Monthly Archives: December 2019

Forgetting Time

On the final day of the final year of the decade, I find myself not wanting to celebrate in a bombastic manner. In stark contrast to previous years where New Year’s Eve was cause for loud, raucous festivities, my partner and I decided to make the journey from the clamor of New York City to the quietude of rural Delaware and the comfort of a close relative’s home on the banks of the Mispillion River. The attitude here is laid back, calm, pensive. The only thing that seems to shift is the wind that pushes through the pines.

Rather than stress about celebrations, I opt to make a simple bowl of tea for my partner and her aunt to mark the passing of the decade. Wishing to enjoy the waning light of the day, we decide to hold a small tea gathering in the chilly December air.

Upon a small table which has been built out of the scraps of an old wooden fence, I place a simple 盆 bon made of carved burl wood. Atop this are arranged the implements for tea: a vintage 益子焼茶碗 Mashiko-yaki chawan, an old bamboo 茶杓 chashaku, a red and black lacquer 甲赤棗 kōaka natsume.

Angular shadows of the late afternoon and Winter’s sunlight create a shifting landscape across the uneven surface of the old wooden table.

The kōaka natsume, which I tend to only use on days of celebration, looks like a large bright red sun against a pale blue sky.

Once opened, it reveals a low hill of bright green 抹茶 matcha.

As I move from cleansing the lacquered natsume to the implements within the teabowl, I move tea objects around the horizontal plane of the table, from table’s surface to bon.

For my partner’s aunt, who is new to the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, these actions seem as if they are part of some mysterious ritual. However, after the many years I’ve been practicing tea, they are nothing special. My movements are straightforward and direct, without flourish. Nothing fancy. Just enough. Everything I have prepared before, natsume, chashaku, tea whisk and tray are all I need.

The teabowl, the vessel which will convey the tea to my guests, is just that, a vessel. Nothing special.

I draw forth three scoops of matcha from the kōaka natsume, tapping the chashaku along the inside of the teabowl to remove the residual tea powder from its curved tip.

Pouring a measure of hot water from an antique cast iron kettle into the chawan, I whisk the tea into a thick foam.

Passing the bowl to my partner, I pause, listening to the wind pressing through the trees. The soft hum of pine needles shifting in the wind and the sound of an iron bell striking in the distance.

In the last days of the year, we can often feel as if we are working towards some sort of momentous climax. Even more so, we see the end of a decade as some final chapter closing. However, time rarely seems to work this way.

When we make tea, we begin not with the whisking of the tea or the heating of the kettle. It doesn’t even begin when we set up a tea space. Instead, it begins years before this, when we first learn how to make a bowl of tea. Perhaps it begins even earlier, when we first awaken to the mere idea of having tea.

Similarly, the tea gathering does not end when the guest finishes their bowl of matcha nor when the final bow is given between host and guest. It doesn’t seem to ever end. Instead, the tea further seems to meld seamlessly into one’s own tea practice and one’s own life.

Like layers of sand being pushed up, one on top of each other, by the continuous forces of the ocean. There’s no distinguishing between one layer or another. They just create this thing we call a beach, and this is only something that we can immediately perceive. There is much more sand on the bottom of the ocean. Time is rather like this.

We believe we see change and abruptness, and yet, when viewed in its totality, the change is regular, nothing special. We revel and rave at the shifting from one year to another, one decade to another, and yet, this, too, is nothing special.

In the practice of tea, my teacher has told me to learn the forms and then forget the forms. In learning the forms, we forget the self. When we forget the forms, we find that the once perceived barrier between form and self was merely something we had constructed, something we pushed up against. Much like how New Year’s Eve becomes New Year’s Day, this too is 無門関 mumonkan, a “gateless gate”.

When I cleanse the teabowl one last time and we take our last bows, the tea gathering doesn’t end, it merely transforms. When we forget time (年忘れtoshi-wasare, lit. “forgetting time/forgetting the year”), perhaps we can see what we get so worked up about. A year’s end. A decade’s beginning. Nothing special.

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

Kettle for the End of the Year

The holidays have arrived and the frenetic running around that has characterized much of December is beginning to show signs of slowing. The weeks of preparation and fretting over the finer details of the festivities and tending to guests have given way to more relaxed improvisation. In this brief lull, we realize that the accumulated burden of seasonal responsibilities and expectations will never be sustainable. As this breaks, it feels like the spirit of enjoyment arrives and we steal short-lived respites amidst our currently busy lives.

In these moments, I find myself longing to be closer to friends and family. My 取り合わせ toriawase reflects this, as I pull together wares that remind me of close connections, new and old. In the final days before the New Year, I hold an intimate 歳暮の釜 seibo no kama (lit. “kettle for the end of the year”). The feeling is relaxed and simple, like the weight of all that has led to this moment has somehow lifted.

With my large antique 茶釜 chagama coming to a boil and the scent of kneaded 練香 nerikō still lingering in the air, I bring into my tiny tearoom the implements for making tea. The teabowl that I select is a smaller contemporary 茶碗 chawan created by 二階堂明弘 Nikaido Akihiro, whom I had the chance to meet earlier this year.

Holding a healthy helping of freshly-ground matcha is a red and black 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer tea container which I’ve now owned for over a decade. As I cleanse this piece with the dark purple silk of my 袱紗 fukusa, I am given the opportunity to closely inspect the layers upon layers of lacquer which have been applied one on top of the other in contrasting intervals of black and red, revealed in the deep cuts carved by the artisan.

Each layer of lacquer can take days, even weeks to stabilize, as it is applied to the object’s surface. As such, the tea container feels like a record of time itself. An abstract calendar marking time. A tree, growing outward, increasing in size layer by layer. Had it not been for the artisan’s elegant carving of the surface, we would only see the bright red surface. Instead, we see its depth, each layer representing the passing of time.

Even the teabowl, with the 茶筅 chasen, 茶巾 chakin, and 茶杓 chashaku, feels like a tiny universe; complex and self contained. Alone, it sits tightly arranged until through the action of preparing a bowl of tea does it explode into a myriad of pieces.

The chashaku, made from a piece of dark bamboo, comes to reside atop the carved surface of the 棗 natsume. The chasen is warmed and cleansed, alongside with the teabowl.

Tea is issued into the chawan and for a brief moment both guest and I ready ourselves for the tasks at hand.

I, marking a secret sigil of my school into the small heap of matcha that sits in the center of the teabowl.

My guest, enjoying slivers of candied 柚子 yuzu which I’ve served atop a small 16th century Korean lacquer dish that had been gifted to me long ago by an antiques collector I’d met in Seoul.

In this dance of objects, people, senses and motions, each have a place. Host and guest sit together, brought in union by their intention to share brief moment and perhaps nothing more. The objects, whether austere or exquisite, serve a purpose as well, with each piece collectively contributing to create a greater whole. If one were absent, the moment may not happen. As water is added to the matcha powder and whisked into a fine foam, the aroma of tea lifts upwards.

Now, too, the eye is drawn to the flecks of residual powdered green tea that still clings to the curled tip of the chashaku that rests again atop the carved lid of the natsume. We marvel in this vignette, something that is utterly spontaneous and happenstance.

As I lift the chasen from the teabowl, a tiny peak floats in the center of the matcha foam.

From this central point, the eye wanders outwards to incorporate other objects in its field of vision. The teabowl. The tea container. The bamboo scoop. The delicate tines of the chasen. Some who sit to enjoy a bowl of tea will become lost in these objects. They will see only the material of the world. The gifts, the glitter, the gloss. The layers of lacquer that have accumulated upon the surface of their life. The weight it places upon them. They may feel this and not even know that it is there.

In this daily practice of making tea, I have learned to offer up a bowl whole-heartedly and let it go. I give myself up to that action, offering everything I can. Practiced over the almost two decades that I’ve been wandering in this path, I cannot recall how many bowls of tea I’ve made. Today I make it for my partner. Tomorrow I may make it for you. Later, I may make a bowl of tea for myself. How many bowls of tea will I have to make until I will, as the late Ram Dass said, “awaken from the illusion of separateness”? When will I as your host and you as my guest make us both a bowl of tea? When will that bowl of tea satisfy us all together?

The last kettle of the year can mean so many things. It is sometimes translated as the 年の暮れ toshi no kure, or a “year’s end”. Conversely, it can also be understood as 行く年 yuku toshi, or the “passing of the year”. In this passing, we see the year die. Yet, in this death, we somehow understand that time continues. One layer of lacquer ends and another is there. The object we perceive has not disappeared. It has, instead, merely grown. We are not sad to see this happen. We do not judge time as harshly as we judge ourselves.

In this last kettle of the year, there is a serenity that arises with time, as responsibilities we once held close now seem to ease. I now look at my guest with a greater sense of ease now that I’ve made them a bowl of tea, and they look upon me in a similar fashion. Any pretension has faded.

After the final dregs of tea have been sipped, we take one last moment to enjoy the sight of the small teabowl. It, too, was lacquered once, though the layers of 漆 urushi it had applied to its surface were burned off in the intense heat of the potter’s kiln. What remains is a rough beauty. A stark contrast to the clean cut lines of the natsume. And, yet, the story it tells is similar in a sense. The journey it has seen is reflected upon its skin. Wrinkled lines collecting on the contours of my cheeks and around the corners of my eyes. A split that runs down the length of my bamboo flower vase grows with time until it, too, will begin to leak water.

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

In the Longest Night, Tea by Candlelight

The arrival of the Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere marks the middle of the cold season and a foreshadowing of the year’s close. In the ancient twenty four term lunisolar calendar of East Asia, the Winter Solstice is the twenty second term, 冬至 Dōngzhì (Tōji in Japanese, 동지 Dongji in Korea), literally meaning “Winter’s Extreme”. While this may not represent the coldest moment of Winter (that usually arrives in the middle of January), it does define the extreme point in which the Sun’s rays recede, producing the shortest day and longest of the year.

In celebration of this, my partner and I have decided to hold a small gathering of friends. As the darkness of night begins to roll across the evening sky, we finish our gathering and friend part ways. My partner and I remain and decide to finish the evening with a bowl of 抹茶 matcha which we will share.

Arranging a small setting for tea in our tearoom, we keep things simple: a single 黒瀬戸茶碗 Kuro-Seto chawan, a small 肩衝茶入 katatsuki chaire (“shouldered” tea container) wrapped in a brocaded silk 仕服 shifuku pouch, a 茶杓 chashaku and 茶筅 chasen carved by the Nara-based master craftsperson 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango.

Gathering in our small tearoom, we are accompanied by the light of one burning candle, set between host and guest. The light it casts creates curious shadows across the serpentine grain of my wooden tea table, producing dynamic bands of light and darkness.

In the shadows, the figures of Silk Road travelers rendered in vibrant golds and purples upon the brocaded shifuku are obscured.

So, too, are the thin tines of the chasen as they descend into the dark abyss of the deep chawan.

Warm wooden tones sit side-by-side the slick surfaces of ceramic glaze. The sudden flicker of the candle sends shadows shifting and scattering, settling once again. Inside the tearoom, silence and sound vacillate as I move through the methodical actions for making tea. The low hiss of the old iron kettle coming to a boil. The movement of water from 柄杓 hishaku to teabowl to 建水 kensui. The cleansing of the chawan to prepare a boil of 濃茶 koicha.

I pause and offer my partner a tea sweet made of tart citrus rind wrapped in 餅mochi, atop which ice-like flecks of crystalline sugar glisten in the candle’s light.

Next, I set about preparing a bowl of koicha. I first draw three scoops of powdered tea from the chaire, followed by pouring the remaining contents out into the teabowl.

A small measure of hot water is issued into the teabowl and I slowly begin to knead the tea into a thick paste. More water is added and I continue to mix water and tea until it reaches just the right consistency.

In the low light of the candle-lit tearoom, one can barely make out the deep emerald green of the koicha against the black of the Kuro-Seto teabowl. I pass the bowl to my partner for her to enjoy the first few sips. She then passes the bowl back to me and I finish the remaining tea.

I take a moment to cleanse the bowl once more so we can admire its form, its dark glaze and its carved 高台 kōdai. Peering into its interior, the pebbled and pocked surface of the teabowl catches every stray beam of light, illuminating the center 茶溜まり chadamari where once a small mound of matcha had once been set.

Turned over, the carved name of the artist appears outlined in shadows.

My partner and I pause once more, enjoying the view of the ink-black sky outside our window, before I begin preparing a final 拝見 haiken.

Set beneath the flickering candlelight, we enjoy what may be the last moment of the year these objects will be seen. In the week in which the Winter Solstice comes and goes, we, too, enter a period of darkness. The days feel short yet each day is filled with activity. We cannot wait for moments when we can find ourselves around those we love, whether they be distant or near.

As with every closing of a tea gathering, we bid farewell to the honored teaware. All that remains is the solitary candle, the light of which too dims with morning’s arrival.

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In Memories and Here Today: The Flavor of Aged Korean Ddokcha

As we head closer and closer to the end of the decade, marked by decreasing temperatures and the increasing prevalence of ice and snow, I am reminded of the closing of the previous decade.

In the final years of the millennium’s first decade, I found myself at an impasse. Spending a Winter abroad in South Korea while attempting a PhD at UC Berkeley, I was struggling to find balance between the rigors of an academic life and conducting an earnest practice of tea and meditation. Residing in the urban super-metropolis of Seoul during the biting cold of late December, I was often forced to remain indoors.

Initially timid, I eventually began to explore the city, seeking out tea houses and trying to locate a Buddhist temple where I could refine my meditation practice. Located near a temple district, I soon began to wander the antique markets of Insadong. There I found the small traditional tearoom of 삼화령 Sam Hwa Ryung, where owner and tea person Ms. Kim began to teach me about the qualities and diversity of Korean tea, as well as slowly introduce me to her friends, many of whom were local artists and members of nearby Buddhist temples.

Luckily for both my practice in tea and meditation, Ms. Kim introduced me to Misan Sunim, who is both a practitioner of the Korean Way of tea and abbot of the 조계종 Jogye Order of Korean 선 Seon Buddhism. Soon, I was sharing my time between Ms. Kim’s tearoom and visiting Misan Sumin’s temple, learning the forms of tea he practiced alongside with his temple group.

Today, as cold rain runs down the windows of my tearoom, freezing before it can reach the sill, I sit and meditate on this time in my life. How ten years can come and go so quickly. How a lifetime can seem to arrive and still I have yet to fully awaken to it.

Reminded of the gentle guidance and dear friendships of Ms. Kim and Misan Sunim, I pull out the 분청사기 buncheong-jagi tea set I had acquired a decade ago. Set against the swirling wood grain of my tea table, the pieces of rustic ceramics look as if they were made of unevenly shaped stone. While all seem in harmony together, individually they retain their own distinctive character.

The 숙우 sookwoo, with its round circumference interrupted by the deliberate pinch of the potter to produce a simple spout.

The patches of grey and white that splash up the sides of the three small teacups.

The intricate network of cracks running along the surface of the once pure white side-handle teapot. How age and use have marked each one of these objects. How they, like me, now bear the testaments of time.

As I slowly warm each piece of teaware, I pull from my tea cabinet a small, citrus-sized object wrapped carefully in handcrafted paper made of mulberry fiber. From this emerges a tightly compressed ball of aged 떡차 ddokcha, gifted to me by Ms. Kim ten years ago. In this time, the tea has darkened. Where once vibrant green tea leaves coiled around one another, today they appear almost black.

Lightly plucking-off a small handful of leaves, I begin to carefully place each into the center of the teapot. I then pour hot water that had been momentarily left to cool in the sookwoo into the teapot, allowing for a brief moment to pass, giving me time to view the tea as it begins to steep.

Placing the lid atop the teapot, I let several minutes pass. In this pause, I do not keep track of time. Instead, I simply breathe, finding an easy and natural rhythm and observe the motions of my mind. The storm outside my tearoom rages and the windows shake against the gusting wind. As I breathe, amidst the clamor, I hear the steam rising from my iron kettle.

Another moment passes and I pour the tea out from my teapot, from one cup to the next and back again, making subtle adjustments to ensure evenness in color and flavor. What is revealed is a deep golden liqueur which catches me by surprise.

Admiring the color for a moment more, I am reminded of the first time I had experienced this style of tea, huddled in the warm wooden and plastered interior of Ms. Kim’s tearoom. Then, as with today, a storm raged outside, and yet the focus remained squarely on tea.

I can remember the dried fruits and traditional sweets she would produce from her tiny kitchen, and the collection of cups and teabowls she had stacked around her. The sound of a kettle and the scent of tea. The texture of worn utensils and a lifetime of practice.

I looked down once again at the teacups neatly arranged, each beaming back at me with the exquisite color brought on by age. “So this is what a decade looks like,” I say to myself and take a first sip.

Soft tones of butterscotch followed by notes of toasted yam and a slight licorice finish. Clean and clear yet with an echo that remains. A bit like a memory. Distant yet perceptible. Still with the capacity to teach me something new, something surprising.

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

The Silence of Snow

The cold of Winter has arrived and with it the intermittent chance of snow. While November saw the first sprinkling of snowflakes, mid-December now sees snow as a regular feature, with entire days marked by snowfall. The effect of snow is pronounced, blanketing the streets and covering treetops in a soft, clean, bright veil. The effect snow has on the mind is equally poignant. It causes one to pause, to mark the change in scenery, and to follow the slow, protracted decent of snowflakes from sky to snow-covered ground. Rarely do we get this chance to focus on something that is so mundane, yet so beautiful.

In the tearoom, the spirit of a snowy day is everywhere, from the rough and worn textures of the wood surface of my tea table to the soft forms of a round Winter 茶碗 chawan, the shape and color of which is reminiscent of a large dried persimmon. Crisp, uneven lines. Gentle, muted colors. A tenderness produced through the warmth radiating from the hearth. An unspoken invitation to share in a bowl of tea and enjoy a silent 雪見 yuki-mi.

Peering from my tearoom window, I observe snowflakes drifting downward. Their slow, measured cascade is mesmerizing, causing me to pause as I wait for my iron kettle to reach a boil; its gentle hiss in tune with the noiseless fall of snow. The world is silent and still. The light of the sun is indirect, dissipated, and grey. The rolling banks of snow glow brightly.

I turn back to my solitary tea setting. The rotund persimmon-shaped teabowl, an antique 小棗 ko-natsume with 壺 tsubo motif in worn gold and red lacquer.

An old bamboo 茶筅 chasen, a prized 茶杓 chashaku once used by a master of the 表千家 Omotesenke school of tea.

In the pure silence of Winter, there is nothing for the mind to attach to. No fancy flourishes. Nothing to personalize. Things merely seem to stand in their own accord. A chashaku sitting atop a black lacquer natusme. An old tea whisk simply sits beside it.

A teabowl still radiating warmth of the hot water it once carried. The attitude of heart and mind is found in all of these.

Placing three scoops of 抹茶 matcha drawn from the small natsume into the center of the teabowl produces a light, barely perceptible aroma of tea. Pouring a measure of hot water from the iron kettle into the chawan feels nourishing.

Whisking the tea into foam feels akin to imagining a new world. Peaks and gentle undulations of tightly-arranged bubbles resemble the rhythmic drifts of snow outside my window.

I place the chasen down, back beside the lacquered natsume and lift the teabowl to my center.

Holding the small, warm object brings about delight, and my lips cannot help to curl into a smile beaming with anticipation. I bring the teabowl upward and take three hearty sips, audibly finishing the tea and it’s lingering dregs. Placing the bowl back down upon the wooden tea table, silence returns to the tearoom.

I cleanse the teabowl and teaware and inspect each object, one after the other. The round 鉄鉢形茶碗 tetsubachi-nari chawan (iron basin-shapes teabowl), the name of which is rightfully 柿 “Kaki” for its resemblance of a large persimmon, feels soft in the hand.

Turning it over to inspect its 高台 kōdai reveals a clean-cut foot and the lightly-carved signature of the California-based artist who produced the piece.

Next, setting the natsume and chashaku atop a warm-hued wooden 香盆 kōbon, I take the last moments to enjoy their clean shapes and warn textures that only come from age. The bright light that reflects off of the snow and filters through my window causes each object to glow.

Moving my gaze, first from natsume

… then to teascoop and then to the snowy vista outside, I savor the silence of snow and the moment of peace it brings.

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The First Drift of Snow

Morning woke with a flurry of snow. To peer outside my tearoom window to see a world covered in white. Rooflines obscured. The forms of trees reduced to black spindles, looking like calligrapher’s ink on paper against a flat grey sky. Snowflakes spinning roughly in the breeze, tumbling and forming the first snowdrifts of Winter.

Prior to now, the days have been just warm enough to allow for the remaining green grasses of Autumn to stand upright, the last of the leaves of the climbing ivy to look full. Today, each wilt with frost and flatten under the weight of the snow. All that is left are soft, undulating fields of bright white snow.

Brimming with inspiration, I pull forth an item of teaware that I had long awaited to use, waiting for just this moment. I place it, hidden in its unopened 桐箱 kiribako, upon the wooden surface of my tea table, next to an antique peach-colored 萩焼 Hagi-yaki 宝瓶 hōhin.

What does this box contain? What treasure is buried underneath a snowbank? I wait, allowing the water in my iron kettle to begin to steam, before I open the small wooden box.

From it I pull a small irregularly-shaped cup. Pure white, save for the portions of exposed clay left unglazed, the tiny vessel is a piece of 鬼萩 Oni-Hagi (“Demon” Hagi) by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan. Procured during the warm months, I’ve waited until today to use this special teacup.

For a moment I hold it, admiring its form from various angles. Its sides billow like mounds of snow.

Its foot is rough, splayed in a 切十文字高台 kirijumonji-kōdai (“cross-cut foot”) manner.

With steam rising steadily from my iron kettle, I begin the process of warming my assembled ceramic wares, first the hōhin. The heat escaping from the warm and wetted clay interior caused sounds of expanding glaze resembling the almost imperceivable ringing of melting ice.

Next the teacup. It, like the soft drifts of snow outside my window, remains silent.

Alongside the tiny hōhin and teacup I set a small celadon tea container and wooden tea scoop.

Pouring out a measure of Spring-picked 冠茶 kabusecha into the concave surface of the cut bamboo 茶合 sagō, I place tea into the warmed recess of the Hagi-yaki hōhin.

The crazing of the ceramic surface, intermittent with splashes of pinks, purples, and grey. The lacquer-like shine of the deep emerald tea leaves like pine needles heaped together.

I carefully pour hot water over the leaves, making sure not to disturb them, instead, allowing them to gently tumble as I fill the hōhin.

Closing the lid, I pause, letting the inward and outward motion of my breath dictate the time I let the tea steep. Slowly, I wrap the fingers of my right hand around the curve of the hōhin’s warmed walls, lifting and tilting it to calmly decant the steeped tea into the bright white hollow of the Oni-Hagi teacup.

The color of the freshly brewed tea against the pure white glaze is startling. Like a bright jewel beaming an unearthly glow, the tea shines within the unblemished space of the teacup. Next to its more orthodox Hagi counterpart, the Oni-Hagi lives up to its demon-like name, with its wild, uneven glazing.

Alone, it feels as if it were a found object; an organic form pulled from nature.

Like a small, haphazardly-formed ball of snow, I admire the eccentric quality of the cup as I sip from it.

Steeping after steeping, the warmth of the tea finally permeates into the body of the clay until, finally, like the mid-day sun warms the earth, small cracks form in the icy glaze. No longer will this piece remain as it once had. A sign of use, of life pushing up through the snow!

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Persimmons hanging from the eaves. Anticipating the cold of Winter.

In the flurry of the end of November and the beginning of the holiday season, I found it difficult to sit down and put pen to paper to recount my last tea gathering. Having described the first part in which 濃茶 koicha had been served, it has since taken me about a week to catch my breath, balancing work and the festivities of Thanksgiving.

However, in tea practice, we are always of the moment, always anticipating emergence. It is for this reason that when we place a flower in the alcove, we don’t use a flower in full bloom. Rather, practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu will use a bud, one that is still full of potential, one that may actually bloom during the course of the tea gathering.

In tea, everything is ideally timed “just right”. The charcoal is laid and will bear the greatest heat right when koicha is being served. Once 薄茶 usucha is prepared, the heat should feel less intense, just right for the whisking of thin tea.

The notion of “just right” seems to go hand-in-hand with the austerity that chanoyu promotes, a sense that what is offered is “just enough”. When I served my guest a simple bowl of お茶漬 ochazuke before tea, this was just enough to stave off hunger. When something is referenced to in the tearoom, from aspects of the season to visual or material hints that may relate directly to the invited guest, these too are just enough. Nothing too overbearing or ostentatious.

When my guest and I sat down for our final bowl of tea, I purposefully kept the arrangement simple, more 侘び wabi, especially when compared to the more formal offering of koicha. Reflecting this, I selected a vintage 赤津焼 Akazu-yaki 茶碗 chawan, paired with a small wooden 平棗 hira-natsume and a dark bamboo 茶杓 chashaku. The feeling that these items, when presented together, was a sort of harmonious rusticality.

The hira-natsume, on its own, looked like a smooth burl of wood; its surface warm, weathered, glowing beneath a thin layer of persimmon juice lacquer.

The teabowl, with 茶筅 chasen, 茶巾 chakin and teascoop, felt like an old ceramic roof tile, with generous drips of dark green glaze running down into its center.

The chashaku, when set atop the tea container, appeared unpretentious, just sufficient for the task of aiding in the preparation of a bowl of tea. When set in action, these objects transcend their individual use, working together to bring forth something special.

The chawan and chasen are then warmed and cleansed. A ladle’s worth of hot water is drawn from the 茶釜 chagama and poured into the teabowl. The chasen is then placed within the hollow of the bowl, tilting slightly, partially submerging the thin tines. I press the chasen into the water and lift it upwards to inspect the blades, returning it back into the hot water to repeat the process until every tine has been examined.

In this process, the chasen subtlety begins to open and expand, much like the flower that graced the alcove.

With the bowl warmed and finally dried, I begin to scoop tea into the chasen. A small mound of bright powdered matcha is heaped in the center of the bowl, broken slightly by a sigil I mark into it with the curved tip of the chashaku.

A slight tap of the chashaku against the inside wall of the chawan removes excess tea powder and it is then returned to atop the lid of the hira-natsume. Much like the objects themselves, no motion is flowery or conspicuous. Instead, they are direct, smooth, understated. Just enough to make a bowl of tea.

I breathe as I pour a measure of water into the teabowl and begin to whisk the tea into a bright foam. My guest finishes their tea sweet and I pause. I turn towards them, taking teabowl in hand, and place it before them.

At first they see the “face” of the bowl. Upon it is painted with glaze a simple image of two persimmons hanging from an unseen eave. This, in turn, acts as an unspoken gesture, motioning towards the arrival of Winter, as 干柿 hoshigaki, dried persimmons, are a commonly enjoyed snack during the cold season. Much like the unopened flower bud, this is symbolic of the “now” moment.

Lifting the bowl and turning to drink from its other side, my guest is treated to the image of stylized plum blossoms. “What does this mean?” they ask, taking a sip from the bowl.

I remain silent for the moment as they finish the bowl of tea, leaving them time to view the dregs; the bright green of the residual tea foam echoing the unctuous drips of the dark green glaze.

I cleanse the bowl once more and we close the ceremony with a bow.

Still curious, my guests asks to see the bowl once again. They hold it in their hands, turning it over to reveal its carved foot and the seal of the artist, famed Seto-based ceramicist 中島春草 Nakajima Shunsō.

“So,” they start, “What does it mean? The flowers?”

I smile and offer a response. “Plum blossoms.”

“Why?” they returned.

In my reply I offer further detail. “Tea is not just about this moment. It is also about recognizing the potential of what is to come. Upon the first chill of Winter, we begin to ready ourselves for its deepest cold. It is at this moment, at Winter’s coldest, that the plum blossom blooms.”

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