Category Archives: Japan

The Taste of Meditation

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There is an old saying that “Tea and Zen are of one taste” (茶禅一味). A bit of a kōan (公案; Chinese: 公案, gōng’àn; Korean: 공안 kong’an; Vietnamese: công án), the phrase is meant to both give rise to “great doubt” and spark the onset of a meditative mind. At the core of this mindset is the realization of one’s inability to grasp that which is logical, therefore forcing one to inquire withing and rely upon intuition, direct experience and wisdom.

The phrase also alludes to the close link that tea and meditation have had over the centuries. Beginning in the Tang and continuing through the end of the Song (from 500-1300), the rise of both tea culture alongside Buddhist meditation (chán 禪, Chinese for the Sanskrit word dhyāna ध्यान , meaning “meditation”, the Japanese word being zen, seon 선 in Korean) had a profound effect on one another. Commonly produced in monasteries for its medicinal properties, tea was also consumed as a means to wake the mind (through tea’s energizing properties). Paired as an aid to meditation, the physical act of making tea was similarly viewed as meditative, as it requires a certain level of mindfulness to achieve the desired results.

As tea continued to evolve in tandem with Buddhist schools of meditation, it was shaped by the people and cultures it came into contact with. Subsequent practitioners, from the Japanese Zen Buddhists and lay people of the Sengoku period (c. 1467 – c. 1603) who developed chanoyu  (茶の湯, the Japanese tea ceremony), to the Korean Seon Buddhist monks like Cho’ui (writer of the Dashinjeon 다신전(茶神傳, literally “Tea Spirit Record”), 1830) who linked meditation more directly to tea preparation, would continue this trend, pointing the way for modern tea people to follow.

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To the tea practitioner, the mere act of making tea can bring about a meditative state of mind, as each tea, vessel, teapot, kettle, cup, and scoop can bring about a myriad of possibilities. From the way a certain clay cools to when or where a tea was harvested, to how one pours water over the tea leaves, or even the temperature of the air, attentiveness to all of these factors and more is the essence of “now-mindedness”.

32207696_10103510293954638_2219173296484646912_nIt is in this moment, the moment of sitting down to make tea, that one must rely upon what they know and how it ultimately bears against what they do not know. It is from this interaction with and inquiry into these dual aspects that great tea can be made.

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This morning, as I make a meditation out of preparing tea, I ponder this. Brewing a jakseol (작설, literally “sparrow’s tongue” green tea from Jirisan in Hadong, South Korea), the movements it requires to slowly and mindfully express the tea’s flavor are apparent. Any thoughts of the world around me, of deadlines, of things to do become nothing more than thoughts, things at the moment outside of my control.

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The water rises to a quiet boil, the buncheong-jagi 분청사기 teapot, sookwoo (water server), and tea cups (each a gift from a dear friend) are warmed. As I warm the vessels, I roll each slowly within my hand, feeling the radiant heat of the water within them climb up the inside of their earthenware walls, permeating through their dull-colored glazed exteriors.

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I carefully place the leaves of the tea within the open mouth of the teapot. The lingering heat trapped within the vessel’s clay walls begins to wake the tea and a slight hint to its flavor rises sweetly into the air.

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The water that was momentarily set to cool within the sookwoo is poured into the teapot and the lid is placed upon its top. The tea is left to brew. All visible clues as to the tea’s progress are kept at bay as the teapot sits. All information that one is left to rely upon must come from one’s own intuition and direct experience.

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The elegant yet roughly-hewn buncheong-jagi cups sit awaiting the tea. Even at this moment of stillness, of emptiness, there is a sense of meaning as the tea continues to brew.

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In a matter of mere seconds, the tea is poured and its light, bright color is exhibited against the soft, mottled grey surface of the teacup’s interior. All of the moment spent sitting in a still and mindful quietude is summed up here. All of colors of a gentle Korean Spring in the mountains of Jirisan are apparent in this cup.

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The tea is brewed and the leaves unfurled. The aroma is released and the flavor of the tea becomes, as I become, fully present.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Korea, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

When a Carp Turns Into a Dragon

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In Japan, May 5th marks Boys’ Day (端午の節句, Tango no sekku, or, in recent years, こどもの日, Kodomo no Hi, literally “Children’s Day”). A key feature of this celebration is the motif of the carp.

The significance behind this imagery is recognized throughout much of East Asia, as the carp, with its bright, scaly complexion, was believed to possess the ability to transform into a dragon. In ancient China (and subsequently in other East Asian cultures that adopted similar forms of governance), this transformative quality of the lowly carp into a noble dragon was a metaphor for succeeding in the civil service examination and a wish for a child to excel and grow.

Additionally, in China, the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (usually late-May to mid-June) marks the celebration of  Duānwǔ jié 端午节 (Dragon Boat Festival). Many scholars now believe that this was originally a day of making offerings to the dragon king, who was said to dwell in rivers and lakes. This practice continues today with the offering of zòngzi (粽子, glutenous rice wrapped in leaves) to appease voracious river carp. Oddly enough, the bamboo leaf-wrapped chimaki mochi (ちまき餅), which are often eaten during Boys’ Day in Japan, bear a cursory resemblance to these ancient offerings.

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Today, as I sit for tea, I employ a small antique carp-shaped Korean celadon water dropper (an object that would have been commonplace in a scholar’s studio) as a improvised flower vase.

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Paired with this are Korean buncheong-jagi 분청사기 teacups, a purple-hued Jūn yáo 鈞窯 teapot, and an antique bamboo teascoop inscribed with a poem about life in the mountains. The tea which I chose to brew is a Dà Hóng Páo 大紅袍 gifted by a friend. This, too, is a subtle allusion to succeeding in one’s studies as the origin story of this famous tea tells of a young scholar who was able to pass his civil service exam with the aide of the tea’s fortifying properties.

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As is often the case with tea, each element is draw together to create an overall feeling. For today, in the lingering heat of the last day of Spring (May 6th is recognized as the first day of Summer by practitioners in Japanese tea ceremony), I try to infer a sense of coolness that one feels when walking through a dew-laden path (露地, roji in Japanese). Indeed, the flower I feature, which I collected from those growing wild in my garden, helps to make reference to this. As is practiced in chanoyu, I used a wetted chasen (茶筅, tea whisk) to flick cool water upon the arrangement to further enhance this sensation of being in a cooler, more relaxing environment.

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With the tea brewing, the buncheong-jagi cups wait, their plain color offering a foil to the lustrous quality of the Jūn yáo teapot. Both the cups and teapot are gifts from artist friends. While in life these two friends have never met, they come together in a sense through the mediation of tea.

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The tea poured lets the aroma of the dark oolong to fill the tea studio. Hints of incense, toasted caramel, and dark chocolate waft like a light breeze. As a slightly lower-oxidized and lower-roasted Dà Hóng Páo, the flavor once tasted is brighter, softer, and more complex. The verdant qualities that are often roasted or oxidized out of most contemporary variations on this tea are lovingly left within these leaves by its crafters, enabling a highly-developed layering and preservation of well-balanced flavors, from notes of crisp minerals, walnut skins, and egg whites.

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Much like the objects surrounding it, the tea, too, is a myriad of reference points for the mind to explore and expound upon. This is one of the many subtle pleasures of taking a moment to enjoy tea.

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Layers of images, references, and flavors, each with their own significance and meaning, are just part of the brocaded fabric that can be brought into the tearoom and offer points of further contemplation, a moment of pause, and meditation.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Japan, Korea, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting, Uncategorized

When Spring Feels Like Summer

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When Spring feels like Summer, the shallow teabowl is favored.
 
In Japanese tea ceremony, the coming of Summer is heralded by a series of subtle changes. The ro (炉, sunken hearth), which was so lovingly appreciated during the cold of Winter, is covered and the furo (風炉, literally “wind furnace”, portable brazier for tea) is brought into the tearoom. Whereas in Winter, thicker, deeper chawan were preferred, more shallow and delicate teabowls are favored in the warmer months of Summer.
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As Spring draws to a close and the first heat of Summer approaches (in chanoyu, May 6th is observed as the beginning of Summer), I cannot help but preemptively begin to alter my practice to meet the new season. Opting to make tea outside on the cool, shaded concrete, I pair this setting with an antique Japanese hakame chawan (刷毛目茶碗, literally “brush-marked eye” teabowl), the light grey and white patterns of which both reference the texture of the brushed concrete and the dappled light of the warm mid-day. Hot water is carried in a hand-blown glass vessel, a contemporary piece by current students of the Bauhaus school in Dessau. Its open mouth allowing the water to slightly cool and its translucent walls offering an ice-like appearance. 
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The matcha is from Uji, freshly-ground at Setsugekka in Manhattan. Contained in a gold-flecked tea container, the hope is to strike a balance between the informality of the act of making tea on the rough-hewn concrete with the refinement and luxury of an object lacquered in gold (save for the fact that, in this case, the tea caddy is a mass-produced matcha tin). As is often the case when a tea person prepares tea for others in an outdoor setting, such as a nodate (野点, open-air tea ceremony) gathering, it is the challenge of the host to create a harmonious juxtaposition between the rustic and wild aspects of nature and the artistic cultivation of beautiful teaware as produced by master craftspeople. For this reason, in the same way when gathering a chashitsu (茶室, tea room) one employs aspects of nature to balance the otherwise man-made interior, the host may use elegant works of lacquer or finer silk to provide a subtle contrast to the exterior setting.
IMG_6568 Here, the chashaku (茶杓, tea scoop) aides in creating balance, its natural form with preserved bamboo node and naturally-occurring grooves establishing an almost rhythmic quality between the imperfection of the concrete surface and the crispness of the tea container.
IMG_6569 The hakame chawan, a form and style originating in 15th-16th century Korea, pairs easily with the concrete surface, lending to a more casual feeling for the tea gathering.
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The bright, electric green of the powdered matcha creates a striking contrast against a vignette that is otherwise rather mono-chromatic.
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As Summer approaches and temperatures rise, the chasen (茶筅, bamboo tea whisk) is placed over the small mound of matcha. As water is subsequently poured in to the chawan, it trickles delicately through the thin tines, wetting the chasen and producing a faint sound of water gurgling as if it were through reeds at a river’s edge. This, too, helps to lend a sense of refreshing coolness to the tea gathering.
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When whipped into a silky froth, the lingering foam is bright, almost snow-like within the wide circumference of the low-sitting chawan.
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Even the light cracking of the hakame chawan, which appears almost ice-like, aides in inferring coolness during the warmth of the day.
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With the tea served and enjoyed, one is left only to appreciate the time that has passed, the lingering flavor of the tea, and the joy of the changing seasons.
When Spring feels like Summer, the shallow teabowl is favored.
IG: @cutechajin

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Japan, Korea, Tea, Uncategorized

During the Heat of Summer

IMG_8638Dear beloved blog readers,

In my lapse as a blogger (if I can actually be called such a thing), winter turned to spring and spring turned to summer (as of seven days ago). During this time, much has changed: the seasons have shifted, the snow came and melted, and the spring rains are now summer thunder showers. The fireflies have emerged and the mugwort now grows wild in the yard. Gone are the narcissus, replaced by the climbing wisteria and emerging, ripening apricots.

From this perspective, a lot has changed. While I do plan to “back track” and discuss all the many “tea moments” that I’ve had in this past year (2016 to 2017), I would be remise if I didn’t opt to live in the moment and offer up my own take on “the now”.

An earlier entry, “Making tea on a hot day” (August 17, 2016), was a general post to offer my insight and advice in brewing tea when the weather is hot. Now that New York is beginning to heat up, my mind returns to this topic and how to, once again, quench my thirst.

Remaining from spring are the now-aging shincha (新茶,”new tea”) that have come to me by way of the Japanese tea farms of Uji (located near the ancient capitol city of Kyoto). Tea from the Uji region, where tea was first planted by the Buddhist monk Kohken in the 1270s (around 1271, after Eisai popularized the drinking of tea in Japan around 1191 with his writing of the 喫茶養生記, Kissa Yōjōki (“Drinking Tea for Health”)), typically produces a full-flavored liqueur with a notably creamy mouthfeel (when compared to teas produced in Shizuoka or Yame). On hot days, I find myself preferring to take this tea at lower temperatures, sometimes even cold, brewing the tea much longer, the result of which is a very viscous and full-bodied brew. Much like brewing gyokuro (玉 露, “jade dew”), the flavor can become slightly savory.

FullSizeRenderWhen mindfully brewing this tea, I find myself pulling out a small Oribe-yaki (織部焼) teapot, the walls of which are thin enough to allow the tea to cool down and enable a longer, more laid-back brewing. When at work, I opt to brew the tea casually in a wide-rimmed glass cup. Much like a summer teabowl used in Japanese chanoyu (茶の湯), the wide, shallow shape allows the liquid to cool down. This allows for the lukewarm water, which I use to brew the tea, to cool down fast enough for the tea to remain submerged for close to an hour without becoming bitter. This is ideal for simple tea while focusing on work.

With the passing of spring also comes the arrival of new matcha from Japan. During this time, too, the heat does not prove an obstacle, merely an opportunity to respond to it. While in Japan (and, similarly, New York), the hottest time of the year typically arrives mid-August, I chose today to bring out my kuro-Oribe (黒織部), “black Oribe”) kutsu-gata (沓形, “clog-shaped”) summer teabowl. While usually reserved for later in the year, I couldn’t help but bring this out, its shape alluding to things to come.

FullSizeRender_9The act of making tea is, in itself, a refreshing practice. Often, as in the case with Japanese tea ceremony, referring to aspects that infer coolness during a hot summer’s day helps to induce a lighter attitude. Unboxing the irregularly-shaped teabowl from its lightweight pine box was just the first of many steps that would help to psychologically bring the temperature down.

FullSizeRender_1Once open, the box presented a sight that I hadn’t seen in over a year: the light cotton furoshiki (風呂敷, literally “cloth for the bathhouse”, historically used to wrap one’s belongings while at a bathouse, now commonly used to wrap anything from gifts to groceries and, informally, teabowls) emblazoned with the motif of a water leaf (or, sometimes seen as asanoha, 麻の葉, lit. “hemp leaf” pattern), wrapped securely around the teabowl. Even the loose knot, in the shape of a bridge, helped to refer back to the coolness of the imaginary water that would flow beneath such a structure.

FullSizeRender_2Pulling back the cloth, the shallow, squat, roughly-hewn teabowl revealed itself. The glaze, smooth and glass-like, terminated in a slight whirlpool-like form in its center. On either side of the bowl (its face and back) were cursory brushstrokes; on one side was painted a water well motif, on the other were blades of grass (though such motifs are always up for different interpretations).

FullSizeRender_4On this day, as the still summer heat filled the tearoom, I began to prepare a bowl of matcha. First went the damp chakin (茶巾, the hemp cloth used to clean a teabowl), folded and placed into the bowl (in the shape of a butterfly, in keeping with the practice of the Sohen-ryu school). Next, the chasen (茶筅, “tea whisk”), placed upright, its tines exposed, droplets of water sparkling in the late-afternoon light. Finally, a tea caddy and bamboo teascoop (made from a type of bamboo that has dark, tiny spots, resembling a light rain) were brought together.

FullSizeRender_5Making the tea was casual and meditative. A perfect way to center oneself amidst the heat of the day. The matcha, whipped into a light foam, was further enhanced by the addition of a simple ice cube. While almost common today, the incorporation of ice into a bowl of matcha would have been an incredibly rare treat for someone centuries ago. Ice would have been hauled by specialized handlers from distant mountains into the cities of ancient and pre-modern Japan to enable for such a delectable refreshment.

FullSizeRender_6To put this into perspective, similar ice treats, like the ever-popular kakigōri, かき氷, or shaved ice, date back to at least the Heian period, with the first written account of the delicacy being found in the Makura no Sōshi (枕草子, “The Pillow Book”) by Sei Shonagon, completed in 1002. Such a delight was reserved only for those in the imperial court, until better transportation and refrigeration came to Japan in the Meiji period, when kakigōri  (and, for that matter, matcha with ice) became available to a mass audience.

FullSizeRender_7Today, the ice is a kind reminder of how tea remains a simple luxury. One does not need to be wealthy to enjoy its rich flavor. Just to take time and be mindful of one’s actions is all one needs. Soothing both in taste and texture, matcha with ice is a great way to wind-down the day.

As the summer’s sun dips lower on the horizon and lingers longer than it had a season ago, this moment is meant for savoring. Tea, during the heat of summer, helps.

 

Now that I’m back at my blogging (wish me luck that I can continue), I am curious what everyone is doing to relieve the summer’s heat? How do you enjoy tea, typically a hot beverage, amidst the increasingly hotter days?

In posts to come, I will explore various summer teawares and share my approaches to complimenting the climbing temperatures. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and, as always, learning more.

FullSizeRender_8(IMAGE: Good even to the last drop, I drink the wash of the teabowl. A light rinse of the remaining matcha can still produce a vibrant green and a delicious taste.)

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Sencha, Tea

Making tea in time of work


(IMAGE: Rather than distract from work, tea can be used to fortify one’s focus. How to do that is the challenge.)

Dear beloved blog readers,

I will admit, making tea isn’t always convenient. Sometimes bringing out the yixing teapot or gaiwan or ceramic chawan (茶碗, “tea bowl”) just isn’t practical when I’m in work “crunch mode”.

Lately I’ve been working on a variety of projects and , well, sometimes tea can get pushed to the bottom of my “to do” list. However, like anything in life, there is a gong fu to approaching tea in the time of work. In this entry, I’m going to share some of my insights into this, and, as always, I hope to hear some of yours as well.

Become part of the 99%

Tea people love their tea and love their teaware. Speaking from personal experience, when given the chance I will almost always use a teapot. The act of making tea in this manner is centering and can change my mental attitude. Studies have even shown that meditative acts like this can even alter one’s neurological state. That said, setting up the tea equipage can take time and has the potential of shifting focus away from a particular priority.

The “work around” for this tea in time for work is to make tea like most of the world (certainly most of Asia) makes their tea: the jar.

Taking just a handful of tea leaves and placing them into a jar and pouring hot-warm water over them can do wonders. The glass walls of a jar will quickly dissipate any excess heat, and the added transparency offers a view into the “progress” of the steep. Filtering the tea leaves is simple: your teeth and gravity is all that’s needed. For this point, I generally brew larger leaf teas for jar tea like Tai Ping Hou Kui 太平猴魁, Taiwanese high mountain oolongs 高山烏龍茶, and da ye (大葉, “big leaf”) puer.


(IMAGE: Making semi-wild Tai Ping Hou Kui 太平猴魁 green tea using the jar tea method produces a gorgeous liqueur and balanced flavor.)

When the tea becomes too strong, I add more water. From what I’ve observed, more robust and balanced steeping a come from this method rather than drinking all of the tea and then refilling the empty jar. Likewise, I find that as the tea cools after a long steeping the flavors become more pronounced and complex. Maybe this is why jar tea is so popular!

Mizuya cha: “kitchen matcha”

Another quick tea alternative is to go the matcha route sans the ceremony. In Japan this is called mizuya cha (水屋茶, みずやちゃ), or “water room tea”, referring to the small preparation room that is often attached to a Japanese tearoom/teahouse (茶室, chashitsu). In traditional tea ceremonies where there are often large numbers of guest, only one (or sometimes just a few) tea bowls of matcha are ceremoniously prepared. The remainder are prepared “off stage” and are offered to guests pre-made.

In modern day practice, mizuya cha typically translates to “kitchen tea”, or tea simply made in the comfort of one’s own kitchen, devoid of the “ceremony”. Making tea this way, with a bowl (either traditional chawan or even a basic rice bowl), a whisk, and hot water can be done within a matter of minutes and can offer a quick respite from work without breaking “the flow”.

(IMAGE: An antique Japanese Hagi chawan used for today’s mizuya cha has its historical origins in Korean rice bowls, which were treasured by the likes of 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu for their functionality and informal nature.)

What’s great here too is that making tea in this manner is still very much part of the “tea mind” cultivated in Chanoyu (茶の湯, lit. “hot water for tea”, the practice of Japanese tea ceremony), stressing lack of formality and a humble manner of “just making tea”. So long as your mind and heart are still in it, this way of making tea can still be a meditative act.

(IMAGE: An antique Japanese Hagi chawan is paired with a contemporary negoro-nuri black-and-red lacquer chashaku teascoop balance the informality of making tea in the kitchen.)

Drinking from the teapot

My last “pro tip” for today is maybe my favorite guilty pleasure.

Again, I love teaware (especially yixing teapots), and when there is any excuse to use a finely-crafted piece I will. That said, having the whole “gong fu cha kit” at my desk or work table (or park bench) can quickly clutter the work space and mind. To avoid this, I pare everything down to their most elemental: just the teapot.

With just a teapot, one is left with really just one option: to drink directly from the teapot. While this might seem a bit ungainly (and for those opposed to public breastfeeding, a bit reminiscent and disturbing… for the record, I’m all for public breastfeeding, it’s natural, let people be free damn it!), it is very effective and has historical precedent.

While I am currently unable to cite historical documentation to back this up, I have had countless tea farmers, merchants, and masters tell me that they do this and that their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents have done this. Some have even gone so far as to say that this was the particular habit of the young, well-heeled scholarly/playboy brats of the late Qing/early Republic era. I, too, have done this on numerous occasions, sauntering down streets in San Francisco sipping from my small teapot and wandering into local establishments to get a “top-off” of warm water. (I have yet to do this in New York City, but hope to soon)

The results of brewing this way is quite remarkable, offering a level of control and intimacy with the tea not available through more “orthodox” means. Like brewing with a jar, one should use warm water, obviously so as not to scald one’s hand while holding the teapot, but also to achieve a smooth and balanced brew.


(IMAGE: For drinking directly from the teapot, I favor my 1980s duan ni Xi Shi hu (鍛泥西施壺). The shape of the pot feels good in the hand and the spout is easy to drink from.)

Also, by cradling the teapot in your hand and using your thumb to press and release the top hole of the teapot lid as a carburetor, you can adjust the flow of the tea from teapot to mouth. Speaking again from experience, I typically find more success drinking directly from the spout, rather than pouring the liquid into my mouth (however, this is completely up to you, though the aforementioned approach can get messy).

What works for you while working?

For sure this is a very basic “list” of approaches to making tea in time of work. As always, the environment is going to dictate what works best for you (and for the tea). This is where we as tea people can be creative.

So, what works for you? How do you make tea while working…and how do you strike that balance between quality of work and brew? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Oolong, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting

Tale of a Teapot: Ōtagaki Rengetsu’s obscured poem on a teapot

Dear beloved blog readers,

I’m a teapot collector. While some of those more near and dear to me might say that I’m a teapot hoarder, to admit to this would be to admit that I somehow indiscriminately gather and stockpile.  While I may have lost count after my thirtieth (I now own an amount I cannot recall), each one is imbued with a specific function, style, and past.  None so more than the humble little kyusu teapot crafted by the late Edo-early Meiji Buddhist nun, poetess, calligrapher, and ceramicist Ōtagaki Rengetsu.

My connection with this piece is rather recent: I was wandering through an antiques store in San Francisco with a girlfriend of mine and low-and-behold I came across this small, white-glazed side-handle teapot.  Covered in a bit of dust and shoved in a corner of a small, cluttered vitrine, I inquired as to its provenance and price.  The salesperson only knew that it had been found in an antique store in Ise (a coastal town in Mie Prefecture, in the Kansai region of Japan) and that he had been using as an informal teapot he kept by his bathtub while he bathed.  The price: a song (a really inexpensive song).

There was something about the teapot that made the decision to take it home obvious (much to the chagrin of my then girlfriend… who knew all too well how many teapots I had at the time).  Its shape was organic, its undulating features were that of a curled lotus leaf, and upon its surface seemed to be some sort of inscription, but its unctuous glaze had filled much of it in to the point of illegibility.  In short, the little kyusu (急須), no larger than a small persimmon, was a mystery.

Having found this early on in my time as a graduate student studying Japanese pre-modern history, I used what I could to conduct research on the teapot.  Soon I found a surprising link: the pot was most possibly handmade by the (aforementioned) Ōtagaki Rengetsu.

Ōtagaki Rengetsu, born in 1791 as the illegitimate daughter of a high-ranking samurai and a geisha in the pleasure quarters of Kyoto, her natural father had her adopted by Ōtagaki Teruhisa, a lay priest of the Pure Land Buddhist sect.  During her childhood, she was trained in naginata and jujutsu martial arts, as well as calligraphy, poetry, and the game of go.  By the age of 33, she had married twice, had five children, and had lost her first three children and two husbands to disease.  In 1824, the noted beauty shaved her head and joined the Pure Land sect.  By the age of 41, her remaining two children and her adoptive father had all died. Turning inward, she focused the remainder of her life on producing works of calligraphy, painting, poetry, and ceramics as a means to contemplate on the nature of existence.

By Rengetsu’s time, chanoyu had become the orthodox practice of making tea, collecting with it the various traditions of Japanese arts that had flourished since the Sengoku period up through the Edo period.  Within these traditions were the various kilns, both famous and amateur, spawning provincial kilns and workshops of independent potters, including nuns like Rengetsu.  As part of what is called amayaki (nun ware), Rengetsu was part of a long tradition of amateur, religious-based women who took to pottery and incorporated her own forms, originally tea bowls, of which she inscribed with her own waka poetry.

However, Rengetsu’s ceramic product straddled a period of change in Japanese tea fashion.  With the overthrow of the Ming imperial line by the Manchu (establishing the Qing dynasty in 1644), countless Chinese Chan (in Japanese “Zen”) monks immigrated to Japan, founding the Ōbaku Zen sect.  From this came various literati forms that had their origins in China, of which was the practice of steeping whole leaf tea using a small earthenware teapot (the practice of gong fu cha).

Early practitioners of Ōbaku Zen in Japan came from the ranks of disenfranchised intellectuals (both samurai and commoners).  They preferred things in the more eccentric intellectual forms, from the traditions of Chinese literati to the notion of the wandering hermit and a rustic lifestyle.  Popularized by founding figures like Baisaō (the “Old Tea Seller”, Kō Yūgai, 1675-1763), sencha (or roasted whole leaf tea) became not only a new method of producing tea but also a new way to express one’s connection to this intellectual leaning.

By the time of Rengetsu, sencha had evolved into a formal tea service, with its own forms of etiquette and utensils.  However, compared with chanoyu, senchadō retained the informality that came with its connections to the literati, and, because of this, it remained close to the literati arts such as the composing of waka poetry.  The intellectual luminary Ueda Akinari (1734-1809) probably taught Rengetsu waka poetry when she was a teenager and may have instilled to her some of the styles and forms he had developed for tea ware.  Similarly, literati painter and sencha master Yamamoto Baiitsu (1783-1856), who was renown for his paintings of simple tea ware accompanied by poems reflecting the enjoyment of sencha, may have influenced Rengetsu, both as a poet and as a ceramicist.

The production of this particular kyusu would have been one of many she made during her lifetime.  As a prolific potter, she made a variety of wares from sake cups and beekers (tokkuri), to flower vases, tea bowls, plates, and incense holders (kōgō).  Due to the unique nature of her style and the strength of her poetry it was inscribed with, she became wildly famous in her lifetime and her works highly sought after by sencha enthusiasts and collectors alike.  Her work kept her busy and constantly moving, reportedly never staying in one place for more than a month’s time.  As a result, her forms remained untethered to one particular ceramic tradition, instead allowing her more room for experimentation and originality.

As she produced tea ware, Rengetsu had a profound influence on tea.  Her small pots and accompanying cups were often formed in the shapes of seasonal fruits, vegetables, and, most commonly for her teapots, in the form of wrinkled lotus leaves.  Rengetsu’s techniques replicated the natural textures of the lotus plant with the roughness of their stem giving way to the soft and billowy forms of their wrapped leaves, emulated by the smooth surface of the often white or grey opaque glaze she covered them in.  So loved were these wares that Rengetsu may have even popularized the use of the yuzamashi (water cooler), which she had been making specifically for the enjoyment of gyokuro (a finer grade of green tea that requires water at a lower temperature to produce a deeper flavor).  These yuzamashi, too, were often made in the form of a curled lotus leaf.

This particular teapot, typical of much of her work, was created by hand rather than on a wheel.  The faint impressions of her fingertips are evident, as are the marks of her rudimentary tools.  As with every piece she produced, this teapot is inscribed with a waka poem.  While many of the poems Rengetsu wrote onto her wares were singular to the piece (each piece potentially representing the only existent record of the poem she wrote), the poem on this piece is obscured by the pooling glaze.  There is a chance that this poem remains unread from the day it was first written. History still contains a mystery under the layers of vitrified material.

NOTE:

For those interested in learning more about Ōtagaki Rengetsu, her life and her work, I highly recommend these sources (as I used them in the writing of this entry)

Rengetsu, Melanie Eastburn, Lucie Folan, Robyn J. Maxwell, and Rengetsu. Black Robe, White Mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2007.

Rengetsu, and John Stevens. Lotus Moon: The Poetry of the Buddhist Nun Rengetsu. Buffalo, NY: White Pine, 2005.

“BachmannEckenstein | JapaneseArt.” BachmannEckenstein | JapaneseArt. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2016. http://www.bachmanneckenstein.com

 

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