Tag Archives: Insadong

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

In Memories and Here Today: The Flavor of Aged Korean Ddokcha

As we head closer and closer to the end of the decade, marked by decreasing temperatures and the increasing prevalence of ice and snow, I am reminded of the closing of the previous decade.

In the final years of the millennium’s first decade, I found myself at an impasse. Spending a Winter abroad in South Korea while attempting a PhD at UC Berkeley, I was struggling to find balance between the rigors of an academic life and conducting an earnest practice of tea and meditation. Residing in the urban super-metropolis of Seoul during the biting cold of late December, I was often forced to remain indoors.

Initially timid, I eventually began to explore the city, seeking out tea houses and trying to locate a Buddhist temple where I could refine my meditation practice. Located near a temple district, I soon began to wander the antique markets of Insadong. There I found the small traditional tearoom of 삼화령 Sam Hwa Ryung, where owner and tea person Ms. Kim began to teach me about the qualities and diversity of Korean tea, as well as slowly introduce me to her friends, many of whom were local artists and members of nearby Buddhist temples.

Luckily for both my practice in tea and meditation, Ms. Kim introduced me to Misan Sunim, who is both a practitioner of the Korean Way of tea and abbot of the 조계종 Jogye Order of Korean 선 Seon Buddhism. Soon, I was sharing my time between Ms. Kim’s tearoom and visiting Misan Sumin’s temple, learning the forms of tea he practiced alongside with his temple group.

Today, as cold rain runs down the windows of my tearoom, freezing before it can reach the sill, I sit and meditate on this time in my life. How ten years can come and go so quickly. How a lifetime can seem to arrive and still I have yet to fully awaken to it.

Reminded of the gentle guidance and dear friendships of Ms. Kim and Misan Sunim, I pull out the 분청사기 buncheong-jagi tea set I had acquired a decade ago. Set against the swirling wood grain of my tea table, the pieces of rustic ceramics look as if they were made of unevenly shaped stone. While all seem in harmony together, individually they retain their own distinctive character.

The 숙우 sookwoo, with its round circumference interrupted by the deliberate pinch of the potter to produce a simple spout.

The patches of grey and white that splash up the sides of the three small teacups.

The intricate network of cracks running along the surface of the once pure white side-handle teapot. How age and use have marked each one of these objects. How they, like me, now bear the testaments of time.

As I slowly warm each piece of teaware, I pull from my tea cabinet a small, citrus-sized object wrapped carefully in handcrafted paper made of mulberry fiber. From this emerges a tightly compressed ball of aged 떡차 ddokcha, gifted to me by Ms. Kim ten years ago. In this time, the tea has darkened. Where once vibrant green tea leaves coiled around one another, today they appear almost black.

Lightly plucking-off a small handful of leaves, I begin to carefully place each into the center of the teapot. I then pour hot water that had been momentarily left to cool in the sookwoo into the teapot, allowing for a brief moment to pass, giving me time to view the tea as it begins to steep.

Placing the lid atop the teapot, I let several minutes pass. In this pause, I do not keep track of time. Instead, I simply breathe, finding an easy and natural rhythm and observe the motions of my mind. The storm outside my tearoom rages and the windows shake against the gusting wind. As I breathe, amidst the clamor, I hear the steam rising from my iron kettle.

Another moment passes and I pour the tea out from my teapot, from one cup to the next and back again, making subtle adjustments to ensure evenness in color and flavor. What is revealed is a deep golden liqueur which catches me by surprise.

Admiring the color for a moment more, I am reminded of the first time I had experienced this style of tea, huddled in the warm wooden and plastered interior of Ms. Kim’s tearoom. Then, as with today, a storm raged outside, and yet the focus remained squarely on tea.

I can remember the dried fruits and traditional sweets she would produce from her tiny kitchen, and the collection of cups and teabowls she had stacked around her. The sound of a kettle and the scent of tea. The texture of worn utensils and a lifetime of practice.

I looked down once again at the teacups neatly arranged, each beaming back at me with the exquisite color brought on by age. “So this is what a decade looks like,” I say to myself and take a first sip.

Soft tones of butterscotch followed by notes of toasted yam and a slight licorice finish. Clean and clear yet with an echo that remains. A bit like a memory. Distant yet perceptible. Still with the capacity to teach me something new, something surprising.

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

A grey robe. A field of mugwort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motifs of chrysanthemums paired with mugwort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, History, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Travel

Echoes of the New Year’s Bell

In Seoul’s 종로 Jongno district, as the clock strikes midnight to herald New Year’s day, crowds cheer, friends embrace, and (in modern times) fireworks explode in the sky above. Years ago, during my first visit to Korea, I witnessed this first-hand. Today, years later, and days after the bells rang in the 보신각 Bosingak bell pavilion (the bell of which gives Jongno it’s name, which literally means “bell street”), I woke with the faint echoes of it ringing in my ears.

The biting cold of a Korean winter drives all into the warmth of their homes and, for some, into the comfortable climes of a teahouse. My first journey to Korea was marked by much of this, darting through the tight alleyways of Insadong, discovering Korean tea, in all its depth and diversity, for what seemed to be the first time.

Recalling this today, I sit down to brew cup after cup of one of Korea’s more unusual teas: 발효차 balhyocha.

Grown amongst the shaded groves of bamboo in 지리산 Jirisan, the tea is semi-wild. Its leaves, when viewed, appear as a tangled assemblage, dark and curling.

Having been left to dry and then rehydrate with the morning dew, the leaves were left to partially ferment during the final processing stages, resulting in the tea’s uniquely chocolate-like aroma and flavor.

It has been almost a decade since I last had this tea.

Left to sit in the warm interior of my grey-colored 분청사기 buncheong-jagi teapot, this distinctive scent fills the air of my tearoom.

Instantly, memories begin to flood my mind.

Set to brew for only a moment, I pour-out the amber-hued liqueur into the waiting sookwoo (of which I atypically use as a serving vessel). From there, each cup is served.

Three small vessels. Three precious jewels. With each sip, the echoes of 108 strikes of the bell. Savoring the new year.

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

EXCLUSIVE: All About Green, Yellow & White Tea

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Dearly Beloved Readers of Scotttea,

I am excited to share with you the tasting notes and LIVE video feed from my most recent tea talk and interactive workshop “All About Green, Yellow & White Tea”. Held in the intimate confines of Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, this tea gathering offered participants a “three hour tour” (literally three hours) of green, yellow and white teas from all over China, Korea and Japan. Beyond being a highly-caffeinated evening, the tea talk and workshop was also highly-immersive, as I offered up my tips and quips on tea history, production, and brewing styles.

Needless to say, I am forever grateful to both Floating Mountain Tea House and to the folks who attended and made this memorable evening happen. For all those who could not attend, I offer to you now, in all its glory, the full video and tea tasting lineup from “All About Green, Yellow & White Tea”!

“All About Green, Yellow & White Tea” (Link to video)

Teas Tasted:

1st Tea: Spring 2018 蒙頂甘露 Méngdǐng Gānlù, Meng Ding Shan, Sichuan
2nd Tea: Spring 2918 西湖龍井茶 Xīhú Lóngjǐng Chá, Hangzhou, Zhejiang
3rd Tea: Spring 2018 六安瓜片 Lù’ān Guāpiàn, Liu An, Anhui
4th Tea: Spring 2018 太平猴魁 Tài Píng Hóu Kuí, Hou Gang Village, Anhui
5th Tea: Spring 2018 야세작 Wild Sejak, Hwagae, South Korea
6th Tea: Spring 2018 かぶせ煎茶 Kabuse Sencha, Nara, Japan
7th Tea: Spring 2018 蒙頂黃芽 Méng dǐng huáng yá, Meng Ding Shan, Sichuan
8th Tea: 2000s 老單芽黃茶 Lǎo Dān Yá Huáng Chá, Yunnan or Sichuan
9th Tea: 2017-2018 芽寶 Yá bǎo, Nannuoshan, Yunnan
10th Tea: 2014 白牡丹茶餅 Bái mǔdān chá bǐng, Fuding, Fujian

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Korea, Sencha, Tea, Tea Tasting, White Tea, Yellow Tea

Drinking tea by oneself: appreciating Korean tea

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(IMAGE: Assorted implements for making Korean green tea… plus a Korean celadon water dripper for enjoyment)

Dear beloved blog readers,

I love Korean tea. Those close to me know this well. Those even closer know that I will go to great lengths to find this too-often-rare tea.

Today, I find myself sitting in the north-west facing room of my New York apartment enjoying a 2016 semi-wild jakseol Korean green tea (nokkcha) grown in Jirisan. The tea is a gift from a dear friend, a tea house proprietor in Seoul who, after many years of not seeing one another, had sent me the tea as a token of our long-distance friendship. As I sit and sip, I am left to remember those early days when I was first exposed to Korean tea.

Somewhere around 2008-2010, I began to travel to South Korea. Arriving there first in the dead of winter, the bitter cold of Seoul literally almost killed me (succumbing to high fevers that kept me bed-ridden for a solid week). Once out of my illness-induced stupor, I began to wander the streets of Seoul’s renowned (albeit rather touristy) tea market district of Insadong. Escaping the neighborhood’s flashy veneer down its rambling alleyways, I happened upon a few reputable sources of Korean ceramics and tea.

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(IMAGE: A grey-blue drip-glaze Korean tea set atop a wooden Korean tea tray)

Having already been captivated by the beauty of Korean ceramics long ago, I soon began to recognize the qualities inherent in Korean tea. Much like the celebrated tea ware used to enjoy it with, Korean tea seemed at first simple, rough, and lacking refinement. However, in the aesthetics of Korean tea, this roughness is merely the result of the appreciation of a “natural” approach to things. Whole leaves are often left closer to their natural state when compared to their Chinese and Japanese counterparts. Likewise, there seems to be an emphasis on retaining the “wildness” of some teas, especially those coming from the ancient tea farms of Jirisan in Hadong County. The flavors present, whether the tea is green, partially oxidized, black, compressed, or event ground (as is in the case of malcha), tend to have a pronounced minerality to them, which is both refreshing and unique to Korean teas.

Happening into the Sam Hwa Ryung tea house (which was and still is my favorite tea house in Seoul), I was given unrivaled access to excellent Korean teas (they also have amazing ceramics there as well). The proprietor, quickly recognizing my love of tea and interest in Korean tea, began to serve me the various varieties of tea produced in Jirisan, as well as introduce me to noted tea scholars within Seoul. Upon my second trip to South Korea, she began to connect me with tea farmers, sending me down to visit their farms nestled within the lush Hwagae Valley. Needless to say, this was an experience of a lifetime (which I may end up describing in more detail within a later blog post).

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(IMAGE: View of 2016 semi-wild jakseol tealeaves and assorted implements for making tea)

Today drinking the tea she sent me instantly takes me back to that time and place. The tea, as mentioned, is a 2016 semi-wild jakseol (“Sparrow’s Tongue”) from the farms in Jirisan. Like many wild and semi-wild teas, there are qualities within this tea that do not exist within the more-cultivated teas of Korea (mostly coming out of the Boseong and and Jeju-do growing regions). The leaves are more irregular (albeit, they are quite small, being an early spring-picked jakseol) and produce a bright, clean flavor. Unlike the intensely vegetal or umami Japanese green teas, or the more floral Chinese green teas, this tea is balanced with flavors ranging from limestone to (as I’ve heard others describe) egg white, with only the slightest grassy note. Unlike its Chinese or Japanese counterparts, this tea (and most Korea green teas) seems to perform well at higher temperatures.

While I often don’t wax poetic while drinking tea, I am always reminded of a stanza from the 1830 Dashinjeon (“The Story of the Tea God”) by the Seon Buddhist monk Cho’ui. In it he said:

“When drinking tea, fewer guests in attendance are better. With more guests, it becomes noisy, and loses the right ambience. Drinking tea by oneself is feeling the wonders of god; drinking tea with two is sharing the ultimate joy; drinking tea with three or four is fine and comforting; drinking tea with five or six is nothing more than plain; drinking with seven or eight is just doing a favor for others.”

There is something true to what Cho’ui said. Enjoying tea alone seems to allow the tea to speak to you more clearly. In the case of this particular tea, it speaks volumes.

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(IMAGE: A look at the pale liqueur of the 2016 semi-wild jakseol Korean green tea)

NOTE: Quote from Dashinjeon was taken from the excellent book The Book of Korea Tea: A Guide to the History, Culture and Philosophy of Korean Tea and the Tea Ceremony” by Yang-Seok Yoo, 2007.

 

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Korea, Poetry, Tea Tasting, Travel