Category Archives: Sencha

The First Drift of Snow

Morning woke with a flurry of snow. To peer outside my tearoom window to see a world covered in white. Rooflines obscured. The forms of trees reduced to black spindles, looking like calligrapher’s ink on paper against a flat grey sky. Snowflakes spinning roughly in the breeze, tumbling and forming the first snowdrifts of Winter.

Prior to now, the days have been just warm enough to allow for the remaining green grasses of Autumn to stand upright, the last of the leaves of the climbing ivy to look full. Today, each wilt with frost and flatten under the weight of the snow. All that is left are soft, undulating fields of bright white snow.

Brimming with inspiration, I pull forth an item of teaware that I had long awaited to use, waiting for just this moment. I place it, hidden in its unopened 桐箱 kiribako, upon the wooden surface of my tea table, next to an antique peach-colored 萩焼 Hagi-yaki 宝瓶 hōhin.

What does this box contain? What treasure is buried underneath a snowbank? I wait, allowing the water in my iron kettle to begin to steam, before I open the small wooden box.

From it I pull a small irregularly-shaped cup. Pure white, save for the portions of exposed clay left unglazed, the tiny vessel is a piece of 鬼萩 Oni-Hagi (“Demon” Hagi) by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan. Procured during the warm months, I’ve waited until today to use this special teacup.

For a moment I hold it, admiring its form from various angles. Its sides billow like mounds of snow.

Its foot is rough, splayed in a 切十文字高台 kirijumonji-kōdai (“cross-cut foot”) manner.

With steam rising steadily from my iron kettle, I begin the process of warming my assembled ceramic wares, first the hōhin. The heat escaping from the warm and wetted clay interior caused sounds of expanding glaze resembling the almost imperceivable ringing of melting ice.

Next the teacup. It, like the soft drifts of snow outside my window, remains silent.

Alongside the tiny hōhin and teacup I set a small celadon tea container and wooden tea scoop.

Pouring out a measure of Spring-picked 冠茶 kabusecha into the concave surface of the cut bamboo 茶合 sagō, I place tea into the warmed recess of the Hagi-yaki hōhin.

The crazing of the ceramic surface, intermittent with splashes of pinks, purples, and grey. The lacquer-like shine of the deep emerald tea leaves like pine needles heaped together.

I carefully pour hot water over the leaves, making sure not to disturb them, instead, allowing them to gently tumble as I fill the hōhin.

Closing the lid, I pause, letting the inward and outward motion of my breath dictate the time I let the tea steep. Slowly, I wrap the fingers of my right hand around the curve of the hōhin’s warmed walls, lifting and tilting it to calmly decant the steeped tea into the bright white hollow of the Oni-Hagi teacup.

The color of the freshly brewed tea against the pure white glaze is startling. Like a bright jewel beaming an unearthly glow, the tea shines within the unblemished space of the teacup. Next to its more orthodox Hagi counterpart, the Oni-Hagi lives up to its demon-like name, with its wild, uneven glazing.

Alone, it feels as if it were a found object; an organic form pulled from nature.

Like a small, haphazardly-formed ball of snow, I admire the eccentric quality of the cup as I sip from it.

Steeping after steeping, the warmth of the tea finally permeates into the body of the clay until, finally, like the mid-day sun warms the earth, small cracks form in the icy glaze. No longer will this piece remain as it once had. A sign of use, of life pushing up through the snow!

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Japan, Meditation, Sencha, Tea, Tea Tasting

A Rancid Old Crock Peddling Roadside Tea: Tea and the Memory of Baisaō.

On the sixteenth day of the seventh month of the era 宝暦 Hōreki (October 1751-June 1764), an old, hollow-cheeked man passed quietly into death. What he left to the world were primarily words scrawled on pieces of paper and memories collected by his closest friends. His only worldly belongings of any value, of which he had carried for years on his own back, had already been set ablaze by his own hand years before. Dying with the name 高遊外 Ko Yūgai, the man who died this day centuries ago was none other than the famed master of 煎茶 sencha, 売茶翁 Baisaō (the “Old Tea Seller”, 1675–1763).

A former monk of the 黄檗 Ōbaku school of Zen Buddhism, Baisaō would become famous for traveling around the hills of Kyōto selling tea, and imparting mindful (if not often gruff and self-effacing) reflections upon those whom he would share tea with. Breaking from the time-honored tradition of whisked powdered tea (抹茶 matcha) that had become a mainstay of Japan’s elite during the Edo period (1603-1868), Baisaō brewed sencha, a new style of whole leaf green tea that came to Japan through the influence of Ming China (1368-1644).

Baisaō lived much of his life in abject poverty, never asking for money in exchange for the many cups of tea he poured or the calligraphy he wrote. Considered an eccentric for his unorthodox way of asceticism, he attracted the attention of Kyōto artists, writers, poets and aesthetes, all of whom were drawn to his simple lifestyle spent in appreciation of tea. Despite his popularity, Baisaō refused to establish a formal school of tea in his own lifetime, preferring to leave no trace.

Upon his retirement from selling tea, he famously burned his belongings. In the poem he offered to the remembrance of his bamboo basket named 僊窠 Senka (“Den of the Sages”), he mused “After the world-ending kalpa fires consume all things, Won’t the emerald hills still soar into the white clouds? With these words I commit you to the flames.”

Following his death, Baisaō’s tea practice would become the foundation upon which later practitioners of 煎茶道 senchadō (“Way of sencha) would emulate. Over time, his influence led to the popularization of sencha, both as a more accessible form of tea and as an alternative to the formalism of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony).

Baisaō wrote of himself “Years ago old Tu-chan predicted I’d be a great Dharma vessel, sixty-nine years come and gone, time it takes to crook a finger, wouldn’t he laugh to see me now, a rancid old crock peddling roadside tea.”

As I spend the morning in meditation on this, on the sixteenth day of the seventh month, I decide to commemorate the life of Baisaō in a way he may (or may not) have deemed fit. With a small clay kettle coming to a simmering boil atop a small brazier, I ready my teaware. An old sencha set I found years ago when I, much like Baisaō, had been living a life of chosen poverty in San Francisco. The tiny 宝瓶 hōhin (handless teapot) and 湯冷まし yuzamashi (water cooling vessel) sitting before me.

Five small cups, turned upside-down, waiting to be cleansed.

A small celadon sweets caddy in the shape of a gourd as a tea container. A cut piece of bamboo inscribed with a poem to measure tea leaves. Hammered plates of copper to rest tea cups upon.

Pouring a small amount of boiled water into the yuzamashi, I let the water cool and warm the uneven shape of the ceramic tea object before I empty it out into the hōhin and then into the cups.

A small amount of tea is measured out from the celadon jar into the open void of the bamboo scoop. The leaves of this particular 冠茶 kabusecha (a partially shade-grown style of green tea) are a deep emerald.

Tilting the scoop downward, I let the leaves slide into the warmth of the open and empty hōhin.

The heat from the ceramic begins to activate the aroma of tea, which now, alongside the gentle scent of incense, begins to waft throughout the room.

Slowly I pour cooled water over the leaves and set the lid atop the tea vessel to steep the tea. Within a few seconds I begin decanting, pouring the tea into each cup.

Once emptied, I place the hōhin back down, lifting the lid off to allow the tea to breathe.

With a single mind, enjoying the moment at hand, I set each cup atop their copper rest. As I sit and sip the refreshing tea from the tiny earthenware cup, enjoying its lush flavors and long finish, I give pause and meditate on the life of this old master, on his will to leave no trace, and of the ripples he set into motion which are still felt today. As Baisaō said himself, “I offer a taste of my one cup tea, a Dharma transmission worked out on my own.”

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If you would like to learn more about Baisaō, I highly recommend Norman Waddell’s 2008 book “The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto”. Throughout this article I’ve sourced information and translations from this wonderful text.

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

Cups and Poems Along a Winding Stream

For enthusiasts of ancient customs, this past week offered a multitude of moments to enjoy. In particular, the third day of the third month is a time that is packed with significance.

One event observed on this day is the ancient custom of 曲水の宴 kyokusui-no-en, or “the winding stream party”. Purportedly dating back to Japan’s 古墳時代 Kofun jidai (Kofun period, 300-538 AD), the event involved courtiers and scholarly officials sitting at the bank of a meandering stream, where cups of sake were sent floating down to them to casually imbibe. Upon plucking a sake-filled cup from the water, the guest drank it whole-heartedly, after which they composed a poem that reflected on the moment, perhaps the palpable shift from Winter to Spring. Evidence shows that this celebration may have its origins in China, with the 流觞曲水 liúshāng qū shuǐ recorded in 353 AD.

Feeling inspired, I opt to brew tea instead of drink sake. In lieu of a babbling brook, I choose to set my wares along a twisting plank of wood. For a teapot, I select a piece by the 19th century poet, ceramicist, and Buddhist nun Ōtagaki Rengetsu (太田垣 蓮月). For a tea scoop, I use an antique 茶合 sagō, inscribed with a poem.

For a tea container, I use a 備前焼 Bizen-yaki incense container made and recently gifted to me by a dear tea friend in Paris.

The tea, named 白姫 Shiro Hime (“White Princess”), is an unusual “white tea” from Japan’s Fukuoka prefecture.

The tea and teapot, both feminine in nature, when used together are a subtle nod to another significant event on March 3rd. It is on this day that 雛祭り Hinamatsuri (“Girls Day”) is celebrated in Japan.

The teapot, warmed and ready to brew tea, sits upon the swirling grains of my wooden tea table. The teapot’s form, that of a curled lotus leaf, complements the relaxed feeling of sitting by a river’s edge.

When opened, steam rises out from its unctuous interior.

Once placed inside the tiny vessel, the tea leaves glow a vibrant green.

Left for a moment, the tea steeps.

Three cream-colored Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cups are placed side-by-side. Collectively, they sit like three radiant jewels.

Once filled, I set the cups at uneven angles for my guests to enjoy. Together we drink them, one-by-one, as if at a opposite ends of a wandering stream. A poetry of flavors drifts throughout our minds.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Korea, Meditation, Poetry, Sencha, Tea

A Tea Culture Grows in New York City

I am not a New Yorker. I’m a transplant. A Northern Californian relocated from his foggy climes to the urban jungle of New York City. I ride the subway. I see the rats (all of whom I rather enjoy the company of). Amidst the daily clamor, the concrete jumble, the yelling, the kicking, the screaming, I find peace. Eked-out by my motto of “take time to make time”, I have found my solace.

For those who know me, this takes many forms: cooking, exploring, music, meditation, tea. First and foremost, tea. Tea has saved me somehow. From the madness of a PhD candidacy to a vow of poverty, up through to my current life in New York City’s regular and daily “churn”, to simply sit with tea is “just enough”.

But to say I’ve done it alone is to ignore the countless people, places, and spaces that have supported my (and many other’s) cultivation. I’m taking about tea houses and their owners. The people who make it happen.

From the mercantile to the monkish, the tea merchant crisscrosses a vast expanse of ideological and psychological forms, creating along the way spaces dedicated to “their version” of “the Way”. No one is incorrect in their iteration, but each produces something purely their own.

Love them or leave them, what they do is (and will always be) difficult. Turning a tiny leaf into a mighty buck. Boiled water. Ceramic. Bamboo. Paper. Glass. Iron. Caffeine. The list goes on. Yet, I, too have been in their shoes, though only for a while.

To their tough travails I offer up this article, published today on Sprudge (itself, a coffee-centric publication). Even in this realm, tea (the second most consumed beverage worldwide) is a side note (though a noteworthy one).

My little guide to New York City’s tea houses is by no means complete. By no means extensive. Just a breath on the wind. But I hope it causes conversation. I hope it sparks pondering. This city is always evolving, and, currently, it holds some of the nation’s (dare I say the world’s) most interesting tea houses.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, Hongcha, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Meditation, Oolong, Pu-erh, Sencha, Tea, Travel, White Tea, Yellow Tea

All Labor Has Dignity

A day after friends gathered for incense and tea, I hesitate to put away the assembled wares. With the golden light of a cold January day streaming through the windows of my apartment, each object seems to glow against the blonde wood and white plaster. Hearing the gusts of swirling wind outside, I want to stay indoors, and in the still of the day I sit to meditate. It is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day here in the United States, and a meditation seems fitting to reflect upon a man who promoted nonviolence. As the warm light cascades across the table where I sit and read excerpts from a speech Dr. King gave in 1962 to an assembly of the Wholesale and Department Store Union in Monticello, New York, sunlight touches a Japanese 鬼萩 Oni-Hagi (“Demon Hagi”) teapot, a gold lacquer-repaired porcelain 宝瓶 hōhin (handleless teapot), an American-made 茶碗 chawan (teabowl), and folded paper envelopes of incense.

“There are three major evils…” King spoke… “the evil of war, the evil of economic injustice, and the evil of racial injustice.”

As light shifts and moves along the beetle-green ceramic edges of an ash-filled incense cup, my mind focuses on these words.

Not much has changed. Such evils continue to grip this nation, keeping people of all genders, races, occupations, classes, and creeds locked in mindless competition and conflict.

In tea and in incense, there is no competition. In the meditative mind, we only sit with ourselves.

Comparisons, desires, and greed can be observed and fall by the wayside. Our daily work, when done full-heartedly, brings its own sense of dignity.

In the tearoom, we leave our worldly trappings and our markers of status at the door.

One sheds a layer of red dust and enters a pure space.

Sitting amidst the quiet, on this day, a bittersweet contemplation rises. In the cold of a bright and shining Winter’s midday light, sadness sits peacefully side-by-side with joy.

To be part of a practice that honors peace such as tea, to be part of a method such as nonviolence, and to walk in this world in such a way, brings questions to the meditative mind. How to use each moment as if it were your last to further such causes? How to touch the heart so as to redirect one’s spirit towards love? Where will our future be when our present is currently such?

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Green Tea, History, Incense, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Sencha, Tea, Tea Tasting

EXCLUSIVE: History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Ming & Qing Period

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Beloved readers of Scotttea,

I’m excited to share the full video of Wednesday, July, 18th’s tea talk and interactive workshop “History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Ming and Qing Period” (1368-1912). Held at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, this event is part three of an ongoing series covering the history of tea, from its development as a folk medicine over 6000 years ago into the beverage we love today.

In this event, we discussed how the loose leaf teas have their origins in the monumental shifts that marked the period of the Ming in Qing, from experimentation in oxidation and pan-frying to inventive brewing techniques and international trade. We explored the impact scholars, poets, emperors, and artisans had on tea art and the development of gong fu cha (literally the “skill and challenge of brewing tea”). And we examined antique teawares from the Ming and Qing period and learn about the evolution of tea brewing, from teabowl to gaiwan to Yixing teapot.

This event included tea tastings of China’s famous teas accompanied by step-by-step demonstrations of Ming and Qing period tea preparation. Below, as a supplement to the almost three-hour long video, I’ve provided a listing of the contents of the presentation (featured in the first half of the lecture), as well as a list of the teas brewed (and how they were prepared).

“History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Ming & Qing Period”

Link to video

Ming and Qing Presentation Thumbnail.png

Above is just a fraction of what is included in the 30+ slide presentation. Topics discussed were as follows:

  • China Before the Ming Period Tea in the Song & Yuan Period
  • China in the Ming Period
    • Tea in the Ming
    • Famous Kilns
    • Tea Technology: Gaiwan, Kettles, Braziers, Teapots
    • Tea and Globalization in the Ming
  • China in the Qing Period
    • Tea in the Qing
    • Tea Production Art & Craft of the Qing
    • Gong Fu Cha Tea Culture in the Qing and in the World

Teas tasted:

1st Tea: 2014 南糯山生普洱 Nán nuò shān shēng pǔ’ěr, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China (brewed in contemporary reproduction of Ming period Yixing gaiwan)

2nd Tea: 水仙 Shuǐxiān “Water Immortal” Wuyi Mountain yancha oolong, Wuyishan, Fujian, China (brewed in a early 2000s fang-gu-shape Yixing teapot)

3rd Tea: 八仙 Bāxiān “Eight Immortals” Phoenix Mountain dan cong oolong, Chaozhou, Guangdong, China (brewed in a 1990s shui ping hu-shape Yixing teapot)

4th Tea: 正山小種 Zhèng shān xiǎo zhǒng, Lapsang Souchong, Wuyishan, Fujian, China (brewed in a contemporary Jun-yao-glazed teapot)

5th Tea: Charcoal-roasted 鐵觀音 Tiě guānyīn “Iron Goddess of Mercy” Anxi-style oolong, Nantou, Taiwan (brewed in 19th century-early 20th century Si Ting Hu-shape Yixing teapot)

6th Tea: 野生大葉白茶 Yěshēng dàyè báichá Wild “Big Leaf” White Tea, Fuding, Fujian, China (brewed in contemporary Qing-shape Jingdezhen white porcelain gaiwan)

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Look out for more tea talks and workshops soon to be added to this blog. I regularly present and moderate at museums, universities, tea houses, cultural centers, etc. For speaking inquiries, feel free to reach out to scotttea888 (at) gmail.com.

 

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Hongcha, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Oolong, Pu-erh, Sencha, Tea, Tea Tasting, Vietnam, White Tea, Yellow Tea

EXCLUSIVE: All About Green, Yellow & White Tea

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Dearly Beloved Readers of Scotttea,

I am excited to share with you the tasting notes and LIVE video feed from my most recent tea talk and interactive workshop “All About Green, Yellow & White Tea”. Held in the intimate confines of Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, this tea gathering offered participants a “three hour tour” (literally three hours) of green, yellow and white teas from all over China, Korea and Japan. Beyond being a highly-caffeinated evening, the tea talk and workshop was also highly-immersive, as I offered up my tips and quips on tea history, production, and brewing styles.

Needless to say, I am forever grateful to both Floating Mountain Tea House and to the folks who attended and made this memorable evening happen. For all those who could not attend, I offer to you now, in all its glory, the full video and tea tasting lineup from “All About Green, Yellow & White Tea”!

“All About Green, Yellow & White Tea” (Link to video)

Teas Tasted:

1st Tea: Spring 2018 蒙頂甘露 Méngdǐng Gānlù, Meng Ding Shan, Sichuan
2nd Tea: Spring 2918 西湖龍井茶 Xīhú Lóngjǐng Chá, Hangzhou, Zhejiang
3rd Tea: Spring 2018 六安瓜片 Lù’ān Guāpiàn, Liu An, Anhui
4th Tea: Spring 2018 太平猴魁 Tài Píng Hóu Kuí, Hou Gang Village, Anhui
5th Tea: Spring 2018 야세작 Wild Sejak, Hwagae, South Korea
6th Tea: Spring 2018 かぶせ煎茶 Kabuse Sencha, Nara, Japan
7th Tea: Spring 2018 蒙頂黃芽 Méng dǐng huáng yá, Meng Ding Shan, Sichuan
8th Tea: 2000s 老單芽黃茶 Lǎo Dān Yá Huáng Chá, Yunnan or Sichuan
9th Tea: 2017-2018 芽寶 Yá bǎo, Nannuoshan, Yunnan
10th Tea: 2014 白牡丹茶餅 Bái mǔdān chá bǐng, Fuding, Fujian

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Korea, Sencha, Tea, Tea Tasting, White Tea, Yellow Tea

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