With 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.
Harvested 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.
For 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.
On 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.
Entering 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.
As 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.
Next 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.
I 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.
To prepare the bowl of koicha, I first dig-out three scoops of tea from the chaire.
Finally, 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.
Pouring 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.
Lifting the tea whisk from the finished bowl of koicha, thick tea liquid still clings to its cut bamboo tines.
Peering 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.
Finally whisked, I pass the chawan back to my guest and with three hearty sips they finish the bowl of tea.
For 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?
Cleansing 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.
In 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.
Implements for understanding time and space. Cutting through each moment fearlessly.
Opening 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.