotty patchwork of gold, red and green, resembling a monk’s old 袈裟 kesa (priest’s mantle). It is in this time of year that all things born from Spring fade and finally wither away.

In the world of tea, this marks the moment when 茶人 chajin begin to bid farewell to the 風炉 furo, replaced in the following month by the humble 炉 ro. It is also when the last leaves of tea in tea in the tea jar (壺 tsubo), opened the previous year, are used up, bearing only enough 抹茶 matcha for two or three bowls. These remnants (名残 nagori in Japanese) set the tone for these final moments, making each bowl of tea feel as if it may be the last. They are special and somber. Simple and good.

In my tearoom, I’ve set the furo to boil the last kettle of tea I will have for the month. Come November, I will exchange this for an old wooden 火鉢 hibachi (which I use in place of a sunken hearth). As I sift tea into a gourd-shaped lacquer 棗 natsume, I am aware of this change. A year of tea is coming to a close. The warm months are over for now.

IMG_3211Opening up my wooden tea cabinet, I admire the iron fixtures and the hand-worked knobs that are in the shape of chrysanthemum, a flower of Fall.

IMG_3175From this, I pull out a 茶碗 chawan by friend and ceramicist 二階堂明弘 Nikaido Akihiro, one which I had first used at the beginning of Spring. Atop this, I place a bamboo 茶杓 chashaku carved by 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango.

Sitting and waiting for the kettle to come to a boil, I listen to the sound of light rain hitting the windowsill of my tearoom. A moment passes, the sunlight that has crept into my tearoom grows dim. Soon the sound of the boiling 釜 kama begins to mesh with the sound of the rain. Silently I begin to go through the motions of making tea.

BEB2F0BC-4D5F-43A2-98AF-E2893D706EE1The natsume is brought forward and is cleansed. I lift its lathe-turned lid from its body to inspect the mound of powdered green tea.

BD05C918-C553-4C2E-A333-20C55393253DNext, I turn my attention to the implements within the teabowl.

IMG_3216The chashaku is set atop the natsume. The 茶筅 chasen is set beside it. The 茶巾 chakin is removed from the chawan, lightly twisted over the 建水 kensui, refolded, and placed atop the lid of the 水差 mizusashi.

Cleansing both bowl and whisk with the boiling water I draw from the kettle, my body feels at ease with the motions, practiced now for the past six months. How I will have to subtly adjust my hand, the turning of my wrist, the lifting of the 柄杓 hishaku once I put the furo away.

F73C376A-8BF3-4CD0-9B95-7B01DB6D4AD8With the teabowl cleansed, I issue into it the first of three scoops of matcha. The tea powder, soft and fine, feels like the last of the sand running through an hourglass.

0917D9B5-BBC0-4455-91C7-0ACAA3DCAD2CI pour half a ladle’s worth of water into the teabowl and the aroma of tea begins to lift upward. For a moment, the only sound heard in my tearoom is of the whisk moving back and forth as the matcha is transformed into a light, bright foam.

F361A80E-269B-411F-BD38-44FCFB0A9910A freshly prepared bowl of tea sits alongside the rest of the teaware. How the matcha glows off the fired lacquer interior of the chawan. How the remnants of tea powder cling to the chashaku. How the shadows stretch across the plank of wood I use, fading into the serpentine grain. How the charcoal glows in the kama.

There is joy and sadness caught in this moment. In the final withering of the year there is death. Old friends who have passed are recalled. Old memories well up and sit with me. Ghosts of the year are invited for tea. The last leaves of 碾茶 tencha have long since been pulverized into dust.

1FED5E8F-D557-4C7B-BDFA-BD1D5A1AA1B3I lift the bowl as if it were my last and with three hearty sips I imbibe the final vestiges of the previous year’s tea. A thin foam remains against the walls of the teabowl, which I admire for a moment before this, too, is washed away. No turning back.

EE9DCC44-BCF4-4876-81F8-E9BD0C707BD2I wipe the bowl clean and set the utensils within it. Closing the kettle one last time, I slide its bronze lid over its gaping mouth. The sound of metal against metal produces a final resounding knell.

769F5A8F-6A00-4233-BA04-D4A6AA3C96A2As the room returns to a solemn silence, I arrange for a quiet 拝見 haiken. Placing the lacquered natsume and bamboo chashaku next to one another, I admire how they harmonize.

IMG_3213The shape of a gourd to commemorate the harvest.

IMG_3212The small node atop the chashaku’s 節 fushi acting as a reminder to the vitality of nature, preserved and faded by October’s end.

E7429460-A217-4E15-A5B1-7E3487C73A5DI lift the lid of the natsume one last time to view the small landscape of tea within and look upon it as if parting with an old friend.

In the wordless exchange between objects and a season’s end, there lies an answer to a 公案 kōan (Chinese: gōng’àn; Korean: 공안 gong-an; Vietnamese: công án). There is no logic to the feeling of sadness at this moment. What comes when Autumn passes? Do the leaves turn to radiant colors only to wither and rot upon the cold earth? How many cycles around the sun will my life see? Boxed-up and put away, the furo won’t be seen again until the last remnants of Winter wane, to return in Spring. This, as sure as shoots of grass pushing up through the snow.

2 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

The Less Said, the Better: Tea in Remembrance of Bashō.

IMG_2514How does one capture the fleeting essence of a moment? How can words sum-up the feeling of an Autumn’s breeze or the surprise of a falling leaf? How can one connect to a world that seems to grow ever more distant each day?

As a practitioner of tea (茶の湯 chanoyu, 功夫茶 gōng fū chá, and others), I grapple with this regularly. In my practice, whether it is the mindful selecting of teawares, tending to my guests, or the silent contemplation of the seasons, my own inability to capture with words the qualities of a moment is both a challenge and a meditation. During this last weekend, I had the opportunity to engage with this as I organized an informal and solitary tea outing in observation of 芭蕉忌 Bashō-ki.

As a memorial day for the 17th century haiku poet 松尾 芭蕉 Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), I was reminded of his terse and oftentimes frank poetry that sought to humble the reader through describing small vignettes of natural, unfettered everyday occurrences. Using poetry as a means to communicate this, Bashō never sought to elevate a moment through flowery words or diversion. His world, existing on the edge of society and often caught in a melancholic state, summed up, with seventeen syllables alone, the dirt and the dead, the evanescence of Spring’s bright flowers and Autumn’s falling leaves. Always there was change and, always, was the ego in the state of exposing itself.

IMG_2515As I set forth from my apartment to settle underneath a stone arch and maple tree on a brisk mid-October’s day, I brought with me as much and as little as I could hold in my small woven grass tea basket. Limited by the size of the basket, I chose to look upon this moment in the same way Bashō might have composed a haiku. Five-seven-five. The confines of a haiku. Within this can exist an entire universe. Thus, this small box, placed upon the broad expanse of a brocaded cloth, was itself a tiny and infinite universe.

IMG_2510Opened, I looked upon a world of opportunities. A fine 茶杓 chashaku, a deep purple 袱紗 fukusa, an antique ink brush washing pot that will double as a 振出 furidashi, a travel 茶筅 chasen contained in a bamboo tube.

76B8C80E-5EB2-49EA-B62A-44366EF81D57Removing these reveals even more layers. As I unwrap each object, a scene unfolds.

1554EE9D-B412-446A-89E3-D6AB7476AC2FA cloth emblazoned with red and white 紅葉 momiji conceals a hidden jewel.

0EADE223-F1CF-4C9B-9F42-F420F5356905An old lacquer 棗 natsume with a simple 壺 tsubo motif.

177D79A0-9BD6-4CB2-A7FA-A612D337BB7CA small dark red 茶碗 chawan.

D38E98C2-D58D-4992-9B41-0AA7F65E9391A monk’s old wooden eating bowl.

A863EB7F-AC34-4C3F-B295-04E71C3DE516In the shifting breezes of the daytime, I began to arrange the objects in front of me. Tea container and tea whisk. Chasen and chawan. Each were purified before I began to make tea.

F9EC0BAE-343A-4233-AFBA-A02EA474A225As I moved through these wordless motions, a passerby walked by and I invited them to join me. Curious, they asked about the unusual furidashi. Upon describing its use and origin, I removed its lid and tapped-out three red 枸杞 góuqǐ (goji berries) onto a curled maple leaf.

D1D3B351-ACEB-46F3-B671-CB55704A72D1As they enjoyed the dried fruit, I began to make them a bowl of 薄茶 usucha. Lifting three scoops of 抹茶 matcha powder from the natsume, I became highly aware of the shifting winds. Small flecks of matcha powder blew off each tiny mound I placed into the center of the bowl.

IMG_2511Resting the small bamboo chasen atop the small hill of tea, I then poured a thin stream of hot water from my thermos into the teabowl.

IMG_2512The soft scent of Fall leaves mingled with the bright aroma of tea. As I whisked the tea, leaves continued to blow around both me and my guest. Gusts of wind moved a collection of idle leaves around the brocaded tea cloth, floating and spinning as if caught in a dance.

344A4DCD-B69F-4E0F-8AD8-A43A4CD87966As they settled I lifted the whisk from the teabowl and for a moment we enjoyed the silent vignette of a bowl of tea and fallen leaves. How these told us of the changing season. How this moment spoke volumes. How a tiny bowl of tea captured a wordless dialogue between host and guest.

IMG_2517In both the practice of tea and in the works of Bashō, one is offered the opportunity to merge with the natural world and to forget the self. The leaves. The trees. The sound of water collecting in the wooden 建水 kensui. The feeling of wind fluttering against one’s sleeves. With nothing elaborate present, the mind has nothing to cling to. Straight-forward words. A humble bowl of tea. We can read into each a freedom that is gained when we unhinge ourselves from our egoic mind, accepting things as they truly are. In Japanese, this may be called 無我 muga, an act of self-renunciation.

IMG_2516In this moment, on this brisk mid-October day, two minds connect, tea is shared, and something unspoken is understood. The less said, the better.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Poetry, Tea

Tea on a Rainy Day

IMG_2257There’s something about a cold, rainy October day that inspires me to want to make tea. The crisp air, grey skies, the sound of rain hitting against the window of my tearoom. All of this seems to come together and quiet the mind. Brewing tea seems to naturally follow.

Rain is not always ideal for tea. I can remember when I made my first trip to a tea farm, I was caught in a torrential downpour as I was climbing Jirisan, one of Korea’s oldest tea-producing regions. As I clamored towards a tea master’s home, I was told that no tea was being harvested that day. “Good tea,” the tea master informed me, “was not picked on rainy days.” Rather than witness tea picking and processing, the master sat me down and prepared for me a delicious cup of tea. Rainy days were, as it turned out, perfect days for enjoying tea.

IMG_2334As I sit in my tearoom, enjoying my forced sequestering due to inclement weather outside, I’m reminded of this early tea memory. Inspired, I set my large iron kettle to boil and pull forth a small, tea-filled celadon 香合 kōgō, itself a reproduction ancient Korean 고려/高麗 Goryeo period (918-1392) inlay celadon container.

4C87D024-9041-46AF-83E1-CC78E4BA6344Setting this aside with a cut bamboo teascoop, I put together a traditional set of 분청사기 buncheong-jagi tea ceramics: three small teacups, a side-handle teapot, and a 숙우 sookwoo. Like the rain outside my window, the there is a certain rhythm to the preparation of Korean tea.

IMG_2335First, water is brought to the perfect “ripeness”, indicated by it coming from an audible rolling boil to a quiet, energetic simmer. Once achieved, a small amount is scooped out from the kettle with a lacquered gourd.

D53124A4-11EA-40F1-AC32-188374862F3FFrom the gourd, the water is poured into the sookwoo. I pause and let the water warm the open vessel.

7EA07296-CCFF-4ABA-BE67-AE9158C16694The lid of the teapot is removed and the hot water is transferred from the sookwoo into the teapot. As the teapot warms, I once again pour water into the sookwoo. I wait for a brief moment and then water is poured from teapot to teacups.

B9EDDEA1-F5AF-425E-8755-8EE3750012D1As the cups warm, I open the wide lid of the celadon kōgō and I carefully place the long, dark, wiry leaves of a semi-oxidized 발효차 balhyocha atop the concave side of the bamboo tea scoop.

A9B8082C-2E60-4E4B-BEA1-76B40CDF1609The leaves are then placed into the warmed teapot.

08BEC89B-3688-4F44-9A1D-DAC6BA0E8ECAWith every inward action, I breathe in. With every outward action, I exhale out. As I reach down to the sookwoo, I exhale. I inhale as I lift it towards my center. With a drawn out exhalation, I pour the water into the teapot. I pause and inhale. As I set the sookwoo down, I exhale. As I draw the lid of the teapot inward towards me, I inhale, enjoying the warm, fleeting aroma of the balhyocha.

FCF370D5-0155-4C04-90DF-A733BD9B8930As I exhale, I gently place the small grey ceramic lid atop the opening of teapot. I wait and, as I do so, I hear the sound of rain growing louder. As the rhythm of the rain quickens, I bring each teacup towards me and empty the warm water from them. This, in turn, echoes the sound of water outside, bright and refreshing.

IMG_2341Once emptied and placed back onto the wooden tea table, I reach back to grasp the teapot, pouring its contents into the now vacant teacups.

54D34264-ED92-43FB-8775-ED6F6DAE888DLifting the lid from the teapot, I let the tea leaves cool, enjoying, yet again, their aroma, this time transformed by the passing of time and the sustained heat of their brewing.

6FDDCE99-5A86-46BA-841F-E787FF039F3CWith the sound of the storm keeping steady outside my window, I sit and quietly admire the color of the first steeping and the quietness of the boiling water as it once again reaches its perfect ripeness.

IMG_2339One steeping turns to two, two into a third, and then countless more. The rich amber hue of the first brew deepens with the second and continues to darken with the third and fourth. The earthy and organic notes of boiled chestnut and baked apples evolve into bright, high tones of raw honey and the sweet pith of roasted pumpkin, eventually quieting into a subtler and more elusive flavor akin to aromatic pine resin.

IMG_2336All said, I exhaust myself before I exhaust the tea and as the storm lifts, I empty the teapot to view the leaves, still warm and steaming. What were once thin, twisted spindles have since unfurled into uniformly russet leaves.

IMG_2337Like the storm that passed and the rain that presided over much of my day, the tea may be done, though its sweet memory and complex flavors still linger. I am left only to wait for another rainy day.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, Education, Hongcha, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Tea for a Sunset and Autumn Rain

IMG_2201A week has passed and gone now are the even-measured days of Autumn’s equinox. In its place are nights that creep in sooner, more gently, rolling over the waning daylight like a soft purple quilt, warm and pleasant. On a day met by a light Autumn rain, I keep myself indoors, holed-up beside my iron brazier and bubbling kettle, their tune harmonizing with the gusts of wind and the sound of raindrops on my windowsill.

E59E1F05-8A0E-4116-98E4-B6BE55A708FEAs the light of dusk fades, I produce a simple collection of wares: a half-broken tea boat, a sandy-colored teapot, a jade archer’s ring for a lid rest, and two plain Korean vessels, one for pouring, another for drinking. In this warm light of sundown, the tiny space of my tearoom glows with shifting hues of amber, copper, and the smoldering red tip of an incense stick.

IMG_2221As I wait for the incense to burn down, I watch the light of day fade and quiet across the soft pages from a book of verses I read until I can no longer make out the words.

61473BB2-4BA8-4910-A874-4418F6591314As steam rises from the kettle’s spout and its iron lid begins to chatter, I pull forth a cake of tea, resting it atop the wooden plank that is my tea table. A myriad of colors, a mess of twisted leaves all pressed into on another.

D9931783-6303-454E-B403-C090A8463DA9With a dull knife I break some free and set them into the empty void of the open teapot.

155B6781-714B-42B7-9854-316586FD4F66As I tilt my kettle, water gushes out, boiling-over and onto the compressed tea. The leafy fragment tumbles and bobs, settles and breathes to the sound of the rain.

352E95D1-CD09-4F51-9DE5-4F91CE86FAA8Closing the lid of the teapot, I wait and the light of the day shifts deeper into darkness. I sit and focus my gaze onto the tiny pot, waiting for its color to change, waiting for the liquid to pull down into its hand-carved spout.

459C9A0C-5554-4E03-9FB0-16F8CF25545CAs I wait, I see the cracks upon the surface of the ceramic teaboat. Cracks that were born through the kiln’s fire and through daily use, through five hundred years of age. Broken and pitted like Autumn’s leaves.

IMG_2222Broken and uneven like a cake of tea. Loved and cared for despite its imperfections. Exalted and used for its function.

90EFEF11-4F4F-4BBF-8698-5BA2AA96A000I end my pause and pour out the tea from pot to serving vessel. A rich tawny bronze liqueur and a complex aroma of tangled vegetation.

6363EDA4-50D6-4285-9926-395E165CB778Tea and teapot sits and cools as daylight finally fade.

0063DBF8-7FE7-49A5-8A28-45DD41A28332A single teacup to be enjoyed alone as I light a candle and greet the night.

 

****

As I finished this piece, I continued to brew tea long into the night. Upon waking, I thought if there might happen to have been a poet from long ago who may have enjoyed a similar moment (with tea or not). To my joy, there was a poem by Tang period (618-907) poet 白居易 Bái Jūyì (772–846). I leave you the original version and translation (provided by Chinese Poems, linked here).

IMG_2223

秋雨夜眠

涼冷三秋夜,
安閒一老翁。
臥遲燈滅後,
睡美雨聲中。
灰宿溫瓶火,
香添暖被籠。
曉晴寒未起,
霜葉滿階紅。

Qiūyǔ yè mián

Liáng lěng sānqiū yè,
ānxián yī lǎowēng.
Wò chí dēng miè hòu,
shuì měiyǔ shēng zhōng.
Huī sù wēn píng huǒ,
xiāng tiān nuǎn bèi lóng.
Xiǎo qíng hán wèi qǐ,
shuāng yèmǎnjiē hóng.

Sleeping on a Night of Autumn Rain

It’s cold this night in autumn’s third month,
Peacefully within, a lone old man.
He lies down late, the lamp already gone out,
And beautifully sleeps amid the sound of rain.
The ash inside the vessel still warm from the fire,
Its fragrance increases the warmth of quilt and covers.
When dawn comes, clear and cold, he does not rise,
The red frosted leaves cover the steps.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, China, History, Incense, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting

Autumn Cools and the Brazier Moves Closer to the Guest

IMG_2164Nothing seems to sum up the spirit of tea more than the movement of the brazier. In Summer, the 風炉 furo (portable “wind brazier”) is brought out and placed far from the guest, with the 水差 mizusashi (cool water container) placed between them. Yet, as Autumn continues and the weather cools, the host brings the brazier closer, setting it in the center of the 道具畳 dōgu-datami (lit. “mat upon which the teaware is placed”), and moving the mizusashi away from the guest. The effect of this arrangement, called 中置 nakaoki (lit. “center placement“), creates both a visual and physical inference of warmth, as the gentle heat radiating from the furo can now be felt by the guest. This subtle rearranging of the brazier, which only lasts for the final weeks of Autumn, perfectly articulates the ethos of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony): a tenderness to the seasons and to the guest, regarding all aspects (visual, physical, spatial, temporal, emotional, and spiritual).

As Autumn takes hold of New York City, the air begins to chill and fresh breezes pull leaves from the trees, scattering them and blanketing the streets with a tapestry of gold, ocher and crimson. Even on the most busy of days, the settling of tumbling leaves brings a sense of calm to the mind, offering a moment to meditate on all that will pass in this season, this year, and this lifetime.

IMG_2162In the tearoom, this motion and stillness is felt as I position my antique furo and 茶釜 chagama (spoutless kettle) to the center of the host position. To my left, I place a tall, slender 鬼萩 Oni Hagi (lit. “Demon Hagi”) mizusashi.

IMG_2160As my guest arrives, the soft scent of incense lingers in the air. As they enter the tearoom, the sound of the kettle creates a calming sense of emptiness. In the alcove, a small orange chrysanthemum is paired with an unadorned wooden incense container. As host, I leave my guest to sit and take in the many aspects of the space, turning a moment’s pause into a quiet meditation.

IMG_2163Pushing open the door, I greet my guest and approach them, offering a tea sweet before I bring out the assembled teaware to prepare a bowl of 抹茶 matcha (“powdered tea”). Set before the now vacant side of the furo, I place a small grey 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan (“Ido teabowl”) and a small, iridescent 若狭塗棗 Wakasa-nuri natsume (“Wakasa lacquer tea caddy”), its spangled surface of red, gold, green and black perfectly mirroring the changing leaves of late Autumn.

A2B7A795-516E-4912-BAC7-6C277B76BFBBAccompanied to the sound of bubbling water, I set about cleansing each item, placing them into position to make a bowl of tea. The teabowl is moved before the rough wooden 敷板 shiki-ita (the board that goes under the furo), itself a section of old floorboard from a since-destroyed Victorian farmhouse.

19A8D526-1F49-465D-98F9-68C03DF53D1DThe lacquer natsume and bamboo 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop), once purified by my purple silk 袱紗 fukusa (a silk cloth for cleansing teaware), are set a measured distance beside this.

06CF018A-3ECF-4612-8ED8-32FD7CB2480DOnce cleansed and warmed by the water from the chagama, the Ido chawan shines with muted tones of sky blue, soft slate and the grey of a cold Autumnal day.

IMG_2161I motion to my guest that they may enjoy their tea sweet, a seasonal 栗羊羹 kuri yōkan (sweet bean jelly with chestnut).

E370E1E9-6B6D-4454-B70B-2268B8A8F781Three scoops of bright green matcha powder are issued out into the center of the bowl, placed one on top of the other, into the recess of the swirl-shaped 茶溜まり chadamari (lit. “tea pool”).

5D08DC5A-1608-4D6E-AEF7-E18FC200F26CPlacing the chashaku back atop the lid of the natsume, I pour a half-ladle’s worth of hot water into the teabowl and begin to whisk the tea.

F17E415A-AE00-4776-B769-3ACBC1F8659CThe bright foam produced appears soft and slightly domed. The circumference of the teabowl and apex of this dome appear perfectly in line with the center axis of the furo and dōgu-datami. This line, in turn, continues on through the center of my body. At this moment, time, space, objects, and intention are all aligned.

D0CBF752-7F38-42D3-B9EE-479509AB8B8ALifting the bowl, I turn to offer it to my guest. We both pause and bow, and for a moment, only the boiling kettle can be heard.

7D96198E-2809-414B-B433-051861120443As I turn once again towards the furo, my guest lifts the bowl and drinks the tea. Once fully enjoyed, they take a moment to hold the bowl, inspecting both its interior and the unctuous glaze on its exterior.

C5E89986-56ED-46BF-8FB8-6B0F318772C3Afterwards, the bowl is returned and I set about cleaning it one last time.

As we both sit in the still world of the tearoom, both host and guest enjoy the pleasant warmth of the brazier. Moved closer to the guest in accordance with Autumn’s growing chill, this marks yet another change seen during the year. In a few weeks, this too shall change. Autumn’s leaves will have been blown from the trees, leaving them bare as Winter settles in. The furo, too, will be put away, replaced by the sunken hearth of the cold season.

2 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea