Tag Archives: Hohin

The First Drift of Snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clay and Kiln. Wood and Leaves.

There is a sort of meditation that naturally arises from making tea. I’ve tried to ignore it and cannot. It is unavoidable. It is the meditation on change. You put leaves in a vessel. You bring water to a boil. You steep the tea until it offers up its flavor, until it cannot offer any more. The aroma and notes that play on the air and in the mouth come and slowly fade into nothing. Into memories. Over time, these too may pass.

This ebb and flow of actions, of movement and resting, of coming forth and waning into ether are mirrored in the material affects of tea too. It is in the way the clay of an old teabowl was once locked within the earth, formed in the hand of the potter, fired in a furnace, brought into this world and has since, by chance, lasted for generations. It is how the forces of heat and flame bring rise to vibrant reds and earthy greens, turning glaze to glass and clay to stone.

I sit with this as I sit for tea, pairing a newly-acquired antique 宝瓶 hōhin (handless teapot) from the kiln of 信楽 Shigaraki with an ancient Chinese teabowl.

Together with these I place a wooden teascoop, made from a branch of an old gnarled tree.

Once turned over, the rough, sinuous exterior gives way to a smooth and shaped interior, revealing the flame-like colors of heartwood. In turn, this vibrancy was kept in suspension through the artist’s application of a thin layer of translucent lacquer.

Onto this void I place the twisted leaves of an ancient tea tree, 景迈古樹生茶 Jǐngmài gǔshù shēng chá, a fresh, raw puer tea from Jǐngmài in southern Yúnnán, purportedly from tea trees several hundred years old.

For a moment I admire the contrast of leaves upon wood until this, too, shifts as I follow by placing the tea within the warmed stoneware vessel.

Pouring boiling water atop the leaves begins the process of brewing, causing them to slowly unfurl, returning them to a state which closely resembles when they were once alive atop an ancient arbor.

With the lid set over the hōhin, the tea continues to brew until the desired flavors have been expressed.

Emptied, the leaves appear caught in mid-phase, somewhere between tightly-curled and fully-opened.

Peering into the wide expanse of the shallow teabowl, the color of the tea is a soft, amber hue. A gentle aroma lifts from the surface of the liqueur. A complex flavor invites my senses to explore the depths of the lush forests from which this tea was grown.

How much it has changed since when it was but a seed. How much it has developed over the many years it grew. From this came leaves which were labored over by countless people, which now I have just begun the process of understanding.

Caught in constant change. From clay to kiln. From wood to leaves. Moment after moment, a meditation.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Japan, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sun Hangs Highest in the Sky

As the year progresses, the subtle changes of the seasons mark the many “gateless gates” we pass through. While often too minute to notice from day-to-day, nature offers us clues. In Fall, the world becomes radiant in the final brilliant colors of trees and grasses. In Winter, colors mute, the soil hardens, the air becomes crisp, the plum blossom blooms. Spring marks the slow reemergence of life from its frozen dormancy. And in Summer, the world is fully awake, bursting with life.

As the sun hangs highest overhead today, marking the Summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, I find myself sitting in my tearoom, enjoying the vibrancy of the day outside. This activity is also felt internally, as I feel full of energy and excitement, having just received a collection of tea samples from a tea farmer based in Wuyishan, China. The small, individually-wrapped packets, each contain a different tea, a veritable treasure trove of flavors, each expressing the slight effects the shifting of one season to the next has on the tea plant.

Today, celebrating the solstice, I opt for a coppery 肉桂 Ròuguì, the name of which literally translates to “cinnamon”. While I will be brewing the tea hot, the effects of drinking it at the peak of Summer will be slightly cooling.

This desire to evoke a sense of “coolness” is revealed in my choice of teaware. An antique porcelain 宝瓶 hōhin (handless teapot) with a touch of 金継ぎ kintsugi (gold lacquer repair). To measure-out the tea leaves, I select an antique 白铜 báitóng (“white copper”) scoop in the shape of a banana leaf. To serve, I select a set of four blue-and-white cups from 景德镇 Jǐngdézhèn, each of which containing a vista reflective of a season. Spring and Summer.

Fall and Winter.

Warming each ceramic vessel, the water brings out their clean, porcelain sheen.

Placing the tea leaves atop the báitóng leaf, I admire their uniformity and the rich color they contain.

Placed into the warm hōhin, the twisted leaves release a soft, complex flavor. Notes of spices and cacao fill the air.

Pouring hot water over the leaves only intensifies the aroma.

Once fully steeped, I slowly issue-out the amber liqueur into each cup. Enjoying the deep color, matched with the swirling, nuanced fragrance of tea brings pause to my busy day and a cool calm to the heat of Summer.

Silently sipping in my tearoom, I enjoy the unfurling flavors of cinnamon, cloves, wet limestone and black walnut. Subtle, gentle, like the shifting of the seasons. On this, the longest day of the year.

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

All Labor Has Dignity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autumn and the Year Begins to Decay

IMG_2061Autumn marks the steady decline of the year into the chill of Winter. Like a gourd fully ripening on the vine, Autumn always has the most tenuous existence. At once brilliant with its vibrant bursts of color, then falling, collapsing upon itself, broken and rotting.

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The evanescence of Fall is beautiful but bittersweet. In tea, this is celebrated with the joyful use of broken (and often repaired) tea items. In October, one finds the yabure-buro (敗風炉) iron tea kettle brought into the tearoom, distinguished by its broken and tattered iron flange. Often, too, are pieces of lacquer repaired teaware employed, their incomplete and fused-together profiles seem to fit perfectly amidst the contemplation of Autumn leaves and the growing chill of the season.

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On this early October morning, I opt to bring out a small antique porcelain hōhin (宝瓶, handleless teapot). While it gleams a pure white glow in the soft morning light, the broken and repaired edge of its circumference seems right at home in the season, adding character to the otherwise plain piece and giving a glimpse into the story of this little vessel.

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To accompany the small hōhin is a collection of Chinese monochrome porcelain teacups, the size and shape of each being slightly different from the other. Their irregularity seems fitting alongside the other imperfections Autumn brings.

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Repaired with gold lacquer (金継ぎ; kintsugi), the coldness of the white porcelain hōhin is softened by the warmth of the mottled gold mend. How evidence of an injury can humble an individual, so too does the presence of this repair evoke a sense of humility. How Autumn, too, can remind us of how weak we are against the biting cold of Winter, and how all eventually decays with time.

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Yet in Autumn we are also reminded of how the year progressed.

Pulled from a tightly-sealed tea canister where they had remained packed away since Spring are the uneven twists and coils of a roasted 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (Phoenix single bush oolong tea).  Revealed for a second time since when the weather was warmer and the world was shining in green and glimmering leaves, the tea seems to infer this season; a “second Spring” amidst the chill of an October day.

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As the kettle comes to a full boil, the tiny world of the tearoom seems to warm and glow.

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The tiny hōhin , initially rinsed and warmed with boiled water, is now filled with the leaves of the oolong tea. Almost instantly, the residual heat of the water within the vessel wakes the tea and its intense floral aroma begins to drift upwards into the air.

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Mere seconds pass and the tea is decanted. With finger tips and thumb holding the tiny vessel, I mindfully and methodically move from one cup to the next and back again.

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As the tea continues to steep, and cup after cup is enjoyed, its color deepens, changes, and fades. As Spring turned to Summer and now to Fall, the world around us, too, transforms. Perhaps we’ve become wiser, maybe a bit jaded. The chill in the air, maybe, feels a bit colder for this reason too. But, in some small way, tea brings us back to center.

What a subtle gesture it is, to enjoy a broken and mended tea vessel during this time of year. To be reminded of our faults and our mistakes, and to still be able to smile. Its not folly but wisdom to break something and repair it again. To patch up the fissures with lacquer and gold. Repaired in such a way, a tea object becomes stronger. Repaired in such a way, we choose not to forget but to celebrate our imperfections.

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