Tag Archives: Lacquer

All That Heralds Winter

IMG_3461When does a season change? How does one know? One may reference a calendar, yet the demarcated days and months can only tell so much. Seasons, like all things in life, transform slowly, almost imperceptibly. Yet, as if by magic, they can also suddenly appear. A night of cold wind can pull down all of Autumn’s leaves, revealing in morning barren treetops. October’s crystal blue skies become dark and grey by early November. During a frigid rain shower, the first flecks of snow can appear.

Those more closely attune to nature’s cycle will perceive this. The last of Summer’s dragonflies now float dead along the stream’s edge. The bell cricket grows silent and buried itself in the cold earth. The songbirds begin to change into their drab Winter’s plumage. The geese continue their migration.

Practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu, kept in constant vigil of the subtle seasonal shifts, feel this change too. For them, the coming of Winter heralds the beginning of the new tea year. 畳 tatami mats are resurfaced, 障子 shōji screens are refitted with fresh paper. The sunken 炉 ro hearth is opened. When this all happens is up to much debate and no exact date is given. 千利休 Sen no Rikyū famously said “seeing 柚子yuzu (citron) change their colors, one could open 囲炉裏 irori (the sunken hearth).” Indeed, such a subtle change as this was just enough to signal the beginning of Winter and a new year of tea.

For me, I closed October with the putting-away of the 風炉 furo. Alas, it wasn’t until today, when the wind felt particularly cold, that I decided to shift into the ro setting. Since I do not have a fully-outfitted 茶室 chashitsu, I opt to use a highly informal 火鉢 hibachi as my sunken hearth. Cut from a single burl of 桐 kiri (paulownia), with a copper-lined recess for ash, the hibachi is an unusual feature in my tearoom. Wishing to maintain a level of informality with my first use of my makeshift ro, I decide to prepare a bowl of tea on the bright, clean expanse of wood flooring in my New York City apartment.

F6A0D7D5-98BE-467A-8647-E38B542BE0D2For my teabowl, I select a blush-colored 萩焼茶碗 Hagi-yaki chawan. For a tea container, I bring out a multi-hued 若狭塗棗 Wakasa-nuri natsume, its colors echoing the last of the gold and crimson leaves of Autumn. In the minimal space of my tearoom, the light of the overcast day stretches shadows across the wooden floor.

871EA691-9083-4983-8CE8-F3F898A3465FArranging objects along an angle, the teaware is spread out within the space between the 指 mizusashi and the hibachi. This distance seems both more intimate and dynamic, setting teawares along invisible lines, drawing both host and guest closer to the warmth of the hearth. First, the natsume and 茶杓 chashaku are cleansed.

73449357-4DD5-435F-8A01-DD21FDA46385Next, the lid of the iron kettle is removed and hot water is drawn out to purify and warm the chawan.

88DB2902-4090-4F7C-973D-19D8B395EAB4Three scoops of 抹茶 matcha are issued out into the center of the teabowl, and water is ladled from the 茶釜 chagama to chawan in a series of fluid motions.

E282B5EC-C6AB-42E2-A377-1C2F61121F75I whisk the tea into a fine foam. In this moment, the space of my tearoom seems still and time feels strangely infinite. Setting the 茶筅 chasen down, a terrific silence arises and, for a brief period of time, I am caught in a quiet meditation. All action ceases. All thoughts drop by the wayside. What remains is the warmth of the hibachi and the faint aroma of tea.

9E47DBC4-2D24-4BB5-9B15-A145D17088A4Looking down, I peer upon the tea and tea objects as if I were miles above them. Lifting the teabowl to my lips, I offer a silent gesture of thanks to all of the factors that brought me to this moment, finite and infinite as they may be.

EE6A8429-E57A-495A-B10A-BC3056113320A few seconds pass and three sips of tea from the Hagi-yaki chawan empties it completely, save for some foamy dregs.

A4A5EC26-D363-42DB-A37A-10CC969AB3FEIn the last moments of my first use of the Winter’s hearth, I cleanse the chasen and chawan, and wipe the residual tea dust from the chashaku with the deep purple silk of my 袱紗 fukusa. Following a final scoop of cold water which is drawn from the mizusashi and placed into the boiling water of the chagama, I slide the lid over the top of the kettle. The sound it produces is a sonorous, metallic ring which acts like a call to closure, marking the end of a moment with tea and heralding the beginning of Winter.

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Autumn Cools and the Brazier Moves Closer to the Guest

IMG_2164Nothing seems to sum up the spirit of tea more than the movement of the brazier. In Summer, the 風炉 furo (portable “wind brazier”) is brought out and placed far from the guest, with the 水差 mizusashi (cool water container) placed between them. Yet, as Autumn continues and the weather cools, the host brings the brazier closer, setting it in the center of the 道具畳 dōgu-datami (lit. “mat upon which the teaware is placed”), and moving the mizusashi away from the guest. The effect of this arrangement, called 中置 nakaoki (lit. “center placement“), creates both a visual and physical inference of warmth, as the gentle heat radiating from the furo can now be felt by the guest. This subtle rearranging of the brazier, which only lasts for the final weeks of Autumn, perfectly articulates the ethos of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony): a tenderness to the seasons and to the guest, regarding all aspects (visual, physical, spatial, temporal, emotional, and spiritual).

As Autumn takes hold of New York City, the air begins to chill and fresh breezes pull leaves from the trees, scattering them and blanketing the streets with a tapestry of gold, ocher and crimson. Even on the most busy of days, the settling of tumbling leaves brings a sense of calm to the mind, offering a moment to meditate on all that will pass in this season, this year, and this lifetime.

IMG_2162In the tearoom, this motion and stillness is felt as I position my antique furo and 茶釜 chagama (spoutless kettle) to the center of the host position. To my left, I place a tall, slender 鬼萩 Oni Hagi (lit. “Demon Hagi”) mizusashi.

IMG_2160As my guest arrives, the soft scent of incense lingers in the air. As they enter the tearoom, the sound of the kettle creates a calming sense of emptiness. In the alcove, a small orange chrysanthemum is paired with an unadorned wooden incense container. As host, I leave my guest to sit and take in the many aspects of the space, turning a moment’s pause into a quiet meditation.

IMG_2163Pushing open the door, I greet my guest and approach them, offering a tea sweet before I bring out the assembled teaware to prepare a bowl of 抹茶 matcha (“powdered tea”). Set before the now vacant side of the furo, I place a small grey 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan (“Ido teabowl”) and a small, iridescent 若狭塗棗 Wakasa-nuri natsume (“Wakasa lacquer tea caddy”), its spangled surface of red, gold, green and black perfectly mirroring the changing leaves of late Autumn.

A2B7A795-516E-4912-BAC7-6C277B76BFBBAccompanied to the sound of bubbling water, I set about cleansing each item, placing them into position to make a bowl of tea. The teabowl is moved before the rough wooden 敷板 shiki-ita (the board that goes under the furo), itself a section of old floorboard from a since-destroyed Victorian farmhouse.

19A8D526-1F49-465D-98F9-68C03DF53D1DThe lacquer natsume and bamboo 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop), once purified by my purple silk 袱紗 fukusa (a silk cloth for cleansing teaware), are set a measured distance beside this.

06CF018A-3ECF-4612-8ED8-32FD7CB2480DOnce cleansed and warmed by the water from the chagama, the Ido chawan shines with muted tones of sky blue, soft slate and the grey of a cold Autumnal day.

IMG_2161I motion to my guest that they may enjoy their tea sweet, a seasonal 栗羊羹 kuri yōkan (sweet bean jelly with chestnut).

E370E1E9-6B6D-4454-B70B-2268B8A8F781Three scoops of bright green matcha powder are issued out into the center of the bowl, placed one on top of the other, into the recess of the swirl-shaped 茶溜まり chadamari (lit. “tea pool”).

5D08DC5A-1608-4D6E-AEF7-E18FC200F26CPlacing the chashaku back atop the lid of the natsume, I pour a half-ladle’s worth of hot water into the teabowl and begin to whisk the tea.

F17E415A-AE00-4776-B769-3ACBC1F8659CThe bright foam produced appears soft and slightly domed. The circumference of the teabowl and apex of this dome appear perfectly in line with the center axis of the furo and dōgu-datami. This line, in turn, continues on through the center of my body. At this moment, time, space, objects, and intention are all aligned.

D0CBF752-7F38-42D3-B9EE-479509AB8B8ALifting the bowl, I turn to offer it to my guest. We both pause and bow, and for a moment, only the boiling kettle can be heard.

7D96198E-2809-414B-B433-051861120443As I turn once again towards the furo, my guest lifts the bowl and drinks the tea. Once fully enjoyed, they take a moment to hold the bowl, inspecting both its interior and the unctuous glaze on its exterior.

C5E89986-56ED-46BF-8FB8-6B0F318772C3Afterwards, the bowl is returned and I set about cleaning it one last time.

As we both sit in the still world of the tearoom, both host and guest enjoy the pleasant warmth of the brazier. Moved closer to the guest in accordance with Autumn’s growing chill, this marks yet another change seen during the year. In a few weeks, this too shall change. Autumn’s leaves will have been blown from the trees, leaving them bare as Winter settles in. The furo, too, will be put away, replaced by the sunken hearth of the cold season.

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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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For Star Festival, a Leaf for a Lid

On the seventh day of the seventh month, Japan celebrates 七夕祭 Tanabata matsuri (“Star Festival” or “Festival of the Weaver”). Based on the ancient Chinese legend that stars Vega and Altair were married, but could only meet once a year. The two stars, separated by the Milky Way, were said to be able to meet on this day.

In Japan, this coincides with a Shinto purification ritual in which a special ritual garment was woven on a loom called tanabata (棚機), which would be offered to a god for the protection of rice crops. On this day, people also affix strips of paper with wishes written upon them to bamboo.

In tea, many traditions exist to observe this day. In my own practice, I cannot help but to play off of this multitude of customs. In the 宗徧流 Sōhen-ryū school of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), a mulberry leaf is used as a lid for the 水差 mizusashi (cold water jar) on this day in a practice called 葉蓋点前 habuta-temae (lit. “leaf lid procedure”).

With mulberry leaves being linked to silk weaving, and since July 7th is typically a warm day, I cannot help but enjoy the meaningful and refreshing presence a broad, verdant mulberry leaf in the tearoom. For a mizusashi, I opt for a contemporary piece of glassware.

For a teabowl, I select a 刷毛目唐津茶碗 hakeme Karatsu chawan (brushed slip Karatsu teabowl), the marks upon which look like the cloudy swath of the Milky Way. For a tea container, I select a 若狭塗棗 Wakasa-nuri natsume (“Wakasa lacquer tea caddy”), the layers of sparkling lacquer looking like swirling nebulas or refreshing pools of water. Even the 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) appears to have a bright patch of glowing stars against a dark field of bamboo.

Purifying the teaware brings a sense of freshness to the tea space.

The teabowl, slick with water, is cooling.

Adding 抹茶 matcha into its center releases the fresh aroma of tea.

As I whisk the tea into a soft, bright foam, my guest is treated to a seasonal tea sweet.

Set into a translucent jelly are two plump loquats. Glowing like two radiant stars, they’ve been set upon a dark green mulberry leaf, of which is resting in a Chinese monochrome celadon bowl.

Finally offering the bowl of tea to my guest, they let the sweet flavor of the candied loquat blend with the deep, rich flavor of matcha.

As we sit and relax for the remainder of the day, time passes slowly. Two stars meet together. Two friends grow closer. No trace of this except for the flavor of tea that lingers, the heat of the day that persists, the cool water that sits in my mizusashi, and the folded mulberry leaf that was used as a lid.

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Even If It Does Not Fall, Prepare for Rain

Today began with a quiet morning meditation to a still Summer’s dawn, and a moment spent to boil water and steep tea. By noon, the bright sun hung overhead and its golden rays flooded every room of my apartment. As the hours passed, I worked, I wrote, I paced, and I stretched. At the moment I chose to step outside, I looked out my window to see that the weather had suddenly turned. A dark grey veil of clouds had quickly appeared and covered the sky. A moment later and the air was heavy, ready to rain.

Rather than continue with my plans, I took this shift as a sign to settle down and wait for the coming storm to pass. I set the kettle which I had filled earlier in the morning to boil again and brought together a teabowl, a whisk, a scoop, and a lacquer tea container.

Inspired by the tumultuous weather that was soon to arrive, I chose a 刷毛目唐津茶碗 hakeme Karatsu chawan (brushed slip Karatsu teabowl), the surface of which mirrored the ruffled clouds and grey skies.

While I let the water come to a boil I sifted fine green 抹茶 matcha into a small black lacquer 棗 natsume (tea container). I couldn’t help but notice that its decoration, simple gold 壺 tsubo (round pot motif), seem to recall the round 太鼓 taiko drums that surround the mythic god of thunder, 雷神 Raijin.

Sitting with the teaware set before me, I purify each object, accompanied to the sound of rolling thunder in the distance. In the tearoom, the light dimmed and darkened, broken by sudden flashes of lightning. The bright white of brushed-on glaze cast against the deep well of the teabowl.

Shadows and fissures, bamboo an linen.

The smoky pattern of the chashaku against the gleam of black lacquer, reflecting what little light gathered at the window.

Finally emptied, the bowl sat ready.

In to it I measured-out three scoops of the electric-green matcha powder. Rain beat against the pavement and quickly collected in pools out on the streets.

A half-ladle’s-worth of water into the chawan and I whisked it vigorously until a bright foam rose, clinging to the tines of the bamboo whisk.

Rolling thunder and a roiling boiling kettle merged into one sonorous roar, hissing and rumbling and then halting, arresting for a moment that allowed me to pause.

The 16th century tea master 千利休 Sen no Rikyū, in his “Seven Rules” for the Way of Tea (利休七則 Rikyū shichi-soku), advised tea practitioners to “always prepare for rain” (降らずとも雨の用意 Fu-razutomo ame no yōi, lit. “Even if it does not fall, prepare for rain”). By this he meant many things. Always have a sedge hat and umbrella ready for the guest at the 待合 machi-ai (the waiting space, often an outer open-frame hut for guests to wait before entering a tearoom). Always have a kettle ready. Always ensure you have more than enough tea for your guests, just in case one more should arrive. Always be at the ready. This is the spirit that arises when one always prepares for rain. It is core to the spirit of tea.

Another boom of thunder broke the silence and I was left staring down at the bowl of tea. The foam, forming a subtle central peak, remained full. The rain outside my window softened and the air cooled.

* Image of 千利休 Sen no Rikyū’s “Seven Rules” for the Way of Tea (利休七則 Rikyū shichi-soku) sourced via Urasenke Japan.

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The First Sign of Summer

As the month of May opens, the weather warms, the air becomes heavier with moisture, and the blossoms that adorned trees in April have been exchanged with fresh, emerald leaves. The tree peony are in full bloom and the hydrangea buds are just beginning to appear as small green pearls amidst dry weathered stalks and ruffled emerging shoots.

In the twenty-four seasonal points of the year (Japan traditionally divides their year into 24 parts, 二十四節気 Nijūshi sekki, which, when divided by three, expands to 72 micro-seasons, 七十二候 Shichijūni-kō), this time is referred to as 立夏 Rikka, “Beginning of Summer”. While by Western standards, this begins the new season more than a month earlier, this intention reflects the subtle change that is now palpable to the most observant.

In the traditional 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) calendar, this day marks the beginning of the use of the 風炉 furo (portable brazier, lit. “wind furnace”). While I began this earlier in May (as is often the case when warmer days arrive prematurely), I find myself still beaming over the use of the furo and especialaly its use in conjunction with the 柄杓 hishaku (bamboo ladle). Made of a thin rod of cut bamboo, the feeling of the hishaku in the hand is akin to holding a finely-crafted arrow.

Coming into the tearoom during the morning, holding the hishaku in one hand and the 建水 kensui (waste water bowl) in the other, the action marks the true “beginning” of tea preparation. Before setting the hishaku down, I raise it before me, pointing it upright, with the open end of its cup facing towards me. This gesture, known as 鏡柄杓 kagami-bishaku, literally translates to ”holding the hishaku as if it were a mirror”. As one tea person explained to me, it is as if one is looking into one’s own heart, inspecting it prior to making a bowl of tea.

Softly resting the cup of the hishaku down onto the 蓋置 futaoki (lid rest), I let my fingers slide down to the end of the long bamboo handle, gliding off as I gently set it down.

Moments pass as I begin to purify each tea object. First the antique lacquer 棗 natsume, adorned with a playful 壺 tsubo (round jar) motif.

Followed by the 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop).

As I go through the actions of purifying the teawares, the final act is the cleanse the 茶碗 chawan (teabowl). To do this, I lift the hishaku up, pinched between the fingers of my left hand.

Next, I lift the lid of the 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle) off and set it atop the futaoki.

I scoop a ladle’s-worth if hot water out…

… and pour it into the teabowl.

I set the hishaku atop the open mouth of the kettle, letting it bathe in the rising steam.

Once cleansed and dried, the bowl becomes a vessel to accept the 抹茶 matcha.

On a hot day, I cool the boiling water of the kettle by first scooping fresh cold water from the 水差 mizusashi (cold water jar) and pouring it into chagama. This instantly quiets the rolling boil, causing a still silence to fill the tearoom.

Pulling one ladle’s-worth of water out from the chagama, I only use half the amount to make a bowl of tea, returning the rest back to the kettle.

With tea fully whisked, I enjoy it alone on this warm day. The sun beaming upon the treetops. The clouds drifting by. The scent of 伽羅 kyara (aloeswood) wafting in the air.

As I finish today’s sitting, I once again blend cold water with hot, letting the water pour down from the cup of the hishaku one more time, the sound resembling that of a gently gurgling stream.

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Spears of iris flowers. A ladle for an arrow. A teabowl as a jewel.

In the traditional Japanese calendar, May 5th marks Boys’ Day (端午の節句, Tango no sekku, or, in recent years, こどもの日, Kodomo no Hi, literally “Children’s Day”). On this day, items are on display to encourage the strength and success of children (traditionally boys): warrior helmets and suits of armor, swords, spears and arrows, and other, more playful items like paper balls and colorful spinning tops. Brightly colored fabric windsocks in the shape of carp (鯉のぼり koinobori) are unfurled and lifted high above the homes whose families have children, and leaves of 菖蒲 shōbu (sweet-flag) and 蓬 yomogi (mugwort) are hung under the eves. A strong mixture of the martial and of the more shamanistic, folk medicine cultures of Japan (and, more broadly speaking, East Asia) are put on prominent display as it was believed that to show such items would help young boys become great warriors and help them persevere during the hotter months when plague and ailments might take them.

On this day, these elements pervade Japanese tea culture as well. In the tearoom, allusions (both direct and indirect) are made to masculine aspects of Japan’s warrior culture, as too are elements of childhood.

Given that 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) was deeply influenced by the warrior class of feudal Japan, these elements should come as no surprise. While I don’t consider myself to be so 武士 bushi (warrior), I can’t help but to appreciate the elegant and mindful forms such warrior-tea people developed and incorporated into their own tea practice as they sought peaceful respite from a life of violence.

On this day, I decide to inaugurate a new 茶碗 chawan (teabowl), a small contemporary piece by Sapporo-born, Chiba prefecture-based ceramicist 二階堂 明弘 Nikaido Akihiro.

For a tea container, I use a simple, unadorned wooden 平棗 hira-natsume (“flat” tea caddy).

Set with the teabowl is a new 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk) and an antique 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop).

As I sit to greet my guest, I set the 柄杓 hishaku (bamboo ladle) atop an antique 染め付け sometsuke (blue-and-white porcelain) 蓋置き futaoki (lid rest),.

It is adorned with precious symbols to encourage wealth, wisdom and strength.

Purifying each item, I eventually wet the new chawan, warming it and letting the water run out from it. Setting it before me, I notice how water both absorbs into and evaporated from its surface, a byproduct of the artist’s unique process of lacquering and firing his ceramics. The result is a deep, shimmering purple, akin the the color of iris buds used during Boys’ Day celebrations, their sharp points representing spears.

As I lift the chashaku, I admire the natural pattern upon its surface. Pausing for a moment, I can’t help but to imagine the image of a high mountain pass, with a long, wispy waterfall cutting through it. Here, too, is an allusion to the myth of a carp pushing up a waterfall in search of a magical pearl only to become a mighty dragon in the process, a story often told to children as they push forward in life to attain success.

Offering my guests fresh 柏餅 kashiwa-mochi (sweet rice cakes wrapped in oak leaves), I begin to prepare a bowl of 抹茶matcha.

Three scoops of bright green tea powder sit in the center of the new teabowl, ready for its first taste of tea. Lifting the hishaku as if I were notching an arrow to a bow, I draw water from my iron 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle) and pour half a ladle’s-worth of water within the bowl.

Whisking the tea lightly, a fine foam is produced. Returning the chashaku to sit atop the lid of the hira-natsume, I pause before I offer-up a bowl of tea.

As this is the first time to use this new tea bowl, I place a silk brocade 古帛紗 kobukusa (a cloth square used to handle and protect teaware) below the chawan. Against this field of richly-colored silk, the new bowl and matcha seem to glow, jewel-like.

Whole-heartedly enjoyed, I cleanse the bowl and allow a final moment to enjoy the unique qualities of this chawan. In one’s hands, the bowl feels feather-light. Peering into its open void, the interior appears both dark and boundless, iridescent even in low light.

Set down, the exterior, with evidence of the artist’s hand, layers of lacquer, and marks of the kiln’s high heat, tells the story of its creation.

At this moment, I cannot help but to meditate on tea’s tumultuous past. An art marked by a meditative mindfulness, yet often born from the minds of those who were forced by their birthright to fight in bloody combat. How they sought refuge in this art. How they made it a counterpoint to a life of violence. The martial elements that permeates Boys’ Day perhaps hint at this, but, as one sits to prepare a bowl of tea, to live a life of tea, one exchanges a spear for an iris, an arrow for a ladle, and material gain for a simple teabowl.

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