Category Archives: Sencha

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

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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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Japan, Poetry, Sencha, Tea Tasting, Uncategorized