In Japan, 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”). A key feature of this celebration is the motif of the carp.
The significance behind this imagery is recognized throughout much of East Asia, as the carp, with its bright, scaly complexion, was believed to possess the ability to transform into a dragon. In ancient China (and subsequently in other East Asian cultures that adopted similar forms of governance), this transformative quality of the lowly carp into a noble dragon was a metaphor for succeeding in the civil service examination and a wish for a child to excel and grow.
Additionally, in China, the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (usually late-May to mid-June) marks the celebration of Duānwǔ jié 端午节 (Dragon Boat Festival). Many scholars now believe that this was originally a day of making offerings to the dragon king, who was said to dwell in rivers and lakes. This practice continues today with the offering of zòngzi (粽子, glutenous rice wrapped in leaves) to appease voracious river carp. Oddly enough, the bamboo leaf-wrapped chimaki mochi (ちまき餅), which are often eaten during Boys’ Day in Japan, bear a cursory resemblance to these ancient offerings.
Today, as I sit for tea, I employ a small antique carp-shaped Korean celadon water dropper (an object that would have been commonplace in a scholar’s studio) as a improvised flower vase.
Paired with this are Korean buncheong-jagi 분청사기 teacups, a purple-hued Jūn yáo 鈞窯 teapot, and an antique bamboo teascoop inscribed with a poem about life in the mountains. The tea which I chose to brew is a Dà Hóng Páo 大紅袍 gifted by a friend. This, too, is a subtle allusion to succeeding in one’s studies as the origin story of this famous tea tells of a young scholar who was able to pass his civil service exam with the aide of the tea’s fortifying properties.
As is often the case with tea, each element is draw together to create an overall feeling. For today, in the lingering heat of the last day of Spring (May 6th is recognized as the first day of Summer by practitioners in Japanese tea ceremony), I try to infer a sense of coolness that one feels when walking through a dew-laden path (露地, roji in Japanese). Indeed, the flower I feature, which I collected from those growing wild in my garden, helps to make reference to this. As is practiced in chanoyu, I used a wetted chasen (茶筅, tea whisk) to flick cool water upon the arrangement to further enhance this sensation of being in a cooler, more relaxing environment.
With the tea brewing, the buncheong-jagi cups wait, their plain color offering a foil to the lustrous quality of the Jūn yáo teapot. Both the cups and teapot are gifts from artist friends. While in life these two friends have never met, they come together in a sense through the mediation of tea.
The tea poured lets the aroma of the dark oolong to fill the tea studio. Hints of incense, toasted caramel, and dark chocolate waft like a light breeze. As a slightly lower-oxidized and lower-roasted Dà Hóng Páo, the flavor once tasted is brighter, softer, and more complex. The verdant qualities that are often roasted or oxidized out of most contemporary variations on this tea are lovingly left within these leaves by its crafters, enabling a highly-developed layering and preservation of well-balanced flavors, from notes of crisp minerals, walnut skins, and egg whites.
Much like the objects surrounding it, the tea, too, is a myriad of reference points for the mind to explore and expound upon. This is one of the many subtle pleasures of taking a moment to enjoy tea.
Layers of images, references, and flavors, each with their own significance and meaning, are just part of the brocaded fabric that can be brought into the tearoom and offer points of further contemplation, a moment of pause, and meditation.