Category Archives: Education

Rain Breaks the Heat of Early Summer

Today thunder peals through the Hudson Valley and the heat of the day hangs overhead like a thick, heavy cloud. In early Summer, the garden blooms and bursts in bright colors of iris’ feathery flowers from every corner and nook. Spikes in heat are a reminder that the depths of Summer have yet to come, while the occasional rain shower refreshes the body and mind like a welcome gift to abate the swelter of an early Summer’s day.

Earlier this week I had received a gift of from my dear friend in Seoul, South Korea, and as the heat lingers, I choose to enjoy these by the open door of my garden studio. Packages of tea and a piece of ceramic ware come as a delightful respite and reminder of friendship’s power to assuage feelings of loneliness amidst a period of separation and isolation.

From paper of pink and white emerges a marbled and splashed surface of glazed ceramic. What is revealed is a fine piece of 분청사기 buncheong-jagi made by Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.

While I have come to amass a small collection of this ceramicist’s work, I’ve not yet seen anything like this. Its form is similar to that of a teapot, save for the absence of a lid. Rather, it is a ewer, or, more specifically, a 숙우 sookwoo, a vessel to cool water before it is poured to brew tea.

Unlike the austere white wares I’ve come to associate with the artist, the glaze of the tiny vessel is brushed onto the ceramic body in exuberant splashes and scrapes of white and blush pink, revealing the grey, iron-rich clay beneath their undulating veneer in a style known as 귀얄 guiyal.

Turning it in my hand,

inspecting its foot,

its handle,

its spout,

I imagine my friend’s presence, her keen love for buncheong pottery, and her ability to affect my aesthetic with hers. I am reminded of when we first met and how she explained the qualities of Korean tea. The emphasis of naturalness and ease, both in the appearance of objects, but also in the manner one makes tea. Over the many years since then, I’ve come to realize that these qualities arise only with practice and sitting with life as it reveals itself through time.

The sound of the kettle boiling breaks my focused gaze and ceramic daydreaming. I set the tiny sookwoo down upon the broad expanse of wood beside my open studio door and begin to assemble wares to brew tea.

A pot.

A joint of bamboo cut and cleaved to form a scoop for tea. A thin branch from a fruit tree to help push the tea leaves from scoop to pot.

A cup and wooden cup stand.

A flat black rock found in my garden to act as a lid rest.

Objects are wetted and warmed and the heat of the morning grows.

First the small sookwoo,

then pot,

then cup.

Tiny curled leaves of tea are pulled from a neatly sealed pouch and placed onto the upturned curve of the bamboo scoop.

Dark, blue-green buds of the year’s first harvested 우전차 woojeoncha (lit. “pre-rain tea”) picked in April before 곡우 Gogu (“Grain Rain”, April 20-21) shine like lacquer and curl like old, soft leather. Their scent when dry is sweet like guava or ripening loquat.

I lift and tilt the scoop downward towards the open mouth of the empty teapot, using the thin branch as a guide to move the tiny leaves along.

Resting within the dark hollow of the warmed vessel, the aroma of the tea rises and reveals notes both sweet and savory.

Water resting in the sookwoo is warm enough now to pour onto the delicate leaves.

As they submerge and saturate, they tumble and twirl in spirals and swirls until they float upon the bubbly surface, then sink.

The lid is placed atop the pot and, for a minute or two, I wait for the tea to steep. I wait and a thunder cloud covers the sun.

From sookwoo to pot and now from pot to sookwoo, I pour the tea. New fragrances emerge from the flared opening of the serving vessel. Sweet still, yet with hints of young grass and flowers.

Poured into the cup, the color of the tea is revealed against the matte grey and white background of the buncheong glaze. Vibrant golden green. A hue I’ve come to recognize from fresh Korean teas.

I lift and enjoy the aroma. Sweet. Delicate. Complex but not overpowering. I sip from the cup. Beautiful. Satisfying. Layered. Flavors from the air, from the rain, from the soil and stone that I’ve only found within the rocky and wooded slopes of 지리산 Jirisan decades ago when I visited the farms where these teas are grown and hand-processed. A sweet reminder of my life’s wanderings and the friends I’ve made along the way.

So small is the pot that only three cups are produced and easily savored. I return the kettle to a gentle boil and pour more water into the sookwoo to wait until it has cooled enough to brew the delicate tea buds. Once ready, I pour from sookwoo to pot again.

Leaves tumble and settle and begin to look as if they were alive again with varying colors of emerald and mossy green.

I place the lid back slowly upon the open teapot, admiring the leaves as they continue to unfurl.

Again, I pause and wait for the tea to steep. A cardinal booms his high-pitched call from atop a pine tree in the garden, its scarlet coat contrasting against the deep green of the conifer needles. Wind pushes through the pines. The sky grows darker and the heat rises more.

I lift and pour the tea from the pot into the empty sookwoo.

A second round of tea fills the small cup. The color is brighter, deeper. The aroma is thicker, more pronounced. The flavor is more pointed, greater clarity and bold. The finish lingers longer. Hints of limestone, mallow, clean river rock, the sweet taste of a forest right before a rain.

I stop and admire the leaves at this stage. The crackles and patterns and brushstrokes on the cup. The absence of glaze where potter’s finger gripped the clay. Spots where iron burst and pushed through the white and blue and grey of the fired slip.

Wind begins to grow outside my studio’s door. Whispering through flowering catnip.

Tossing umbels of tightly-grouped Spiraea blossoms against their bright green bases.

Inside, action and inaction meld. Practice is made of pauses, of stops and starts.

Water warms and is poured again from sookwoo to pot.

Leaves rise with the tide of liquid. Foam of oils and air collect and gather around exposed edges and against the round of the teapot’s mouth.

Light enters into this tiny vignetted world, eliminating leaves, sparkling against convex bubbles and the rough edges of exposed clay.

Lid placed back atop this shining world and the tea is left to steep once again.

Rain begins to patter outside upon the concrete flat, upon the leaves of bushes, between rocks in the garden as I wait for the tea to brew.

Moisture caught underneath teapot lid slowly evaporates in the growing humidity of the approaching storm. The heat of the day throbs less intensely now as rain drops’ cadence quickens, pushing cool air into my studio space, wafting fragrances of flowers, wet earth, moss on rocks, brewing tea.

The iron bell hanging in the garden gongs a low sonorous tone and I pour the steeped tea out from pot to sookwoo once more.

From sookwoo to cup.

The heat of early Summer fades and refreshing air wafts as water pools and rain crashes and thunder softly booms. I am reminded that today is 단오 Dano (lit. “the first fifth”, 端午 Duānwǔ in Mandarin), a day filled with 양/陽 yang/yáng energy, a day of ancestor worship, a day when members of the 조선/朝鮮 Joseon royal court would present the king with a book of Dano poetry (단오첩, 端午帖 Danocheop). In turn, the king would present his courtiers with special Dano fans made by artisans, which were in turn tributes from the provinces.

A fan given by a king to his courtiers as the yang energy rises. A sookwoo to cool water as a gift from a dear friend. Rain showers to allay the warmth of early Summer. Fresh tea to occupy my mind. As the rain breaks the heat of the day, a reminder of friendship breaks the feelings of loneliness.

****

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

If you are interested in learning more about buncheong-jagi, I’ve included a link to a fantastic book Korean Buncheong Ceramics from Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art by Soyoung Lee and Jeon Seung-chang, published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2012).

Similarly, if you’d like to learn more about the history and traditions surrounding Dano, I’ve linked an insightful article from Korea.net.

Enjoy!

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

Future, Past, Present

Today is the fifth of May. Ostensibly, it is the beginning of Summer on the traditional lunisolar calendar (立夏 Rikka). And, yet, all around me it still feels like Spring. Rain clouds gather overhead. New green leaves bristle on trees. Shoots rise from the earth. Peony bushes push upwards in the garden, yet their showy blooms have yet to burst. There is a feeling of anticipation, a longing for flowers to unfurl, for skies to clear, for the heat of the day to grow. Alas, the cool of the previous season still lingers and morning’s mist hangs long until noon.

In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, May 5th, the fifth day of the fifth month, is marked by celebration, flavored heavily by its culture of origin. Double five, or 重五 Chōgo in Japanese, is one of the five seasonal festivals on the traditional calendar of Japan, and is associated with a myriad of observances.

Today is 端午の節句 Tango no Sekku, which demarcates the beginning of the month of the horse (the fifth month). At this point in the year, one should begin to feel the heat rise. Yet, here in Upstate New York, a chill remains.

子供の日 Kodomo no hi, or Children’s Day (historically 男の節句 Otoko no Sekku, or Boy’s Day) also falls on this day. The birth of the new season, rites of passage, youthful vigor, 鯉幟 koinobori fluttering atop homes with children. All around boasts the promise of great things to come. Alas, here, Summer’s throb still feels faint.

It is also 菖蒲の節句 Shōbu no Sekku, referring to the practice of hanging shōbu (sweet-flag, Acorus calamus, or Japanese iris, Iris ensata var. ensata) and 蓬 yomogi (mugwort, Artemisia) from the eaves of one’s home (which were believed to ward-off evil spirits and fire).

Here in the Hudson Valley, the iris have yet to bloom, although I still manage to create a bundle of mugwort and iris leaves, which I hang-up against my makeshift tea hut.

With such a multifaceted day, it might feel overwhelming for a tea person to choose what they will do. So much expectation on just one day. For me, it offers a unique meditation, one which I infuse into today’s tea offering.

Setting off across my garden to the dark interior of my weathered shed, I’ve created within it a space to ponder time. Outside, purple-capped deadnettle and broad-leafed garlic mustard grow high. Remnants of Spring.

Inside my hut hangs the soft scent of 白檀 byakudan. The sound of water boiling within the bronze and iron kettle is faint but audible.

Summer in the world of tea is marked by many aspects. One major event is the closing of the 炉 ro and the beginning of the use of the portable brazier, the 風炉 furo. 初風炉 shoburo (lit. “first furo”) marks the first use of the furo. Today, I will use my furo for the first time, in anticipation for Summer’s emergence.

As I look forward to the new season, I also look back time. The bronze and iron 風炉釜 furogama are of an ancient tripod form, akin to those used during the 唐 Táng (618-907) and 宋 Sòng (960-1279) periods.

Beside it sits a square-shaped 鬼萩水指 Oni-hagi mizusashi, and before this I’ve placed a small round 茶入 chaire, enrobed in a blue and silver brocaded 仕服 shifuku, emblazoned with a design of peonies.

As I place a peach-hued 茶碗 chawan beside the tiny tea container, I recognize the significance of the choice in wares I’ve made.

In the practice of tea, we sit and hope to become connected to the moment. “Now”, as a distinct moment in time, is fleeting.

The instance we recognize it, it has passed. Rather, the moment we find ourselves in is often experienced tangentially.

The peonies on the brocaded pouch refer to a flower that has yet to bloom.

Future.

The tradition that associates this aspect to Summer is based on an understanding of the peony’s significance in ancient East Asian culture.

Past.

The presence of the flower woven into silk, which I splay open to reveal the ceramic chaire it contains.

Present.

Angles shift in the tearoom as object are oriented and reoriented based on their action and function.

During the furo seasons, objects are typically set in line with the brazier.

Then, as each object is cleaned, they reset again against the line that runs parallel to the mizusashi.

The bowl remains between host and furo.

The lid of the kettle is removed.

The 柄杓 hishaku rests against the open mouth of the steaming 茶釜 chagama.

During Kodomo no hi, or, more specifically, Otoko no Sekku, references to ancient 武士 bushi (warrior) culture abound. As a rite of passage, it marked a moment in time where a child could take on the affects of a 侍 samurai. In the realm of tea, the hishaku becomes an arrow, the iris becomes a spear.

Here, too, future and past oscillate to triangulate the present. A child assumes the role of an adult, even if just for a day. The adult longs for the carefree nature of when they were a child. Objects used to mark the coming of a new season are imbued with ancient connotations. Between these vectors exists, somewhere, now.

The lid of the tea container is removed and tea is heaped into the center of the peach-glazed teabowl.

A small mountain to climb rises within.

Hot water is drawn from the boiling kettle and poured atop the bright green 抹茶 matcha powder. The tiny mountain collapses, sinking slowly into the warm sea.

As the kettle murmurs and birds call, the tea is mixed in a slow, methodical manner. A slight breeze kicks up outside and I can hear the leaves of shōbu and yomogi beat against the exterior of my tea hut.

In the darkness of this tiny space, I make a single bowl of 濃茶 koicha. An offering for the season to come. A medicine of the past to fortify me as Summer arrives.

Drinking the tea down and concluding my lone tea session, I am yet again drawn to ponder time.

A shallow teabowl is employed as a 替茶碗 kae-chawan to cleanse the whisk. Perhaps I will use this piece for a future tea gathering.

I observe the angle at which I place the bowl down and arrange the cleansed objects upon it and within it.

These angles point towards the heat that will rise as Summer continues.

Cold water is added to the chagama and the bronze lid is placed back upon it.

The bamboo ladle is laid across the rim of the 建水 kensui.

A final 拝見 haiken is prepared to mark the first use of the furo.

Light from the small window beams and catches against the gold foil beneath the lid of the chaire.

Light catches against the curved surface of the tea container.

Against the carved tip of the 茶杓 chashaku.

Against the woven fibers of the shifuku pouch.

Future, past, present caught in light.

Exposed. Laid bare. There to be pondered.

As Spring shifts to Summer. As the portable brazier is used for the first time.

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

First Kettle

The new year has come and quickly it feels as if it has grown old. The depth of Winter is upon us now in the Northern Hemisphere and I remain locked within my studio, left to look out upon the snow that covers my garden. In the waning days of 小寒 Shōkan, Minor Cold, a period extending from approximately January 6-20, I’ve grown anxious to return to my tea practice and to offer up a first kettle for the new year.

初釜 hatsugama, “first kettle”, is typically conducted during the first weeks following the new year. For me, work, busyness, and the myriad of other excuses I use to put-off doing the important things in life have kept me from just simply sitting and giving into the deeper practice of preparing 濃茶 koicha. The itch I feel when I haven’t made a bowl of tea climbs inside me until it feels a bit unbearable and I find myself early one morning pouring fresh water into my old iron 茶釜 chagama

…into the white-glazed interior of my tall, four-cornered 水指 mizusashi.

For many schools of tea, hatsugama is one of a multitude of cardinal points on the tea calendar. It is the moment of relative pomp amidst the otherwise withered and cold atmosphere of Winter. Fine objects and offerings may find their way into the 床の間 tokonoma. The dual silver and gold-glazed teabowls poetically known as 島台 shima-dai, the Isle of Eternal Youth, are often employed when making tea for invited guests. And finer foods and 屠蘇 toso (spiced 酒 sake) are often served during 茶懐石 chakaiseki, the meal served before tea is prepared.

For me, I’ve made it my practice to abstain from these ostentations and, rather, attempt to situate the first kettle within the simpler, more pared-back nature of Winter. As I look out onto my garden, I have enough seasonal references and focal points of vitality against the cold weather to fill a thousand alcoves. Plum and pine. Small birds with their ruffled feathers. Snow-capped hillsides and silvery skies.

I situate my tea table beside the large window that looks out onto my garden and make it a space to prepare a bowl of tea. Beside it I set my kettle. Atop it, my mizusashi. Before the cool water vessel, I place a small 茶入 chaire, wrapped-up in a light blue and silver 仕服 shifuku, tied together with a brown silk cord.

From where I’ve been readying the objects for making tea, I return with a bowl set atop a wooden cup stand. It is an old 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan and accompanying 天目台 tenmoku-dai. Its colors are dark and austere with flashes of blue and copper-like hues.

Atop the bowl, I’ve placed a carved 茶杓 chashaku made of striped cypress. Beside it, a 茶筅 chasen made of black bamboo, set atop a folded 茶巾 chakin.

The items and their arrangement, the way the chakin is folded, the shape of the tea scoop, the bowl and its wooden stand, are formal, harkening back to forms that have their origin in China during the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279), back to when tea was both beverage and medicine. In my school, these objects and the actions used when employing them are specific to making a bowl of koicha and presenting it to an esteemed guest. With no guest available, I sit down to make a bowl of tea for myself. My guest, perhaps, is myself of this very moment, as I welcome my new year of tea practice with the water drawn from this “first kettle”.

Objects are first cleansed and then placed into their position for making tea.

First, the chaire is removed from its silken shifuku pouch. I loosen the cord and gathered cloth that once held the small ceramic container and its bone lid safely together.

Next, I place the wrapped object in my left hand and peel the two sides of the brocaded fabric away from the rounded surface of the chaire, revealing the smooth silk interior of the shifuku.

The chaire is lifted from its protective pouch and placed before the teabowl.

The shifuku is placed beside the mizusashi.

I unfold my 袱紗 fukusa made of purple-dyed silk and inspect it before I refold it and use it to cleanse the surface and lid of the tiny 文淋 bunrin-shaped chaire.

Next, I refold the fukusa again and use it to cleanse the chashaku made of 檜 hinoki cypress.

I place the scoop atop the lid of the chaire and fold the fukusa, returning it to the side pocket of my woven Winter coat.

The chasen is removed from the chawan and placed beside the chaire momentarily. I lift the bamboo 柄杓 hishaku ladle off of the 蓋置 futaoki and, as I do so, I admire the images of auspicious objects rendered in blue colbalt upon the white porcelain.

I pinch and lift the chakin out from the center of the chawan and use it to remove the lid of the bubbling kettle beside me. The lid is placed atop the porcelain lid rest.

Water is drawn from the steaming kettle and poured into the teabowl.

The whisk is placed into the hot water to warm, wet, and soften as it soaks.

As it does so, the wooden tenmoku-dai is cleansed. The fukusa is folded and used to first purify the rim of the 酸漿 hōzuki (uppermost supporting cup). Next, the flat surface of the wooden flange (羽 hane).

With bowl and its wooden stand cleansed, all that is left to do is make a bowl of koicha.

As I lift the chashaku and chaire from their resting position and place the white bone lid beside the bowl and stand, a thought enters my mind.

The bowl I’ve chosen for this year’s hatsugama, for this first kettle, was one of my first teabowls. Ever since I’d begun my practice in tea, I’ve been drawn to tenmoku chawan. Their form, their history, their austerity. Yet, to use one properly, one must first learn how.

In the world of 茶の湯 chanoyu, a tenmoku chawan is reserved for the most formal of tea settings, often to serve tea to an important guest. To make tea for one’s self with one is odd. Yet, during this time of separateness, during a pandemic, it feels like a form of meditation to offer one’s self a bowl of tea. A recognition that even as we cannot yet connect with others, we can use this as an opportunity to connect with ourselves.

I pause and breathe and place three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder into the center of the teabowl.

I follow this by setting the chashaku down atop the wide wooden flange of the tenmoku-dai.

The scoop’s rounded tip, made of carved hinoki covered in a light dusting of matcha.

Its smooth handle pointed towards the white bone lid of the chaire.

I tilt the small bunrin chaire over and let the fine tea powder cascade downward into the center of the tenmoku chawan. It piles into a low mound, the shape of which creates a small chaotic impact of tea dust against the dark interior of the glazed teabowl.

I place the lid back onto the chaire and return it to rest beside the chasen. I mark the mound of matcha with the rounded edge of the tea scoop, making the sigil of my school into the tea dust.

I place the chashaku atop the chaire.

A measure of hot water is drawn from the kettle with the hishaku and a small amount is carefully poured into the teabowl to mix with the matcha.

As the green tea powder saturates, it darkens to a deep emerald hue, almost black within the low light that enters the concave of the tenmoku bowl.

I lift the whisk and press it downward into the tea and water concoction. I gently hold the teabowl with the outstretched thumb and index finger of my left hand. The tea is worked and kneaded into a thick paste and an additional draught of hot water is drawn from the kettle and mixed with the tea. This is blended further until the right consistency is met.

As I lift the chasen from the now fully blended koicha, I pull it vertically out of the tenmoku chawan, allowing any residual tea liquid to drip back down into the teabowl.

I then turn the whisk so the tines point upwards, each lacquered in a thin coat of the thick tea.

Setting the whisk beside the chaire, I turn my attention to the teabowl.

A deep pool of jade looks up at me from the dark, iron-spotted interior of the tenmoku bowl. From its center, I can make out the reflection of my shoulder.

Peering closer, I see the volume of the tea, the waves upon its surface. Thick, rumpled at the edges where the flat expanse of tea meets the downward sloping walls of the teabowl. A slick, viscous veneer of tea still clinging to the sides, marking the extent to which the whisk traveled from side to side, back and forth in a figure eight motion as the tea was blended.

I lift the bowl by the wide wooden flange of the cup stand and bring the both closer to me. I turn the bowl a quarter turn, so that the 正面 shōmen, the front of the bowl marked by an opalescent cascade of glaze, does not touch my lips as I drink the tea.

I breathe in as I sip the thick tea. Its heat and aroma radiates and surrounds me, filling my senses, banishing any lingering sleep of the morning. As I pause and tilt the bowl back down, I peer over its metallic rim, out onto the garden. Bright white light filtering through the trees, reflected upon the snow. As I tilt the bowl again for another sip, I am met by the dark interior, the deep green of the tea, the slow movement of the liquid down the ceramic sides of the tenmoku chawan.

With the final sip of koicha, I place the bowl back down with the wooden tenmoku-dai. From my pocket, I produce a piece of white 懐紙 kaishi paper, which I fold and use to wipe excess tea liquid from the rim of the tenmoku chawan.

Looking down at the bowl of koicha, my eye is caught by the trail of thick tea pulling from the once deep reflective pool. This trace, this record of a moment. Tea blended with the water from the first of many boiling kettles that will hopefully come throughout this year. How, even as this moment feels still alive, still present, it, too, has just passed.

I set the tenmoku chawan atop the wooden cup stand aside and bring forth a separate 替茶碗 kae-chawan to cleanse the chasen. The bright white splash of spiraling brushed glaze of the 刷毛目唐津茶碗 hakeme Karatsu chawan sits in stark contrast to the more formal bowl that came before it.

I pull water from the mizusashi and pour it into the new teabowl. I dip and whisk the tines of the tea-covered chasen into the cool water. Clouds of green residual matcha billow and churn in the clean, clear water. The thin carved blades of the tea whisk glisten in the light of the morning.

I pour the liquid from the bowl and place chakin and chasen into the bowl.

I cleanse the chashaku once more, removing the tea dust that had coated its rounded tip.

Items are placed back at rest. Bowl beside chaire. Lid atop kettle. Ladle beside me.

In the quiet that comes once the kettle has been closed, I sit and look out upon the small stand of trees outside my garden. Pine trees. Plum. Hardy friends of Winter who, along with bamboo, weather the coldest of days yet to appear.

Shōkan is followed by 大寒 Daikan, “Major Cold” (approximately January 20-February 1), and then comes the new year of the lunisolar calendar.

I ponder this as I prepare each of the objects for 拝見 haiken.

Hatsugama marks a moment in time. Each bowl of tea does. Each time I sit down before the brazier, beside the sunken hearth, to offer tea to either guest or alone to myself. These moments accumulate. Yet as time moves forward on the calendar, do these moments do so as well?

I pause as I lay each object beside one another.

The round bunrin chaire beside the scoop.

The scoop beside the shifuku pouch.

When we offer tea for hatsugama, the emphasis is on freshness, cleanliness. You offer tea at the beginning of the new tea year and, with it, you say goodbye to the year that has passed.

In this way, 清 sei, or “purity” of the four fundamental principles of tea, 和敬清寂 wa kei sei jaku, takes on a dual meaning.

Sei can mean to purify one’s space, to offer up items and objects and tea in a clean manner.

However, it can also mean to offer one’s practice, one’s self, in a pure, unadorned, unattached way.

This can be the purity from that which came before it, a moment cleaned of a past that might end up influencing and causing distraction from the present.

It can also mean that, with a heart and mind unattached to goals or objectives, ambitions or desires, as one offers a bowl of tea to someone else, they do so without a motive or gaining thought.

As I sit and look upon these objects, their shadows cast against the swirling grain of an old 香盆 kōbon, I think of the difference between shadow and trace. Of tea and practice.

Which leaves a lasting impression? Which affects which?

What do I hope for this year to come, this year of the Tiger? What to learn from hatsugama, the first kettle?

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

Warm Winter

With the first day of the new year, I find myself wanting to climb a mountain. Ever since moving away from the city, I’ve used these moments of wandering the trails and streams to reset the mind, recalibrate the heart, and refresh the spirit. With the chaotic year that was 2021 now behind me, momentarily losing one’s self within the ramble of woods and ravines feels like closing the door on the world behind me and opening another on what’s to come.

The path, as always, is winding. However, today, it seems noticeably different, shockingly similar to when I last hiked along this trail. This Winter has been warm. Autumn leaves still lay scattered on the forest floor.

Moss.

Lichen.

Ferns and the green leaves of mountain plants still abound.

The water that normally by now would be frozen still cascades and pools as it runs down the carved cut it created over centuries.

Memories of trying to climb this mountain last year return. Memories of ice and snow, of Winter’s lock in frigid torpor. These running headlong against what I see today, which is a forest that is very much awake, very much alive in a warmer time.

As I climb higher, I relish the rare instance I find myself in. While I fear that this weather is somehow linked to the greater warming pattern that our future holds, I cannot help but to find myself enjoying the sight of spiny moss poking up through the rocks…

… of bright yellow mushrooms in bloom…

…of buff and woody shelf fungus climbing up a tree. Simple pleasures found in times of warning. These are for certain demarcators of things to come.

More twists in the trail, more steps up the steep hill, and I find myself back beside my usual waterfall stop. The same rocks and fallen trees welcome me as if it were months ago, still full of energy and color and water surging forth from the recent Winter rains. I sit down upon the wet rocks and spread out a cloth kept in my rucksack. Upon this, I sit a teapot and cup. The sound of water rushing off the rocks. The sound of water pouring from my thermos into the open pot over rolled leaves of 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiě guānyīn wūlóngchá. The last of this tea for the first of this year.

Pot closed, I wait and wonder what the year will bring, what the tea will taste like, and what the warm weather will set forth for years to come. The sound of the waterfalls rushing beside me. The occasional chatter of birds and backpackers in the distance. Silence before I pour out the pot into a single red and white cup, pouring out as much as the tiny open vessel can contain.

Golden hues from the tea leaves left against the enameled interior of the 宜興 Yíxìng cup.

Gold and the reflection of the trees above it.

The bare cold trees that stretch skyward against the dull grey expanse. Their branches skeletal against the sky.

Below, copper-colored leaves collect in wetted piles and flat, matted carpets across the forest floor.

Between these two worlds, the river cascading…

…the rock which I sit upon…

…the tiny tea set which is keeping me warm.

With each successive pouring of the pot the tea grows darker, the flavors more complex, shifting from sweet butterscotch to deep notes of incense wood.

Bitterness is there and so too is a lingering complexity that coats my tongue and throat.

In the ancient texts, they note the occurrence of 甘露 gānlù, an auspicious omen, the sweet dew that comes from nature, moisture that clings to leaves, that is said to be a medicine that is far above others to replenish the body and bring immortality.

In tea, it can describe the saliva that is produced on the back sides of the cheeks, that carries the flavor of the tea into the body, that continues to permeate long after the tea is gone (producing the sensation of 回甘 huígān).

My only hope is that this flavor lingers longer as I pack up my bag and head up the mountain, and that this may be a harbinger for a harmonious year to come.

The warm Winter weather makes the trek up the mountain gentler. No footsteps in the snow to mark the way. Instead, an uneven ripple of leaves that runs up the side of the hill points to where others have gone before me, guiding me to the top.

Fallen trees and the forest thins as I get closer to the mountain’s peak.

Toppled limbs and trunks with scarlet veins brought to life and luster in the moisture of the morning.

At summit, I see nothing. Just a blanket of fog across the town and wide river below. The sound of a train in the distance is muffled by the soft lumbering clouds. Thick mist and no vista to speak of.

I’m reminded of the tradition in many East Asian cultures, where upon the first of the new year, people climb mountains to watch the sunrise for the first time, to see its rays of golden glow peek and creep over the horizon. Wishes are made and offered up to the new day on the new year in the hopes that they will come true.

On this first of the year, in the obscurity of the fog and cold clouds, I wish to remain up this mountain a little longer, waiting for Winter’s chill to bite me. On this warm Winter day, I worry for our little planet, for the forces that we don’t yet know. I hope for a better year than the one that has now since passed, and for a better future not yet here.

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Once New Tea Seems All the More Older

Today, on this bright December day, the cold that had locked me indoors seems to have warmed, if only momentarily, enough to bring me outside. As the light of the day passes swiftly during these Winter months, I use time outside to close-up my garden for the season, covering the raised beds with tarpaulin, and heaping leaves over my compost mounds to help keep the heat of their decomposition in as the days grow colder.

The sweet scent of the desiccating leaves is wonderful. The rich aroma of dark piled earth beneath them complex, a swirl of vegetation and minerals, roots and mud, rocks and clay. The heat of the turned compost heap lifts in steam like tiny clouds drifting off a mountain’s top in the morning.

I tap off my boots and leave them by the door to my studio. Before I set down to return to my daily work, to my email replies, spreadsheets and presentations, I pour cold spring water into my stainless steel kettle which I’ve had for almost twenty years now.

The click of the polished metal switch. The red glow of electric light that signals “ON”. The hum of energy coupled by the growing noise of water coming to a boil. The rattle of the flapping metal lid.

As water boils, I assemble a tea setting for one. A hand-carved wooden tray from Korea. A 茶船 chá chuán made of 朱泥 zhūní clay. A large 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (sesame-colored fortified clay Yíxìng teapot) shaped like a compressed meditation pillow.

The handle atop its lid carved to look like an arch reminiscent of a bridge, reminding me that this pot was gifted to me by a former tea teacher of mine, his knowledge of tea crossing over to me.

I bring out a cup I’ve been favoring ever since Winter arrived. An 鬼萩 Ono-Hagi (“Demon” Hagi) cup by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan.

Its foot, rough and unctuous in the hand, splayed in a 切十文字高台 kirijumonji-kōdai (“cross-cut foot”) manner. This I set atop a burl-wood cup rest.

From the kettle, I pour forth a draught of hot water into the clay teapot. The sparkle of water in the late-day sun reflects the ceiling of my studio and my face as I peer down into the wide opening of the warming vessel.

I pour this water into the white glazed tea cup and return the pot to the empty tea boat.

With the bamboo scoop, I arrange a handful of old wild leaves I’d sourced years ago when on a trip up to 南糯山 Nánnuòshān, in Xīshuāngbǎnnà (ᩈᩥ᩠ᨷᩈ᩠ᩋᨦᨻᩢ᩠ᨶᨶᩣ/西双版纳州).

What were once bright, silvery green leaves of 毛茶 máochá have, over the course of nine years, transformed into darker, more russet curls akin to the fallen leaves I had just been piling against the edge of my garden. Time and the heat of the kettle will only tell how these leaves have fared over the many years they’ve been packed away.

I lift the scoop and tilt it down, letting the twisted leaves fall into the empty and wetted pot. The quiet aroma of this now-aged tea is faint, warm, still grass-like, yet a shadow of its former self.

Water from the kettle poured downward upon these leaves and they tumble and twirl in tiny vortices until they settle on top of themselves, already beginning to show signs of their expansion.

The lid closed, the leaves continue their process of steeping and expelling their flavor, darkening the color of the brewed liqueur in their quiet ecstasy.

As the tea steeps, I pour out the warm water from the waiting cup. As I pause once more, I grip the pot, readying my hand to lift it and pour the first of many cup’s worth of liquid from it.

I place my index finger atop the tiny carved clay bridge that spans the softly beveled lid.

I pinch the uppermost portion of the teapot’s handle between middle finger and thumb. As I lift the pot from the red clay chá chuán, the tiny vessel feels balanced in the hand. Pouring out the brewed tea liqueur feels as natural as holding the pot level.

As tea enters the empty tea cup, the true color of this aged tea is revealed. A bright golden hue. Almost the color the tea would have produced when it was still young. However, as I pause and place the pot back into the tea boat, I begin to sense the fragrance of the tea. Gone are the wild grassy notes of a young 生普洱 shēng pǔ’ěr. Instead, I detect the bittersweet aroma of old, wetted leaves, of clean river stones, of rich, loamy soil.

I lift the cup to my lips and breathe in this aroma one last time before I sip from uneven edge of the thick-glazed teacup. The flavor upon my palate is soft and sweet. Much like the tea’s aroma, its liqueur is complex, earthy, active. Leaves picked in Spring of almost a decade ago still hold their energy. Their large, rumpled surfaces still taste of their natural sugars, their vegetal bodies, their woody branches that they sprung from, the mountain soil from which they were grown.

I am reminded of the bumpy bus ride from 景洪 Jǐnghóng up to the roadside stop to meet tea master Li Shu Lin and his wife Cai. I am reminded of that trek up to their family’s tea farm where we picked leaves and ate rice and chicken and mountain vegetables in the smoke of their ancestral home to the sound of their family singing songs in their local dialect.

Sweet and bittersweet is the tea and these memories. Their home burned down this past year. This tea is a fading hold-out, disappearing more and more I sit down and take moments like this to reminisce and drink a small handful of my woefully small collection I’ve kept stowed away. Still smoky like a young shēng pǔ’ěr but more clear and settled like an older one. Caught somewhere in between. Will it last to be older than this memory I hold onto now? Will it darken to the point that it feels and tastes and smells like the old rich earth that I dug my fingers into as I clamored and climbed up those hills to see the ancient tea trees Master Li kept hidden on his family’s mountainside?

Light from the day stretches across my studio floor and I find my mind buzzing and drunk from the tea I’ve been sipping now for an hour. The kettle rattles some more and I pour another drought from its curved and molded mouth into the clay teapot.

The tea’s color is darker now, like a deep brandy. The leaves, now stretched and unfurled, do not flag in their flavor, but, instead, keep giving, like the memories and knowledge I gained from that first trip I took to visit tea farms in China.

As this year comes closer to its close, once new tea seems all the more older. I, for some reason, do too. 2021, a year that seems to have come and gone, passes like a dangerous beast we have all been hiding from. We, huddled close to the hearth, try to wait it out until it has gone. Clutching close to this moment, to the sweet flavors that this tea reminds me of, the calm this pause brought me now. Will it fade? Or will it grow and become more beautiful and profound, much like these once new, now old, tea leaves have done?

****

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

If you would like to help fund the recovery of tea master Li Shu Lin’s tea production in Nánnuòshān, in Xīshuāngbǎnnà in the wake of a devastating fire that destroyed his family’s home, tea producing facility, and over twenty years-worth of stored and aged tea, please visit the currently ongoing fundraiser set up by So Han Fan of West China Tea. Your support helps to rebuild the home and tea production of Li Shu Lin and his wife and fellow tea master Cai. Anything and everything helps!

Thank you!

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Winter’s Sun

Grey slate skies. Birds huddled in brambles and twisted thickets.

Ocher and orange leaves tumbled dead between stones in the path.

Cold wind whips against the thorn vines.

Old green moss caught against the worn walls of my garden shed.

The world creeps closer to its Winter torpor, slowing down until it barely moves. The mountains along the skyline are already dark from the shadows cast by Winter’s sun, which settles shallow against the horizon in this more northern part of the Northern Hemisphere.

Settled in my studio in the early afternoon, I look out upon this vista, a pallid visage of 大雪 Dàxuě (Major Snow), a period that extends from approximately December 7th to December 11th in the traditional lunisolar calendar. Each day, expecting snow. Each day, the birds scavenge hungrily at any scant seed or borrowed insect, searching to eek out a meager existence, to make their way through the coming cold that the depths of Winter will bring. I see this in their speed as they move, against the lumbering backdrop of Winter.

I, in my studio, remain in a seated meditation, made up of only necessary motions, enough to make tea. The kettle I fill with cold water and set within the recess of an old wood and copper brazier.

The long plank of weathered wood I push beside the window to my garden, positioned to appreciate the drab scenery outside.

An old and seasoned 茶船 chá chuán. A cloth. A coin.

Take off my ring and place it beside a bamboo scoop.

Set down a pear-shaped teapot to brew tea within.

A 染付 sometsuke blue-and-white plate to catch excess liquid upon.

Three 宜興 Yíxìng and white porcelain 品茗杯 pǐn míng bēi to enjoy the color, aroma, and flavor of tea from. Three cups. Enough to capture the qualities of tea. Three cups, each enough to contain the universe in its entirety.

The hiss and bubbling of the cast iron kettle comes just as a long stick of incense burns away. The steam rises from the kettle’s spout as a single, twisting column up to the ceiling, dissipating in the cold air of my studio cellar. I lift the lid off from the pear-shaped pot and set it down atop the old coin from two centuries ago.

Into the empty hollow I pour boiled water, heating the air, the clay, the body of the teapot.

On goes the lid. Out goes the water into the three small cups. The clear, clean light of early afternoon catches in the convex and concave of water and cup. The surface tension of the liquid pressing upwards, distorting the small world it captured within it.

As the cups warm and wait, I pull leaves from an old tea tin and place them within the upturned cut bamboo scoop.

Large, dark, twisting leaves of a now-aged 武夷山巖茶 Wǔyíshān yánchá that I left to settle as once they were too strong in taste for casual enjoyment. Now, since eight years passed, I’ll taste them to see how far they’ve come, how much they’ve mellowed, how little they’ve changed.

Even knowing what tea they are escapes me now. The old tin is marked 「大紅袍 」 “Dàhóng páo”, but I wonder if this was just a marketing ploy. Still, the tea smells sweet, the dried leaves still exude a scent of warming spice and of aged citrus peel and smoked salted plum.

The cool light of Winter’s sun makes these leaves look blue and inky. 烏龍 wūlóng seems most fitting in this part of the day and time of year.

, the dark blue-black of a crow’s coat.

lóng, the long, twisting body of a dragon as it climbs out of a thermal vent, billows from a mountain’s pass, or undulates beneath the ocean’s wake or river’s tidal bore.

I lift the scoop and in one motion place tea into open pot. Black leaves disappear into black shadows.

Hot water is poured and fills the once empty vessel. Foam and oils rise and collect against the opening’s edge and settle before I rest the lid back down upon them.

Shrouded in the darkness of the covered pot, the leaves perform their dance, uncurling and untwisting from the many years they’ve been locked motionless by time, by the heat of the charcoal heap, by the choices made by the tea master to produce this type of tea, just a hike’s trip down from the mountain side they were picked and grown.

Only seconds pass, enough to empty the little cups of their clear warm water, and then they’re filled with tea.

One, after the next, receiving a portion from the pot.

Around and ‘round, until each cup is brimming and even in color and taste.

The pot is returned atop the center of the chá chuán. The lid is lifted off and placed, again, upon the old silver coin. The aroma of tea, with notes of incense wood and warming spice rises, whether from cups or pot or both.

The hiss of the kettle beside me. The quiet chatter of birds outside. The low din of an airplane’s roar overhead against the cold, slate grey Winter’s sky. Colors caught in the distance. Sparse leaves still clinging to their single tree branches. Their brethren piled below. Softer blues and purples and browns along the mountain’s edge. The flat green of grass now since met the first of Winter’s snow.

I sit and admire the cold quiet of Winter from the warmer climes of my studio hall. Peering down to enjoy the sight of three tea cups, their surfaces bulging with the abundance of tea they hold. Dark red is the color they contain. Rich and wonderful. The presence of oxidation, the mark of an even and heavier roast, of catechins and polyphenols, of time and the pause I took while the tea was steeping.

I take my time with the first of three cups. Sipping slowly, reading the flavors, colors, and aromas as if they were a good book, a short story that develops quickly but leaves you ponderous as to how it will end. The first and second sip are sharp and full. Spices and aromatic incense woods are there, but so too are the more subtle and sweet notes of aged orange peel, reminiscent of the kind once gifted to me by the mother of a tea merchant I once worked for. She’d place a slice within her pot of 普洱 pǔ’ěr she had imported from China by way of Hong Kong and it would soften the bit the tea had acquired from the heat and the dank moisture of the humid harbor city it had aged in.

One cup,

then two,

then, finally, three.

Each cup a part of the tasting process that is represented in the character 品 pǐn. Sipped and savored until empty again. Empty and ready to be filled with a second and third and fourth steeping of tea. Each an empty canvass upon which the tawny colors of this “Big Red Robe” will be splashed upon. An empty vessel where I can fill my mind with all manner of fleeting visions and fading sensations.

The day grows on and the sunlight grows dimmer. Even at 4pm, the light of the day is as dark as evening was in Autumn. The sun pushes its amber-hued light through the trees, through the twisted branches of an old plum that grows beside my studio door.

Much like the light of day, the tea continues and deepens in its color. Long past its seventh steeping, its liqueur remains dark. The flavors have long since transformed, from spicy and complex to warm and woody, with tones of the charcoal that once dominated its profile years ago when it was first purchased in a tea market in China. Even as the flavor wanes, it still exhibits the qualities of a fine yánchá.

After one final sip before I prepare another steeping, of which number I’ve now since lost count, I breathe out and enjoy the crisp, clean, mineral flavor that continues to linger. The characteristic 巖韻 yányùn (lit. “rock/cliff rhyme”) of the tea is still here. So, too, are the other classic five distinctive qualities found in all great yánchá of Wǔyíshān.

huó, which exudes the liveliness and active flavors that still play upon my palate. 甘 gān, the sweetness of smoked and dried plums that lingers in the back of my throat and space beside the base of my tongue. 清 qīng, found in the clarity of the tea’s liqueur and taste. 香 xiāng, still present in the residual aromatic fragrance that still continues well past the tenth brew. And, finally, 巖骨 yángǔ, the “rock bones” of the tea, as it still has substance and the heartiness akin to eating meat.

For a moment more, I sit, and let the flavors fade. One last draught of hot water is poured out from my kettle. One last chance to taste that which will come forth from these leaves.

I pause for a while and watch the steam rise and dissipate from the open mouth of the teapot. The dull, dim light of late afternoon shining across the flat surface of water.

Lid placed atop the pear-shaped pot, my focus shifts to admire the objects one more time, now caught in the cool light of a Winter’s day.

The gold of my ring still warm.

The grains of the bamboo still soft.

The wide expanse of the old wooden plank I use for a tea table wave-like and wondering. A field upon which the mind can get lost within its many swirls and gentle curves.

Even in the dwindling dusk, the old silver coin sparkles, light reflecting against its worn edges and the condensation left behind by the teapot lid that once rest upon its face.

I lift the teapot once more and pour its contents out, again, between the three small cup. The tea is still there, still giving, not waning like the light of the day; its color dark, instead, like the coming night.

In the quiet of this time I sit in silence. I observe stillness that exists between night and day, as one world fades into another. I look down to enjoy the sight of the empty teapot, its lid resting at an angle atop the open mouth of the cooling clay vessel. This, too, is caught in a moment between action and inaction. In a tenuous stillness of doing and not doing.

Not yet emptied of its tea leaves, not yet cleaned. Not yet boxed up, not yet put away. Not yet forgotten, not yet remembered. Not yet longed for, and not yet brought back for enjoyment. It, like a memory, is caught in a liminal space.

As the light of the sun disappears over the hills beyond my home, I peer from my window up towards the now deep blue sky. A half moon. On its way to fullness. Bright against the bleakness of a season that has yet to fully form. Half way towards realization. All it will take is time.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

The Sun Shakes Off the Snow

Sometimes Winter stays. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to want to go away. A cold day can last for hours but feel like an eternity. There is a somber quality to snow; it blankets the ground, producing a clean white canvas where trees and rocks and hills are reduced to minimal shapes. This might feel like a welcoming world for those who enjoy the stark quietude that arises from this setting. For others, this icy encasement is a tomb. Cold, barren, deathlike.

Yet, assuredly, Winter slowly fades. Not all at once, but like someone who is waking from a long sleep. Feeling returns to the body. Light becomes perceivable through the thin membrane of the eyelids, through the crisscrossed latticework of lashes. Eyes open. Forms begin to materialize. In these moments between slumber and waking, we forget our dreams and the inexplicable unease of a nightmare. Visions that once enthralled us are now inaccessible, the chasm of unconsciousness too vast to cross.

As Winter thaws and its icy grip loosens, Spring’s warm light slowly creeps in. The sun shakes off the snow, causing crystalline cascades to crash down from the bowed limbs of pine trees. Birds emerge from their hideaways. Rabbits lollop and bound over snowdrifts. Foxes dart and skip from the corners between garden and forest. Shadows bend and play in the new light that comes with this time, running over mounds and valleys articulated in the melting snow. Water drips from the eves of my house, from the standing pole in the field. The old lunisolar calendar is right. This is the first of Spring. 입춘 Ipchun (立春 Lìchūn in Mandarin, Risshun in Japanese , Lập xuân in Vietnamese). The first solar term of the new year.

As the Northern Hemisphere warms, humans, caught in their myriad of global existential crises, still seem locked, frozen in place. Nature always seems to be one step ahead of the human world, waking before them. Spring winds begin to blow, the first buds form on the iron-like plum branches, and cracks form across the ice that covers ponds, snapping and popping and echoing in the silence of the cold.

I sit inside my indoor tea space, waiting, wanting to reconnect with friends I haven’t seen since this pandemic, friends whom I haven’t seen for years. Staring across the rolling hills of snow in my garden, I hear footsteps tread across the path to my front door.

A package from a dear friend in Korea bearing gifts wrapped in red and yellow handmade paper, tied up in colorful thread. Although I haven’t seen this friend in over a decade now, the package awakens memories of when we first met, one frigid Winter long ago. I spread the gifts across the long-stretched length of my wooden tea table. A world wrapped in snow. Gifts wrapped in paper.

I slowly pull the ribbon way. Peel paper apart.

A bundle of tea, compressed within a tube of bamboo. 죽통차 jugtongcha. Bamboo tube tea. I am elated. A tea I’ve never tried before. Although similar to 後發酵茶 hòu fājiào chá of Southwest China, 후발효차 hubalhyocha (post-fermented dark tea) is distinctively its own form of tea. Produced from semi-wild tea leaves grown on the slopes of 지리산 Jirisan in South Korea, the leaves will undoubtedly be a tangled mix of compressed green tea buds.

Printed upon the small packet in Chinese characters (oftentimes reserved for honorific names) is the tea’s poetic name 「碧芽春 」Biyachun. “Azure Bud of Spring”. A nod to what is soon to come. I gently feel the shape of the compressed tea through the white paper covering before setting it down and moving on to the next package.

This neatly wrapped item is heavier in the hand. Something solid with mass is hidden within the paper sheath.

I remove the tied string and paper to reveal a small, high-shouldered 분청사기 buncheong-jagi vase. I set it down and appreciate its form and beautiful blush and grey color. Closer inspection shows a fine network of crazing upon its surface and small iron-oxide spots formed by the heat of the kiln.

I pick the vessel up, roll it in my hands. Enjoy its pure and deceptively simple shape. I upend the piece and set it down to inspect its base. The mark of famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun. A favorite of my friend. This is truly a gift.

I return the small vase back to its upright position and begin to unwrap the final package.

It is light, almost as if it were just the paper itself.

Loosening the red paper cover, I find the contents to be roll of dark cloth, hand-stitched with red thread along the edges.

As I unfurl the woven fabric, I recognize what it is: a 다포 dapo (茶布 chá bù in Mandarin). A cloth for setting teaware upon.

This is special. This is a surface upon which tea can be made, a plane upon which possibilities are endless. The color is surprising, unusual. It is the result of a traditional permission tannin dying technique. The edges stitched by my friend’s hand. The three items are a call to action, to set the kettle to boil, and to slow down and make tea. 

As if unwrapping a gift all over again, I peel the paper from the bamboo tube-packed hubalhyocha.

Picked last Spring, the tea leaves are still dark green, save for the downy silver-tipped buds that only occur during the early harvest. 

I unsheath a tea knife and begin to gently pry off a measure of tea, being mindful not to break the delicate young buds in the process.

I set the tea aside and lay out the dark cloth across my wooden tea table. Like the snow outside, the persimmon-dyed dapo is a blank canvas.

I wander out to my garden and cut a sprig of pine from the small forest. I return to the warmth of my indoor tea space and begin to arrange the wares upon the long cloth. The pine is placed into the buncheong-jagi vase.

A wooden tea tray and square of woven hemp cloth are placed atop the dark fabric.

Atop this I place a buncheong-jagi teapot and 숙우 sookwoo. An archer’s thumb ring for a lid rest.

Matching cups are placed one on top of the other. Wooden cup stands are stacked beside them.

A tea scoop made of bamboo with a poem is placed along with these objects.

The heat of the kettle rises and steam begins to coil upwards from the iron spout.

I place the measure of tea into the upturned bamboo scoop.

I arrange the wooden cup stands. I place the cups upon them.

I breath and lift the iron kettle from the heat of the brazier and pour a draught of hot water into the sookwoo. The grey and white glaze of the ceramic reacts to the warmth of the water, deepening in tone, revealing a new array of colors. Blues and pinks, purple and amber emerge from the clay.

As the water heats the sookwoo, I remove the lid from the teapot, setting it down atop the archer’s ring.

Water is then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

From teapot to cups.

As the three small cups warm, the measure of tea is further broken down and placed into the open cavity of the teapot. A gentle scent of tea rises, the first hint of what is to come. It is sweet, tannic, reminiscent of the soft aroma of Spring rain.

Water is once again poured into the sookwoo and then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

The lid is placed back upon the teapot and the tea is left to steep. One after the next, the cups are emptied, their clay bodies warmed by the heat of the water, ready to receive the first steeping of tea. I do not let the tea brew for long, knowing that, regardless, this tea will be powerful.

As I pour into the cup closest to me (usually the “host’s cup” in the traditional 茶禮/다례 darye “tea rite”), I inspect the initial color of the tea, determining whether it is ready to be fully decanted. The color is lively, deep, golden. As I begin to pour into the cup furthest from me, I see the color of the tea’s liqueur darken. The next cup is slightly darker. The cup nearest me darkens with the additional pouring. I move back the the remaining cups, adding tea to them and back the the host cup. The final drops of tea are distributed to each cup until the teapot is fully emptied of liquid.

The pot is returned to its resting position and lid removed to allow the leaves to cool, for the remaining heat to rise out of the pot.

Three cups of tea for myself and two unknown guests.

This number frequently appears in traditional East Asian numerology. It is the number of strength during tough times. The number of heaven, earth, and humanity. It is the number of Buddhist “jewels”, the three “refuges” of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

In Winter, it takes on another meaning too. As Winter is at its coldest, it is said that only three plants survive to Spring. The pine. The bamboo. The plum. Poetically, these are called the “Three Friends of Winter”. 歲寒三友/세한삼우 Sehansam-u in Korean (Suìhán sānyǒu in Mandarin, Saikan san’yū in Japanese, Tuế hàn tam hữu in Vietnamese).

I pause for a moment and reflect upon this. Friends making it through challenges together and making it to Spring.

Outside my window, snow still remains. Shadows stretch across the sparkling hills and icy drifts. The desiccated stocks of yarrow and grass poke up here and there.

Small plants peak out from icy holes from where they once grew in Spring and Summer.

Inside are warm cups of tea. A kettle boiling. What treasures these are! Old friends and memories!

The tea, the vase, the hand-stitched dapo; these are reminders of resilience. Long after the tea is gone, the last leaf steeped, long after the ceramic vase breaks, long after the deep color of the dark cloth fades; friendship will make it through to the next season, to the next lifetime.

I raise the first of three small cups to my lips and savor its beautiful aroma. Rich, warm, akin to the skin of a dried persimmon. I take a first sip. Wild, active flavors dance across my tongue, filling my mouth. It is nothing like any other tea I’ve had before. Not bitter but full-bodied. Not smoky or excessively dry, but juicy and alive.

Hints of pine resin, of tart forest berry and grape leaf. Marigold, honeysuckle, and bamboo pith. As I finish the cup, final notes of walnut skin and apricot arise. A distinctive minerality and mallow texture coats the cheeks and throat. It lingers and does not fade. I drink the second and third cup and, each time, the flavors grow in their intensity, piling up like the many thin layers of snow outside my window.

As I sit, radiant in the sensations that come from enjoying a fine tea, I pour a second draught of hot water from the kettle into the sookwoo.

Steam rises, catching sunlight. I pour the cooling water into the teapot, submerging the leaves once again. In the daylight, they begin to look more alive. Their verdant colors awaken more. Their aroma becomes more pronounced.

I place the lid back atop the small mottled grey pot and wait again for the tea to steep. The kettle sighs as it boils.

The cups sit empty, waiting for a second pour.

The bamboo scoop, with its poetry carved, rests. Who knows when next it will be call upon in service for making tea. Light filters through the sprig of pine.

I lift the teapot and begin to pour the tea again. First to the cup nearest me.

Next, to the cup furthest away. Then back and forth, from cup to cup, until each is full of the golden liqueur.

I lay the pot down again. The lid placed back upon the archer’s ring. The second steeping was intentionally faster, pulling back to express more delicate flavors.

The color of the cup is lighter, brighter. Gone is the intensity, but each flavor remains strong, pronounced.

I sit with the tea for several hours more, letting the kettle rise to a boil, refreshing it with cool water.

Outside my window, the light dims as afternoon recedes to evening. The sun settles its final beams down across the snowy landscape of my garden. Icicles hang from the plum tree beside my home, catching light. Leaves in my teapot rest.

This time I’ve had, tucked beneath the mountains that stretch along the Hudson, has revealed to me the microcosm that each season brings. There are minute steps that the world takes away from the cold of Winter and to the opening of Spring. Almost imperceptible is this transit, evinced only in the subtle shift in sunlight or the way the wind curls and carries warmth where once it produced a chill.

Friendship, too, slowly transforms, evolves, deepens even as the time between meeting widens. This change, like the incalculable shifts that occur between seasons, are not always felt. Perhaps like the seasons, it is when we are inspired by our friends to endure and to create despite all our challenges, that we feel their presence the most.

While the snow remains, Spring slowly approaches. Indeed, it is already here.

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

The Cold Earth

The journey through Winter unfolds like a walk into the wilderness. At first, it comes with the frost that overtakes the garden and is retained at its edges. The hoary frost that clings and encapsulates toothed leaves.

The freeze that finally takes the last remaining chrysanthemums.

The jagged crystalline structures that accentuate the natural geometry of twisting artemisia.

These are the final sounding knells of late Autumn as it succumbs to the dormancy of the cold season. After this point, Winter has begun. We and the whole world around us is engulfed. The untamed wild that is Winter will only feel deeper, darker, more formidable as time progresses.

The depth of Winter does not come until late January. While each day is growing lighter, temperatures continue to plummet until the earth grows hard and the mountain streams freeze over. Here, one must harden the self and to test one’s resolve in their practice.

Since moving my life closer to the mountains and streams, I’ve become evermore aware of the seasons’ cycle, their waxing and waning, entrance and climax.

Now in the depth of Winter, the mountains remain locked in ice. While not constant, when it does snow, it stays, no longer melting as it had in early January.

The garden is blanketed in white. Neighboring houses appear through the gaps between the trees, as if huddled to stay warm. On the coldest day, the apex of what is known in Japanese as 大寒 Daikan (Dàhán in Mandarin), I resolve to put my practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu to the test. Since Winter began, I’ve avoided making tea within the confines of my makeshift tea hut. Its thin walls are no true barrier to the elements. Enrobed in a layer of frozen snow, it is a difficult place to envision making and enjoying a bowl of tea. However, on the coldest day of the year, when temperatures dip to their lowest, it seems evermore a welcoming challenge.

Packing up wares and kettle, scroll and an ad hoc portable 置炉 okiro made of leftover floorboards, I make my way across the snowy garden, down a stone path to the small tea hut. As I walk, I note how even the garden has been transformed by Winter’s grip. Shapes become obscured, softened.

The thorny patch of wineberry and roses are coated in downy snow.

Rough stumps look like ink-painted mountains envisioned by 范寬 Fàn Kuān (c. 960- c. 1030). Have I, too, become a traveler among mountains and streams?

I walk over carved stepping stones, their chiseled edges wrapped in a layer of snow. I feel a tinge of sadness having disturbed their perfect, untouched form.

Even in the coldest of extremes, I notice moss still growing on the shingles roof of the wooden hut.

I push a small stone that keeps the door closed and open up the old garden shed. Cobwebs collected in the corners. Light filtering through the one window. I unroll the scroll and set the kettle to boil.

I rest the 鐶 kan upon the rough bricks that make up the 床の間 tokonoma.

For a moment, I sit and contemplate the meaning of the 掛け軸 kakejiku. 「千載一遇」Senzaiichigū. “Once in a lifetime”. Literally “to encounter once in a thousand years”. The cold is biting, even as the kettle and heat of the 炉 ro begins to warm the small interior of the hut.

I pour fresh water into the 水指 mizusashi. Before it, I place a tall 茶入 chaire, wrapped in a multicolored silken 仕服 shifuku.

In the shadows that are cast upon the surface of the rough-hewn wood. In the silence of the lonely tearoom. In the quiet that only happens when the world is covered in snow. I sit. I observe. I take in the solitary moment.

The bright spangled pigments and dimpled texture of the silken pouch. Its riotous colors against the cold white of the 鬼萩 Oni-Hagi mizusashi. The rich purple of the braided knot that keeps the lid of the chaire on tight.

I bring tea bowl and 茶筅 chasen, 茶杓 chashaku and 茶巾 chakin, and place them beside the tall chaire.

The bowl, a 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsu-chawan, is only used on the coldest days of Winter. Its high walls and slim profile help to keep the heat of the tea within its interior, keeping it warm for the guest to be served the hottest bowl of tea possible on the coldest day.

Alone, I will be both host and guest. A practitioner practicing in solitude, resolved to test his mettle against all that Winter can muster.

I position the 建水 kensui beside me. I set the 柄杓 hishaku down atop the 蓋置 futaoki. The sound of the kettle is a low, resonant hiss.

I breathe and reposition the teabowl, from left hand to right hand to down before the upper corner of the ad hoc okiro. A jumble of old floorboards. A pile of dust. I lift the chaire and place it before the tsutsu-chawan. Both bowl and tea container are of equal height.

I reach down with both hands and delicately untie the braided cord of the shifuku pouch.

I loosen the strings and gathered fabric. I peel the silk from the smooth ceramic sides of the chaire.

I place the ceramic tea container down before me. I place the shifuku beside the mizusashi. The multicolor pattern upon its dimpled surface now muted in the cold light and shadows that stretch across the floor made of the pressboard within the austere interior of the wooden hut.

I let my gaze rest upon the tall, slim chaire. The bone lid.

The iridescent drip of glaze that runs down its front. Its refinement and its rustic qualities. I lift it and cleanse it with my folded 袱紗 fukusa.

Once purified, I place it beside the lower corner of the mizusashi. The chashaku follows, cleansed and placed atop the lid of the chaire. Finally, the chasen is placed beside these objects, set between mizusashi and okiro.

All that is left is to remove the chakin and add hot water into the teabowl.

I remove the lid from the iron 茶釜 chagama.

The sound of boiling water rises, competing with the sound of the slight breeze that passes through the pine trees that hang over the hut.

The bamboo ladle is dipped into the open mouth of the old iron kettle and hot water is drawn and poured into the tube-shaped chawan. A plume of steam rises from the dark void of the teabowl. The kettle is closed again to retain its heat.

The chasen is placed lightly into the center of the teabowl. The thin tines of the bamboo whisk disappear into darkness and shadow. The whisk is softened by the heat of the water, flexed and inspected and placed back beside the chaire, between the mizusashi and okiro. The chawan is emptied and wiped with the chakin. Only the inner walls are cleansed. The bottom of the bowl is too deep to reach into.

I breathe and lift the chashaku from the atop the chaire and pause before I lift the tea container. I remove the lid and place it to the side of the tsutsu-chawan. The two become a contrast of dark and light, rough and smooth.

Even the floor provides a juxtaposition to the lid which now rests upon it. The scattered array of chipped wood and jumble of printed words; a curious canvas upon which this object has been placed.

I remove three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder from the chaire and place each, one on top of the other, into the dark center of the teabowl. Next, I lay the wooden chashaku down upon the rim of the chawan and tilt the chaire over, letting the remaining contents within it cascade downward into the teabowl.

The chaotic pile it creates is akin to the mounds of snow that have accumulated around the eaves and corners of my house, made out in vibrant green.

I replace the lid atop the chaire and set it back down between the mizusashi and chasen. I inscribe the sigil of my school into the tea with the curved top of the chashaku and tap it lightly against the inner edge of the teabowl. I bright, bell-like sound chimes from the high-fired clay of the ceramic tea vessel.

Tea powder now in bowl, I reach for the hishaku once more and remove the kettle’s lid to draw water once again. A high, constant his emerges from the mouth of the iron kettle as I pull water from it, adding a minute amount to the tea powder within the tsutsu-chawan.

I set the hishaku atop the kettle, to wait until I need it again. I reach now for the chasen, lifting it from its resting position and placing within the mixture of matcha and hot water. I slowly begin to press and knead into the two substances, methodically mixing them together until the form a thick aromatic paste. Unable to see into the bowl of tea, I rely solely on muscle memory. I feel the tea and try to recognize when it is ready.

I lift the hishaku once again from the kettle and with right hand holding the ladle and left hand lifting the chasen slightly out of the chawan, I pour a second measure of hot water into the teabowl.

I continue to mix the tea together, its consistency becoming thinner, though still viscous. The fragrance of tea filling the space, blending with the crisp scent of snow. My breath matching the slow, controlled cadence of the whisk, as I try not to let the carved bamboo blades touch the inner walls of the teabowl. Even whisking in a tube-shaped chawan is done differently, more mindfully. All of this against the backdrop of the coldest day of the year.

As I finish, I lift the whisk out of the bowl and place it upright beside the chaire, between the mizusashi and okiro.

The bowl of 濃茶 koicha is complete.

I pause and stare down at the tall chawan. A glint of green light shines back up at me from the depths of the dark vessel. Dark clay. Dark shadows. Dark pitted patterns against its inner walls. I lift the bowl and turn it so that the 正面 shōmen faces away from me. I offer a small bow and give thanks for my health, for the health of my friends and family, and for this moment, once in a lifetime.

I tilt the bowl as I bring it to my lips. The intense aroma of tea, of warm unglazed ceramic, of snow and ice, of the iron kettle and the paper scroll in the alcove. I peer down the long, dark cavern that is the tsutsu-chawan. In the dim light of the tea hut, the interior of the vessel appears mysterious, the tea an apparition at the end of a tunnel. Winter is like this. At one moment a beloved entrance into a season of togetherness, of warmth, of celebration and the coming of new possibilities. In this same moment, it is long, unending, cold and cruel, dormant and dead. In this environment of extremes, one’s practice is tested.

In the traditions of 禅 zen and the various martial arts of Japan, Winter was historically treated as such. During the coldest days, ascetic practitioners engaged in 寒稽古 kangeiko, to test the limits of their spirit. On this, the coldest day of Winter, I have been tested.

As I set down the teabowl, steam rises from my mouth and from the mouth of the tsutsu-chawan. A single trail of thick tea crawls slowly back down the inner wall of the vessel.

The deep green color caught in a streak of light that enters the empty void of the teabowl. I pour hot water into the chawan and pour this into the kensui.

I remove cool water from the mizusashi and use it to cleanse the teabowl and chasen. Extra effort is made to do this as the residual tea is thick and not easily lifted from the surface of the bowl, from the bamboo tines of the tea whisk.

Once cleansed, I place the folded chakin back into the center of the chawan. The chasen I place atop this. The chashaku, with tea dust now wiped from its curved carved tip, is set along the rim of the teabowl.

The objects, still warm to the touch, are placed beside the chaire, which has been shifted back in front of the mizusashi.

Space exists between them both.

Room enough to breathe.

Room enough to coexist. 間 ma.

Cold water it drawn from the mizusashi once more and placed into the open mouth of the boiling kettle. Cold water and hot water mix and calm the roiling boil contained in the 釜 kama. The sound, the bright and lively hiss, returns to a dull hum. There is the sound of crows cawing and sifting through the snow outside the tea hut.

The hishaku is moved from right hand into left. The bronze lid slides back onto the kettle’s mouth, set slightly ajar. A thread of steam rises from the gap. The mizusashi is closed. The hishaku and kensui are placed together.

The top of the futaoki is wiped and placed with the ladle and waste water bowl. Shadows have shifted. Light collects inside objects and concave volumes. Glaze with crackles that resemble ice. Cold, defined shapes in soft, dull sunlight.

I move the teabowl and produce a wooden tray to conduct 拝見 haiken. The grains of the old 香盤 kōban somehow remind me of time passing as I place the lid of the chaire atop this surface. Humble and ordinary are the rings on a tree. Only when cut on an angled bias do they stretch and yawn and expose themselves. Time, once deemed a collection of interchanging intervals, stripes that circle the heartwood, are pulled apart. Left to be examined as long, uneven patterns, random, chaotic, beginning and ending with no apparent meaning.

When Winter brings death and dormancy, sickness on a vast scale as we’ve seen, with these memories stretch and yawn and sear into our collective consciousness? Will we avoid them, shut them out, close the door and create walls around them as we do on this coldest of Winter’s day? What will the tree rings of time show of this year? Of the next? Of the final years that we cling to this fragile earth, now hardened and cold? Was this the coldest of day or will tomorrow be? Will this coldness never end? Are the plum branches outside my window made of iron or will they once again bloom?

「千載一遇」Senzaiichigū.

“Once in a lifetime”.

“To encounter once in a thousand years”. What will we see while we are still alive? 

The chaire is cleansed and set down. Next, the shifuku. Finally, the chashaku. Arranged beside one another. Caught in the dim light. Caught in the contrasting shadows. Against the craziness of the construction plywood and of my madness that drove me out into the cold to practice tea. Kangeiko called me and forced me to make a bowl of thick tea, to prove I could, against all odds, to live even as there is death and desolation all around me.

The empty chaire. Gold foil under its bone lid.

The silk shifuku pouch. Empty. Made of fabric of found 着物 kimono.

The wooden chashaku, carved from an evergreen.

Like those that hang over the roof of this hut.

Warm hues. Cold light of a Winter day. The rising hiss of the kettle returning. Heat radiating from its iron skin.

Haiken is a nonverbal answer to an unspoken 公案 kōan (gōng’àn in Mandarin, 공안 gong-an in Korean, công án in Vietnamese).

To provoke great doubt into one’s practice. To push it to the point where logic falls to the wayside. To the point where only known, lived truths dwell. To awaken to this.

Objects are set aside. The bowl is brought back before me.

A void. A dark mystery still.

The flame-licked exterior of the tube-shaped bowl, discolored where ash and heat brushed against its clay surface.

I lift it up slightly and roll it in my hands. The clay is still warm from when it once held the heat from the kettle, the vitality from the tea. I turn it over and inspect its 高台 kōdai. It is low-slung. Cut and carved-out.

The name of its maker, possibly that of the contemporary Bizen potter 黒田 美紀 Kuroda Miki, is barely decipherable. Small stones and pebbles and grains of sand explode out onto the exterior. A mess of reds and purples, browns and whites. Like a rejected old brick.

I return the bowl to its upright position.

The form is obscured when viewed from up close. The individual thumb prints. The pinches that pressed against the outer walls. Again, marks of its maker, but if a different kind. No name, just the reminders of the action. No words, just truth.

Does what forms the exterior also form that which is found within?

Is the surface an indicator of the void?

Tracks of a solitary animal caught crossing the snow.

An excursion out into the cold on the coldest day of Winter.

Once in a lifetime.

Perhaps, soon, the ice will melt.

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

What Welcomes Winter

November began and now seems as if it is almost over. What began as a last stand for Autumn’s glory now seems torn and tattered like the many leaves that still cling to the trees around my tea house. Save for the few maple trees that still hold onto their leaves, the small forest that abuts my wooden hut is bare, wind whips through the branches, whistling sweetly. Mornings are cold. The rain of October is replaced with lighter occasional showers, intermittently broken by bright blue skies of daybreak.

Frost forms. A thin surface of ice covers small pools of rainwater left on the edges of my garden. Bright red rose hips alight the otherwise colorless world. Autumn’s last hydrangeas are dry and brittle. What welcomes Winter are these minute indicators. Not one but all at the same time seem to arrive like a royal retinue, heralding the new season, forcing all beings to bow to Winter’s undeniable influence.

The tea world is not immune to these effects. Everything about the practice shifts at this time. Gone are the regular outings to the river’s edge for an impromptu 野点 nodate. The matchstick partitions and 簾 sudare blinds that once welcomed cool breezes have been folded up and stored away, not to return until Summer’s heat rises. The last of Autumn’s wild grasses are featured in the 床間 tokonoma, but hazel and Winter chrysanthemum seem more appropriate. The tea jar is cut open and the 風炉 furo is finally put away in favor for the 炉 ro. The tiny world of the tearoom becomes all the more intimate as people gather closer to the sunken hearth.

In these times of pandemic, I have only one guest, my partner, and I do not invite friends to share tea. We huddle together in the biting cold on the first day of the tenth lunar month to mark the shift in season. 立冬 Ritto. The first day of Winter on the old lunar calendar. In lieu of having a sunken hearth, I use an old 火鉢 hibachi made from a single burl of paulownia wood. In the makeshift tearoom, it, and the iron kettle set within it, are the only source of heat.

Typically, the opening of the ro (炉開 robiraki or 開炉 kairo) comes sometime between late October to early November, when the presence of Winter is first felt. The 16th century teapractitioner千利休 Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591) took a rather poetic approach, shifting to the 囲炉裏 irori only once the 柚子 yuzu turned color. Others, still, wait for the first day of the tenth lunar month. It was believed that on the tenth (double) hour of the first day of the tenth month (the hour of the boar on the first day of the month of the boar) that it would be safe to transition to a sunken hearth, as this hour was linked to the element water, ensuring a safe use of fire in the house (and tea space). I have chosen to make tea in accordance with this tradition, however, given how cold the day was, I opted to set the time earlier.

Regardless, as we enter the small tea hut, the light remains dim. Steam rises from the kettle, its lid resting at an angle. The sound of the boiling water within it produces a steady hiss, akin to the sound of wind pressing through the small forest.

With the door closed behind us, we spend a brief moment to appreciate a lone dried-out sprig of hydrangea flowers, worn and weathered yet still brilliant and sparkling like silver in the limited light of the tearoom.

As I set down in the position of host and my partner in the position of guest, I offer a bow and tea sweets made of fragrant jelly and sweet chestnut, set atop a large leaf plucked from a nearby maple tree.

Before me sits the 水指 mizusashi and 茶入 chaire enrobed in a silk 私服 shifuku pouch.

Stitched upon the green and gold brocade are the patterns of chrysanthemum and pine. One, the last echoes of Autumn. The other, the fresh arrival of new Winter’s growth. A time of transition.

I move the chaire over to the right and place the tea bowl, 茶筅 chasen and 茶杓 chashaku beside it.

Next, I bring out the 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and 蓋置 futaoki, setting these on either side of me.

Preparing tea in the ro season calls for a more intimate arrangement. The 茶碗 chawan and chaire are placed at an angle, set closer to the guest and to the heat of the sunken hearth.

As each object is cleansed, they are set between the mizusashi and kettle, bridging the gap between the source of hot fire and cool water.

The chaire is removed from the shifuku.

The chashaku is placed atop the lid of the tea container.

The chasen is placed beside this.

The chawan is brought closer to the host. Hot water is drawn from the kettle for the first time and poured into the black void of the 黒瀬戸茶碗 kuro Seto chawan. Steam rises and swirls in thin plumes as the water enters and settles into the tea bowl.

I set the flat tines of the chasen into the bowl and for a moment they catch the light that filters through the one window cut into the tearoom. The whisk and bowl are cleansed and warmed. The chasen is returned beside the chaire.

The water is poured from tea bowl to kensui. I pause and wait for the final drop of water to roll out of the chawan before wiping the vessel dry with the 茶巾 chakin.

I return the bowl before me and reach for the chashaku. I bow and motion to my partner to enjoy the sweet as I begin to prepare a bowl of tea. I bring the chaire to my center and remove the lid, placing it beside the tea bowl. I press the curved tip of the chashaku into the opening of the chaire and pull out three scoops of bright 抹茶 matcha powder.

I place the teascoop atop the rim of the chawan. As I tilt the chaire over and pour powdered tea into the tea bowl, I notice how light and shadow play off of one another. The bright green cascade of tea falling into the black bowl. The angled darkness forming from the edges of the chawan and lid of the chaire. The dark skin of the smoky-colored bamboo and the thin layer of tea clinging to it.

I lift the tea container and place the lid back atop it. I pick up the chashaku and mark the mound of tea.

I remove the lid of the iron 茶釜 chagama and pull water from it, pouring a some of the water into the chawan and over the tea and returning the rest to the kettle.

The tea is kneaded slowly with the thick, flat tines of the chasen. Slowly the concoction becomes a thick green paste. Slowly the scent of tea overtakes the aroma of incense, of the decaying leaves outside, of the fresh pine needle buds that brush against the moss-covered roof of the tea hut.

More water is added to the mixture and the tea is, again, slowly whisked until it achieves a mirror-like appearance. Light once again enters the tea bowl, illuminating now the emerald pool of thick tea.

I lift the bowl and place it in front of my partner. A bowl to share, unconventionally, between guest and host. As they lift the bowl and enjoy the first sip, I wait in silence.

As second and third sip are enjoyed, I pick up the last lone tea sweet and eat it before the tea is passed to me.

A single trail of 濃茶 koicha runs up one side of the inner wall of the tea bowl. As I lift and turn the bowl to drink from it, I make sure that I drink beside this track of tea. Slowly, as I tilt the bowl to drink from it, the koicha climbs down from the center. Light from the window bounces off the rounded well of the chawan, off the unctuous layer of tea that lines the vessel, off the minuscule pocks and pores of the black glaze. The tea slowly makes its way to my mouth and soon is gone. All that remains is a thin layer that now coats the bottom of the tea bowl.

With bowl placed once again before me, I opt to make an informal gesture and whisk the remaining tea into a bowl of 薄茶 usucha. Hot water is scooped once again from the chagama and poured into the chawan.

In the swirling steam that emanates from the tea bow, I quickly whisk a bowl of tea for my partner, offering another moment to enjoy the shift from Autumn to Winter, from something somber to something light, unexpected, relaxed. In this transition from furo to ro, the sentiment in the tea space becomes less formal and less constrained.

The ro, itself, was not part of the formal tea room arrangement, only making its way into the emerging practice of tea as the rustic aesthetic of 侘茶 wabicha became more widely adopted. Appropriating, adopting and adapting forms from kitchens, travelers’ inns and hermit huts, the sunken hearth calls host and guest to gather closer, to share the heat, to offer everything that one can muster as what is available becomes more meager in the cold Winter months. To transform the “waste” and dregs of tea as an offering to one’s guest is, itself, a gift during this time. Unconventional but welcomed. Like the ro itself, or, in the case of my makeshift tea hut, an old hibachi.

With the final bowl of tea drunk, I cleanse the bowl one last time. Water is added first from the chagama to the bowl and then poured into the kensui. Next, cool water is drawn from the mizusashi and poured into the chawan. The bowl and chasen are cleansed and placed one inside the other. The chashaku is wiped again with the 服紗 fukusa, removing the residual tea dust from the tip of the tea scoop.

The chaire is moved back to rest in front of the mizusashi. The chawan and collected wares resting within it are placed beside the chaire. A drought of cool water is added to the chagama and the lid is placed atop it.

The mizusashi is closed. The black lacquer lid appears like a dark void, caught in the angular light that beams through the small tearoom.

In the waning moments of the tea gathering, I offer 拝見 haiken to my partner, giving them a final opportunity to appreciate the tea ware and the quiet of the tea space. Each item is purified before presented.

The lid of the chaire and the chaire itself.

The shifuku is plucked from its resting position beside the mizusashi and rearranged to sit beside the chaire it once covered and protected.

Finally, the chashaku is cleaned one last time and placed between the shifuku pouch and tea container.

In the low light of the tearoom each item glows.

The glaze of the small chaire holds an iridescent golden shine.

The shifuku pouch, emblazoned in a tessellated pattern of pine and chrysanthemum, sparkles.

The hazy pattern upon the bamboo skin of chashaku appears like a moon peering through a thick clouds of night. Despite the chill in the air, the light in the tearoom is warm, echoed by the heat that radiates from the simmering kettle.

Objects are returned to the host and the chawan is offered for one last viewing. A kuro Seto tea bowl.

Coated mostly in a black glaze, the texture of which is reminiscent of the dimples surface of citrus skin (柚子黒 yuzu-guro), save for the exposed clay of the foot.

The cut calligraphic mark of the potter, 杉浦芳樹 Sugiura Yoshiki (1915-1982) catches shadow and light.

The imprint of the artist’s life left within the clay, felt by the palm of those who’ve since held his work. The imprint of this moment left in the minds of guest and host, two partners as we endeavor to make a life together amidst the chaos of the world. All set against the ever-changing constant swirl of the seasons, one transitioning into another.

What welcomes Winter is what we see and what we feel. Demarcations on a calendar, one the freezing of the earth, on the chafing colors of the leaves on the trees and on the surface of a citrus’ skin. A hole cut out in the center of a tea space. A void where once the furo sat in Summer. The exchange of one thing for another. Of time. Of things that may no longer return come the next year. Of death and decay. What welcomes Winter now may, indeed, never be seen again, save for the impressions they’ve left on our mind.

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Breaking the Heat: Lotus Viewing and Morning Rain

The bridge that extends between July and August marks the hottest days of Summer. Known in the traditional lunar calendar of Japan as 大暑 Taisho, this brief period marks the final knell of the season’s heat, before the eventual ease into the cool of Autumn. All around, the air grows heavy and damp, and the earth swells with moisture. In this climate, earth and air conjoin in an exchange, often met with occasional Summer showers and outbursts of rain and thunder.

After a night of intense heat, I wake to find the world quiet and cool. During the early morning, rain broke the heat of the arriving day, running down the broad leaves of trees and refreshing the earth. Inspired, I take to my tearoom and prepare water to bring to a boil.

Once set, I sift bright green 抹茶 matcha into a tall ceramic 茶入 chaire. I pull from my tea cabinet a wide 桐箱 kiribako.

Wrapped in a cloth decorated with twisting vines, I pull forth an old Vietnamese celadon teabowl from the Lý-Trần period (13th-14th centuries), worn and weathered by time. I wet the bowl to bring it to life. Liquid fills its pores. Color returns to the clay.

I submerge a 茶巾 chakin in cool water and squeeze the linen cloth in my hands, pushing out the water it had absorbed. I fold the chakin and place it in the center of the old moss green 安南焼茶碗 Anam-yaki chawan. Atop this, I place a wetted 茶筅 chasen made of dark bamboo.

Wares are brought into the tearoom in waves. First the chaire, which is placed before the 水指 mizusashi. Next the teabowl and accompanying équipage. Finally, the 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and 蓋置 futaoki.

The door is shut. The fading scent of incense lingers in the air. The light in the room is muted. The sound of the rain outside the window blends with the low boiling hum of the kettle. I sit and breathe. I arrange the wares and ready each in preparation for a bowl of tea.

The chawan is placed before the kettle. The chaire, in its brocaded 仕服 shifuku pouch, is placed before the chawan.

Set together, the soft colors of shifuku and the old celadon harmonize.

I reach down with both hands and undo the cord that ties the silk cloth together.

Methodically, I loosen and remove the chaire from the shifuku.

I place the pouch between the mizusashi and the edge of the wooden 小板 ko-ita, atop which the 風炉 furo stands.

I cleanse the chaire with the folded 袱紗 fukusa and place it back a before the mizusashi.

I slowly inhale as I refold the fukusa. Holding it in my left hand, I exhale as I then reach out with my right hand to pick up the 茶杓 chashaku.

I press the carved and smoothed tip of the tea scoop into the folds of the purple silk of the fukusa, running the cloth from center to rounded end, back to center and back to tip.

I repeat this motion once more and place the scoop atop the lid of the chaire in one fluid action.

I remove the chasen and place it beside the chaire. I remove the chakin, lightly twist it between my left and right hands over the kensui, and refold it, momentarily placing it atop the black lacquer lid of the mizusashi.

I lift the hishaku, hold it between thumb and index finger of my left hand, and with my right hand, remove the lid from the boiling 茶釜 chagama, setting it upon the ceramic futaoki. The sound of the kettle grows once the lid is removed. A thin, wispy column of steam rises from the open mouth of the chagama. Beads of moisture condense and cling to the edge of the opening. I transfer the bamboo ladle from left to right hand and dip the carved cup into the boiling water. Air caught in the wooden scoop exhales audibly as it fills with water. With a steady hand, I breathe inward, drawing forth a ladle’s worth of hot water.

Exhalation, and I pour the water into the center of the teabowl. The color of the glaze deepens around the edges where the water meets the bowl, as liquid saturates the centuries-old vessel. I dip the flat tines of the chasen into the warm water. Their color darkens too as they drink up the water, absorbing it, becoming more pliable.

Once cleansed, I place the chasen back next to the chaire. I pour the water from the teabowl to the kensui and wipe the edges and inner surface of the chawan with the chakin. I look down at the teabowl. It looks back up at me, refreshed like a stone in a garden path after a Summer’s rain. Beaming and glistening. It is an ancient color caused by the creative energies of an artisan, affected by the countless years.

Along the rim, glaze once pooled and held to the clay body, caught forever in suspension by the heat of the kiln.

Along its outer edges, a craftsperson’s knife lightly pressed into the still-soft clay to create a subtle foliate design, an impression of lotus petals unfurling as Summer’s heat gently coaxes each fragrant bud to emerge, first from the baked mud of the wetland, to later bloom after a refreshing rain. Even after the centuries, even after the rise and fall of countless kingdoms, and even after the myriads of awakenings, the pattern still remains clear.

I turn back to the chashaku and chaire. I open the ceramic tea container, setting the lid beside the chawan.

I dip the teascoop into the soft green tea powder and lift out the first of three scoops of matcha.

Once a small heap has formed in the center of the bowl, I place the carved chashaku atop the edge of the chawan.

I tilt the chaire and let all remaining tea cascade down into the bowl. A fine cloud of tea dust rises from the bowl, followed by the fragrant scent of fresh green tea. The lid is placed back onto the chaire and the container is placed back beside the chasen.

Plucking the teascoop again as if I were lifting a calligraphy brush, I inscribe a simple sigil into the mound of tea dust, breaking its gentle organic form. Adding an impression upon perfect chaos.

I return the teascoop to the lid of the chaire. I remove the lacquered lid of the mizusashi and place it upright against the side of the fresh water vessel. I notch my hand along the long handle of the hishaku and press the bamboo cup deep into the hot water of the chagama.

A minute amount of water is poured into the chawan, slowly surrounding and seeping into the tea powder. I return the remaining liquid back to the water boiling inside the iron chagama.

I lift the chasen and slowly press the tines into the tea. With a series of repeated back and forth motions, I methodically fold and knead the tea and water together into a thick, lacquer-like paste. Small peaks form and curl and fall as the blades of the chasen cut and comb into the tea and water concoction.

In the quiet stillness of the tearoom, the aroma of matcha replaces the scent of aloeswood. With my left hand, I lift and tilt the chasen to the side, momentarily enjoying the sight of tea paste clinging to the curled tips of each bamboo tine. With my other hand, I lightly balance the hishaku and scoop water out of the chagama, letting it run through the blades of the tea whisk as I pour into the teabowl.

The hishaku is returned to rest upon the opening mouth of the kettle and the chasen is put to work to further knead the tea and water into a consistent brew. In this process, I focus my mind. Time begins to slow down. All that is around me falls away. The rain outside. The kettle before me. The glimmer of fresh water in the mizusashi. The shadows that pool around the edges of each object. The swirling grains within the wide wooden plank atop which I’ve set the wares. The patterns cut into the tea.

The repetition of motion. Whisking. Scooping. Lifting up and setting down of objects. One mind observing these. One mind caught in each moment. Is this the same mind that was once a baby? Once a child? Once a teenager? Now an adult, realizing this moment? Each past mind seems so different, so distant. Each with its own sense of self. Its own sense of truth. What was the mind before it was born? A lotus pushes up from the mud.

I lift the whisk straight up from the thick pool of 濃茶 koicha. I place it back down next to the chaire. The objects sit together in the dim light of the morning. Together with the gentle sound of the rain and the tea kettle.

I peer down into the antique chawan. The soft color of aged celadon and the striking emerald of the tea. As I bring the bowl towards me, I see my reflection caught in the mirror-like surface of the koicha. It bends and changes as the thick liquid draws down the inner edge of the teabowl, slowly pooling and pouring and pressing against my lips as I take my first sip from the bowl. The feeling of the first taste instantly awakes me. It courses through me. Enlivens my mind. Quickens my pulse. Two more sips and the tea is fully consumed, save for the dregs that cling to the side of the bowl.

I produce from my inner chest pocket a 古袱紗 kobukusa, a square of woven silk of with patterns of water plants stitched in 金蘭 kinran gold brocade. I unfold this and press it flat against the wooden plank.

Upon this I place the antique teabowl and for a moment I enjoy the single track of bright green tea against the old celadon. I admire how it catches the light. Iridescent like rain running off a roof tile. Slick like a lotus leaf floating on a pool.

I reposition the antique chawan to my side and place a grey 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan before me. Out of respect for the ancient Vietnamese vessel, I use this humble grey bowl as a 替茶碗 kae-chawan, a spare teabowl used to clean the chasen.

I draw cool water from the mizusashi and pour it into the Ido chawan. I press the chasen into the bowl and whisk-off the residual tea that clings to the flat bamboo tines. I pour the cool water from the teabowl into the kensui and place the folded chakin into its center.

I rest the chasen pointed upright against the chakin. With the fukusa, I cleanse the chashaku before it, too, is set atop the kae-chawan. The bowl is shifted to the left. The chaire is placed beside it.

As I close my sitting for tea, I pour cool water into the chagama, halting the rolling boil of the hot water for tea. The lid is placed back upon it. The lacquered lid is returned atop the mizusashi. The hishaku and futaoki are placed together with the kensui.

I arrange a final 拝見 haiken of the chaire, the shifuku and the chashaku. I cleanse the chaire and place it upon a 香盤 kōban.

I pick up the shifuku from between the mizusashi and furo and carefully place it atop the kōban.

Finally, I place the chashaku between the two objects.

For a moment, I sit and admire each. The way their different spirits harmonize with one another. How their textures play off of one another. How their colors differ yet are at ease.

The striped pattern of the shifuku and the grain of the teascoop.

The flecks of black and copper-blue hues within the glaze of the chaire in contrast with the warm tones of the chashaku.

For a brief moment the rain pours heavy outside my window. I spend this time in meditation, cleansing the remnants of koicha from the antique teabowl. As the Summer storm lifts, I place the cleansed bowl before me.

As light returns to the morning sky, pushing through the dark clouds that had collected, I inspect the chawan, turning it in my hand. The carved 高台 kōdai catches the light coming through the windows. The soft indentations upon the clay carved by the artisan’s knife.

The deep brown glaze brushed within the center of the 高台内 kōdai-uchi. The bowl reveals small features with each viewing. The first time is not like the last. Nuances emerge.

Cracks and crazing on the surface. Depth from pale color. Detail found in simple patterns. The clay retains the coolness of the water it once held. It feels refreshing in the hand. The last of the rainwater is heard dripping from the eaves over the window. The heat of the day rises once more.

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