Category Archives: Matcha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” they returned.

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

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A Solitary Maple Tree: A Burst of Color in Winter

November is a month of surprises. As Winter takes hold of the northern hemisphere, plants and animals begin to retire into hibernation, save for those who will brave the cold. The colors of Autumn fade into drab greys and browns. In the ever-increasing rush towards the holiday season and the year’s end, it can sometimes be difficult to stop and appreciate the few colorful standouts of early Winter.

As I went walking through my neighborhood in preparation for a small tea gathering, I came across a glorious Japanese maple tree, still bearing bright crimson and gold leaves. Delighted, I quickened my pace homeward, inspired to bring an element of this moment back into my tearoom.

As I prepared for my guest’s arrival, I put together the elements for the 茶事 chaji. The first of two teas I planned to offer was a freshly ground 濃茶 koicha from Uji. To serve this, I decided to let inspiration take hold, selecting a brightly colored 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan, which I would serve atop a wooden 天目台 tenmoku-dai. For the tea container, I selected a small 茄子 nasu (eggplant-shaped) 茶入 chaire, enrobed in a pine and chrysanthemum motif 仕服 shifuku.

With tea sifted and placed into the ceramic container, and kettle at a rising boil, I was ready to accept my guest into the tearoom. Upon arrival, they were greeted by the light scent of incense paired with a cup of hot water to offer respite from the cold. As they waited in the tearoom, they were given the opportunity to pause and inspect the hanging scroll.

Rather than serve a formal meal, I offered a simple bowl of お茶漬 ochazuke, rice with tea poured onto it. Afterwards, warm barley tea was offered in lieu of sake.

Once finished, I gave my guest the chance to relax in my sitting room, enjoying the view of the forest outside my window. In this short period of time, I set up the tearoom to serve koicha, replacing the scroll with a flower and bringing in the 水指 mizusashi and setting the chaire before it. The effect of this transformed the small space of my tearoom, ready and refreshed for the guest’s return, purposefully arranged for the preparation of a single bowl of thick tea.

Closing the door behind me, both host and guest sit alone in the intimate space of the tearoom. The light of the day has grown dim, covered by a gauzy blanket of clouds. As I set the chawan down, balanced atop the wooden teabowl stand, I steady my breath and focus my mind.

Placing the chaire in front of the teabowl, I proceed to remove it from its silken shifuku pouch, pulling the twisted purple cord and peeling it out from the cloth.

Once removed, the little ceramic tea container glows like a small, mysterious jewel, inside which exists a treasure.

Turning my focus to the teabowl and tea implements, I begin to cleanse each, rearranging them into new positions. The 茶杓 chashaku to rest atop the lid of the chaire.

The 茶筅 chasen to sit beside the chaire.

Taking the chashaku with my right hand, I bow and invite my guest to enjoy a sweet. Taking the chaire with my left hand, I remove the lid and pull three scoops of tea from it. Setting the chashaku down across the rim of the chawan, I begin to pour out the remaining tea from the chaire.

The fine bright green powder begins to cascade in a thin stream out of the ceramic container, producing small plumes of tea dust as it falls into the chawan.

Once settled, the tea rests in brilliant contrast against the iridescent red and gold interior of the tenmoku chawan.

Adding a small amount of boiling water into the teabowl instantly awakens the intense aroma of the 抹茶 matcha powder.

From this, I begin the process of methodically kneading the tea powder into a thick, lacquer-like paste, enjoying the small vignette of dark green tea collecting on the thin tines of the bamboo chasen.

Adding an additional portion of hot water to the concoction, I finish preparing the bowl of koicha.

For a moment, both host and guest enjoy the silence of the tearoom and the vista within the teabowl.

Lifting the teabowl with the wooden tenmokudai, I set it in front of my guest. We bow and my guest enjoys the bowl of koicha at their own pace.

Returning the bowl back to me, all that remains is the thick residue of koicha, an echo of an action, a record written in tea.

I finish the offering of tea by cleansing the teabowl and setting the implements within its concave hollow.

I set the chaire beside it.

Curious to learn more about the arrangement, I prepare an informal 拝見 haiken for my guest.

Silently we inspect the teaware together.

They ask about the maker, the origin, the reasoning why I might select one object over another.

Why would an eggplant-shaped chaire be fit for November?

Why a teascoop carved from a section of cedar be appropriate?

Why invoke a pine tree and chrysanthemum, stitched within the fine brocade of a silk shifuku pouch? In tea these are all 公案 kōan. Questions without any logical answer.

When asked what the name of the teabowl was, I answer “暈け Boke”. When then they ask for what reason I have named it thus, all I can reply is “It reminded a photographer of the blurring and obscuring of fine details in a photograph. Today it is the many leaves of the 紅葉 momiji. Tomorrow, who knows.”

We bow again and I set the objects aside. In the quiet of the tearoom, the kettle begins to boil again, the clouds begin to lift, and the day wanes towards mid-afternoon. Perhaps it is time to enjoy looking upon the forest outside my window again, to return for a final bowl of 薄茶 usucha.

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Opening of the Tea Jar

IMG_3566With the beginning of November comes the opening of a new year in tea. In the ancient lunar calendar of twenty-four seasons, this period is known as 立冬 Rittō, the beginning of Winter. In the tearoom, this is greeted with the shifting to the 炉 ro. Just as important, this change sees the grinding of new 碾茶 tencha.

IMG_3565Harvested in Spring, the tea leaves remain stored in a large earthenware tea jar (茶壺 cha-tsubo), which has been sealed to avoid oxidation and spoilage. During a special 茶事 chaji called 口切 kuchi-kiri (lit. “mouth-cutting”), the paper seal which covers the opening of the cha-tsubo is cut open and a portion of the “fresh tea” is ground to produce the first 抹茶 matcha of the year.

IMG_3563For practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu, this “first” bowl of tea will be the freshest they will have for the next 365 days and is, not surprisingly, viewed as something quite special.

IMG_3562On this cold November day, I eagerly bring my iron kettle to a boil and arrange my tearoom to prepare a bowl of tea. Placed alone in front of my 水指 mizusashi is a small 瀬戸焼 Seto-yaki 肩衝茶入 katatsuki chaire (“shouldered” tea container). Wrapped in a brocaded silk 仕服 shifuku pouch, upon which are woven images of Tang-period Silk Road traders on horseback, the small ceramic container holds a measured portion of freshly-ground matcha to prepare a single bowl of 濃茶 koicha.

IMG_3558Entering the tearoom, I bring with me a 黒楽茶碗 kuro-Raku chawan from the kiln of modern master potter 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III.

FC791911-0F63-4D40-8FDD-697AAC3DDF5FAs I ready the wares to prepare a bowl of tea, I begin the process of unwrapping the chaire, drawing its silk cord and peeling it out from the shifuku.

8C3AB5D5-3E32-4AF0-B316-89F8341AC479Next I cleanse the 茶杓 chashaku and place it across the lid of the chaire. After, I cleanse the teabowl, warming it with the hot water ladled from the iron kettle, rolling it slowly in my hands to feel the heat of the water penetrate the ceramic.

196D0A98-4E19-4751-9E0B-3DB4DEF20AF6I pause as I pick up the chashaku once again, and offer to my guest a seasonal tea sweet, 勝栗 kachi-guri (dried chestnut), served upon a small Taiwanese celadon tea leaf-viewing vessel.

77F7296D-DA9D-4AD5-BEC7-3170AF75A807To prepare the bowl of koicha, I first dig-out three scoops of tea from the chaire.

IMG_3561Finally, setting the chashaku atop the edge of the chawan, I tilt the tea container and let the remaining tea cascade out into the teabowl, emptying entirely it in a gesture of giving one’s self fully to their guest.

D26DF3AA-DDCB-4A78-8E19-F008412A24A9Pouring only a small portion of hot water into the teabowl, I begin to slowly knead the tea powder into a thick, aromatic paste. Adding a bit more water into the bowl, I continue to methodically press the 茶筅 chasen back and forth through the thick tea until it produces an even, lacquer-like concoction.

A5E13B47-C9FB-4F0E-9865-9E0FEC739F63Lifting the tea whisk from the finished bowl of koicha, thick tea liquid still clings to its cut bamboo tines.

396CCDD0-5E9D-44AF-AD4C-3034E07B847DPeering down into the teabowl, the koicha reflects back up at me like a shiny bronze mirror. Passing the chawan to my guest, we exchange a deep bowl, both caught in anticipation. As they take a sip, I eat one of the chestnuts. A moment passes and they pass the bowl back to me with just enough tea remaining in it for me to share a sip. Wiping the rim of the bowl with a thick folded piece of paper, I set the chawan back down before me. Before I cleanse it, I offer to produce an informal bowl of 薄茶 usucha with the residual matcha.

IMG_3559Finally whisked, I pass the chawan back to my guest and with three hearty sips they finish the bowl of tea.

15EAE73B-EC25-4927-8343-949394F685F0For a moment, we enjoy inspecting the hand-shaped Raku teabowl. In its deep, black glaze and uneven surface we are left to imagine the boundless possibilities this next year will hold for us. What changes will come with each progressing season? How will we give ourselves fully to this moment?

IMG_3560Cleansing the teaware one final time, I set the chaire beside the teabowl. I add cool water from the mizusashi to the boiling iron kettle and close it with its bronze lid.

B2DA84F2-C9B6-44C4-98EB-8D16D7A28B4CIn a parting 拝見 haiken, I set the chaire, chashaku, and shifuku atop a wooden tray. The textures of the swirling grains of the mulberry wood frame the objects like the edges of some intricately-rendered image of an esoteric Buddhist mandala.

IMG_3567Implements for understanding time and space. Cutting through each moment fearlessly.

IMG_3568Opening up a treasure and grinding its contents to dust. Savoring its creation as an offering. Observing this creation as a fading memory never to be replicated again.

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All That Heralds Winter

IMG_3461When does a season change? How does one know? One may reference a calendar, yet the demarcated days and months can only tell so much. Seasons, like all things in life, transform slowly, almost imperceptibly. Yet, as if by magic, they can also suddenly appear. A night of cold wind can pull down all of Autumn’s leaves, revealing in morning barren treetops. October’s crystal blue skies become dark and grey by early November. During a frigid rain shower, the first flecks of snow can appear.

Those more closely attune to nature’s cycle will perceive this. The last of Summer’s dragonflies now float dead along the stream’s edge. The bell cricket grows silent and buried itself in the cold earth. The songbirds begin to change into their drab Winter’s plumage. The geese continue their migration.

Practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu, kept in constant vigil of the subtle seasonal shifts, feel this change too. For them, the coming of Winter heralds the beginning of the new tea year. 畳 tatami mats are resurfaced, 障子 shōji screens are refitted with fresh paper. The sunken 炉 ro hearth is opened. When this all happens is up to much debate and no exact date is given. 千利休 Sen no Rikyū famously said “seeing 柚子yuzu (citron) change their colors, one could open 囲炉裏 irori (the sunken hearth).” Indeed, such a subtle change as this was just enough to signal the beginning of Winter and a new year of tea.

For me, I closed October with the putting-away of the 風炉 furo. Alas, it wasn’t until today, when the wind felt particularly cold, that I decided to shift into the ro setting. Since I do not have a fully-outfitted 茶室 chashitsu, I opt to use a highly informal 火鉢 hibachi as my sunken hearth. Cut from a single burl of 桐 kiri (paulownia), with a copper-lined recess for ash, the hibachi is an unusual feature in my tearoom. Wishing to maintain a level of informality with my first use of my makeshift ro, I decide to prepare a bowl of tea on the bright, clean expanse of wood flooring in my New York City apartment.

F6A0D7D5-98BE-467A-8647-E38B542BE0D2For my teabowl, I select a blush-colored 萩焼茶碗 Hagi-yaki chawan. For a tea container, I bring out a multi-hued 若狭塗棗 Wakasa-nuri natsume, its colors echoing the last of the gold and crimson leaves of Autumn. In the minimal space of my tearoom, the light of the overcast day stretches shadows across the wooden floor.

871EA691-9083-4983-8CE8-F3F898A3465FArranging objects along an angle, the teaware is spread out within the space between the 指 mizusashi and the hibachi. This distance seems both more intimate and dynamic, setting teawares along invisible lines, drawing both host and guest closer to the warmth of the hearth. First, the natsume and 茶杓 chashaku are cleansed.

73449357-4DD5-435F-8A01-DD21FDA46385Next, the lid of the iron kettle is removed and hot water is drawn out to purify and warm the chawan.

88DB2902-4090-4F7C-973D-19D8B395EAB4Three scoops of 抹茶 matcha are issued out into the center of the teabowl, and water is ladled from the 茶釜 chagama to chawan in a series of fluid motions.

E282B5EC-C6AB-42E2-A377-1C2F61121F75I whisk the tea into a fine foam. In this moment, the space of my tearoom seems still and time feels strangely infinite. Setting the 茶筅 chasen down, a terrific silence arises and, for a brief period of time, I am caught in a quiet meditation. All action ceases. All thoughts drop by the wayside. What remains is the warmth of the hibachi and the faint aroma of tea.

9E47DBC4-2D24-4BB5-9B15-A145D17088A4Looking down, I peer upon the tea and tea objects as if I were miles above them. Lifting the teabowl to my lips, I offer a silent gesture of thanks to all of the factors that brought me to this moment, finite and infinite as they may be.

EE6A8429-E57A-495A-B10A-BC3056113320A few seconds pass and three sips of tea from the Hagi-yaki chawan empties it completely, save for some foamy dregs.

A4A5EC26-D363-42DB-A37A-10CC969AB3FEIn the last moments of my first use of the Winter’s hearth, I cleanse the chasen and chawan, and wipe the residual tea dust from the chashaku with the deep purple silk of my 袱紗 fukusa. Following a final scoop of cold water which is drawn from the mizusashi and placed into the boiling water of the chagama, I slide the lid over the top of the kettle. The sound it produces is a sonorous, metallic ring which acts like a call to closure, marking the end of a moment with tea and heralding the beginning of Winter.

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Remnants of the Year

IMG_3215In the final days of October, Autumn slowly begins to give way to the chill of Winter. The light rain that falls makes patterns on the ground and feels cooler, more biting than it had earlier in the month. The splendor of Autumn’s leaves still hangs in the canopies of trees outside my window, yet some trees begin to look more barren, creating a spotty patchwork of gold, red and green, resembling a monk’s old 袈裟 kesa (priest’s mantle). It is in this time of year that all things born from Spring fade and finally wither away.

In the world of tea, this marks the moment when 茶人 chajin begin to bid farewell to the 風炉 furo, replaced in the following month by the humble 炉 ro. It is also when the last leaves of tea in tea in the tea jar (壺 tsubo), opened the previous year, are used up, bearing only enough 抹茶 matcha for two or three bowls. These remnants (名残 nagori in Japanese) set the tone for these final moments, making each bowl of tea feel as if it may be the last. They are special and somber. Simple and good.

In my tearoom, I’ve set the furo to boil the last kettle of tea I will have for the month. Come November, I will exchange this for an old wooden 火鉢 hibachi (which I use in place of a sunken hearth). As I sift tea into a gourd-shaped lacquer 棗 natsume, I am aware of this change. A year of tea is coming to a close. The warm months are over for now.

IMG_3211Opening up my wooden tea cabinet, I admire the iron fixtures and the hand-worked knobs that are in the shape of chrysanthemum, a flower of Fall.

IMG_3175From this, I pull out a 茶碗 chawan by friend and ceramicist 二階堂明弘 Nikaido Akihiro, one which I had first used at the beginning of Spring. Atop this, I place a bamboo 茶杓 chashaku carved by 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango.

Sitting and waiting for the kettle to come to a boil, I listen to the sound of light rain hitting the windowsill of my tearoom. A moment passes, the sunlight that has crept into my tearoom grows dim. Soon the sound of the boiling 釜 kama begins to mesh with the sound of the rain. Silently I begin to go through the motions of making tea.

BEB2F0BC-4D5F-43A2-98AF-E2893D706EE1The natsume is brought forward and is cleansed. I lift its lathe-turned lid from its body to inspect the mound of powdered green tea.

BD05C918-C553-4C2E-A333-20C55393253DNext, I turn my attention to the implements within the teabowl.

IMG_3216The chashaku is set atop the natsume. The 茶筅 chasen is set beside it. The 茶巾 chakin is removed from the chawan, lightly twisted over the 建水 kensui, refolded, and placed atop the lid of the 水差 mizusashi.

Cleansing both bowl and whisk with the boiling water I draw from the kettle, my body feels at ease with the motions, practiced now for the past six months. How I will have to subtly adjust my hand, the turning of my wrist, the lifting of the 柄杓 hishaku once I put the furo away.

F73C376A-8BF3-4CD0-9B95-7B01DB6D4AD8With the teabowl cleansed, I issue into it the first of three scoops of matcha. The tea powder, soft and fine, feels like the last of the sand running through an hourglass.

0917D9B5-BBC0-4455-91C7-0ACAA3DCAD2CI pour half a ladle’s worth of water into the teabowl and the aroma of tea begins to lift upward. For a moment, the only sound heard in my tearoom is of the whisk moving back and forth as the matcha is transformed into a light, bright foam.

F361A80E-269B-411F-BD38-44FCFB0A9910A freshly prepared bowl of tea sits alongside the rest of the teaware. How the matcha glows off the fired lacquer interior of the chawan. How the remnants of tea powder cling to the chashaku. How the shadows stretch across the plank of wood I use, fading into the serpentine grain. How the charcoal glows in the kama.

There is joy and sadness caught in this moment. In the final withering of the year there is death. Old friends who have passed are recalled. Old memories well up and sit with me. Ghosts of the year are invited for tea. The last leaves of 碾茶 tencha have long since been pulverized into dust.

1FED5E8F-D557-4C7B-BDFA-BD1D5A1AA1B3I lift the bowl as if it were my last and with three hearty sips I imbibe the final vestiges of the previous year’s tea. A thin foam remains against the walls of the teabowl, which I admire for a moment before this, too, is washed away. No turning back.

EE9DCC44-BCF4-4876-81F8-E9BD0C707BD2I wipe the bowl clean and set the utensils within it. Closing the kettle one last time, I slide its bronze lid over its gaping mouth. The sound of metal against metal produces a final resounding knell.

769F5A8F-6A00-4233-BA04-D4A6AA3C96A2As the room returns to a solemn silence, I arrange for a quiet 拝見 haiken. Placing the lacquered natsume and bamboo chashaku next to one another, I admire how they harmonize.

IMG_3213The shape of a gourd to commemorate the harvest.

IMG_3212The small node atop the chashaku’s 節 fushi acting as a reminder to the vitality of nature, preserved and faded by October’s end.

E7429460-A217-4E15-A5B1-7E3487C73A5DI lift the lid of the natsume one last time to view the small landscape of tea within and look upon it as if parting with an old friend.

In the wordless exchange between objects and a season’s end, there lies an answer to a 公案 kōan (Chinese: gōng’àn; Korean: 공안 gong-an; Vietnamese: công án). There is no logic to the feeling of sadness at this moment. What comes when Autumn passes? Do the leaves turn to radiant colors only to wither and rot upon the cold earth? How many cycles around the sun will my life see? Boxed-up and put away, the furo won’t be seen again until the last remnants of Winter wane, to return in Spring. This, as sure as shoots of grass pushing up through the snow.

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The Less Said, the Better: Tea in Remembrance of Bashō.

IMG_2514How does one capture the fleeting essence of a moment? How can words sum-up the feeling of an Autumn’s breeze or the surprise of a falling leaf? How can one connect to a world that seems to grow ever more distant each day?

As a practitioner of tea (茶の湯 chanoyu, 功夫茶 gōng fū chá, and others), I grapple with this regularly. In my practice, whether it is the mindful selecting of teawares, tending to my guests, or the silent contemplation of the seasons, my own inability to capture with words the qualities of a moment is both a challenge and a meditation. During this last weekend, I had the opportunity to engage with this as I organized an informal and solitary tea outing in observation of 芭蕉忌 Bashō-ki.

As a memorial day for the 17th century haiku poet 松尾 芭蕉 Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), I was reminded of his terse and oftentimes frank poetry that sought to humble the reader through describing small vignettes of natural, unfettered everyday occurrences. Using poetry as a means to communicate this, Bashō never sought to elevate a moment through flowery words or diversion. His world, existing on the edge of society and often caught in a melancholic state, summed up, with seventeen syllables alone, the dirt and the dead, the evanescence of Spring’s bright flowers and Autumn’s falling leaves. Always there was change and, always, was the ego in the state of exposing itself.

IMG_2515As I set forth from my apartment to settle underneath a stone arch and maple tree on a brisk mid-October’s day, I brought with me as much and as little as I could hold in my small woven grass tea basket. Limited by the size of the basket, I chose to look upon this moment in the same way Bashō might have composed a haiku. Five-seven-five. The confines of a haiku. Within this can exist an entire universe. Thus, this small box, placed upon the broad expanse of a brocaded cloth, was itself a tiny and infinite universe.

IMG_2510Opened, I looked upon a world of opportunities. A fine 茶杓 chashaku, a deep purple 袱紗 fukusa, an antique ink brush washing pot that will double as a 振出 furidashi, a travel 茶筅 chasen contained in a bamboo tube.

76B8C80E-5EB2-49EA-B62A-44366EF81D57Removing these reveals even more layers. As I unwrap each object, a scene unfolds.

1554EE9D-B412-446A-89E3-D6AB7476AC2FA cloth emblazoned with red and white 紅葉 momiji conceals a hidden jewel.

0EADE223-F1CF-4C9B-9F42-F420F5356905An old lacquer 棗 natsume with a simple 壺 tsubo motif.

177D79A0-9BD6-4CB2-A7FA-A612D337BB7CA small dark red 茶碗 chawan.

D38E98C2-D58D-4992-9B41-0AA7F65E9391A monk’s old wooden eating bowl.

A863EB7F-AC34-4C3F-B295-04E71C3DE516In the shifting breezes of the daytime, I began to arrange the objects in front of me. Tea container and tea whisk. Chasen and chawan. Each were purified before I began to make tea.

F9EC0BAE-343A-4233-AFBA-A02EA474A225As I moved through these wordless motions, a passerby walked by and I invited them to join me. Curious, they asked about the unusual furidashi. Upon describing its use and origin, I removed its lid and tapped-out three red 枸杞 góuqǐ (goji berries) onto a curled maple leaf.

D1D3B351-ACEB-46F3-B671-CB55704A72D1As they enjoyed the dried fruit, I began to make them a bowl of 薄茶 usucha. Lifting three scoops of 抹茶 matcha powder from the natsume, I became highly aware of the shifting winds. Small flecks of matcha powder blew off each tiny mound I placed into the center of the bowl.

IMG_2511Resting the small bamboo chasen atop the small hill of tea, I then poured a thin stream of hot water from my thermos into the teabowl.

IMG_2512The soft scent of Fall leaves mingled with the bright aroma of tea. As I whisked the tea, leaves continued to blow around both me and my guest. Gusts of wind moved a collection of idle leaves around the brocaded tea cloth, floating and spinning as if caught in a dance.

344A4DCD-B69F-4E0F-8AD8-A43A4CD87966As they settled I lifted the whisk from the teabowl and for a moment we enjoyed the silent vignette of a bowl of tea and fallen leaves. How these told us of the changing season. How this moment spoke volumes. How a tiny bowl of tea captured a wordless dialogue between host and guest.

IMG_2517In both the practice of tea and in the works of Bashō, one is offered the opportunity to merge with the natural world and to forget the self. The leaves. The trees. The sound of water collecting in the wooden 建水 kensui. The feeling of wind fluttering against one’s sleeves. With nothing elaborate present, the mind has nothing to cling to. Straight-forward words. A humble bowl of tea. We can read into each a freedom that is gained when we unhinge ourselves from our egoic mind, accepting things as they truly are. In Japanese, this may be called 無我 muga, an act of self-renunciation.

IMG_2516In this moment, on this brisk mid-October day, two minds connect, tea is shared, and something unspoken is understood. The less said, the better.

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

Autumn Cools and the Brazier Moves Closer to the Guest

IMG_2164Nothing seems to sum up the spirit of tea more than the movement of the brazier. In Summer, the 風炉 furo (portable “wind brazier”) is brought out and placed far from the guest, with the 水差 mizusashi (cool water container) placed between them. Yet, as Autumn continues and the weather cools, the host brings the brazier closer, setting it in the center of the 道具畳 dōgu-datami (lit. “mat upon which the teaware is placed”), and moving the mizusashi away from the guest. The effect of this arrangement, called 中置 nakaoki (lit. “center placement“), creates both a visual and physical inference of warmth, as the gentle heat radiating from the furo can now be felt by the guest. This subtle rearranging of the brazier, which only lasts for the final weeks of Autumn, perfectly articulates the ethos of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony): a tenderness to the seasons and to the guest, regarding all aspects (visual, physical, spatial, temporal, emotional, and spiritual).

As Autumn takes hold of New York City, the air begins to chill and fresh breezes pull leaves from the trees, scattering them and blanketing the streets with a tapestry of gold, ocher and crimson. Even on the most busy of days, the settling of tumbling leaves brings a sense of calm to the mind, offering a moment to meditate on all that will pass in this season, this year, and this lifetime.

IMG_2162In the tearoom, this motion and stillness is felt as I position my antique furo and 茶釜 chagama (spoutless kettle) to the center of the host position. To my left, I place a tall, slender 鬼萩 Oni Hagi (lit. “Demon Hagi”) mizusashi.

IMG_2160As my guest arrives, the soft scent of incense lingers in the air. As they enter the tearoom, the sound of the kettle creates a calming sense of emptiness. In the alcove, a small orange chrysanthemum is paired with an unadorned wooden incense container. As host, I leave my guest to sit and take in the many aspects of the space, turning a moment’s pause into a quiet meditation.

IMG_2163Pushing open the door, I greet my guest and approach them, offering a tea sweet before I bring out the assembled teaware to prepare a bowl of 抹茶 matcha (“powdered tea”). Set before the now vacant side of the furo, I place a small grey 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan (“Ido teabowl”) and a small, iridescent 若狭塗棗 Wakasa-nuri natsume (“Wakasa lacquer tea caddy”), its spangled surface of red, gold, green and black perfectly mirroring the changing leaves of late Autumn.

A2B7A795-516E-4912-BAC7-6C277B76BFBBAccompanied to the sound of bubbling water, I set about cleansing each item, placing them into position to make a bowl of tea. The teabowl is moved before the rough wooden 敷板 shiki-ita (the board that goes under the furo), itself a section of old floorboard from a since-destroyed Victorian farmhouse.

19A8D526-1F49-465D-98F9-68C03DF53D1DThe lacquer natsume and bamboo 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop), once purified by my purple silk 袱紗 fukusa (a silk cloth for cleansing teaware), are set a measured distance beside this.

06CF018A-3ECF-4612-8ED8-32FD7CB2480DOnce cleansed and warmed by the water from the chagama, the Ido chawan shines with muted tones of sky blue, soft slate and the grey of a cold Autumnal day.

IMG_2161I motion to my guest that they may enjoy their tea sweet, a seasonal 栗羊羹 kuri yōkan (sweet bean jelly with chestnut).

E370E1E9-6B6D-4454-B70B-2268B8A8F781Three scoops of bright green matcha powder are issued out into the center of the bowl, placed one on top of the other, into the recess of the swirl-shaped 茶溜まり chadamari (lit. “tea pool”).

5D08DC5A-1608-4D6E-AEF7-E18FC200F26CPlacing the chashaku back atop the lid of the natsume, I pour a half-ladle’s worth of hot water into the teabowl and begin to whisk the tea.

F17E415A-AE00-4776-B769-3ACBC1F8659CThe bright foam produced appears soft and slightly domed. The circumference of the teabowl and apex of this dome appear perfectly in line with the center axis of the furo and dōgu-datami. This line, in turn, continues on through the center of my body. At this moment, time, space, objects, and intention are all aligned.

D0CBF752-7F38-42D3-B9EE-479509AB8B8ALifting the bowl, I turn to offer it to my guest. We both pause and bow, and for a moment, only the boiling kettle can be heard.

7D96198E-2809-414B-B433-051861120443As I turn once again towards the furo, my guest lifts the bowl and drinks the tea. Once fully enjoyed, they take a moment to hold the bowl, inspecting both its interior and the unctuous glaze on its exterior.

C5E89986-56ED-46BF-8FB8-6B0F318772C3Afterwards, the bowl is returned and I set about cleaning it one last time.

As we both sit in the still world of the tearoom, both host and guest enjoy the pleasant warmth of the brazier. Moved closer to the guest in accordance with Autumn’s growing chill, this marks yet another change seen during the year. In a few weeks, this too shall change. Autumn’s leaves will have been blown from the trees, leaving them bare as Winter settles in. The furo, too, will be put away, replaced by the sunken hearth of the cold season.

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