Years ago, I regularly traveled to Korea. While there, I sought out Korean tea, fell in love with Korean ceramics, and practiced Korean 선 Seon Buddhism. Looking back at this triumvirate of forces I would regularly surround myself with, it was no surprise that they would eventually have their effect on my tea practice. I came back with a small collection of Korean teawares which I put into regular rotation, began drinking Korean teas, and began incorporating aspects of Seon monasticism into my own approach to meditation.
Similarly, my tea practice began to take on the “flavor” of the various styles I had observed when in Korean monasteries. Over time, I stripped-down my equipage, reducing it to the bare essentials.
Colors, too, became more muted, favoring tones of grey, white, celadon, and natural wood. These were the soft hues I had found in the light grey 가사 gasa monastic robes (袈裟 jiāshā in Chinese, kāṣāya in Sanskrit), the papered walls in tearooms, the wooden floorboards in Korean Seon temples. And whenever I incorporated these colors into my tea set up, part of me missed being in Korea.
A package arrived in the mail today. Wrapped carefully inside was a muted-grey teabowl. Quite distinct with its “open” shape, tall 高台 kōdai (“foot”), and unctuous glaze, what emerged from the packaging was a humble antique 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan.
While modest in its appearance, the history behind the Ido chawan reflects a long exchange (sometimes peaceable, sometimes not) between Korea and Japan. Beginning in the 15th century, Korean ceramics from the 조선 Joseon kingdom (1392-1897) were imported to Japan, favored as “daily ware”, especially the durable and highly-functional pieces of 분청사기 buncheong-jagi.
The forms of these wares were often simple yet pure, though not without imperfection, giving the vessels their own distinct character. Colors ranged from light grey to brushed white, ochre, persimmon, and even shades of blue and purple.
Eventually, these “everyday” bowls were brought into use for tea ceremony by the tea masters of the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai (“Period of Warring States”, 1467-1600), favored by practicitioners of 侘び茶 Wabi-cha (“rustic tea”). So popular were Ido chawan during this time that there was a famous saying that states “First Ido, second Raku (楽), third Karatsu (唐津)”. Ido ware was first. Subsequently, since the Sengoku period, Japanese potters began to create their own interpretations of the famous Korean bowls that inspired so many tea people.
Today as I sit to enjoy this Ido chawan for the first time, I can’t help but to want to make a nod to this interconnection between two tea cultures. As such, I choose to inaugurate this bowl in a very special way.
Rather than use a traditional lacquer tea container, I opt to use a Korean Goryeo-style celadon incense container. Instead of using 抹茶 matcha, I fill the container with powdered 쑥 ssuk (mugwort), gifted to me by a dear tea friend in Paris. This choice is intentional as the powdered mugwort was commonly used as a traditional Korean medicine in monasteries, one to increase one’s calmness and even induce lucid dreams. Set together, the celadon container and Ido chawan are harmonious.
Peering into the teabowl with 茶筌 chasen (tea whisk), 茶巾 chakin (tea cloth) and 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop), I am once again reminded of the textures I once enjoyed while traveling through Korea.
Setting each utensil in place, moments of subtle contrast arise. Cut bamboo on crackled celadon.
Motifs of chrysanthemums paired with mugwort.
Three scoops of the powdered herb is placed into the center of the grey bowl.
Afterwards, water is poured into the teabowl and both mugwort and water is whisked into a brilliantly bright foam. The shape of the bowl instantly propels the aroma of this herbal tea up into the tearoom, leaving a soft, crisp scent to linger.
Momentarily I close my eyes and it feels as if I were walking in a field of mugwort. Lifting the bowl to my lips, I draw three sips and finish the bowl of mugwort tea.
Rinsing the bowl, I place it before me to inspect its many subtle features. Its wide, round opening. Its dappled surface. It’s gentle shade of grey and occasional running and pooling of opalescent glaze.
Looking deep into the center, the bowl has a trace mark of the potter’s hand caught in motion as the vessel once spun on a wheel.
Turning the bowl gently over, I inspect the foot of the teabowl. Like all great Ido chawan, this one has the distinct irregularities of where glaze and clay meet, producing unique globular collections of vitrified blue-grey glaze.
To begin an Ido chawan’s life in such a way indelibly marks it. A simple bowl with striking features. An uncommon herbal tea with a link to the herbal medicines of Korean monasteries.
Tea was, and still often is, a melange of influences, of stories, of people and their lives. Where a “common ware” can be exalted as the height of an aesthetic movement and practice. Where two cultures can sit peaceably and share a bowl of tea. And where memories of colors of one’s past can be caught in the briefest of moment; transient and fleeting.