Tag Archives: Chinese New Year

Preparing for the New Year

It’s been a while since I last sat down to commit my thoughts to writing. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months. Soon enough, late Autumn turned to early Winter, and now it’s the midpoint through 小寒 Shōkan, “Minor Cold” in the old lunisolar calendar. 2023 has begun, but the new year has yet to come and the first murmurs of Spring won’t arrive until a month from now.

In this pause, much has happened. To call it a pause is perhaps to diminish the past months in a way that could allow for it to be easily forgotten. Perhaps, when reading this entry, the gap may allude to a time period of no importance. Alas, even in the silence of a meditation or the quiet before daybreak, there is much activity in the mind and in the world around us. A world of preparation, preparation for a new year and for a new life.

For these past months, my partner and I have been preparing for our first born child to enter the world. As her partner, this has placed me in the support role, tending to her comfort and needs. As parents to be, this has also meant preparing our house for the arrival of our baby, making sure that our daughter-to-be will feel safe, supported, and empowered within her new environment. The creation of “home” feels palpable as it comes into realization.

As a tea person, I can’t help but to draw parallels between this preparation and the measures taken to ensure that a good 茶事 chaji (tea gathering) will occur. The inviting of the guests, the preparation of the 茶道具 chadōgu (wares, lit. “implements for the Way of tea”), the cleaning and setting of the tearoom, and sweeping and arranging of the 露地 roji (the tea garden, lit. “dewy path”). A myriad of tasks must occur before one brings one’s guest into their inner tea space, a setting where both host and guest will have the opportunity to commune and make a lasting and profound connection to one another and to the moment they both share through the making of a bowl of tea.

Similarly, as the new year soon arrives on the traditional lunisolar calendar, preparations must occur as well. In the coming weeks, I hope to host an informal 初釜 hatsugama at my home with a small number of close friends as my guests. Much as I do with the constant thoughts of my not-yet-born daughter and the current needs of my partner, I find myself wondering about what my invited guests may need, how can I ensure their comfort, and what must I do to make sure that they have a meaningful experience.

While all of this is a lot to take in, the garden outside remains in total hibernation. The leaves of my poor tea plants either shine like sparkling emerald-hued lacquer or have shrunk in the bitter cold of the season. Their current state is a reminder for me to remain focused on the present moment. Spring will come, but one must remain aware that we are still living through Winter. It is time to conserve one’s energy.

Noting the cold in my tea studio space, I draw my linen curtains closed. The light of the room changes and warms as the low sunlight of the morning filters through the soft undulations of fabric. I pour cool water into my 鉄瓶 tetsubin and wait until it warms and boils.

A low hiss rises and turns into a single note. To this pleasant tune, I begin to collect teawares and pile fresh-ground 抹茶 matcha into a carved lacquer tea container. While I’ve been better these days with practicing more formal tea preparation, I retreat to a more casual form and opt to make tea in the more relaxed 盆点前 bon temae style.

With items placed upon a circular tray and set down onto the large plank of wood I use as my tea table, I begin to feel more grounded. What I’ve found over the years of practice is that tea affords me a moment to let my mind focus on the task at hand. To set aside my phone, my computer, my digital fetters. To acknowledge my worries and whatever they’ll do as I just sit and make a bowl of tea, either for a friend or loved one or, as I am doing at this instance, for myself.

The movements are simple, straightforward. Objects are set down, at first one next to the other, …

…and then one in front of the next.

The 棗 natsume is cleansed with the folded 袱紗 fukusa, …

…then the 茶杓 chashaku.

The bowl and whisk are wetted and warmed, made pliable by the heat of the water, and readied for their role in making matcha.

In these motions, there is no ceremony, as there is no ceremony in life. There’s just movement, intention, mindful action interspersed with thoughtful pauses. The more one does this over time, perhaps the more fluid and direct the cadence will become. Perhaps not. Regardless, what may look like ritual, rite, ceremony or service is just a means of doing. Preparing a bowl of tea is like this. Preparing for life is like this too.

With bowl warmed and implements cleansed, I lift the chashaku and set the lid of the carved lacquer natsume beside the empty 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan.

The first scoop of matcha is placed into the center of the teabowl, followed by a second and then a third.

As I inscribe a mark into the mound of green tea powder, I note the aroma of fresh tea lifting upwards and wafting towards me.

In breath is followed by out breath, and I tap the residual matcha off the tip of the chashaku against the inner side of the chawan.

As I place the natsume back down upon the tray and the chashaku atop it, I pause for a moment to appreciate the way light and remaining tea dust collects on the rounded edge of tea scoop tip. Like an echo of action or trace of a moment, the matcha powder clings, outlining the form of the 露 tsuyu of the chashaku. A gilded edge to this page in time.

The 茶筅 chasen is placed inside the chawan atop the mound of tea. Water is poured from the tetsubin through the thin tines of the whisk, mixing with the matcha powder, and hanging from the bamboo blades like dew does on grass.

As I center myself and whisk the tea, I remind myself that the tines of this chasen are growing older and weaker with each use. Some of the tips have lost their shape, others have broken over time. Too aggressively whisking the tea might result in more broken tips. Lifting the whisk further out of the bowl and avoiding scratching the well of the chawan can ensure the chasen’s longevity. A lighter touch. A softer grasp. Smoother breathing. Focus.

Finally, whisked and whipped into a foam, I lift the chasen upward and out of the teabowl. Before me sits a single bowl of tea, prepared for myself.

Dim light accentuates the softly rising mound of 薄茶 usucha bubbles that drift atop the surface of the liquid. I catch myself holding my breath, in anticipation for what’s to come. A hatsugama. A new year. My partner’s pregnancy. The birth of our daughter. A new life.

As I bring the bowl to me, lifting it in thanks for this moment of solitude and silence, I’m reminded of Rikyū’s solitary 正月 shōgatsu tea gathering.

It was on the New Year’s morning of 1582 that he made himself a single bowl of “大フク/ofuku” (which can be understood as either 大福茶 obukucha, lit. “great fortune tea”, or 御仏供茶 ōbukucha, lit. “tea offered to the Buddha”). Finding myself on the precipice of so much, anticipating so much, I begin to recognize why Rikyū chose to enjoy a bowl of tea before embarking on a new year in life.

Much like whisking a bowl of tea, you can’t grip life too firmly, nor can you work yourself too hard. Much like the whisk itself, the body and mind breaks under pressure and that which you set out to make will come out rushed and sloppy. What is called for is a lighter grip, a softer touch, smoother breath. A relaxed approach to an otherwise rigorous practice. Solitude. Silence.

The silence I’ve kept these past few months has for a while now hung over me. Sometimes I worry if I am incapable of writing again, or afraid that, by writing, I am just doing so in a performative way. Is a blog entry a product of something more ominous, a dire symptom to a world that measures our existence with social media posts, likes, impressions, and clicks on a page?

In my silence, I sometimes check to see who has been reading my blog. Years ago, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people would read an article a day. Now, maybe one or two. Recently, some days would pass and no one would read my blog. I must admit, I feel a sense of accomplishment knowing this.

But action and inaction, silence and speech, are both two sides of the same coin. Both are a form of doing. Increasingly, my silence has begun to feel like this: something that I have become busy doing.

As I sit and finish drinking my tea, staring down at the foamy dregs that cling to the inside concave of the grey chawan, I realize that it’s my practice to make tea as a means to mark moments in my life. Whether this is a conscious decision or not, the subtle changes in seasons or the more tremendous changes in my life have all been accompanied by an offering of tea.

Perhaps I make tea to stop what I’m doing, to sit and still the mind. But it is foolish to think that this act can stop time or stop the myriad of sensations my mind and body feels. They keep going. Coming as they do and passing onward. With no beginning and no end.

Where is my mind and my heart at this moment as I prepare for the new year?

Footsteps in the snow might mark where we’ve been.

Past writings and old photographs.

Tea clinging to a scoop, moisture caught in a cloth, heat still captured in the ceramic walls of a chawan, in the iron skin of the tetsubin.

But the mind sometimes also imagines a path out ahead. A direction where the next step goes, where the hand is set to grasp the next object, a space to place one thing into or onto the next.

Even when we are silent, there comes a moment before our silence is broken, when our mind forms words, when we anticipate action, when we commit to speech.

It is hard not to get caught in anticipation for what lies ahead of me this year. Trepidation and excitement. Ponderous moments of wondering. My heart and mind at times overflowing with joy, with a complex array of emotions.

Soft light filtering through fabric, through faceted glass, through windows, through treetops, through clouds. Each day growing lighter as Spring approaches. New life promises to push through the cold earth. Even now, before Winter’s coldest days have yet to come, as the last of the springwater still holds its warmth, but for how much longer?

****

For those who would like to learn more about Rikyū‘s 1582 solitary shōgatsu, I recommend the 2019 translation and article by Adam Sōmu Wojciński, linked here.

https://s68d646eb7163e1a8.jimcontent.com/download/version/1579353605/module/11985784312/name/Rikyu%27s%20Lunar%20New%20Year%20Chanoyu%20-%20Nampō%20Roku.pdf

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

Meeting of Two Masters

Today, the cold of Winter remains, pressed up against the warming weather of early Spring. Entering 立春 Lìchūn means that the snow will eventually begin to thaw, although the ice that still remains in the mountains won’t melt until later in the month. The result is scattered snow flurries combined with rain. The birds in my garden, as much as I, are left darting for cover, for warmth, for a hollow to call home for the while as the weather decides what to do.

I, in my studio, have set up a small tea session. Kettle boiling. The sound of the falling snowflakes melding with the soft hum of boiling water. The faint scent of incense I burned earlier this morning is still present.

As the heat of the water rises and crests, I pour a small draught from the kettle into a small 四方壺 sìfāng hú (square-shaped teapot) by 施小馬 Shī Xiǎomǎ (1954-present) that I’ve set within the center of a 宜興朱泥茶船 Yíxìng zhū ní chá chuán.

Next, the water from the pot is poured out into a small 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup made by famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.

A small portion of an aged 餅茶 bǐngchá made from the compressed leaves of a 渥堆 wòduī processed 南糯山 Nánnuòshān 熟普洱茶 shú pǔ’ěr chá is placed into the angular interior of the small dark clay teapot.

These angles are the mark of years of craft and study that reflect the skill of Shī Xiǎomǎ. These same angles will test my own skill as a tea brewer, as I will need to account for how they will affect the expansion of the tea leaves as they saturate, open, and offer their flavor.

Pouring hot water onto the leaves and closing the pot, I am left with very little information to work with.

Not pouring water over the teapot will mean I cannot rely upon the evaporation of the hot liquid from the surface of the vessel to tell me when the tea has fully steeped.

Neither can I observe the small meniscus bubble traveling down the teapot’s spout (which I often do with 烏龍茶 wūlóngchá, as the expansion and unfurling of these leaves leads to the absorption of some of the water, resulting in a slight reduction in the water’s overall volume in the pot).

Instead, I have to rely on intuition and on my experience using this teapot.

With any luck, noting the darkness of the tea cake, the compression of the leaves, and even how the portion of tea broke from the compressed bǐng, I’ll be able to have some control on the final outcome.

I wait and then pour-out the warm water from the waiting buncheong-jagi cup. Once emptied, it is filled with tea.

The steeped liquid set against the cream-colored canvas of the cup reveals the true color of the shú pǔ’ěr. It is rich in tone, a dark sanguineous umber, almost a deep red. The aroma is equally complex. Notes of tilled earth, old desiccating wood, of warm, wetted leaves.

Sipping the tea and setting the cup back down, I taste sweeter flavors akin to apple’s skin, dark berries, dried raisin, and black fig.

Remaining still with these flavors, I lift the lid from the four-sided teapot and pour into it more water from the boiling kettle.

Rather than fully empty the teapot, I allow for the first steeping to meld with the next. Doing this allows the tea’s flavor to gradually change, concentrating between each cup poured, building and ebbing like a great, slow-moving wave that eventually grows and crests and presses up against the shore of a lake, peeling back and retreating to the calm center.

Upon finishing the first cup, letting the flavors linger and play-out on my palette, I pour a second. This time, the color of the liqueur is dark, almost black.

Only at the very edge of the pool can I make out the true color of the tea. I am reminded of the unique hue of old red lacquer that is covered by a thin, almost translucent layer of black lacquer. The effect is a muted tone. Neither red nor black. A color in between. What is achieved by this process gives depth and a sense of wonderment to the object. Creating something that is both dark and glowing.

The tea is very much like this. Its flavor is the same. What I am most struck by is the intense change that two steepings have produced. The first was light and its flavors still emerging. The second, conversely, is fully developed, balanced, with brighter fruit tones followed closely by those more similar to an aged port wine, tobacco, and thick molasses. The sweet and savory registering on the same level.

As I sip this tea my concentration remains on deciphering the myriad of sensations it gives rise to. All around me continues the sound of snow and rain, the kettle bubbling away, the faint scent of incense still hanging in the air of my studio. I breathe in and this cold, fragrant air blends with the warm flavors of the tea that hold strong within the back of my mouth and top of throat, inside my nostrils and behind my teeth. I close my eyes and, even here, the taste of tea seems to reside, as I grow more awake from the first and second cup.

I pour another stream of hot water from the kettle into the tiny pot and close the lid again.

Between steeps, I smell the interior of the cream-colored buncheong-jagi cup. Inside, soft floral notes are captured and expressed against the crackled surface. Tea-soaked spots where once one cup sat atop another while they were fired in the kiln now collect and offer-up aromas unlike those when the cup was full. Even empty, a trace remains, markedly different from moments before.

Another cup and another are poured. Countless more after that.

The small squared pot is a stalwart support against the cold of early Spring. Its thick walls of carved and cut 紫砂 zǐshā maintain the heat of the water from the kettle, allowing for the compressed leaves of the bǐngchá to slowly and evenly open over several hours.

The tea changes from opaque to increasingly translucent. Eventually, I can begin to see to the bottom of the cup. This transformation of the liqueur, like the leaves, is gradual, exhibiting the qualities of both the tea and the fine Korean ceramic over time. The two, tea and cup, feel balanced. The relaxed and organic form of buncheong ware feels like a natural vessel for the dark shú pǔ’ěr to reside.

I am reminded of how when I first travelled to Korea, during a cold Winter, I learned that pǔ’ěr was a popular tea of artists and aficionados alike. Much like the buncheong ceramic, pǔ’ěr was brewed in a way that felt natural, relaxed, heartfelt and austere. I remember being huddled, much like I am now, beside a brazier and a wooden table, listening to the sound of wind and snow pressing up against the windowpanes, feeling warm and centered around the enjoyment of tea with new friends.

It was here that I first began to learn about buncheong-jagi, and was introduced to the wares made by Shin Yong-Gyun. Since then, I’ve kept several of his cups into regular rotation. Over this time, they’ve become more worn, more crackles have emerged, their color has become softer. Where once they were snow-white, they now feel like soft linen that has been broken-in by regular use, washed and tended to, loved.

As I look to the small teapot again, peering into its open top before filling it once more, I am reminded of its past too. I was in my early 20s, just out of college. I’d begun working for a small, family-owned business in San Francisco’s Chinatown selling tea and traditional medicinal herbs. Quite poor at the time, any tea or teapot I acquired seemed like an achievement of my own ability to work and save and rationalize my burgeoning tea practice over other luxuries such as food or rent.

The small four-sided pot has remained on the shelves of the tea shop for several years before I’d purchased it, a hold-over from the previous decade. Loving its pure form and clean lines, I had aspired to bring it into my, then, small collection and learn how to brew tea with it. Unable to read seal script at the time, it wasn’t until recently that I was able to decipher the artist’s seal imprinted onto its clay body. When I did, I learned the pot was made Shī Xiǎomǎ, a contemporary master of Yíxìng wares, active since the 1970s.

Set in the center of the circular chá chuán, the four-sided pot and tea boat remind me of the ancient forms of 琮 cóng and 璧 , ritualistic objects that came to represent earth (believed to be square) and the universe (believed to be round). As I finish brewing the final cup, knowing that there are still many more to come, I let the objects become a meditation.

In tea we are given the rare opportunity to bring the art of two masters together. Pot and cup alone are forms that feel complementary. One is self-contained, closed. The other, open to the elements. One conceals a mystery. The other offers a mirror upon which flavor, color, heat, and textures are reflected. Each operates in its own manner yet enhances the output of the other. In this way, two masters can enjoy tea together, albeit separated by time and space. Neither artist may know of this moment, save for if they were to stumble across this recounting.

Sitting and savoring the flavors of this instance, I let the sound of the kettle boiling rise again. I note the din of light rain against retreating snow drifts play, the boom of the large metal bell in my garden gong on breeze that seems softer now that early Spring is here. The light of the day grows longer. The cold of the morning seems to fade more each afternoon. Grass, too, begins to push up out from the ice, as do the thin green blades of the narcissus, long before they bloom.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Korea, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Between Winter and Spring

As I begin writing, I await the coming of the new season. One more day, a few more hours, and we pass from 大寒 Dàhán (lit. “Big Cold”) to 立春 Lìchūn (the beginning of Spring). In the mountains and rivers of New York, cold rain comes, just warm enough to melt snow. The process, the thin winnowing-away of Winter into Spring, is slow. It doesn’t happen all at once (not yet, at least). Nature reminding us, always, to pause, appreciate each moment, savor the length of time things take to emerge, grow, mature, ebb, flow, and then wane and fade into nothing.

Looking out onto my garden, the snow becomes soft until it gives way to thick frosty puddles, where grass that survived the cold Winter pushes upwards through. Leaves that fell last Autumn emerge preserved from their chrysalis of ice. Colors still vibrant, but only for today.

Looking out onto this world, a mirror of what transformative forces nature brings, I sit and set a kettle to boil beside me. While the air grows warmer, the space of my studio remains cold, its walls cut into the side of the hill atop which my house is built. Warmth comes from the brazier, the kettle, the sunbeams that stretch across the wooden floor and wooden board I use to make tea upon.

As water warms, I ready objects to steep. A cloth. A scoop made of carved bamboo. A pick fashioned from a twig of a fruit tree.

A small purple-glazed pot gifted to me years ago by an artist acquaintance.

A cup gifted to me by a tea friend from South Korea, its maker a famed ceramicist from the same country.

An archer’s ring for a lid rest.

Soft light stretches across the tea table. Warmer in tone than days before.

This same warm light flickers against warm water which I use to heat the pot and cup. This same warm light settles and creates soft shadows on the twisted leaves of old white tea.

野大白 Yě Dàbái, a wild large leaf white tea from Fújiàn province, was once a fresh tea. Bright, green, silvery in its complexion. Now, more than seven years old, the leaves have darkened. What was once emerald and lacquer-like in appearance now looks leathery and worn. Spring-picked leaves for the last day of Winter.

Lifting the lid from the pot and placing it down atop the jade archer’s thumb rest, I place the leaves inside the tiny vessel.

Warm water is poured atop the tea and the leaves tumble and twirl within the teapot before they come to rest.

The lid is lifted and placed over the opening of the pot and the tea begins to steep.

Waiting for the tea to steep. Waiting for Winter to fade into Spring. Waiting for this world to change. Each season seems to bring something new to us all. Anticipation building each time the weather warms. An unarticulated promise that things will get better and we, somehow, collectively, will be able to step out from our own self-enforced solitary confinement.

As each season arrives, this promise, however, invariably falls flat. Steep expectations eventually evolve into deep resentment. Underlying aggravation arises from the denial of simple freedoms. Reluctant realization sets in as we recognize that the big problems of life don’t just melt away.

The tea, once poured, gives me some hope for what waiting may bring. Patience for a pot to brew brings deep colors and warm amber hues. While outside my window Winter wanes, the flavors inside this now aged tea still remain strong. Subtle notes of caramel, of cardamom, of honey, and sweet dew. They linger and last, as successive cups are poured, each deepening in color and flavor, until no more liquid is left in the pot.

Lifting the lid off the teapot again, more water is added and a second steeping begins.

The sound of rain is gentle and silvery pools of water begin to collect between the shrinking mounds of snow that have covered the concrete platform that leads out to the garden. Concentric circles of ripples from raindrops bend and break.

I pour out the next round of tea into the same small cup from South Korea. The color darker than before. The flavors more open and complex.

One cup turns to two, then three, and then more water is poured onto the leaves again for another steeping, and another steeping after that.

Light from the day continues to shift and, too, wanes like Winter, and I set the lid back atop the teapot once more, this time, empty of liquid. I opt to stop brewing tea for now and to wait until morning comes the next day to return for one final steeping. The cold of my studio space enough to preserve the leaves in the pot and let me enjoy the tea for one more day.

The next morning, I wake to the sound of ice rain against my window. Bright, crystalline, like unearthly chimes in their resonance against the quiet that only exists before the sunrises. Lìchūn is here and yet the cold seems stronger. Where once there were pools and puddles that harkened to an early Spring, today there is sleet and carpets of piling ice that blanket the concrete platform and pathway stones of my garden.

Trees, too, are coated in a frozen sheath. Plum are covered. So, too, are the pine.

The preserved Autumn leaf that inspired my tea time the day before is covered again in a layer of ice, returning to its hibernation for a few more hours or a few more days.

I sit down again beside my kettle like I had done before a day ago. Today is Spring and still there is snow. Ice rain seems to be a fitting harbinger for the new season. A light chiming knell for the end of Winter. A bright shining sparkling tree covered in ice.

The day-old tea, when brewed for one last time, the color that comes is light.

The flavor has faded. The last notes from a Spring seven years passed are finally gone.

A new Spring is here, and yet it’s colder now. For how long will it remain?

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, White Tea

An Unseen World

Late January and the depth of 大寒 Daikan (Dàhán in Mandarin) is here. I woke this morning to mounding snow drifts, falling flurries, pine trees capped in white. A storm had passed during the night and continued on through the dawn, bringing wind and cold and ice on windowpanes. Although, inside my home is comfortable and warm, I wish to experience Winter in its fullest and feel determined to make tea outside, within the confines of my makeshift hut.

Trekking through the garden, wares packed and wrapped-up in 風呂敷 furoshiki, I come upon a realization.

The world of snow is mysterious. Forms covered and obscured and made unknown by layers of ice and air. The steps of my path are softened.

Rocks and branches from sapling trees feel formless.

Wind makes hollows. Snow creates volume.

Undulations and caverns that once weren’t there.

The door to my tea hut is frozen shut.

Once I pry it open, I find that snow has entered before I have. Soft sprays of snow.

Fine white crystals scattered on the floor and below the crack between window and sill.

I set the kettle to boil and fill my 水指 mizusashi with cool water.

In the 床の間 tokonoma, I place incense to burn and a 蜜柑 mikan citrus as an object for meditation. As I sit and wait for the water to boil, I listen to the hollow howl of the wind against the small shack I have chosen to make into my space of practice. Thin walls of pressed wood abating the cold but not by much. My breath and the steam from the kettle conjoined in our efforts.

Objects for tea are unwrapped and unboxed and placed in accordance to their various usage.

The tall form of a slender 茶入 chaire before the mizusashi.

Much like the stones outside my tea hut, the true shape of the tea container is obscured by the striped and spangled silk of the 仕服 shifuku pouch.

Beside this, I place a 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsuchawan, a teabowl used only during the coldest days of the year.

Chawan and chaire sit as I pause to listen to the sound of snow tapping against the single windowpane that lets light into my small tea hut.

Ice crystals forming slowly as the cold of the world around me deepens.

As I move objects from rest to motion and back to rest, I observe how shadows shift and move with them.

The chaire is shrouded in its shifuku pouch.

Once removed, the shifuku becomes an empty vessel.

The chaire, a full, voluminous form.

The teabowl, tall, slender, tube-like in shape, is cavernous, dark, full of shadow, dwelling at the bottom unseen.

I pour a dipper’s worth of hot water from the kettle into the open mouth of the tsutsuchawan. Everything that goes in, the water…

…the splayed tines of the 茶筅 chasen

…the white linen 茶巾 chakin

…and eventually, the tea…

…disappears into the deep void of the tube-shaped teabowl.

Only employed during this time of year, before the first hint of Spring arrives, tsutsuchawan convey the depths of what this ice-locked season represents.

In the low light of my makeshift tea hut, the bowl seems without end.

A tunnel rather than a vessel. An portal into something unknown, unseen. What lies at the other end?

Pouring hot water from the kettle into the bowl requires focus and practice. Concentration as liquid cascades from the sunlit cup of the 柄杓 hishaku into the darkness of the narrow opening of the tsutsuchawan.

Pressing whisk into the tea-and-water concoction to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha presents another unique challenge. The bowl is deep and the walls close together, limiting one’s motion. Even knowing what is happening as one kneads the tea is difficult.

Unlike other bowls, one cannot easily see into a tsutsuchawan. Compounding this, the dark umber color of the Bizen-yaki fades to black in the low light of the tea space, in the dull glow of Winter during the last days of the period of Major Cold. In an unseen world, one must rely on practice alone to grope and clamor through the darkness.

In the time it’s taken me to whisk a bowl of thick tea, spindly needles of frost began to form and make intricate patterns against the outside of the windowpane.

As I move teabowl from the host’s position to guest’s, I observe the light from the window push through the steam rising from the boiling kettle. The soft hum of the water. The high-pitched whirl of wind between cracks in the door.

I look down at the bowl. Both empty and full. The bright green tea invisible in the dark hollow of the tsutsuchawan. Its presence only known by the heat contained in the ceramic, from the aroma of the koicha rising into the room. Deep and vegetal during the cold torpor of late January, of Daikan, of Major Cold.

I lift the bowl and drink the tea. For a moment I pause and let the flavor and the heat of the tea permeate throughout my mouth, my throat, my body. My cold, stiff fingers hold the narrow bowl tight, as if it were a warm being radiating heat to help me survive the harsh weather outside the walls of my tea hut. I sit and hold it longer, meditating for as long as the heat remains within the clay.

Several minutes pass and the heat fades. The hollow of the bowl cools. The dregs cling and thicken against the dark, blistered walls of the tsutsuchawan.

I return to clean the bowl, not with cool water from the mizusashi but with the hot water from the 茶釜 chagama. In the depth of Winter, I opt not to waste anything. The final dregs of koicha are no different.

Water warms the bowl again and I whisk the remnants of thick tea liquid into a bright foamy bowl of 薄茶 usucha.

Thousands of tiny bubbles look back up at me like thousands of bright lights peering from the end of a long dark tunnel.

The flavor of the tea is sweet, grassy, light. It comes and fades gently against the harsh cold of this day of practice I’ve made.

As I clean the bowl once more with cool water, I close the tea session. Objects for tea are laid back to rest.

The lid of the chagama is placed atop the steaming kettle, save for a small gap to let the heat rise freely.

The light of the day grows brighter through the windowpane yet the frost has grown thicker too.

As I prepare an informal 拝見 haiken for one, I recognize that the light that now reflects off each object will grow brighter more and more each day.

With the end of Daikan comes 立春 Risshun (Lìchūn in Mandarin), the start of Spring in the lunisolar calendar.

During this liminal time, the new year will begin.

What will come in this fast approaching Spring, this Water Tiger year?

What we’ve seen so far is an unseen world.

Dark, cold, foreboding, with new rules and new expectations.

A deep tunnel devoid of light, of murky dimensions. A space cold, save for the heat trapped within our bodies, within the clay body of a Bizen-yaki tsutsuchawan.

Even as steam climbs skyward from the hot kettle, that which lies within it is a mystery.

How do we exist in an unseen world, one that has never existed before, a world with an unseen future? Do we seek the comforts of warmth, of home?

Or do we trek out into the cold, with only a few objects wrapped-up and packed upon our backs?

And what do we do when the terrain changes, landmarks shift, the path becomes obscured? What if there is no way back home? Just towards a future unknown? Footsteps fade as snow falls.

Wind blows over once sure stones that pointed the to the Way. An unseen world lies ahead, with only one’s practice to perhaps fortify you.

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

First Kettle

The new year has come and quickly it feels as if it has grown old. The depth of Winter is upon us now in the Northern Hemisphere and I remain locked within my studio, left to look out upon the snow that covers my garden. In the waning days of 小寒 Shōkan, Minor Cold, a period extending from approximately January 6-20, I’ve grown anxious to return to my tea practice and to offer up a first kettle for the new year.

初釜 hatsugama, “first kettle”, is typically conducted during the first weeks following the new year. For me, work, busyness, and the myriad of other excuses I use to put-off doing the important things in life have kept me from just simply sitting and giving into the deeper practice of preparing 濃茶 koicha. The itch I feel when I haven’t made a bowl of tea climbs inside me until it feels a bit unbearable and I find myself early one morning pouring fresh water into my old iron 茶釜 chagama

…into the white-glazed interior of my tall, four-cornered 水指 mizusashi.

For many schools of tea, hatsugama is one of a multitude of cardinal points on the tea calendar. It is the moment of relative pomp amidst the otherwise withered and cold atmosphere of Winter. Fine objects and offerings may find their way into the 床の間 tokonoma. The dual silver and gold-glazed teabowls poetically known as 島台 shima-dai, the Isle of Eternal Youth, are often employed when making tea for invited guests. And finer foods and 屠蘇 toso (spiced 酒 sake) are often served during 茶懐石 chakaiseki, the meal served before tea is prepared.

For me, I’ve made it my practice to abstain from these ostentations and, rather, attempt to situate the first kettle within the simpler, more pared-back nature of Winter. As I look out onto my garden, I have enough seasonal references and focal points of vitality against the cold weather to fill a thousand alcoves. Plum and pine. Small birds with their ruffled feathers. Snow-capped hillsides and silvery skies.

I situate my tea table beside the large window that looks out onto my garden and make it a space to prepare a bowl of tea. Beside it I set my kettle. Atop it, my mizusashi. Before the cool water vessel, I place a small 茶入 chaire, wrapped-up in a light blue and silver 仕服 shifuku, tied together with a brown silk cord.

From where I’ve been readying the objects for making tea, I return with a bowl set atop a wooden cup stand. It is an old 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan and accompanying 天目台 tenmoku-dai. Its colors are dark and austere with flashes of blue and copper-like hues.

Atop the bowl, I’ve placed a carved 茶杓 chashaku made of striped cypress. Beside it, a 茶筅 chasen made of black bamboo, set atop a folded 茶巾 chakin.

The items and their arrangement, the way the chakin is folded, the shape of the tea scoop, the bowl and its wooden stand, are formal, harkening back to forms that have their origin in China during the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279), back to when tea was both beverage and medicine. In my school, these objects and the actions used when employing them are specific to making a bowl of koicha and presenting it to an esteemed guest. With no guest available, I sit down to make a bowl of tea for myself. My guest, perhaps, is myself of this very moment, as I welcome my new year of tea practice with the water drawn from this “first kettle”.

Objects are first cleansed and then placed into their position for making tea.

First, the chaire is removed from its silken shifuku pouch. I loosen the cord and gathered cloth that once held the small ceramic container and its bone lid safely together.

Next, I place the wrapped object in my left hand and peel the two sides of the brocaded fabric away from the rounded surface of the chaire, revealing the smooth silk interior of the shifuku.

The chaire is lifted from its protective pouch and placed before the teabowl.

The shifuku is placed beside the mizusashi.

I unfold my 袱紗 fukusa made of purple-dyed silk and inspect it before I refold it and use it to cleanse the surface and lid of the tiny 文淋 bunrin-shaped chaire.

Next, I refold the fukusa again and use it to cleanse the chashaku made of 檜 hinoki cypress.

I place the scoop atop the lid of the chaire and fold the fukusa, returning it to the side pocket of my woven Winter coat.

The chasen is removed from the chawan and placed beside the chaire momentarily. I lift the bamboo 柄杓 hishaku ladle off of the 蓋置 futaoki and, as I do so, I admire the images of auspicious objects rendered in blue colbalt upon the white porcelain.

I pinch and lift the chakin out from the center of the chawan and use it to remove the lid of the bubbling kettle beside me. The lid is placed atop the porcelain lid rest.

Water is drawn from the steaming kettle and poured into the teabowl.

The whisk is placed into the hot water to warm, wet, and soften as it soaks.

As it does so, the wooden tenmoku-dai is cleansed. The fukusa is folded and used to first purify the rim of the 酸漿 hōzuki (uppermost supporting cup). Next, the flat surface of the wooden flange (羽 hane).

With bowl and its wooden stand cleansed, all that is left to do is make a bowl of koicha.

As I lift the chashaku and chaire from their resting position and place the white bone lid beside the bowl and stand, a thought enters my mind.

The bowl I’ve chosen for this year’s hatsugama, for this first kettle, was one of my first teabowls. Ever since I’d begun my practice in tea, I’ve been drawn to tenmoku chawan. Their form, their history, their austerity. Yet, to use one properly, one must first learn how.

In the world of 茶の湯 chanoyu, a tenmoku chawan is reserved for the most formal of tea settings, often to serve tea to an important guest. To make tea for one’s self with one is odd. Yet, during this time of separateness, during a pandemic, it feels like a form of meditation to offer one’s self a bowl of tea. A recognition that even as we cannot yet connect with others, we can use this as an opportunity to connect with ourselves.

I pause and breathe and place three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder into the center of the teabowl.

I follow this by setting the chashaku down atop the wide wooden flange of the tenmoku-dai.

The scoop’s rounded tip, made of carved hinoki covered in a light dusting of matcha.

Its smooth handle pointed towards the white bone lid of the chaire.

I tilt the small bunrin chaire over and let the fine tea powder cascade downward into the center of the tenmoku chawan. It piles into a low mound, the shape of which creates a small chaotic impact of tea dust against the dark interior of the glazed teabowl.

I place the lid back onto the chaire and return it to rest beside the chasen. I mark the mound of matcha with the rounded edge of the tea scoop, making the sigil of my school into the tea dust.

I place the chashaku atop the chaire.

A measure of hot water is drawn from the kettle with the hishaku and a small amount is carefully poured into the teabowl to mix with the matcha.

As the green tea powder saturates, it darkens to a deep emerald hue, almost black within the low light that enters the concave of the tenmoku bowl.

I lift the whisk and press it downward into the tea and water concoction. I gently hold the teabowl with the outstretched thumb and index finger of my left hand. The tea is worked and kneaded into a thick paste and an additional draught of hot water is drawn from the kettle and mixed with the tea. This is blended further until the right consistency is met.

As I lift the chasen from the now fully blended koicha, I pull it vertically out of the tenmoku chawan, allowing any residual tea liquid to drip back down into the teabowl.

I then turn the whisk so the tines point upwards, each lacquered in a thin coat of the thick tea.

Setting the whisk beside the chaire, I turn my attention to the teabowl.

A deep pool of jade looks up at me from the dark, iron-spotted interior of the tenmoku bowl. From its center, I can make out the reflection of my shoulder.

Peering closer, I see the volume of the tea, the waves upon its surface. Thick, rumpled at the edges where the flat expanse of tea meets the downward sloping walls of the teabowl. A slick, viscous veneer of tea still clinging to the sides, marking the extent to which the whisk traveled from side to side, back and forth in a figure eight motion as the tea was blended.

I lift the bowl by the wide wooden flange of the cup stand and bring the both closer to me. I turn the bowl a quarter turn, so that the 正面 shōmen, the front of the bowl marked by an opalescent cascade of glaze, does not touch my lips as I drink the tea.

I breathe in as I sip the thick tea. Its heat and aroma radiates and surrounds me, filling my senses, banishing any lingering sleep of the morning. As I pause and tilt the bowl back down, I peer over its metallic rim, out onto the garden. Bright white light filtering through the trees, reflected upon the snow. As I tilt the bowl again for another sip, I am met by the dark interior, the deep green of the tea, the slow movement of the liquid down the ceramic sides of the tenmoku chawan.

With the final sip of koicha, I place the bowl back down with the wooden tenmoku-dai. From my pocket, I produce a piece of white 懐紙 kaishi paper, which I fold and use to wipe excess tea liquid from the rim of the tenmoku chawan.

Looking down at the bowl of koicha, my eye is caught by the trail of thick tea pulling from the once deep reflective pool. This trace, this record of a moment. Tea blended with the water from the first of many boiling kettles that will hopefully come throughout this year. How, even as this moment feels still alive, still present, it, too, has just passed.

I set the tenmoku chawan atop the wooden cup stand aside and bring forth a separate 替茶碗 kae-chawan to cleanse the chasen. The bright white splash of spiraling brushed glaze of the 刷毛目唐津茶碗 hakeme Karatsu chawan sits in stark contrast to the more formal bowl that came before it.

I pull water from the mizusashi and pour it into the new teabowl. I dip and whisk the tines of the tea-covered chasen into the cool water. Clouds of green residual matcha billow and churn in the clean, clear water. The thin carved blades of the tea whisk glisten in the light of the morning.

I pour the liquid from the bowl and place chakin and chasen into the bowl.

I cleanse the chashaku once more, removing the tea dust that had coated its rounded tip.

Items are placed back at rest. Bowl beside chaire. Lid atop kettle. Ladle beside me.

In the quiet that comes once the kettle has been closed, I sit and look out upon the small stand of trees outside my garden. Pine trees. Plum. Hardy friends of Winter who, along with bamboo, weather the coldest of days yet to appear.

Shōkan is followed by 大寒 Daikan, “Major Cold” (approximately January 20-February 1), and then comes the new year of the lunisolar calendar.

I ponder this as I prepare each of the objects for 拝見 haiken.

Hatsugama marks a moment in time. Each bowl of tea does. Each time I sit down before the brazier, beside the sunken hearth, to offer tea to either guest or alone to myself. These moments accumulate. Yet as time moves forward on the calendar, do these moments do so as well?

I pause as I lay each object beside one another.

The round bunrin chaire beside the scoop.

The scoop beside the shifuku pouch.

When we offer tea for hatsugama, the emphasis is on freshness, cleanliness. You offer tea at the beginning of the new tea year and, with it, you say goodbye to the year that has passed.

In this way, 清 sei, or “purity” of the four fundamental principles of tea, 和敬清寂 wa kei sei jaku, takes on a dual meaning.

Sei can mean to purify one’s space, to offer up items and objects and tea in a clean manner.

However, it can also mean to offer one’s practice, one’s self, in a pure, unadorned, unattached way.

This can be the purity from that which came before it, a moment cleaned of a past that might end up influencing and causing distraction from the present.

It can also mean that, with a heart and mind unattached to goals or objectives, ambitions or desires, as one offers a bowl of tea to someone else, they do so without a motive or gaining thought.

As I sit and look upon these objects, their shadows cast against the swirling grain of an old 香盆 kōbon, I think of the difference between shadow and trace. Of tea and practice.

Which leaves a lasting impression? Which affects which?

What do I hope for this year to come, this year of the Tiger? What to learn from hatsugama, the first kettle?

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

The Sun Shakes Off the Snow

Sometimes Winter stays. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to want to go away. A cold day can last for hours but feel like an eternity. There is a somber quality to snow; it blankets the ground, producing a clean white canvas where trees and rocks and hills are reduced to minimal shapes. This might feel like a welcoming world for those who enjoy the stark quietude that arises from this setting. For others, this icy encasement is a tomb. Cold, barren, deathlike.

Yet, assuredly, Winter slowly fades. Not all at once, but like someone who is waking from a long sleep. Feeling returns to the body. Light becomes perceivable through the thin membrane of the eyelids, through the crisscrossed latticework of lashes. Eyes open. Forms begin to materialize. In these moments between slumber and waking, we forget our dreams and the inexplicable unease of a nightmare. Visions that once enthralled us are now inaccessible, the chasm of unconsciousness too vast to cross.

As Winter thaws and its icy grip loosens, Spring’s warm light slowly creeps in. The sun shakes off the snow, causing crystalline cascades to crash down from the bowed limbs of pine trees. Birds emerge from their hideaways. Rabbits lollop and bound over snowdrifts. Foxes dart and skip from the corners between garden and forest. Shadows bend and play in the new light that comes with this time, running over mounds and valleys articulated in the melting snow. Water drips from the eves of my house, from the standing pole in the field. The old lunisolar calendar is right. This is the first of Spring. 입춘 Ipchun (立春 Lìchūn in Mandarin, Risshun in Japanese , Lập xuân in Vietnamese). The first solar term of the new year.

As the Northern Hemisphere warms, humans, caught in their myriad of global existential crises, still seem locked, frozen in place. Nature always seems to be one step ahead of the human world, waking before them. Spring winds begin to blow, the first buds form on the iron-like plum branches, and cracks form across the ice that covers ponds, snapping and popping and echoing in the silence of the cold.

I sit inside my indoor tea space, waiting, wanting to reconnect with friends I haven’t seen since this pandemic, friends whom I haven’t seen for years. Staring across the rolling hills of snow in my garden, I hear footsteps tread across the path to my front door.

A package from a dear friend in Korea bearing gifts wrapped in red and yellow handmade paper, tied up in colorful thread. Although I haven’t seen this friend in over a decade now, the package awakens memories of when we first met, one frigid Winter long ago. I spread the gifts across the long-stretched length of my wooden tea table. A world wrapped in snow. Gifts wrapped in paper.

I slowly pull the ribbon way. Peel paper apart.

A bundle of tea, compressed within a tube of bamboo. 죽통차 jugtongcha. Bamboo tube tea. I am elated. A tea I’ve never tried before. Although similar to 後發酵茶 hòu fājiào chá of Southwest China, 후발효차 hubalhyocha (post-fermented dark tea) is distinctively its own form of tea. Produced from semi-wild tea leaves grown on the slopes of 지리산 Jirisan in South Korea, the leaves will undoubtedly be a tangled mix of compressed green tea buds.

Printed upon the small packet in Chinese characters (oftentimes reserved for honorific names) is the tea’s poetic name 「碧芽春 」Biyachun. “Azure Bud of Spring”. A nod to what is soon to come. I gently feel the shape of the compressed tea through the white paper covering before setting it down and moving on to the next package.

This neatly wrapped item is heavier in the hand. Something solid with mass is hidden within the paper sheath.

I remove the tied string and paper to reveal a small, high-shouldered 분청사기 buncheong-jagi vase. I set it down and appreciate its form and beautiful blush and grey color. Closer inspection shows a fine network of crazing upon its surface and small iron-oxide spots formed by the heat of the kiln.

I pick the vessel up, roll it in my hands. Enjoy its pure and deceptively simple shape. I upend the piece and set it down to inspect its base. The mark of famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun. A favorite of my friend. This is truly a gift.

I return the small vase back to its upright position and begin to unwrap the final package.

It is light, almost as if it were just the paper itself.

Loosening the red paper cover, I find the contents to be roll of dark cloth, hand-stitched with red thread along the edges.

As I unfurl the woven fabric, I recognize what it is: a 다포 dapo (茶布 chá bù in Mandarin). A cloth for setting teaware upon.

This is special. This is a surface upon which tea can be made, a plane upon which possibilities are endless. The color is surprising, unusual. It is the result of a traditional permission tannin dying technique. The edges stitched by my friend’s hand. The three items are a call to action, to set the kettle to boil, and to slow down and make tea. 

As if unwrapping a gift all over again, I peel the paper from the bamboo tube-packed hubalhyocha.

Picked last Spring, the tea leaves are still dark green, save for the downy silver-tipped buds that only occur during the early harvest. 

I unsheath a tea knife and begin to gently pry off a measure of tea, being mindful not to break the delicate young buds in the process.

I set the tea aside and lay out the dark cloth across my wooden tea table. Like the snow outside, the persimmon-dyed dapo is a blank canvas.

I wander out to my garden and cut a sprig of pine from the small forest. I return to the warmth of my indoor tea space and begin to arrange the wares upon the long cloth. The pine is placed into the buncheong-jagi vase.

A wooden tea tray and square of woven hemp cloth are placed atop the dark fabric.

Atop this I place a buncheong-jagi teapot and 숙우 sookwoo. An archer’s thumb ring for a lid rest.

Matching cups are placed one on top of the other. Wooden cup stands are stacked beside them.

A tea scoop made of bamboo with a poem is placed along with these objects.

The heat of the kettle rises and steam begins to coil upwards from the iron spout.

I place the measure of tea into the upturned bamboo scoop.

I arrange the wooden cup stands. I place the cups upon them.

I breath and lift the iron kettle from the heat of the brazier and pour a draught of hot water into the sookwoo. The grey and white glaze of the ceramic reacts to the warmth of the water, deepening in tone, revealing a new array of colors. Blues and pinks, purple and amber emerge from the clay.

As the water heats the sookwoo, I remove the lid from the teapot, setting it down atop the archer’s ring.

Water is then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

From teapot to cups.

As the three small cups warm, the measure of tea is further broken down and placed into the open cavity of the teapot. A gentle scent of tea rises, the first hint of what is to come. It is sweet, tannic, reminiscent of the soft aroma of Spring rain.

Water is once again poured into the sookwoo and then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

The lid is placed back upon the teapot and the tea is left to steep. One after the next, the cups are emptied, their clay bodies warmed by the heat of the water, ready to receive the first steeping of tea. I do not let the tea brew for long, knowing that, regardless, this tea will be powerful.

As I pour into the cup closest to me (usually the “host’s cup” in the traditional 茶禮/다례 darye “tea rite”), I inspect the initial color of the tea, determining whether it is ready to be fully decanted. The color is lively, deep, golden. As I begin to pour into the cup furthest from me, I see the color of the tea’s liqueur darken. The next cup is slightly darker. The cup nearest me darkens with the additional pouring. I move back the the remaining cups, adding tea to them and back the the host cup. The final drops of tea are distributed to each cup until the teapot is fully emptied of liquid.

The pot is returned to its resting position and lid removed to allow the leaves to cool, for the remaining heat to rise out of the pot.

Three cups of tea for myself and two unknown guests.

This number frequently appears in traditional East Asian numerology. It is the number of strength during tough times. The number of heaven, earth, and humanity. It is the number of Buddhist “jewels”, the three “refuges” of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

In Winter, it takes on another meaning too. As Winter is at its coldest, it is said that only three plants survive to Spring. The pine. The bamboo. The plum. Poetically, these are called the “Three Friends of Winter”. 歲寒三友/세한삼우 Sehansam-u in Korean (Suìhán sānyǒu in Mandarin, Saikan san’yū in Japanese, Tuế hàn tam hữu in Vietnamese).

I pause for a moment and reflect upon this. Friends making it through challenges together and making it to Spring.

Outside my window, snow still remains. Shadows stretch across the sparkling hills and icy drifts. The desiccated stocks of yarrow and grass poke up here and there.

Small plants peak out from icy holes from where they once grew in Spring and Summer.

Inside are warm cups of tea. A kettle boiling. What treasures these are! Old friends and memories!

The tea, the vase, the hand-stitched dapo; these are reminders of resilience. Long after the tea is gone, the last leaf steeped, long after the ceramic vase breaks, long after the deep color of the dark cloth fades; friendship will make it through to the next season, to the next lifetime.

I raise the first of three small cups to my lips and savor its beautiful aroma. Rich, warm, akin to the skin of a dried persimmon. I take a first sip. Wild, active flavors dance across my tongue, filling my mouth. It is nothing like any other tea I’ve had before. Not bitter but full-bodied. Not smoky or excessively dry, but juicy and alive.

Hints of pine resin, of tart forest berry and grape leaf. Marigold, honeysuckle, and bamboo pith. As I finish the cup, final notes of walnut skin and apricot arise. A distinctive minerality and mallow texture coats the cheeks and throat. It lingers and does not fade. I drink the second and third cup and, each time, the flavors grow in their intensity, piling up like the many thin layers of snow outside my window.

As I sit, radiant in the sensations that come from enjoying a fine tea, I pour a second draught of hot water from the kettle into the sookwoo.

Steam rises, catching sunlight. I pour the cooling water into the teapot, submerging the leaves once again. In the daylight, they begin to look more alive. Their verdant colors awaken more. Their aroma becomes more pronounced.

I place the lid back atop the small mottled grey pot and wait again for the tea to steep. The kettle sighs as it boils.

The cups sit empty, waiting for a second pour.

The bamboo scoop, with its poetry carved, rests. Who knows when next it will be call upon in service for making tea. Light filters through the sprig of pine.

I lift the teapot and begin to pour the tea again. First to the cup nearest me.

Next, to the cup furthest away. Then back and forth, from cup to cup, until each is full of the golden liqueur.

I lay the pot down again. The lid placed back upon the archer’s ring. The second steeping was intentionally faster, pulling back to express more delicate flavors.

The color of the cup is lighter, brighter. Gone is the intensity, but each flavor remains strong, pronounced.

I sit with the tea for several hours more, letting the kettle rise to a boil, refreshing it with cool water.

Outside my window, the light dims as afternoon recedes to evening. The sun settles its final beams down across the snowy landscape of my garden. Icicles hang from the plum tree beside my home, catching light. Leaves in my teapot rest.

This time I’ve had, tucked beneath the mountains that stretch along the Hudson, has revealed to me the microcosm that each season brings. There are minute steps that the world takes away from the cold of Winter and to the opening of Spring. Almost imperceptible is this transit, evinced only in the subtle shift in sunlight or the way the wind curls and carries warmth where once it produced a chill.

Friendship, too, slowly transforms, evolves, deepens even as the time between meeting widens. This change, like the incalculable shifts that occur between seasons, are not always felt. Perhaps like the seasons, it is when we are inspired by our friends to endure and to create despite all our challenges, that we feel their presence the most.

While the snow remains, Spring slowly approaches. Indeed, it is already here.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Passing Through the Gate of the New Year: Drinking Tea as Old as Me

It begins again, every twelve years. The cycle of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac have made their full rotation, beginning from Rat and returning to Rat. Each time around, the five elements have cycled. So too have the energies, oscillating from 陰 yīn to 陽 yáng. With each year, the world changes and we change with it, passing through countless gates, perceptible and imperceptible.

This year, 2020 (year 4718 in the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar), the year of the 陽金庚子 Yáng Jīn Gēng (“Yáng Metal Seventh-Rank Rat”), I find myself staring-down a threshold. I was born in the year of the Rat (specifically 陽木甲子 Yáng Mù Jiǎ Zǐ, “Yáng Wood First-Rank Rat”), 1984. As such, this year means that I will be passing through a “heavenly gate”, signifying major changes that will and have come about in the past twelve years and cumulatively in the past 36 years. For me and fellow Rats, this may mean hardship, but it also means growth. To pass through one of these gates is to look inward to oneself and see where one’s been and where one’s going.

On the eve of the New Year, I cannot help but to look upon this moment with both a sense of anticipation and reservation. Rarely do I find myself in this state. To ease my mind and, perhaps to keep myself a bit humble, I decide to brew a very special tea: a 1984 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá. As a tea that is as old as myself, I am interested to see how it has changed over the many decades it has seen, stored away within my tea chest and passed through the hands of previous tea collectors.

To brew it, I select a a small stone weight-shaped 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot).

Paired with this a contemporary celadon 茶船 chá chuán and three matching teacups, all made by the Taiwanese ceramicist Xu De Jia. With wares assembled, I begin to make the last pot of tea for the old year.

Kept within a red and black 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer tea container, I set out a measure of the dark, twisted tea leaves atop an antique 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”) scoop.

Looking closely at the leaves, colors emerge from their seemingly flat, black surface. Dark amber and the blue-black color of a crow’s feather hide among the undulations and curls.

Placing them into the warmed interior of the Yixing teapot, the first hint of their flavor emerges. A slight aroma of almond kernel and herbal medicine.

As I pour hot water from my iron kettle into the teapot, the leaves tumble and turn. A fine foam of tea oils rises and so, too, does the scent of the aged oolong.

Closing the pot, I pour water over its lid and around the structured shoulders of its clay body. The heat from the vessel’s interior radiates outward and evaporates the slick veneer of liquid I had just poured upon it. For a few minutes I wait and breathe, visualizing what is occurring within the unknown of the teapot’s interior. What has 36 years, three cycles around the zodiac, done to these leaves? Will they open readily or will they hold their form?

As I lift the teapot and decant its contents into the three small celadon cups, I look upon the crackled and aged surface of my unusual chá chuán. A circular form encompassed in a square. The ancient form of the universe.

Placing the teapot back upon the chá chuán, I lift its lid, releasing the heat kept within it, resetting the leaves for their next steeping.

Shifting my gaze to the three small celadon cups, I appreciate the rich russet color of the tea’s liqueur.

Selecting one, I lift it to my nose, breathing in its intoxicating, complex and medicinal aroma. As I take in the first sip, notes of dark fruit, bittersweet cacao, and the tannic qualities of walnut skin are all present. As I let the flavor linger across the back and sides of my mouth, a pronounced flavor of smoked plums arises, bringing back vivid and distant memories of my time when I worked in San Francisco’s Chinatown, remembering the distinctive smells one would encounter when entering its many traditional apothecaries.

Almost twelve years ago to the day did I first enter that world, working as a tea merchant for a friend’s family-run business. Twelve years ago, the flavor of this tea was more pronounced, with wild notes of sharp charcoal and fragrant 龍眼lóngyǎn wood. When I had first purchased this tea then I had been told that the leaves had been roasted and subsequently re-roasted across the span of its then-twenty-four years of storage, a practice traditionally done by tea people to help preserve the complexity of a tea’s flavor. Now, twelve years later, the charcoal has become subdued, the juicy aromatic lóngyǎn more apparent yet balanced.

As I continue to sip, cup after cup, I wonder how kind the years have been to this 老茶 lǎo chá. It has seen as many years as I have. It has been through the turning of the twelve signs three times, the changing of the five elements and the oscillating of the forces of yīn and yáng. In these years it has been tasted and tested and honed; picked and processed, roasted and left to breathe.

Age has made it sweeter and more quiet. Patiently applied heat over long intervals has attempted to preserve its finer qualities, yet this, too, will only go so far. Only mindfulness and a gentle hand can help it now to achieve its full potential. I can not force this tea to do anything. I can only sit and wait and let it slowly unfold. Steeping after resteeping lets this tea come into its own, and I, over the course of the afternoon and late into the night, patiently lets it open and wane.

As I wait for this next year to arrive, I share this moment with the aged tea, one as old as myself. Together we offer up that which is in us, curious to see what we will become.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting

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

Love and Parinirvana

February is a transformative month. It begins with the lunar new year, followed by the loosening of Winter’s grip and shift into the earliest moments of Spring.

On the 14th, lovers everywhere celebrate their amorous bonds with Valentines Day. While on the 15th, Buddhists worldwide observe Parinirvana Day, marking the death of the historical Buddha and the dissolving of his karmic bonds as he achieved nirvana.

The two days’ juxtaposition offers an intriguing meditation, one that perhaps calls into question the nature of love and the process of self realization. Tea, in a sense, offers this same consideration.

On the morning that sits between both days, I opt to brew an elegant 紅茶 hóngchá (“red tea”) gifted to me by a friend using a traditional Chinese wedding tea set.

Made of eggshell-thin porcelain, and hand-painted in vibrant colors, the distinctively-shaped teapot and its paired two cups are covered in an array of auspicious symbols meant to ensure prosperity and the happiness of lovers.

Red bats surrounding a stylized character for longevity (壽 shòu) carry with them a hidden rebus, as the word for “bat” in Chinese (蝠 ) is a homonym for “luck” (福 ). With the four bats arranged around the stylized symbol 壽 shòu, the character becomes a fifth bat. This, in turn, contains yet another rebus, 五福 wǔfú, “Five Blessings”.

Used in conjunction with a traditional marriage ceremony, the tea objects and the symbols they contain, are meant as a silent, visual invocation to deepen the connection between two lovers.

Used in the context of today’s reflection on the meaning of parinirvana, it is a wish for all beings to become free from suffering.

With one motion, tea can bring us together, and, through another, it can dismantle the ego. As a subtle art and mindful practice, the action of making tea can become a means to relocate the self in action. Through the observance and appreciation of its taste, we can enjoy its refinement and humble nature. To take a moment for tea is to take a moment for one’s self. To offer tea to a friend or lover is to open one’s heart.

In a way, the offering of tea is a form of death. The moment comes and goes. What was initially there in the beginning has now changed. What was once a living plant has been dried, then rehydrated and brewed. Once fully steeped, a tea leaf is as empty of a body as we will ultimately become with our own inevitable death. What remains is just a memory, of the flavor of tea and of life, and hopefully of love.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Hongcha, Meditation, Tea

Friends for the New Year

Every year, as the new moon marks 立春 lìchūn (“beginning of Spring”), billions worldwide travel back to their homelands and to their families to celebrate what is known in China as 春節 chūn jié (“Spring Festival”). In what is regularly recognized as the world’s largest momentary mass migration, Spring Festival (and the events surrounding regional variations of Chinese New Year) becomes a moment when those who travel seek the respite of home and the warmth of close friends and family. In a period that is often known for great feasts and revelry, tea sits center stage, appearing at banquet tables, family gatherings, and adding an air of refinement amidst the clamorous celebrations.

Back in my hometown, I join my dear fellow tea friend Chris Kornblatt for tea at his sun-bathed tea space in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood. Entering his tearoom, which is a converted upstairs drawing room in an old Victorian home, the simple splendor of a space designed for tea is instantly evident. Set below a typical San Franciscan three-paned bay window, the wooden tea table beams a warm glow.

Placed atop its honey-toned surface, Chris expertly arranged a curated collection of teawares. Splashy Qing period small plates are set in a balanced juxtaposition against more sober contemporary Taiwanese wares.

A flawless Yixing teapot.

A teascoop hewn from flamboyant-grained wood found in an Eastern European forest.

Layers of fabric and woven reeds.

Sweet snacks made of dried persimmon and liquor-cured plums.

Teas emerge, one-by-one, from Chris’ tea chests. An array of Taiwanese oolong teas. A vibrant 高山茶 gāo shān chá (high mountain tea) from 杉林溪 Sān Lín Xī brewed in a handmade 蓋碗 gaiwan.

A beautifully oxidized and roasted 凍頂 Dòng Dǐng (“Frozen Summit”) oolong tea.

A fragrant 杏仁香鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Xìngrén xiāng fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (“Almond fragrance” Phoenix single bush oolong tea).

Every object has its purpose to make the moment happen. Teapots for brewing tea. Cups to enjoy it with.

A unique string of beads to count each steeping brewed.

A setting such as this reveals the traces of one’s 功夫 gōng . Everything within it are expressive of a life guided by tea, a mind that thoughtfully approaches the practice. With such attention to detail paid, one can’t help but to feel at home and to celebrate the beginning of Spring with dear friends.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel