Monthly Archives: July 2019

Clay and Kiln. Wood and Leaves.

There is a sort of meditation that naturally arises from making tea. I’ve tried to ignore it and cannot. It is unavoidable. It is the meditation on change. You put leaves in a vessel. You bring water to a boil. You steep the tea until it offers up its flavor, until it cannot offer any more. The aroma and notes that play on the air and in the mouth come and slowly fade into nothing. Into memories. Over time, these too may pass.

This ebb and flow of actions, of movement and resting, of coming forth and waning into ether are mirrored in the material affects of tea too. It is in the way the clay of an old teabowl was once locked within the earth, formed in the hand of the potter, fired in a furnace, brought into this world and has since, by chance, lasted for generations. It is how the forces of heat and flame bring rise to vibrant reds and earthy greens, turning glaze to glass and clay to stone.

I sit with this as I sit for tea, pairing a newly-acquired antique 宝瓶 hōhin (handless teapot) from the kiln of 信楽 Shigaraki with an ancient Chinese teabowl.

Together with these I place a wooden teascoop, made from a branch of an old gnarled tree.

Once turned over, the rough, sinuous exterior gives way to a smooth and shaped interior, revealing the flame-like colors of heartwood. In turn, this vibrancy was kept in suspension through the artist’s application of a thin layer of translucent lacquer.

Onto this void I place the twisted leaves of an ancient tea tree, 景迈古樹生茶 Jǐngmài gǔshù shēng chá, a fresh, raw puer tea from Jǐngmài in southern Yúnnán, purportedly from tea trees several hundred years old.

For a moment I admire the contrast of leaves upon wood until this, too, shifts as I follow by placing the tea within the warmed stoneware vessel.

Pouring boiling water atop the leaves begins the process of brewing, causing them to slowly unfurl, returning them to a state which closely resembles when they were once alive atop an ancient arbor.

With the lid set over the hōhin, the tea continues to brew until the desired flavors have been expressed.

Emptied, the leaves appear caught in mid-phase, somewhere between tightly-curled and fully-opened.

Peering into the wide expanse of the shallow teabowl, the color of the tea is a soft, amber hue. A gentle aroma lifts from the surface of the liqueur. A complex flavor invites my senses to explore the depths of the lush forests from which this tea was grown.

How much it has changed since when it was but a seed. How much it has developed over the many years it grew. From this came leaves which were labored over by countless people, which now I have just begun the process of understanding.

Caught in constant change. From clay to kiln. From wood to leaves. Moment after moment, a meditation.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Japan, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting

In the Mountains on a Summer Day

As the apex of Summer’s heat lingers on in late July, seeking solace from the sun is paramount. Since ancient times, hermit poets wrote of this, sometimes going to extremes measures to avoid the heat. As the temperature climbed higher, so too did these solitary eccentrics, disappearing into the mountains, where even in Summer, they could hide in the mist, enjoy the coolness of mountain streams, and relax to the sound of wind rushing through the pines. In their pursuit to escape the oppressive forces of society and overbearing governments, they also found a respite from the tyranny of Summer’s heat.

In his poem 《夏日山中》”Xià Rì Shān Zhōng” (“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”), Tang period poet 李白 Lǐ Bái (701-762) wrote of his attempts to evade the heat at Summer’s peak, sitting naked in the mountains, with barely enough energy to fan himself. His only relief coming from a light breeze that pushes through the pine trees.

As I find myself sequestered in my tree-top apartment in New York City, looking down on the forest outside my window, I can see the shimmering waves of heat rising from the concrete below. Rolling-down the shades to block-out the sun, the heat still enters the space of my tearoom.

To escape this, I set my clay kettle to boil and assemble a tea set together. A small antique Japanese blue-and-white porcelain teapot from the early 1900s set atop a 染付 sometsuke plate. I pair this with a contemporary Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel). The overall effect is exceedingly casual, in keeping with the sense of relaxation I am hoping to achieve.

Epitomizing this intention, however, is my choice of tea: a fresh 鴨屎香鳳凰單烏龍茶 Yā shǐ xiāng fènghuáng dān wūlóngchá (lit. “duck shit fragrance phoenix single grove oolong tea”). Originally given a vulgar name by a tea farmer who sought not to share his most prized tea, quintessentially “Duck Shit” oolong is a balanced, full-flavored tea. Long, wiry leaves bear the evidence of mid-oxidation, with shades of dark red, earthy olive, and the blue-black color of a crow’s plumage.

Once saturated by the hot water from my kettle, the tea awakens and begins to release its flavor and golden liqueur.

Brewing this tea in the particular manner native to the region of Chaozhou, I let the time pass, allowing the high heat of the boiled water to access every layer of flavor found within the tea leaves.

Once fully decanted, the resting tea reveals a spectrum of colors that once were dormant.

Leafy tendrils edged in crimson, copper, emerald, and rust elude to the flavors developed by the partnership of nature’s forces and the skilled hand of the tea master.

Set against the matte grey of the sookwoo, the brilliant color of tea radiates like the golden sun outside my tearoom window.

I take a moment to pause and pour from sookwoo to small cup. Fleeting flavors escape into the air, hinting to the tea’s qualities.

Lifting the buncheong-jagi cup to my lips, I hesitate before sipping, appreciating the rich aromas akin to a field of flowers, of juicy tropical fruits, of a deep verdant forest in Summer’s heat. Finally, I savor the bright liqueur of this fine tea, awash in piquant floral notes, the flavor of ripe longan and sweet honey, followed by the bitterness of orange peel and the soft astringency of a pomelo. The warmth of sunshine, the abundant complexity of mountain air, and the lushness of a forest holding-back the sweltering heat of a Summer’s day caught in a cup.

Joining the poets of old in their pursuit to escape to the wooded peaks during the height of Summer, I slack my thirst alone, enjoying my solitude save for the company of tea.

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If you would like to read Lǐ Bái’s poem “In the Mountains on a Summer Day”, I’ve provided a copy below, along with translation by retired politician and scholar of poetry 黃宏發 Huáng Hóngfā (Andrew W. F. Wong).

《夏日山中》

懶搖白羽扇,裸袒青林中。

脫巾掛石壁,露頂灑松風。

“Xià rì shānzhōng”

Lǎn yáo bái yǔshàn, luǒ tǎn qīng lín zhōng.

Tuō jīn guà shíbì, lù dǐng sǎ sōngfēng.

“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”

The white feather fan too lazy to use,

In the green grove I simply go naked.

Off with the head scarf, hang on a stone wall,

Revelling in the pine breeze bare-headed.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Japan, Korea, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

Big Heat: Tea at Summer’s Peak

As July comes to a close the heat of Summer climbs evermore. In the twenty-four seasonal points of the traditional Japanese calendar, this moment is called 大暑 tai-sho, literally “big heat”. As breezes calm, rain subsides, and shadows offer no respite from the heat of the day, to make a bowl of tea can seem counterproductive in assuaging the high temperatures of Summer’s apex. Yet, here, too, one can find relief.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu, Summer is eagerly met by tea people with the opportunity to induce upon their guests a sense of coolness. Through creative means, the host will make subtle changes to the tearoom to evoke a sense of lightness into the space.

As I sit for tea today, I select a low-slung and irregularly-shaped 黒織部 kuro-Oribe (“black Oribe”) 沓形茶碗 kutsu-gata chawan (lit. “clog-shaped” teabowl).

For a tea container, I choose a 切子 kiriko cut crystal cup, atop which I place a light piece of smoothed and lacquered wood to act as a well-fitted lid. Through its transparent faceted walls radiates the bright, refreshing color of 抹茶 matcha tea.

The slick surface of the black teabowl and accompanying 茶巾 chakin (linen tea cloth) and bamboo teascoop offer refreshing layers of contrasting textures, evoking the coolness of a bamboo grove following a Summer’s rain.

Set alone after its purification, the oblong chawan seems more natural than handcrafted, resembling a slick flagstone or deep pool of water.

To my attending guest, I offer up ice-like pieces of わらび餅 warabi-mochi atop a cut-glass plate, itself in the shape of a folding fan.

As my guest begins to enjoy the refreshing tea sweet, I begin to prepare a bowl of tea, measuring-out three scoops of matcha from the crystal tea container.

As is done in Summer, I lay the 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk) over the mound of powdered tea.

Doing this produces a bit of an obstacle for the hot water as it is poured into the chawan, resulting in a gentle sound of liquid passing through the tines of the bamboo whisk and allowing small droplets to collect on their thin blades.

Whisking of the tea in the kutsu-geta chawan feels considerably different than a typical tea bowl; its flat bottom and overall organic form creating an enjoyable challenge for me to overcome.

Once whipped into a bright foam, the tea quickly begins to cool. Passed to my guest, they are able to enjoy a rare treat: hot tea served during 土用 doyō (the “dog days” of Summer).

To quash the heat of the day with a warm bowl of tea. To induce a sense of coolness as the temperature has reached its peak. This challenge and opportunity lies at the heart of tea practice in chanoyu.

Rinsing and cleansing the tea implements one last time, we both notice the subtle changes that have arisen. The light of the day has shifted. The sound of a wind chime rings in the distance. The song of an ice cream truck rolling through some far-off neighborhood. And yet, the heat of the Summer seems to have faded in our minds.

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

In Morning When the Lotus Bloom

With mid-July comes 小暑 shōsho (“minor heat”), the week’s that precede the hottest part of Summer. Even so, the heat of the day is hard to bear, leaving tea people to want to gather in the early morning.

In the dim light of dawn, a sense of coolness pervades, the muted colors and dark pools of shadow paring down the environment to its essentials. In the tearoom, this continues, with only the bare minimum used. A teabowl, a bamboo 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk), a well bucket containing cool water.

On this morning, as a light rain aids in keeping down the heat, I bring into the tearoom a small porcelain tea container from the 景德鎮 Jǐngdézhèn kiln, upon which blossoming lotus flowers have been painted in a deep cobalt blue. For my guest, this becomes a subtle nod that in July lotus viewing tea gatherings (蓮見の茶 hasu-mi no cha) are held in the early morning, right at the moment the floating aquatic flowers begin to bloom.

Holding it in my hand, I purify the porcelain container, the soft silk of the 仕服 shifuku gliding off its smooth surface.

Next I cleanse the 茶杓 chashaku.

I take pause, to let myself and the guest appreciate the bamboo of the teascoop, its skin dappled with tiny spots which resemble light rain.

Finally, I cleanse the teabowl, an antique 萩焼茶碗 Hagi-yaki chawan, the color of which is similar to the light blush pink of a lotus bud.

Placing the first scoop of tea into the teabowl feels like entering into a dark cavern; the dawn producing voluminous swaths of glowing light and soft shadows.

Whisking the tea into a foam, I can’t help but to peer down into the teabowl, appreciating the low peaks and minute textures that give rise.

Finished and ready for my guest, we sit to enjoy the glowing presence of the 抹茶 matcha, itself, like a blossoming lotus, fragrant and electric.

Quietly enjoyed, the teabowl is returned to be cleansed once again, a thin residue of tea foam still clinging to its interior.

Concluding the tea gathering becomes its own meditation. The sound of the 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle), the light patter of rain, the shifting of silk over the chashaku once more.

A final appreciation of the teaware and the light of the day begins to creep through the screen of 簾 sudare (woven blinds made of reeds).

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A Rancid Old Crock Peddling Roadside Tea: Tea and the Memory of Baisaō.

On the sixteenth day of the seventh month of the era 宝暦 Hōreki (October 1751-June 1764), an old, hollow-cheeked man passed quietly into death. What he left to the world were primarily words scrawled on pieces of paper and memories collected by his closest friends. His only worldly belongings of any value, of which he had carried for years on his own back, had already been set ablaze by his own hand years before. Dying with the name 高遊外 Ko Yūgai, the man who died this day centuries ago was none other than the famed master of 煎茶 sencha, 売茶翁 Baisaō (the “Old Tea Seller”, 1675–1763).

A former monk of the 黄檗 Ōbaku school of Zen Buddhism, Baisaō would become famous for traveling around the hills of Kyōto selling tea, and imparting mindful (if not often gruff and self-effacing) reflections upon those whom he would share tea with. Breaking from the time-honored tradition of whisked powdered tea (抹茶 matcha) that had become a mainstay of Japan’s elite during the Edo period (1603-1868), Baisaō brewed sencha, a new style of whole leaf green tea that came to Japan through the influence of Ming China (1368-1644).

Baisaō lived much of his life in abject poverty, never asking for money in exchange for the many cups of tea he poured or the calligraphy he wrote. Considered an eccentric for his unorthodox way of asceticism, he attracted the attention of Kyōto artists, writers, poets and aesthetes, all of whom were drawn to his simple lifestyle spent in appreciation of tea. Despite his popularity, Baisaō refused to establish a formal school of tea in his own lifetime, preferring to leave no trace.

Upon his retirement from selling tea, he famously burned his belongings. In the poem he offered to the remembrance of his bamboo basket named 僊窠 Senka (“Den of the Sages”), he mused “After the world-ending kalpa fires consume all things, Won’t the emerald hills still soar into the white clouds? With these words I commit you to the flames.”

Following his death, Baisaō’s tea practice would become the foundation upon which later practitioners of 煎茶道 senchadō (“Way of sencha) would emulate. Over time, his influence led to the popularization of sencha, both as a more accessible form of tea and as an alternative to the formalism of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony).

Baisaō wrote of himself “Years ago old Tu-chan predicted I’d be a great Dharma vessel, sixty-nine years come and gone, time it takes to crook a finger, wouldn’t he laugh to see me now, a rancid old crock peddling roadside tea.”

As I spend the morning in meditation on this, on the sixteenth day of the seventh month, I decide to commemorate the life of Baisaō in a way he may (or may not) have deemed fit. With a small clay kettle coming to a simmering boil atop a small brazier, I ready my teaware. An old sencha set I found years ago when I, much like Baisaō, had been living a life of chosen poverty in San Francisco. The tiny 宝瓶 hōhin (handless teapot) and 湯冷まし yuzamashi (water cooling vessel) sitting before me.

Five small cups, turned upside-down, waiting to be cleansed.

A small celadon sweets caddy in the shape of a gourd as a tea container. A cut piece of bamboo inscribed with a poem to measure tea leaves. Hammered plates of copper to rest tea cups upon.

Pouring a small amount of boiled water into the yuzamashi, I let the water cool and warm the uneven shape of the ceramic tea object before I empty it out into the hōhin and then into the cups.

A small amount of tea is measured out from the celadon jar into the open void of the bamboo scoop. The leaves of this particular 冠茶 kabusecha (a partially shade-grown style of green tea) are a deep emerald.

Tilting the scoop downward, I let the leaves slide into the warmth of the open and empty hōhin.

The heat from the ceramic begins to activate the aroma of tea, which now, alongside the gentle scent of incense, begins to waft throughout the room.

Slowly I pour cooled water over the leaves and set the lid atop the tea vessel to steep the tea. Within a few seconds I begin decanting, pouring the tea into each cup.

Once emptied, I place the hōhin back down, lifting the lid off to allow the tea to breathe.

With a single mind, enjoying the moment at hand, I set each cup atop their copper rest. As I sit and sip the refreshing tea from the tiny earthenware cup, enjoying its lush flavors and long finish, I give pause and meditate on the life of this old master, on his will to leave no trace, and of the ripples he set into motion which are still felt today. As Baisaō said himself, “I offer a taste of my one cup tea, a Dharma transmission worked out on my own.”

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If you would like to learn more about Baisaō, I highly recommend Norman Waddell’s 2008 book “The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto”. Throughout this article I’ve sourced information and translations from this wonderful text.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Poetry, Sencha, Tea

Two Magpies

This week saw the coming and going of the seventh day of the seventh month of the year. Throughout East Asia, this day is celebrated, each culture with its own observation. In China, 7/7 marks 七夕 Qīxī (“Evening of Sevens”, Tanabata in Japanese, Chilseok in Korean).

In the ancient mythology that describes this day, lovers 織女 Zhīnǚ (the star Vega) and 牛郎 Niúlán (the star Altair) were not allowed to love one another. Banished to the opposite sides of the 天河 Tiānhé (“Heavenly River”, the Milky Way), they were only allowed to join on the seventh day of the seventh month. It is said that on this day a bridge made from a flock of magpies would span across the Heavenly River, allowing the two lovers to meet.

In Chinese symbolism, the magpie is believed to be the bringer of joy. The word of magpie, 喜鵲 xǐquè, contains the word “joy” (喜 ). In Chinese art, when two magpies are seen together, they are supposed to represent “double happiness”, a wish for eternal happiness between lovers.

On 7/7, while I spent the morning preparing a bowl of 抹茶 matcha in observance of Tanabata, I spent the remainder of the day enjoying steeped tea in observation of Qīxī. As this day is sometimes called “Chinese Valentines Day”, I opted to use a pair of antique celadon 蓋碗 gàiwǎn (lidded tea cups), each of which were decorated with images of two magpies.

Made during the late 清 Qīng to early Republican (中華民國 Zhōnghuá mínguó) period (1880s-1920s), the two gàiwǎn, like the magpies painted upon them, had been kept together. Originally the two tea vessels would have probably have been given to a married couple, the image of the two magpies acting as a visual wish for perpetual happiness. Used on Qīxī, the two gàiwǎn reunited again, across space and time, to make tea together.

Recently arrived from China, I place the thin, wiry leaves of a 杏仁香鳳凰單欉 Xìngrén xiāng fènghuáng dān cóng (“almond fragrance phoenix single grove”) carefully into the two tea vessels.

Entering into the empty and warmed gàiwǎn, this lets off a subtle hint of the flavor the oolong tea has to offer.

Finally, with the water used from the morning’s tea gathering, I begin the quiet process of brewing tea. The pale color of tea liqueur begins to steep-out from the unfurling tea leaves. The soft green-blue color of celadon darkening as the tea continues to brew.

Placing the painted lid atop each cup, I let the tea sit and strengthen. Time passes, the silence of the interim pause offering a moment to reflect on the meaning of love. Who had enjoyed these cups together before? How long was their happiness shared? A lifetime of love one can only wish for. Perpetual happiness.

I tilt back the lid of one of the gàiwǎn to reveal the deepening color of tea. Slowly I sip from my cup, and offer the other to my partner.

Once emptied of their liquid, the tea sits ready again, all that remains is the fleeting, quiet flavor of crisp, bitter almonds, soft on the palate.

As it often does, one cup becomes two, two becomes three, and countless cups come from this wedded pair. Cups that bring joy. Two magpies joining each other over time and space. On this, the seventh day of the seventh month.

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To note (for all you who know your traditional Chinese lunar calendar), the date which 七夕 Qīxī falls on changes every year. In 2019, it falls on August 7th. That said, stay tuned for when tea is made on this day… More to come!

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Meditation, Oolong, Tea

For Star Festival, a Leaf for a Lid

On the seventh day of the seventh month, Japan celebrates 七夕祭 Tanabata matsuri (“Star Festival” or “Festival of the Weaver”). Based on the ancient Chinese legend that stars Vega and Altair were married, but could only meet once a year. The two stars, separated by the Milky Way, were said to be able to meet on this day.

In Japan, this coincides with a Shinto purification ritual in which a special ritual garment was woven on a loom called tanabata (棚機), which would be offered to a god for the protection of rice crops. On this day, people also affix strips of paper with wishes written upon them to bamboo.

In tea, many traditions exist to observe this day. In my own practice, I cannot help but to play off of this multitude of customs. In the 宗徧流 Sōhen-ryū school of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), a mulberry leaf is used as a lid for the 水差 mizusashi (cold water jar) on this day in a practice called 葉蓋点前 habuta-temae (lit. “leaf lid procedure”).

With mulberry leaves being linked to silk weaving, and since July 7th is typically a warm day, I cannot help but enjoy the meaningful and refreshing presence a broad, verdant mulberry leaf in the tearoom. For a mizusashi, I opt for a contemporary piece of glassware.

For a teabowl, I select a 刷毛目唐津茶碗 hakeme Karatsu chawan (brushed slip Karatsu teabowl), the marks upon which look like the cloudy swath of the Milky Way. For a tea container, I select a 若狭塗棗 Wakasa-nuri natsume (“Wakasa lacquer tea caddy”), the layers of sparkling lacquer looking like swirling nebulas or refreshing pools of water. Even the 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) appears to have a bright patch of glowing stars against a dark field of bamboo.

Purifying the teaware brings a sense of freshness to the tea space.

The teabowl, slick with water, is cooling.

Adding 抹茶 matcha into its center releases the fresh aroma of tea.

As I whisk the tea into a soft, bright foam, my guest is treated to a seasonal tea sweet.

Set into a translucent jelly are two plump loquats. Glowing like two radiant stars, they’ve been set upon a dark green mulberry leaf, of which is resting in a Chinese monochrome celadon bowl.

Finally offering the bowl of tea to my guest, they let the sweet flavor of the candied loquat blend with the deep, rich flavor of matcha.

As we sit and relax for the remainder of the day, time passes slowly. Two stars meet together. Two friends grow closer. No trace of this except for the flavor of tea that lingers, the heat of the day that persists, the cool water that sits in my mizusashi, and the folded mulberry leaf that was used as a lid.

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