Tag Archives: Chashitsu

Major Cold: Looking Down the Long, Dark Tunnel of Winter

It is late January and, by now, many of us begin to anticipate the warmth of Spring. However, as nature would have it, the coldest days of Winter are finally upon us. In the interim, between the New Year of the Gregorian calendar and before the New Year of the traditional lunisolar calendar of East Asia, the period of what is called 大寒 Daikan in Japanese (Dàhán in Mandarin), “Major Cold”, begins.

Extending from January 20th to February 3rd (changing slightly depending on the given year), this time sees the most extreme point of Winter’s chill, with winds that are wild and biting, the earth frozen and solid, and the ice ever-present. In the world of tea, practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu take heart and double-down on their commitment to live according to Rikyū’s old adage, “in the Summer suggest coolness, in Winter, warmth”. So dedicated to this latter notion are tea people that all manner of accommodations are made to ensure that the guests’ needs for warmth are met.

Warm water with ginger is often served to the guests as they wait to enter the tearoom. More charcoal may be added to the 炉 ro to boil the water and heat the tea space. Even the type of teaware used is adjusted to increase the warmth of the tea. It is during this time of year that the host will bring out the 筒茶碗 tsutsuchawan.

Named for its distinctive “tube-like” shape, the tsutsuchawan casts a visually different form in the tearoom when compared to the typical shape of the teabowl. Comprising of a vessel that is taller than it is wide, the height of the tsutsuchawan ensures that the hot tea made within it remains hot by the moment the guest receives it. Given that traditionally 茶室 chashitsu are constructed out of nothing more than wood, paper, grass, and mud, any means taken to retain heat is vital. Tea was (and still is) a medicine at its core.

As I sit in my own modern (and, frankly, modest) tearoom today, I find myself feeling far from the historical essence of chanoyu. In my New York City apartment, I sit in the artificial warmth of 20th century steam heat. The sound of the radiator seems a constant feature of my Winter-locked life here in the city. In stark contrast, I look out of my window to a world blanketed in a fresh coat of snow. Ice hangs on the eaves and dark grey clouds filter sunlight into a dull glow.

As I bring the water in my antique bronze and iron 茶釜 chagama to a boil, I arrange my teaware. A vintage 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsuchawan.

A small wooden 平棗 hiranatsume lacquered with persimmon juice.

An antique 茶杓 chashaku.

A 茶筅 chasen made of speckled bamboo. Peering out of the darkness of the deep chawan is the white linen 茶巾 chakin, folded in a manner favored in the 裏千家 Urasenke school (a subtle and mindful nod of appreciation to their form as I am a student of 宗徧流正伝庵 Sōhen-ryū Shōden-an).

As I cleanse each item, touching them with the smooth silk cloth of my 袱紗 fukusa or bathing them in the heat of the boiling water, I ready them for their action of making tea. The chashaku is rested atop the natsume. The chakin is removed from the teabowl. The whisk is wetted and warmed. The teabowl is empty and is radiating heat from the water it once held. These actions all have their intention and are supported by the purpose-built wares.

As I scoop tea from the small wooden natsume and place it gently into the center of the teabowl, I feel the heat still held in the clay. Its presence subtly activating the aroma of the fresh 抹茶 matcha powder. The shape of the bowl sends this flavor upwards to me as I pour half a ladle’s-worth of hot water into the chawan. As I whisk the tea, I am mindful to adjust my action to the unique shape of the tsutsuchawan. My movements are tighter, slightly faster, whipping the tea into a light foam.

Pulling the chasen from the teabowl with an upward motion, I see the results of my action: a soft, gentle foam, lustrous like mounding snow. It glows like a wondrous light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

As I sit in the makeshift tearoom of my urban apartment, listening to the wild wind whipping at my window, the sight of trees bending and heaving to the force of nature, I cannot help but to recognize the luxury and, indeed, the privilege I live in. Tea is a luxury. Heat is a luxury. The walls around me and the food in my belly are all a luxury, brought to me, in large part, by a privilege that I alone did not make for myself.

As I set the bowl before me and lift it in thanks for this moment it and my practice has brought me, I let my thoughts on this situation linger. I pause before I lift the bowl to my lips, its heat radiating, the fresh, fragrant liquid within it unavoidable and pleasant. How can I share this solitary bowl of tea with the world around me? How do I share this warmth that I have now during the coldest time of year?

As I sip and empty the tall vessel, watching the final dregs pool and collect within its flat base, no immediate answer comes to me.

As I turn the bowl over to appreciate the rough textures of its 高台 kōdai and to see the carved mark of the potter’s name, I find no reply from the great and boundless universe. To “just make tea” seems to be enough and yet so little. Today, the peace I often find myself having at the end of making a bowl of tea does not seem to arise. Instead, the problems of the world, the problems of privilege, still seem to remain.

As with other forms of meditation, the act of making a bowl of tea is said to be a kind of enlightenment. Alas, it is a misconception that enlightenment brings an air of settled peace or a sense of harmony. In truth, the enlightenment that arises is, instead, no different from the pain and suffering or the joy and exuberance of everyday.

When we look down the long, dark tunnel of life, sometimes all we see is the darkness. Sometimes when we look down the long, dark tunnel of a tsutsuchawan, all we see are the final dregs and residue of the tea we’ve finished. It is our practice to see this. It is also our practice to do all we can to make the guest warm, especially when we are living through the coldest days of Winter.

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

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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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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In the Hut of My Teacher

Fifteen years ago I stepped into a tearoom and never left. On what was a cold winter in Paris, I first met my 茶の湯 chanoyu teacher, a master of the 宗徧流 Sōhenryū school, over a thick bowl of 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”), served up in a somber 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan.

Over the last two decades, I’ve kept in touch with my teacher, though rarely have we met in person. Intensive trainings, regular Skype calls, and a long string of email messages have kept us connected over the years. And throughout, he’s always offered his guidance and reassurance that cultivating a spirit of tea is paramount to mastering form. When there is no spirit in form, there is no spirit in tea. It falls apart.

This past week I returned to Paris to once again study under my teacher. Since I met him, he’s built a beautiful tearoom (茶室 chashitsu) overlooking a serene courtyard garden in Paris’ 15th arrondissement. The room is aptly named 黙庵 Moku-an, a grass hut of quiet contemplation, a silent hermitage. To take tea here is truly a meditation, on space, on light, on texture, on time. It is a fully immersive experience.

On the final day we studied together, he welcomed me into his small, three-mat room. After the washing of hands and mouth at the 蹲 tsukubai (basin), I pause.

Before one enters into this quiet urban tea space, I must first step, momentarily, upon a large, flat stone that once sat on a river’s edge.

Sliding open the papered door that leads into the tearoom, I can’t help but to feel refreshed. The soft light. The fresh smell of new 畳 tatami. Pressing my knees down against the mats, I edge myself into the space, closing the door behind me and moving towards the 床の間 tokonoma (alcove).

My eyes scan upwards to see calligraphy written by a tea master of the 裏千家 Urasenke school.

Next, my eyes drift downward to an arrangement of flowers set in a bronze container. I take my place for a bowl of tea.

The light from the garden is soft, gentle.

The tearoom is perfectly silent, save for a distant songbird and sound of the boiling kettle set within the 炉 ro (“sunken hearth”).

My teacher enters, we bow to each other as old friends, and tea is made. I sit across from him, observing his every motion, his intention, his mindfulness. This is the real teaching. To taste his spirit within the bowl of matcha. To feel the movements of the heart upon the mind. To witness someone who has mastered their art over a lifetime.

And just as quickly as it had begun it is over. The light in the room shifts. The sound of the kettle changes. The lingering scent of the incense has faded. I sit alone again in the tearoom, pondering the meaning of a gourd-shaped incense container in the tokonoma.

That evening, we finish a week of study over a final bowl of koicha, cups of sake, and flickering candlelight.

Back home, all that remains now are the memories, the imprint on my mind, the feelings in my heart, and the practice that continues.

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