The Salt in the Sea: Catharsis and the Way of Tea

In late July, Summer drags and the heat of the day is felt most severely. From July 22 to August 6, 大暑 Taisho, “Major Heat”, marks the final apex of Summer’s heat. For the practitioner of tea, any measure to mitigate the effects of this heat are taken.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu, tea gatherings are held in the early morning, before the sun is able to warm the earth, affording a fleeting moment of coolness. Everything about the tearoom at this time is lighter, and airier. Glass containers and teabowls are often employed. 簾 sudare hang from the eaves and 葦簀 yoshizu screens replace the 障子 shōji.

With these changes, the world of the tearoom seems evermore fragile, made-up of grasses, reeds, light woods and translucent glass. In this tenuous existence, however, there is life, vitality, and an ever-present awareness of how precious our existence is and how unique our chance to ever meet again must be.

With months of the pandemic still raging strong, I sit in my New York City apartment and wonder whether I will ever gather for tea the same way I had prior to this time. The feeling is bittersweet. A sense of longing for something from my past, yet a recognition that things will never be the same. A deep and gentle sadness for friends and family who have been separated, and from the time lost. A great feeling of my own mortality now rarely escapes me, a realization of how transient life is. 物の哀れ mono no aware.

Finding myself caught in the brief moment of the morning between the cool of the night and before the pervasive heat of the day, I decide to make a bowl of tea. Unable to shake the sadness that I’ve been feeling, I decide to meditate with this emotion and involve it in my daily practice of tea.

From my antique tea cabinet I remove a small 桐箱 kiribako, tied-up with a woven silk cord. Written across it is the signature and seal of 茶平一斎 Chahira Issai, a famous 蒔絵 maki-e artist from 輪島 Wajima, 石川 Ishikawa prefecture.

The words 汐汲 shio-kumi, “salt-scooper”, are written is a light calligraphic script.

Untying the cord and removing the lid, I pull from the box a dark maroon lacquer tea container in the shape of a 金輪寺棗 “Kinrinjinatsume. A shape that purportedly has its origins in lacquer containers from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279), the “Kinrinjinatsume was apparently popularized by 後醍醐天皇 Go-Daigo-tennō (Emperor Go-daigo) (1288-1339). Originally, the natsume would have been used to contain 濃茶 koicha and would have been used in more formal tea settings. However, by the 1600s, the practice of using it as a container for 薄茶 usucha seems to have emerged.

Atop this particular version, the words 松風 matsukaze are written on the lid. Wrapping around the exterior of the cylindrical body of the lacquered natsume are images of curling and churning waves, with salt and foam rendered in cut flecks and dust of gold. This is the 汐汲棗 “shio-kuminatsume, favored by 圓能斎 Ennosai (1872 to 1924), the 13th generation head of the 裏千家Urasenke school of chanoyu.

I take a moment to fill the tea container with fresh 抹茶 matcha, producing a softly pointed mound of tea powder. As I do this, the kettle in my tea space comes to a low boil. Cool fresh water is drawn and poured into a green 縄簾 nawasudare 水指 mizusashi. A bamboo 茶筅 chasen and white linen 茶巾 chakin are wetted and placed in the center of a shallow antique Sòng period 平茶碗 hira-chawan. A 茶杓 chashaku made of cut bamboo is placed atop the teabowl.

In the low light of the morning, the chawan and shio-kumi natsume are brought into the tea space. As I sit down, the light of the day begins to grow.

Soft shadows collect under the edges of objects placed first in front of the mizusashi and then arranged between the warm 風炉 furo and myself.

The shio-kumi natsume is lifted and its lid is cleansed in the manner similar to a 茶入 chaire before being set down in front of the mizusashi.

The chashaku is purified next with the refolded 袱紗 fukusa and then placed atop the lid of the natsume. The thin carved shape of the tea scoop running along the center of the silver lacquered 漢字 kanji. The natural pattern of the bamboo resembling waves.

I fold the fukusa again and return it back to my side. With my right hand, I reach for the chasen, lifting it from the teabowl and placing it beside the natsume.

I remove the lid of the lid of the 茶釜 chagama and a ladle’s worth of hot water is pulled from it. While I pour water from the cup of the 柄杓 hishaku into the shallow of the teabowl, I watch as a fine mist of steam spins along the water’s surface. Small whirlpools form and dissipate, dissolving as fast as they appeared.

I dip the thin tines of the chasen into the warm water, pressing them and flexing them, appreciating the tiny beads of water that collect upon them like clear dew that collects on grass after a night’s rain or a morning’s mist.

I pour the water from the teabowl into the 建水 kensui and dry its surface of the shallow chawan gently with the linen chakin.

I take care to ensure the woven fibers do not tear upon a small rock that has broken through the teabowl during its firing a thousand years ago.

The shio-kumi natsume is brought forth again and the lid is placed before the teabowl.

Three scoops of bright green matcha are issued from the tea container and placed into the center of the chawan.

The chashaku is tapped lightly against the inner edge of the tea vessel and the natsume is placed back beside the chasen. I transfer a ladle’s worth of cool water from the dark green mizusashi to the bubbling chagama. Warm water is pulled from the iron kettle and half a ladle is poured into the teabowl.

The sound of water, the mixing of water, the foaming of both water and tea. The whisk frothing-up foam as if it were waves upon the seashore. In this Summer, I have not yet seen the sea. I have not yet seen friends or family. Some of those friends and family I may never see again in my lifetime.

As I prepare the bowl of tea to serve to myself, in this moment of quiet solitude accompanied by the sound of water, I am reminded of the sadness that surrounds shio-kumi.

Shio-kumi is not just a poetic name given to a tea caddy. Shio-kumi refers to a tale of love lost. Of a woman, named Matsukaze, herself a person who works hauling brine to make salt on the shores of 須磨 Suma (near modern-day 神戸 Kobe). The story was retold in the 1811 歌舞伎 kabuki play titled “七枚続花の姿絵” “Shichimai-tsuzuki Hana no Sugata-e” (“A Dance of Seven Changes”), itself, originating from a 能 play titled “Matsukaze”.

In the play, the lovelorn character of Matsukaze pines for her poet lover 在原 行平 Ariwara no Yukihira (818-893), who was momentarily exiled to the shores of Suma, where the two met. As she scoops saltwater from the sea, she recalls her love and the feelings she had for him, now a distant and bittersweet memory.

As the foam of the tea rises, I peer into the center of the teabowl.

A low mound of whisked matcha floats, tiny bubbles suspended in liquid.

I sit back and my gaze widens as I set the chasen back beside the natsume.

The quiet hiss of the boiling water in the chagama. The sound of a gentle breeze outside my tea space. Silence. Solitude. The missing of friends and family. The longing for their company. The recognition that the apex of Summer is here. Half a year has come and gone. A year of death and disease. Of change and revolution. Of awakening. Of letting go.

I lift the chawan and drink the tea. As I tilt the teabowl, I watch as the fine foam of the matcha catches against the rough surface of the small rock embedded in the ceramic. Small, bright green waves pressing against the trapped object. Moving over and around it. The tide pulling outward, leaving the shore exposed, uncovered.

Dregs of tea dry quickly, like salt on the edge of briny pools. I pour warm water into cleanse the bowl and then finally cool water to cleanse the chasen.

The bowl is overturned and I inspect the carved 高台kōdai. The cracks that have formed over time. The small entrapped rock visible from both sides. The warmth still held in the clay.

I turn the bowl back over. The chakin is folded and placed into the chawan’s center. The whisk is placed with its tines pointing upward. Small beads of fresh water cling to the thin bamboo blades.

The chashaku is purified once again and placed back down onto the rim of the shallow teabowl.

The shio-kumi natsume is placed beside the bowl.

I arrange a final 拝見 haiken to admire the wares one-by-one. The natsume is cleansed once again. The chashaku is placed beside it.

I admire the broad, rounded end of the teascoop.

Images of waves come to mind.

The silver calligraphic characters atop the lid of the shio-kumi natsume bring a sense of coolness and ease.

I lift the lid and turn it over. Five 千鳥 chidori are rendered in gold. I recall the sensation of sea breezes. The sadness that comes as you hear their shorebird cries. The shape of the tea caddy is akin to the salt-scoop buckets on the sea’s edge of Suma. The motif of waves the same that once decorated the hem of Matsukaze’s 着物 kimono. The reminder that the feelings of loss are both sad and sweet. To have once loved and lost. To have known that feeling of closeness with those you love. To remember that now, now that they are not here, now that they are gone, perhaps gone forever.

The heat of Summer grows as the day continues until it is unavoidable. Even in the shade of my tea space, it still creeps in. Through the reeds that cover the windows. Through the gaps between fragile woven grass. The feeling is transient and vital, precious and unique.

****

Additional Notes & Resources

As this particular post contained quite a bit of research, I wanted to make sure that I included additional notes and resources to follow.

Above, I’ve included an image of 初代 坂東 しうか Shodai Bandō Shūka (1813-1855) performing Shio-kumi, staged in the 7th lunar month of 1847, image created by 三代 歌川 豊国 Sandai Utagawa Toyokuni (1786-1865). In this, you can see how the salt-scoop buckets were rendered in the same way that the natsume wave motif was decorated, including chidori (which appear flying above the waves on the blue sky). It is my belief that this motif (which was common and popular during the 井戸 Edo period, 1603-1867) probably came to reside upon the natsume through way of this prop from this much-loved kabuki dance.

As always in tea, pull one thread and you reveal a tapestry. In this case, a simple natsume reveals a story that spans centuries, interwoven with various arts!

If you’d like to learn more about this particular piece of teaware and the play that inspired it, I’ve linked several resources below:

“Shiokumi” – Kabuki 21

https://www.kabuki21.com/shiokumi.php

“Kinrinji natsume” – Chanoyu.World

https://chanoyu.world/natsume-kinrinji/

2 Comments

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

2 responses to “The Salt in the Sea: Catharsis and the Way of Tea

  1. Daniel Denommee

    I really like that bowl, the Hira-chawan from song period! In the previous post I have been wondering how deep or shallow it is, as it is not that easy to assume seeing only from over. As I saw the side pictures you have had to that last post (july 23rd), It seems to me that the bowl is even nicer than before! I like how shallow and large it is. How I would like to find one for my own collection! I wonder about the feeling it gives in the hand and on the lips, the weight, and texture of it outside… it makes me dream!

    Thank you for sharing your moments, tought and teaware with us!!
    Daniel

    • Hi Daniel,

      Thanks for your comment. The hira-chawan from the most recent post is 2 inches tall (including the low foot) and 6 inches wide (5.08cm x 15.24cm). It is a very rough white ware from the Sòng period (Yuán period at the latest). The glaze is thick, though not unctuous, thinning out towards the rim, which is unfinished.

      The previously featured hira-chawan is from the same time period (10th to 14th centuries), and is roughly the same size. It is thinner in construction and is almost translucent when held up to the light, making it considerably lighter in the hand. Likewise, the glaze on the this teabowl is smoother (it is probably a 青白 qīngbái piece). Like the white ware piece, this teabowl has an unfinished rim.

      While I have several hira-chawan, I’ve always enjoyed using these two. The experience of each is quite different, given their contrasting textures, glazes, weight, and overall feeling. I rarely use them together. Happy you were able to call both of them together, and appreciate them in the way you did.

      Thank you again. As always, I hope to learn more about your tea practice.

      Best regards,
      Scott

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