In 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.
Opening 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.
From 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.
The natsume is brought forward and is cleansed. I lift its lathe-turned lid from its body to inspect the mound of powdered green tea.
Next, I turn my attention to the implements within the teabowl.
The 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.
With 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.
I 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.
A 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.
I 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.
I 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.
As 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.
The shape of a gourd to commemorate the harvest.
The small node atop the chashaku’s 節 fushi acting as a reminder to the vitality of nature, preserved and faded by October’s end.
I 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.