As Summer deepens its presence tea, too, transforms. The 風炉 (furo, literally “wind brazier”) has long since replaced the sunken hearth in the tearoom and the hope of the host is to induce a sense of coolness in the guest. In this effort, the inventive nature of the tea person comes alive, from replacing the stoneware 水指 (mizusashi, “fresh water vessel”) with a plain well-bucket (木地釣瓶水指, kiji-tsurube) which has been soaked in water over night, to employing items made of clear glass or pieces that contain visual allusions to water (famous being the kettle lid rests (蓋置, futa-oki) in the shape of a crab in a river stream or that of water wheels).
The teabowl, too, changes its shape during Summer, becoming more shallow, allowing for the otherwise hot water pulled from the kettle to cool down, making the experience of holding the bowl and drinking the tea more enjoyable for the guest.
As I make tea today, I use one such bowl, an antique Shigaraki-yaki (信楽焼) chawan. Light, informal, and perfectly imperfect with its pockmarked and vitrified surface, it offers-up a subtle reminder to enjoy the moment (and the heat) of a Summer’s day.
I pair the chawan with an exposed-wood hira-natsume (平棗, a jujube fruit-shaped tea container in which its width is twice its height) and a chashaku (茶杓, tea scoop) hewn from a piece of smokey-hued bamboo. The wood of the natsume and chashaku seem to shine in a way that seems to add to the refreshment of the moment, reminiscent of the washed and weathered boards of an engawa (縁側, the open-air “veranda” that often surrounds old Japanese homes and temples).
On closer inspection of the chashaku, it reveals a hidden landscape of mountains enveloped in mist. Caused by the natural pigmentation and aging of the bamboo, this chance shān shuǐ (山水, literally “mountain and water/mountain and river”) painting, contained within the slender frame of the chashaku (in a way akin to a tanzaku (短冊, a thin, vertical strip of paper often showcasing calligraphy or painting, often hung in the tokonoma alcolve)) offers an additional layer to the tea gathering. It is a landscape so minute that only the host and guest can observe it within the intimate confines of the tearoom. As such, it is an inferred space for both to travel through as they join together to enjoy tea.
The faint hiss of the boiling water in the chagama, a sound poetically referred to as the sound of “wind in the pines” (松風, matsukaze), accompanies every action during the tea gathering. Not only the element with which the tea is brewed, water is also employed to “purify” the tea implements, from the chawan to the chasen (茶筅, tea whisk). In this process, the chasen is placed gently into the teabowl, itself filled with one hishaku(柄杓, bamboo ladle)’s-worth of boiled water. The tines are then lightly pressed against the center of the bowl, flexing them and testing their strength. In this patient act, the host is both checking for damages (that may result in particles of the whisk adulterating the guest’s tea) and cleansing the tea object in a manner that displays attentiveness and hospitality. Once complete, the chasen is left to sit upright, its thin bamboo tines, like blades of grass at dawn, are left moistened and refreshed.
The Shigaraki-yaki chawan, once washed and wetted by the water from the chagama, sits ready to accept the powdered tea. Here, too, the act of cleansing has brought out a new sense of life and vitality from the tea object, revealing bright colors and a deep range of textures that once remained dormant. Born out of the laborious process of hand-feeding a wood-fueled anagama-kiln (窖窯, literally “cave kiln”), the Shigaraki-yaki chawan bears the distinctive marks and patterns that are the result of extreme heat.
As with the chashaku, the chawan, too, contains an inferred “landscape” (景色, keshiki in Japanese, literally “scenery”). Through the hand of the potter, a light and loosely-applied glaze was poured over the rim of the teabowl. The result gives the appearance of an undulating mountain range, articulated through the uneven dissipation and pooling of the yellow and blue-green-hued glass-like glaze (ビードロ, bidoro, from the Portuguese word vidoro meaning “vitrified”). This visual feature becomes yet another “vista” for the guest and host to admire during the tea gathering, offering a moment to pause and imagine the refreshing breezes that often blow through the mountains on a Summer’s day.
Three scoops of bright, fragrant matcha are pulled out of the natsume (as is the practice within the Sōhen-ryū (宗偏流) school of chanoyu) and placed into the chawan. The presence of the powdered green tea against the rough, earthen-toned well of the teabowl is striking and seems other-worldly.
Whisked and whipped with the chasen, the matcha is transformed into a bright and airy foam. Instantly, the aroma of the fresh green tea fills the space of the tearoom. One merely needs to breathe to take in its flavor.
Picked-up and turned in the hands of the host so that the teabowl’s “face” (正面, shōmen in Japanese) greets the guest, the bowl of matcha is then left to sit between the two individuals. After a friendly bow of gratitude (offered simultaneously by both host and guest), the guest accepts the bowl of tea. Turning the bowl’s face away from their own out of respect to the chawan, the guest lifts the vessel to their lips. Within three slow sips, the bowl is savored, the freshly-prepared tea enjoyed to its last frothy dregs.
The Shigaraki-yaki bowl is held quietly in the hands of the guest, the warmth of the tea it once contained still lingers within its earthenware body. The roughness of the clay, the unevenness of the glaze, and the words of a poem painted on its sides are all appreciated by the guest before the bowl is returned to the host for its final cleaning.
In the silence that follows, there remains a stillness that is the quintessence of a moment with tea. Although no physical distance has been crossed, both host and guest have traveled together. While no mountains have been climbed nor landscapes entered, they have both viewed vast vistas and wandered a path together. At journey’s end, no words need to be exchanged. No need for a thoughts nor response. Just to be quiet is enough.
In the heat of Summer, a moment to take tea offers a chance to to quiet the mind and to hear the faint sound of the wind and approaching rain.