When 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.
For 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.
Arranging 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.
Next, the lid of the iron kettle is removed and hot water is drawn out to purify and warm the chawan.
Three 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.
I 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.
Looking 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.
A few seconds pass and three sips of tea from the Hagi-yaki chawan empties it completely, save for some foamy dregs.
In 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.