Tag Archives: Buncheong-jagi

Bright Golden Leaves Collect in the Gutter

In Autumn, the deep emerald green of Summer wanes and fades in exchange for the umber, ocher and amber of Fall. Looking up into the canopy, gilded edges circle each fluttering leaf, and those which have since fallen gather like flecks of gold in the gutters and gullies of the broad city streets.

In the remaining heat of the day, a lone cicada calls out a solitary threnody to its fallen brethren until it, too, becomes a hollow shell, victim to the chill and the gusting winds. Yet, as seasons shift, not all is lost. Instead, as one moment fades, it transforms, and in this change, something new materializes. Fall’s resplendent colors emerge and encourage meditation.

Golden leaves inform my choice to bring out a bright yellow 黃泥 huáng ní (“yellow clay”) Yixing teapot. Similarly, I select a small leaf Taiwanese red tea, the initial aroma of which strikes a harmonious tone with the sweet, fleeting scent of decaying Fall leaves.

Sitting alone in my tearoom, a single grey Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel) accompany me. In the air hangs the warm scent of lingering incense and the rising steam from my boiling kettle. In this time, I give myself a moment to pause. So often do we forget to do this; to sit with the change we are constantly caught within.

Peering down at the small yellow teapot, I see this transformation embedded in the pores of its clay body. A subtle shift from gold to brown. Quiet marks upon its skin from every tea it’s ever steeped. A slow metamorphosis to maturation.

The soft glazed surfaces of cup and cooling vessel, crazed and crackled, too, bear the imprint of time. Once immaculate, the patterns laced upon them now look like the veiny remnants of decomposing leaves. In this there is beauty too.

Laying the tea leaves atop a scoop fashioned from old bamboo, they appear dormant, caught in hibernation.

Placed within the belly of the small teapot, they slowly begin to wake, releasing a faint aroma which is sugary and rose-like.

A quick steeping wakes them and they begin to writhe and unfurl. Poured out, the liqueur they produce is tawny and slick.

Decanted from sookwoo into the lone cup, I first savor the color, then the scent, and finally the taste.

Straightforward and satisfying, simple and sweet is the nature of this tea. As I drink, I am reminded of its origin; a gift from a friend years ago, procured from a farm tended by a group of Buddhist nuns. How in these years the flavors have changed. How in this time, the essence of this tea still remains.

The chattering of the iron kettle in my tearoom. The rustling of leaves outside my window. The final notes of incense passing as I continue to brew tea. A parade of clouds in a clear azure sky. The sharp chirping of a cricket off in the distance.

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Filed under Ceramics, Hongcha, Meditation, Tea

In the Mountains on a Summer Day

As the apex of Summer’s heat lingers on in late July, seeking solace from the sun is paramount. Since ancient times, hermit poets wrote of this, sometimes going to extremes measures to avoid the heat. As the temperature climbed higher, so too did these solitary eccentrics, disappearing into the mountains, where even in Summer, they could hide in the mist, enjoy the coolness of mountain streams, and relax to the sound of wind rushing through the pines. In their pursuit to escape the oppressive forces of society and overbearing governments, they also found a respite from the tyranny of Summer’s heat.

In his poem 《夏日山中》”Xià Rì Shān Zhōng” (“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”), Tang period poet 李白 Lǐ Bái (701-762) wrote of his attempts to evade the heat at Summer’s peak, sitting naked in the mountains, with barely enough energy to fan himself. His only relief coming from a light breeze that pushes through the pine trees.

As I find myself sequestered in my tree-top apartment in New York City, looking down on the forest outside my window, I can see the shimmering waves of heat rising from the concrete below. Rolling-down the shades to block-out the sun, the heat still enters the space of my tearoom.

To escape this, I set my clay kettle to boil and assemble a tea set together. A small antique Japanese blue-and-white porcelain teapot from the early 1900s set atop a 染付 sometsuke plate. I pair this with a contemporary Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel). The overall effect is exceedingly casual, in keeping with the sense of relaxation I am hoping to achieve.

Epitomizing this intention, however, is my choice of tea: a fresh 鴨屎香鳳凰單烏龍茶 Yā shǐ xiāng fènghuáng dān wūlóngchá (lit. “duck shit fragrance phoenix single grove oolong tea”). Originally given a vulgar name by a tea farmer who sought not to share his most prized tea, quintessentially “Duck Shit” oolong is a balanced, full-flavored tea. Long, wiry leaves bear the evidence of mid-oxidation, with shades of dark red, earthy olive, and the blue-black color of a crow’s plumage.

Once saturated by the hot water from my kettle, the tea awakens and begins to release its flavor and golden liqueur.

Brewing this tea in the particular manner native to the region of Chaozhou, I let the time pass, allowing the high heat of the boiled water to access every layer of flavor found within the tea leaves.

Once fully decanted, the resting tea reveals a spectrum of colors that once were dormant.

Leafy tendrils edged in crimson, copper, emerald, and rust elude to the flavors developed by the partnership of nature’s forces and the skilled hand of the tea master.

Set against the matte grey of the sookwoo, the brilliant color of tea radiates like the golden sun outside my tearoom window.

I take a moment to pause and pour from sookwoo to small cup. Fleeting flavors escape into the air, hinting to the tea’s qualities.

Lifting the buncheong-jagi cup to my lips, I hesitate before sipping, appreciating the rich aromas akin to a field of flowers, of juicy tropical fruits, of a deep verdant forest in Summer’s heat. Finally, I savor the bright liqueur of this fine tea, awash in piquant floral notes, the flavor of ripe longan and sweet honey, followed by the bitterness of orange peel and the soft astringency of a pomelo. The warmth of sunshine, the abundant complexity of mountain air, and the lushness of a forest holding-back the sweltering heat of a Summer’s day caught in a cup.

Joining the poets of old in their pursuit to escape to the wooded peaks during the height of Summer, I slack my thirst alone, enjoying my solitude save for the company of tea.

****

If you would like to read Lǐ Bái’s poem “In the Mountains on a Summer Day”, I’ve provided a copy below, along with translation by retired politician and scholar of poetry 黃宏發 Huáng Hóngfā (Andrew W. F. Wong).

《夏日山中》

懶搖白羽扇,裸袒青林中。

脫巾掛石壁,露頂灑松風。

“Xià rì shānzhōng”

Lǎn yáo bái yǔshàn, luǒ tǎn qīng lín zhōng.

Tuō jīn guà shíbì, lù dǐng sǎ sōngfēng.

“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”

The white feather fan too lazy to use,

In the green grove I simply go naked.

Off with the head scarf, hang on a stone wall,

Revelling in the pine breeze bare-headed.

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

The Wisteria Vine Winds Up the Tree

It is Summer and balmy breezes carry the fragrant aroma of flowers and fresh leaves. As I walk around my neighborhood, I crisscross paths and can’t help but to take the long way home. Strolling over a tattered bridge under which train tracks run, I look along the causeway’s edge. A wisteria vine, in full bloom, winds up an old gnarled tree. Its bright purple flowers cascading and jostling in the wind like long silk sleeves. I breathe in the air around it in the hopes to glean some of its fleeting scent, a perfume that has probably passed and remains elusive.

Coming home, I am reminded of its beauty. The hue of its petals. The fresh verdant color of its leaves. Wanting to quell the heat that followed me inside, I opt to make a pot of tea.

Feeling inspired, I draw from my tea cabinet a small ceramic teapot, glazed in a flamboyant purple 鈞窯 Jūn yáo (Jun kiln) glaze. Next, I produce a small celadon 振出 furidashi, a ceramic sweets container which I have turned into a tea caddy. Along with this, I bring out an antique tea scoop, three Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi teacups and sookwoo (decanting bowl).

Letting a kettle come to a roiling boil, I quietly prepare to brew tea, enjoying the array of colors and textures set before me.

The muted grey of the Korean ceramics next to the deep purple of the teapot.

The warm color of the wooden plank against the assembled teawares.

The soft, creamy green of the celadon tea container.

Issuing-out a small measure of tea, I admire the hand-twisted leaves of a Winter-harvested 高山烏龍茶 gāoshān wūlóngchá (high mountain oolong) from 阿里山 Ālǐshān in Taiwan.

Placing the leaves into the warmed teapot, this produces an initial release of fragrance. It is sweet and ephemeral.

Pouring hot water over the leaves, I briefly witness their unrolling before placing the lid atop the teapot.

I wait as the tea brews, and as I do, I enjoy the sound of a light breeze outside my window. As this pause lingers longer, I let the tea continue to brew. As a tea now out of its season, I hope to draw forth its flavor.

Upon decanting the tea, a golden liqueur emerges, along with the bright scent of oolong tea.

Poured into three cups, I sit and relax, letting time pass, letting the heat subside. Once sufficiently cooled, I bring the first cup to my lips. A soft aroma of sugarcane and guava. A gentle flavor of honey, rock sugar, fruit and flowers arises with every sip.

As it was brewed with a glazed vessel, the tea’s flavor is brighter and crisper than it would have been had I brewed it with a more porous, unglazed Yixing teapot. The result is satisfying, refreshing, like the tranquil Summer breezes that come from the south, cooling the air that lingers in my tearoom.

I am reminded of poetry written by the Song period writer, poet, painter, gastronome, and statesman 蘇軾 Sū Shì (1037-1101):

薰風自南來,殿閣生微涼。

“Xūn fēng zì nán lái, diàn gé shēng wēi liáng.”

“The balmy summer breezes come from the south. It becomes a bit cooler at the palace.”

As time passes, so too does the heat. The sun shifts in the sky. The fragrance of tea mixing with the swirling scents of Summer.

* Translation from Chado the Way of Tea: A Japanese Tea Master’s Almanac by Sasaki Sanmi (Tuttle Publishing, 2011).

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A grey robe. A field of mugwort.

Years ago, I regularly traveled to Korea. While there, I sought out Korean tea, fell in love with Korean ceramics, and practiced Korean 선 Seon Buddhism. Looking back at this triumvirate of forces I would regularly surround myself with, it was no surprise that they would eventually have their effect on my tea practice. I came back with a small collection of Korean teawares which I put into regular rotation, began drinking Korean teas, and began incorporating aspects of Seon monasticism into my own approach to meditation.

Similarly, my tea practice began to take on the “flavor” of the various styles I had observed when in Korean monasteries. Over time, I stripped-down my equipage, reducing it to the bare essentials.

Colors, too, became more muted, favoring tones of grey, white, celadon, and natural wood. These were the soft hues I had found in the light grey 가사 gasa monastic robes (袈裟 jiāshā in Chinese, kāṣāya in Sanskrit), the papered walls in tearooms, the wooden floorboards in Korean Seon temples. And whenever I incorporated these colors into my tea set up, part of me missed being in Korea.

A package arrived in the mail today. Wrapped carefully inside was a muted-grey teabowl. Quite distinct with its “open” shape, tall 高台 kōdai (“foot”), and unctuous glaze, what emerged from the packaging was a humble antique 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan.

While modest in its appearance, the history behind the Ido chawan reflects a long exchange (sometimes peaceable, sometimes not) between Korea and Japan. Beginning in the 15th century, Korean ceramics from the 조선 Joseon kingdom (1392-1897) were imported to Japan, favored as “daily ware”, especially the durable and highly-functional pieces of 분청사기 buncheong-jagi.

The forms of these wares were often simple yet pure, though not without imperfection, giving the vessels their own distinct character. Colors ranged from light grey to brushed white, ochre, persimmon, and even shades of blue and purple.

Eventually, these “everyday” bowls were brought into use for tea ceremony by the tea masters of the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai (“Period of Warring States”, 1467-1600), favored by practicitioners of 侘び茶 Wabi-cha (“rustic tea”). So popular were Ido chawan during this time that there was a famous saying that states “First Ido, second Raku (楽), third Karatsu (唐津)”. Ido ware was first. Subsequently, since the Sengoku period, Japanese potters began to create their own interpretations of the famous Korean bowls that inspired so many tea people.

Today as I sit to enjoy this Ido chawan for the first time, I can’t help but to want to make a nod to this interconnection between two tea cultures. As such, I choose to inaugurate this bowl in a very special way.

Rather than use a traditional lacquer tea container, I opt to use a Korean Goryeo-style celadon incense container. Instead of using 抹茶 matcha, I fill the container with powdered 쑥 ssuk (mugwort), gifted to me by a dear tea friend in Paris. This choice is intentional as the powdered mugwort was commonly used as a traditional Korean medicine in monasteries, one to increase one’s calmness and even induce lucid dreams. Set together, the celadon container and Ido chawan are harmonious.

Peering into the teabowl with 茶筌 chasen (tea whisk), 茶巾 chakin (tea cloth) and 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop), I am once again reminded of the textures I once enjoyed while traveling through Korea.

Setting each utensil in place, moments of subtle contrast arise. Cut bamboo on crackled celadon.

Motifs of chrysanthemums paired with mugwort.

Three scoops of the powdered herb is placed into the center of the grey bowl.

Afterwards, water is poured into the teabowl and both mugwort and water is whisked into a brilliantly bright foam. The shape of the bowl instantly propels the aroma of this herbal tea up into the tearoom, leaving a soft, crisp scent to linger.

Momentarily I close my eyes and it feels as if I were walking in a field of mugwort. Lifting the bowl to my lips, I draw three sips and finish the bowl of mugwort tea.

Rinsing the bowl, I place it before me to inspect its many subtle features. Its wide, round opening. Its dappled surface. It’s gentle shade of grey and occasional running and pooling of opalescent glaze.

Looking deep into the center, the bowl has a trace mark of the potter’s hand caught in motion as the vessel once spun on a wheel.

Turning the bowl gently over, I inspect the foot of the teabowl. Like all great Ido chawan, this one has the distinct irregularities of where glaze and clay meet, producing unique globular collections of vitrified blue-grey glaze.

To begin an Ido chawan’s life in such a way indelibly marks it. A simple bowl with striking features. An uncommon herbal tea with a link to the herbal medicines of Korean monasteries.

Tea was, and still often is, a melange of influences, of stories, of people and their lives. Where a “common ware” can be exalted as the height of an aesthetic movement and practice. Where two cultures can sit peaceably and share a bowl of tea. And where memories of colors of one’s past can be caught in the briefest of moment; transient and fleeting.

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Spontaneous, Like Water Returning to the Mountain in Spring

As Spring arrives and the gentle warming of the season comes, even the mountains can not resist the change. Heavy snow from a wet Winter has left the mountain tops coated in a thick blanket of snow, yet on the slopes and in the forests that surround, water has returned, filling river beds and running through winding streams. The forests awakens to this, if almost suddenly, and the wildlife within become gregarious, filling the wooded environment with their motion and audible calls. What once felt like the depths of Winter has, as if spontaneously, transformed into Spring.

The abruptness of a season’s change can catch one off guard. Sometimes this is met with a sense of sadness, of having lost a time that was dear to oneself. The closeness of Winter has vanished, replaced by the expansiveness of a bright Spring day and the energy and speed it can bring to life.

Sudden shifts like this, however, can and do often occur in life. Relationships can come and go. A job we love may one day end. A person we cared deeply for may leave or die. We often ascribe moments that arrive to us quickly with a sense of unease or perhaps undesirable. But why? What is this that we push up against? Is it the feeling that comes? Is it fear of change? Is it a reckoning that something we had come to expect has forever been altered? Is it that we cannot face this change in our environment, or in ourself?

Spontaneous changes, however, are constantly happening around us. In the city of New York, this is unavoidable. One day there is a worksite, the next day there is a skyscraper. One year there is a neighborhood that is defined by a certain ethos and character. The next year it may completely change.

Tea can be this way too. When I first began to practice tea, every moment was new, every tea I made was eye-opening. Every action, whether picking up a teapot or bring water to a boil, seemed like it was for the first time. It was exciting and, at the time, it felt like every action carried the gravitas of a solemn ceremony.

Nowadays, however, I make tea everyday. I still select a tea, and I still decide which teapot to use. I boil water and I brew the tea. What one might now call a deep-seated ritual that I conduct daily, I consider incredibly ordinary. I simply “make tea”.

This morning, as I gathered to lead yet another Sunday morning tea meditation, I did so as I always had. I laid-out the tea setting, people came, tea was made, we meditated. Nothing special.

Yet to say that it is “nothing special” is not entirely true. The moment was not entirely the same. The people were different. The tea, an excellent 水仙 Shuǐxiān (“Water Immortal”) from Wuyishan, was particularly memorable. And even the light of the early morning in Spring seemed unlike that I had seen all year.

A thought arose between teacups, and, all of a sudden, something that seemed quite routine became something entirely new and ponderous. Within the relative repetition of practicing tea and meditation, when a thought arrives it can come like a crash.

But if one is well-practiced, this sudden moment is met with equanimity. Realizations, whether pleasant or unwanted, are met on the same terms. Each are bowed to. Each are offered a cup of tea. Just like Winter abruptly changing to Spring, we will sit with that which is new. This is quite ordinary and quite special.

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When Sunlight Joins for Tea

Often is the case that when I am making tea in my meditation room, time passes and the light of the day naturally shifts. Facing West, the morning light is soft, with a distinctive bluish tone. However, as morning fades and the light of the afternoon grows, warmer hues emerge, and the golden rays of sunlight pour through the window of this tiny room, joining me for tea.

As I was quietly brewing tea this morning, I let time meander. The water in my antique Japanese 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle) quietly came to a boil, leading to an hour of brewing various teas.

Shifting from a roasted 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiě guānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Goddess of Mercy” oolong tea) from China’s Anxi county to an aged 水仙 Shuǐxiān (“Water Immortal”) from Wuyishan in Fujian, I finished my tea brewing session with a green Taiwanese 高山茶 gāo shān chá (“high mountain tea”).

As one hour turned into two, the kettle was refreshed with cool water and the sun climbed higher in the sky. Just at the moment I began to let go of time, warm rays of light came flooding through my window and settled down onto my setting for tea.

It set alight the steam that rose from the water, beamed across the stippled iron face of the old chagama, and cast shadows across the assembled teapots which I had set to dry.

The sunlight encouraged me to make another cup of tea and so I did. Scooping water with the 柄杓 hishaku (bamboo ladle) and carefully pouring it into the small tea vessel.

Sunlight lingered over ever facet of the moment, warming the teapot before I decanted its fragrant liqueur.

And, like the sunshine that joined me for tea on this day, the tea shone bright, first in a Korean sookwoo, then in an antique Japanese 染付 sometsuke blue-and-white cup.

And, as the sun often does, it passed along, leaving the room out from the window it arrived through. Much like the small crawl-through-door (躙り口 nijiriguchi) that leads into the tea hut (茶室 chashitsu), it had come in, bowed, sat for tea, and left, leaving no trace save for a moment shared and a memory.

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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