Autumn marks the steady decline of the year into the chill of Winter. Like a gourd fully ripening on the vine, Autumn always has the most tenuous existence. At once brilliant with its vibrant bursts of color, then falling, collapsing upon itself, broken and rotting.
The evanescence of Fall is beautiful but bittersweet. In tea, this is celebrated with the joyful use of broken (and often repaired) tea items. In October, one finds the yabure-buro (敗風炉) iron tea kettle brought into the tearoom, distinguished by its broken and tattered iron flange. Often, too, are pieces of lacquer repaired teaware employed, their incomplete and fused-together profiles seem to fit perfectly amidst the contemplation of Autumn leaves and the growing chill of the season.
On this early October morning, I opt to bring out a small antique porcelain hōhin (宝瓶, handleless teapot). While it gleams a pure white glow in the soft morning light, the broken and repaired edge of its circumference seems right at home in the season, adding character to the otherwise plain piece and giving a glimpse into the story of this little vessel.
To accompany the small hōhin is a collection of Chinese monochrome porcelain teacups, the size and shape of each being slightly different from the other. Their irregularity seems fitting alongside the other imperfections Autumn brings.
Repaired with gold lacquer (金継ぎ; kintsugi), the coldness of the white porcelain hōhin is softened by the warmth of the mottled gold mend. How evidence of an injury can humble an individual, so too does the presence of this repair evoke a sense of humility. How Autumn, too, can remind us of how weak we are against the biting cold of Winter, and how all eventually decays with time.
Yet in Autumn we are also reminded of how the year progressed.
Pulled from a tightly-sealed tea canister where they had remained packed away since Spring are the uneven twists and coils of a roasted 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (Phoenix single bush oolong tea). Revealed for a second time since when the weather was warmer and the world was shining in green and glimmering leaves, the tea seems to infer this season; a “second Spring” amidst the chill of an October day.
As the kettle comes to a full boil, the tiny world of the tearoom seems to warm and glow.
The tiny hōhin , initially rinsed and warmed with boiled water, is now filled with the leaves of the oolong tea. Almost instantly, the residual heat of the water within the vessel wakes the tea and its intense floral aroma begins to drift upwards into the air.
Mere seconds pass and the tea is decanted. With finger tips and thumb holding the tiny vessel, I mindfully and methodically move from one cup to the next and back again.
As the tea continues to steep, and cup after cup is enjoyed, its color deepens, changes, and fades. As Spring turned to Summer and now to Fall, the world around us, too, transforms. Perhaps we’ve become wiser, maybe a bit jaded. The chill in the air, maybe, feels a bit colder for this reason too. But, in some small way, tea brings us back to center.
What a subtle gesture it is, to enjoy a broken and mended tea vessel during this time of year. To be reminded of our faults and our mistakes, and to still be able to smile. Its not folly but wisdom to break something and repair it again. To patch up the fissures with lacquer and gold. Repaired in such a way, a tea object becomes stronger. Repaired in such a way, we choose not to forget but to celebrate our imperfections.