Tag Archives: Natsume

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

Forgetting Time

On the final day of the final year of the decade, I find myself not wanting to celebrate in a bombastic manner. In stark contrast to previous years where New Year’s Eve was cause for loud, raucous festivities, my partner and I decided to make the journey from the clamor of New York City to the quietude of rural Delaware and the comfort of a close relative’s home on the banks of the Mispillion River. The attitude here is laid back, calm, pensive. The only thing that seems to shift is the wind that pushes through the pines.

Rather than stress about celebrations, I opt to make a simple bowl of tea for my partner and her aunt to mark the passing of the decade. Wishing to enjoy the waning light of the day, we decide to hold a small tea gathering in the chilly December air.

Upon a small table which has been built out of the scraps of an old wooden fence, I place a simple 盆 bon made of carved burl wood. Atop this are arranged the implements for tea: a vintage 益子焼茶碗 Mashiko-yaki chawan, an old bamboo 茶杓 chashaku, a red and black lacquer 甲赤棗 kōaka natsume.

Angular shadows of the late afternoon and Winter’s sunlight create a shifting landscape across the uneven surface of the old wooden table.

The kōaka natsume, which I tend to only use on days of celebration, looks like a large bright red sun against a pale blue sky.

Once opened, it reveals a low hill of bright green 抹茶 matcha.

As I move from cleansing the lacquered natsume to the implements within the teabowl, I move tea objects around the horizontal plane of the table, from table’s surface to bon.

For my partner’s aunt, who is new to the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, these actions seem as if they are part of some mysterious ritual. However, after the many years I’ve been practicing tea, they are nothing special. My movements are straightforward and direct, without flourish. Nothing fancy. Just enough. Everything I have prepared before, natsume, chashaku, tea whisk and tray are all I need.

The teabowl, the vessel which will convey the tea to my guests, is just that, a vessel. Nothing special.

I draw forth three scoops of matcha from the kōaka natsume, tapping the chashaku along the inside of the teabowl to remove the residual tea powder from its curved tip.

Pouring a measure of hot water from an antique cast iron kettle into the chawan, I whisk the tea into a thick foam.

Passing the bowl to my partner, I pause, listening to the wind pressing through the trees. The soft hum of pine needles shifting in the wind and the sound of an iron bell striking in the distance.

In the last days of the year, we can often feel as if we are working towards some sort of momentous climax. Even more so, we see the end of a decade as some final chapter closing. However, time rarely seems to work this way.

When we make tea, we begin not with the whisking of the tea or the heating of the kettle. It doesn’t even begin when we set up a tea space. Instead, it begins years before this, when we first learn how to make a bowl of tea. Perhaps it begins even earlier, when we first awaken to the mere idea of having tea.

Similarly, the tea gathering does not end when the guest finishes their bowl of matcha nor when the final bow is given between host and guest. It doesn’t seem to ever end. Instead, the tea further seems to meld seamlessly into one’s own tea practice and one’s own life.

Like layers of sand being pushed up, one on top of each other, by the continuous forces of the ocean. There’s no distinguishing between one layer or another. They just create this thing we call a beach, and this is only something that we can immediately perceive. There is much more sand on the bottom of the ocean. Time is rather like this.

We believe we see change and abruptness, and yet, when viewed in its totality, the change is regular, nothing special. We revel and rave at the shifting from one year to another, one decade to another, and yet, this, too, is nothing special.

In the practice of tea, my teacher has told me to learn the forms and then forget the forms. In learning the forms, we forget the self. When we forget the forms, we find that the once perceived barrier between form and self was merely something we had constructed, something we pushed up against. Much like how New Year’s Eve becomes New Year’s Day, this too is 無門関 mumonkan, a “gateless gate”.

When I cleanse the teabowl one last time and we take our last bows, the tea gathering doesn’t end, it merely transforms. When we forget time (年忘れtoshi-wasare, lit. “forgetting time/forgetting the year”), perhaps we can see what we get so worked up about. A year’s end. A decade’s beginning. Nothing special.

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Kettle for the End of the Year

The holidays have arrived and the frenetic running around that has characterized much of December is beginning to show signs of slowing. The weeks of preparation and fretting over the finer details of the festivities and tending to guests have given way to more relaxed improvisation. In this brief lull, we realize that the accumulated burden of seasonal responsibilities and expectations will never be sustainable. As this breaks, it feels like the spirit of enjoyment arrives and we steal short-lived respites amidst our currently busy lives.

In these moments, I find myself longing to be closer to friends and family. My 取り合わせ toriawase reflects this, as I pull together wares that remind me of close connections, new and old. In the final days before the New Year, I hold an intimate 歳暮の釜 seibo no kama (lit. “kettle for the end of the year”). The feeling is relaxed and simple, like the weight of all that has led to this moment has somehow lifted.

With my large antique 茶釜 chagama coming to a boil and the scent of kneaded 練香 nerikō still lingering in the air, I bring into my tiny tearoom the implements for making tea. The teabowl that I select is a smaller contemporary 茶碗 chawan created by 二階堂明弘 Nikaido Akihiro, whom I had the chance to meet earlier this year.

Holding a healthy helping of freshly-ground matcha is a red and black 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer tea container which I’ve now owned for over a decade. As I cleanse this piece with the dark purple silk of my 袱紗 fukusa, I am given the opportunity to closely inspect the layers upon layers of lacquer which have been applied one on top of the other in contrasting intervals of black and red, revealed in the deep cuts carved by the artisan.

Each layer of lacquer can take days, even weeks to stabilize, as it is applied to the object’s surface. As such, the tea container feels like a record of time itself. An abstract calendar marking time. A tree, growing outward, increasing in size layer by layer. Had it not been for the artisan’s elegant carving of the surface, we would only see the bright red surface. Instead, we see its depth, each layer representing the passing of time.

Even the teabowl, with the 茶筅 chasen, 茶巾 chakin, and 茶杓 chashaku, feels like a tiny universe; complex and self contained. Alone, it sits tightly arranged until through the action of preparing a bowl of tea does it explode into a myriad of pieces.

The chashaku, made from a piece of dark bamboo, comes to reside atop the carved surface of the 棗 natsume. The chasen is warmed and cleansed, alongside with the teabowl.

Tea is issued into the chawan and for a brief moment both guest and I ready ourselves for the tasks at hand.

I, marking a secret sigil of my school into the small heap of matcha that sits in the center of the teabowl.

My guest, enjoying slivers of candied 柚子 yuzu which I’ve served atop a small 16th century Korean lacquer dish that had been gifted to me long ago by an antiques collector I’d met in Seoul.

In this dance of objects, people, senses and motions, each have a place. Host and guest sit together, brought in union by their intention to share brief moment and perhaps nothing more. The objects, whether austere or exquisite, serve a purpose as well, with each piece collectively contributing to create a greater whole. If one were absent, the moment may not happen. As water is added to the matcha powder and whisked into a fine foam, the aroma of tea lifts upwards.

Now, too, the eye is drawn to the flecks of residual powdered green tea that still clings to the curled tip of the chashaku that rests again atop the carved lid of the natsume. We marvel in this vignette, something that is utterly spontaneous and happenstance.

As I lift the chasen from the teabowl, a tiny peak floats in the center of the matcha foam.

From this central point, the eye wanders outwards to incorporate other objects in its field of vision. The teabowl. The tea container. The bamboo scoop. The delicate tines of the chasen. Some who sit to enjoy a bowl of tea will become lost in these objects. They will see only the material of the world. The gifts, the glitter, the gloss. The layers of lacquer that have accumulated upon the surface of their life. The weight it places upon them. They may feel this and not even know that it is there.

In this daily practice of making tea, I have learned to offer up a bowl whole-heartedly and let it go. I give myself up to that action, offering everything I can. Practiced over the almost two decades that I’ve been wandering in this path, I cannot recall how many bowls of tea I’ve made. Today I make it for my partner. Tomorrow I may make it for you. Later, I may make a bowl of tea for myself. How many bowls of tea will I have to make until I will, as the late Ram Dass said, “awaken from the illusion of separateness”? When will I as your host and you as my guest make us both a bowl of tea? When will that bowl of tea satisfy us all together?

The last kettle of the year can mean so many things. It is sometimes translated as the 年の暮れ toshi no kure, or a “year’s end”. Conversely, it can also be understood as 行く年 yuku toshi, or the “passing of the year”. In this passing, we see the year die. Yet, in this death, we somehow understand that time continues. One layer of lacquer ends and another is there. The object we perceive has not disappeared. It has, instead, merely grown. We are not sad to see this happen. We do not judge time as harshly as we judge ourselves.

In this last kettle of the year, there is a serenity that arises with time, as responsibilities we once held close now seem to ease. I now look at my guest with a greater sense of ease now that I’ve made them a bowl of tea, and they look upon me in a similar fashion. Any pretension has faded.

After the final dregs of tea have been sipped, we take one last moment to enjoy the sight of the small teabowl. It, too, was lacquered once, though the layers of 漆 urushi it had applied to its surface were burned off in the intense heat of the potter’s kiln. What remains is a rough beauty. A stark contrast to the clean cut lines of the natsume. And, yet, the story it tells is similar in a sense. The journey it has seen is reflected upon its skin. Wrinkled lines collecting on the contours of my cheeks and around the corners of my eyes. A split that runs down the length of my bamboo flower vase grows with time until it, too, will begin to leak water.

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The Silence of Snow

The cold of Winter has arrived and with it the intermittent chance of snow. While November saw the first sprinkling of snowflakes, mid-December now sees snow as a regular feature, with entire days marked by snowfall. The effect of snow is pronounced, blanketing the streets and covering treetops in a soft, clean, bright veil. The effect snow has on the mind is equally poignant. It causes one to pause, to mark the change in scenery, and to follow the slow, protracted decent of snowflakes from sky to snow-covered ground. Rarely do we get this chance to focus on something that is so mundane, yet so beautiful.

In the tearoom, the spirit of a snowy day is everywhere, from the rough and worn textures of the wood surface of my tea table to the soft forms of a round Winter 茶碗 chawan, the shape and color of which is reminiscent of a large dried persimmon. Crisp, uneven lines. Gentle, muted colors. A tenderness produced through the warmth radiating from the hearth. An unspoken invitation to share in a bowl of tea and enjoy a silent 雪見 yuki-mi.

Peering from my tearoom window, I observe snowflakes drifting downward. Their slow, measured cascade is mesmerizing, causing me to pause as I wait for my iron kettle to reach a boil; its gentle hiss in tune with the noiseless fall of snow. The world is silent and still. The light of the sun is indirect, dissipated, and grey. The rolling banks of snow glow brightly.

I turn back to my solitary tea setting. The rotund persimmon-shaped teabowl, an antique 小棗 ko-natsume with 壺 tsubo motif in worn gold and red lacquer.

An old bamboo 茶筅 chasen, a prized 茶杓 chashaku once used by a master of the 表千家 Omotesenke school of tea.

In the pure silence of Winter, there is nothing for the mind to attach to. No fancy flourishes. Nothing to personalize. Things merely seem to stand in their own accord. A chashaku sitting atop a black lacquer natusme. An old tea whisk simply sits beside it.

A teabowl still radiating warmth of the hot water it once carried. The attitude of heart and mind is found in all of these.

Placing three scoops of 抹茶 matcha drawn from the small natsume into the center of the teabowl produces a light, barely perceptible aroma of tea. Pouring a measure of hot water from the iron kettle into the chawan feels nourishing.

Whisking the tea into foam feels akin to imagining a new world. Peaks and gentle undulations of tightly-arranged bubbles resemble the rhythmic drifts of snow outside my window.

I place the chasen down, back beside the lacquered natsume and lift the teabowl to my center.

Holding the small, warm object brings about delight, and my lips cannot help to curl into a smile beaming with anticipation. I bring the teabowl upward and take three hearty sips, audibly finishing the tea and it’s lingering dregs. Placing the bowl back down upon the wooden tea table, silence returns to the tearoom.

I cleanse the teabowl and teaware and inspect each object, one after the other. The round 鉄鉢形茶碗 tetsubachi-nari chawan (iron basin-shapes teabowl), the name of which is rightfully 柿 “Kaki” for its resemblance of a large persimmon, feels soft in the hand.

Turning it over to inspect its 高台 kōdai reveals a clean-cut foot and the lightly-carved signature of the California-based artist who produced the piece.

Next, setting the natsume and chashaku atop a warm-hued wooden 香盆 kōbon, I take the last moments to enjoy their clean shapes and warn textures that only come from age. The bright light that reflects off of the snow and filters through my window causes each object to glow.

Moving my gaze, first from natsume

… then to teascoop and then to the snowy vista outside, I savor the silence of snow and the moment of peace it brings.

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Persimmons hanging from the eaves. Anticipating the cold of Winter.

In the flurry of the end of November and the beginning of the holiday season, I found it difficult to sit down and put pen to paper to recount my last tea gathering. Having described the first part in which 濃茶 koicha had been served, it has since taken me about a week to catch my breath, balancing work and the festivities of Thanksgiving.

However, in tea practice, we are always of the moment, always anticipating emergence. It is for this reason that when we place a flower in the alcove, we don’t use a flower in full bloom. Rather, practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu will use a bud, one that is still full of potential, one that may actually bloom during the course of the tea gathering.

In tea, everything is ideally timed “just right”. The charcoal is laid and will bear the greatest heat right when koicha is being served. Once 薄茶 usucha is prepared, the heat should feel less intense, just right for the whisking of thin tea.

The notion of “just right” seems to go hand-in-hand with the austerity that chanoyu promotes, a sense that what is offered is “just enough”. When I served my guest a simple bowl of お茶漬 ochazuke before tea, this was just enough to stave off hunger. When something is referenced to in the tearoom, from aspects of the season to visual or material hints that may relate directly to the invited guest, these too are just enough. Nothing too overbearing or ostentatious.

When my guest and I sat down for our final bowl of tea, I purposefully kept the arrangement simple, more 侘び wabi, especially when compared to the more formal offering of koicha. Reflecting this, I selected a vintage 赤津焼 Akazu-yaki 茶碗 chawan, paired with a small wooden 平棗 hira-natsume and a dark bamboo 茶杓 chashaku. The feeling that these items, when presented together, was a sort of harmonious rusticality.

The hira-natsume, on its own, looked like a smooth burl of wood; its surface warm, weathered, glowing beneath a thin layer of persimmon juice lacquer.

The teabowl, with 茶筅 chasen, 茶巾 chakin and teascoop, felt like an old ceramic roof tile, with generous drips of dark green glaze running down into its center.

The chashaku, when set atop the tea container, appeared unpretentious, just sufficient for the task of aiding in the preparation of a bowl of tea. When set in action, these objects transcend their individual use, working together to bring forth something special.

The chawan and chasen are then warmed and cleansed. A ladle’s worth of hot water is drawn from the 茶釜 chagama and poured into the teabowl. The chasen is then placed within the hollow of the bowl, tilting slightly, partially submerging the thin tines. I press the chasen into the water and lift it upwards to inspect the blades, returning it back into the hot water to repeat the process until every tine has been examined.

In this process, the chasen subtlety begins to open and expand, much like the flower that graced the alcove.

With the bowl warmed and finally dried, I begin to scoop tea into the chasen. A small mound of bright powdered matcha is heaped in the center of the bowl, broken slightly by a sigil I mark into it with the curved tip of the chashaku.

A slight tap of the chashaku against the inside wall of the chawan removes excess tea powder and it is then returned to atop the lid of the hira-natsume. Much like the objects themselves, no motion is flowery or conspicuous. Instead, they are direct, smooth, understated. Just enough to make a bowl of tea.

I breathe as I pour a measure of water into the teabowl and begin to whisk the tea into a bright foam. My guest finishes their tea sweet and I pause. I turn towards them, taking teabowl in hand, and place it before them.

At first they see the “face” of the bowl. Upon it is painted with glaze a simple image of two persimmons hanging from an unseen eave. This, in turn, acts as an unspoken gesture, motioning towards the arrival of Winter, as 干柿 hoshigaki, dried persimmons, are a commonly enjoyed snack during the cold season. Much like the unopened flower bud, this is symbolic of the “now” moment.

Lifting the bowl and turning to drink from its other side, my guest is treated to the image of stylized plum blossoms. “What does this mean?” they ask, taking a sip from the bowl.

I remain silent for the moment as they finish the bowl of tea, leaving them time to view the dregs; the bright green of the residual tea foam echoing the unctuous drips of the dark green glaze.

I cleanse the bowl once more and we close the ceremony with a bow.

Still curious, my guests asks to see the bowl once again. They hold it in their hands, turning it over to reveal its carved foot and the seal of the artist, famed Seto-based ceramicist 中島春草 Nakajima Shunsō.

“So,” they start, “What does it mean? The flowers?”

I smile and offer a response. “Plum blossoms.”

“Why?” they returned.

In my reply I offer further detail. “Tea is not just about this moment. It is also about recognizing the potential of what is to come. Upon the first chill of Winter, we begin to ready ourselves for its deepest cold. It is at this moment, at Winter’s coldest, that the plum blossom blooms.”

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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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Remnants of the Year

IMG_3215In the final days of October, Autumn slowly begins to give way to the chill of Winter. The light rain that falls makes patterns on the ground and feels cooler, more biting than it had earlier in the month. The splendor of Autumn’s leaves still hangs in the canopies of trees outside my window, yet some trees begin to look more barren, creating a spotty patchwork of gold, red and green, resembling a monk’s old 袈裟 kesa (priest’s mantle). It is in this time of year that all things born from Spring fade and finally wither away.

In the world of tea, this marks the moment when 茶人 chajin begin to bid farewell to the 風炉 furo, replaced in the following month by the humble 炉 ro. It is also when the last leaves of tea in tea in the tea jar (壺 tsubo), opened the previous year, are used up, bearing only enough 抹茶 matcha for two or three bowls. These remnants (名残 nagori in Japanese) set the tone for these final moments, making each bowl of tea feel as if it may be the last. They are special and somber. Simple and good.

In my tearoom, I’ve set the furo to boil the last kettle of tea I will have for the month. Come November, I will exchange this for an old wooden 火鉢 hibachi (which I use in place of a sunken hearth). As I sift tea into a gourd-shaped lacquer 棗 natsume, I am aware of this change. A year of tea is coming to a close. The warm months are over for now.

IMG_3211Opening up my wooden tea cabinet, I admire the iron fixtures and the hand-worked knobs that are in the shape of chrysanthemum, a flower of Fall.

IMG_3175From this, I pull out a 茶碗 chawan by friend and ceramicist 二階堂明弘 Nikaido Akihiro, one which I had first used at the beginning of Spring. Atop this, I place a bamboo 茶杓 chashaku carved by 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango.

Sitting and waiting for the kettle to come to a boil, I listen to the sound of light rain hitting the windowsill of my tearoom. A moment passes, the sunlight that has crept into my tearoom grows dim. Soon the sound of the boiling 釜 kama begins to mesh with the sound of the rain. Silently I begin to go through the motions of making tea.

BEB2F0BC-4D5F-43A2-98AF-E2893D706EE1The natsume is brought forward and is cleansed. I lift its lathe-turned lid from its body to inspect the mound of powdered green tea.

BD05C918-C553-4C2E-A333-20C55393253DNext, I turn my attention to the implements within the teabowl.

IMG_3216The chashaku is set atop the natsume. The 茶筅 chasen is set beside it. The 茶巾 chakin is removed from the chawan, lightly twisted over the 建水 kensui, refolded, and placed atop the lid of the 水差 mizusashi.

Cleansing both bowl and whisk with the boiling water I draw from the kettle, my body feels at ease with the motions, practiced now for the past six months. How I will have to subtly adjust my hand, the turning of my wrist, the lifting of the 柄杓 hishaku once I put the furo away.

F73C376A-8BF3-4CD0-9B95-7B01DB6D4AD8With the teabowl cleansed, I issue into it the first of three scoops of matcha. The tea powder, soft and fine, feels like the last of the sand running through an hourglass.

0917D9B5-BBC0-4455-91C7-0ACAA3DCAD2CI pour half a ladle’s worth of water into the teabowl and the aroma of tea begins to lift upward. For a moment, the only sound heard in my tearoom is of the whisk moving back and forth as the matcha is transformed into a light, bright foam.

F361A80E-269B-411F-BD38-44FCFB0A9910A freshly prepared bowl of tea sits alongside the rest of the teaware. How the matcha glows off the fired lacquer interior of the chawan. How the remnants of tea powder cling to the chashaku. How the shadows stretch across the plank of wood I use, fading into the serpentine grain. How the charcoal glows in the kama.

There is joy and sadness caught in this moment. In the final withering of the year there is death. Old friends who have passed are recalled. Old memories well up and sit with me. Ghosts of the year are invited for tea. The last leaves of 碾茶 tencha have long since been pulverized into dust.

1FED5E8F-D557-4C7B-BDFA-BD1D5A1AA1B3I lift the bowl as if it were my last and with three hearty sips I imbibe the final vestiges of the previous year’s tea. A thin foam remains against the walls of the teabowl, which I admire for a moment before this, too, is washed away. No turning back.

EE9DCC44-BCF4-4876-81F8-E9BD0C707BD2I wipe the bowl clean and set the utensils within it. Closing the kettle one last time, I slide its bronze lid over its gaping mouth. The sound of metal against metal produces a final resounding knell.

769F5A8F-6A00-4233-BA04-D4A6AA3C96A2As the room returns to a solemn silence, I arrange for a quiet 拝見 haiken. Placing the lacquered natsume and bamboo chashaku next to one another, I admire how they harmonize.

IMG_3213The shape of a gourd to commemorate the harvest.

IMG_3212The small node atop the chashaku’s 節 fushi acting as a reminder to the vitality of nature, preserved and faded by October’s end.

E7429460-A217-4E15-A5B1-7E3487C73A5DI lift the lid of the natsume one last time to view the small landscape of tea within and look upon it as if parting with an old friend.

In the wordless exchange between objects and a season’s end, there lies an answer to a 公案 kōan (Chinese: gōng’àn; Korean: 공안 gong-an; Vietnamese: công án). There is no logic to the feeling of sadness at this moment. What comes when Autumn passes? Do the leaves turn to radiant colors only to wither and rot upon the cold earth? How many cycles around the sun will my life see? Boxed-up and put away, the furo won’t be seen again until the last remnants of Winter wane, to return in Spring. This, as sure as shoots of grass pushing up through the snow.

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