Tag Archives: Seasonal

Respite in the Heat of Summer: Images from a Morning Tea Meditation

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The heat of a Summer’s morning sparked creativity, leading to improvisation. As has been my practice for the past few months, I’ve set out every Sunday morning into the island of Manhattan to offer a meditation paired with tea. Seeking to put into practice the notion of 一期一会 (In Japanese it’s ichi-go ichi-e, literally “one moment, one meeting”), I try to employ a variety of sensory cues to differentiate each gathering. From the scroll or flower in the alcove of the tearoom, to different tea, teaware, cups, or even waste water bowl, each will change in keeping with the subtle shifts that the seasons present. Beyond just the selection and using of a combination of utensils to set the tone and perhaps “tell a story” (known as 取り合わせ/とりあわせ toriawase in Japanese), this also helps to keep the setting fresh and, in the context of Buddhist mediation, encourage the cultivation of a “beginner’s mind” (初心, chūxīn in Chinese, shoshin in Japanese).

In moments like this, fresh-picked mulberry leaves become an accompaniment to the enjoyment of tea, inviting their refreshing verdant quality into the tearoom. Drops of dew, still present on their emerald surface, gleam in the soft light of the tearoom and cool the mind as cups of tea are sipped. Atypical to the usual wooden or metal cup stands often employed in a tea gathering, these humble leaves act to wake the mind and stir the curiosity of the guests. What a treat it is to enjoy something so ephemeral as this!

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With the chiming of the meditation bell the preparation of the tea begins. The participants sit in silence as the motions to make tea take place. The teapot is placed within a shallow bowl and warm water is poured from the kettle into its empty interior. The pot is lifted and held in the hands, rolled in a circular motion to warm its ceramic walls. After, the contents are distributed into the empty and waiting cups, warming them and adding to a sense of refreshing cleansing.

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The long, wiry leaves of a 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (Phoenix single bush oolong tea) are pulled from an antique Korean Goryeo-style incised celadon incense container and placed upon the concave hollow of a bamboo tea scoop. With a single motion, the leaves are then poured into the wide opening of the teapot. The residual heat from the water used to initially heat the teapot now works to activate the fragrance of the tea, a fresh 大烏葉 Dà wū yè (“Big Black Leaf”), releasing an incredibly subtle scent of orchids and magnolia into the air.

At this moment, I could not resist but to pick up the pot one more time and pass it to the guests to appreciate the beautiful aroma of this tea. This brief interlude within the beginning of the meditation became a means to further focus the sitters’ minds on the moment at hand.

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As the kettle comes to its first boil, the water is poured into the pot and over the leaves. In a matter of seconds, the tea is brewed and the teapot makes its way from cup to cup, filling each over a series of successive passes. This procedure helps to distribute the flavor of the tea evenly, so each cup tastes the same. As such, one does not need to use an additional serving vessel, or 公道杯 gōngdào bēi (“fairness cup”), as is typical in many modern tea settings.

As with the practice of mediation, tea, too, is a reductive process. Through modulating one’s practice to reduce and remove objects from the tea gathering, one further refines and clears the tea space and the mind of “things” to attach one’s self to. Simple practices like this not only reinforce being resourceful, but also stress a mindset of “doing more with less”, a mentality core to both Buddhism and gong fu cha.

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As the participants of this morning’s meditation take a moment to sip from their cups, their eyes naturally begin to move around the tearoom. Sparsely furnished and containing objects meant only for the making of tea, the presence of a flower and a work of calligraphy in the tea space act as focal points to aid in the deepening of one’s meditative practice.

For this morning, a fan decorated with a piece of calligraphy referring to the season helps to bring the sitter closer to the moment. Much like the mulberry leaves, the presence of a paper and bamboo fan on a warm Summer’s morning helps to further infer a sense of coolness into the room. It is as if the fan, while motionless in the alcove, is still able to produce a relaxing breeze, if only in the imagination of the guests.

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As time passes and each cup gradually empties, the gentle sound of the kettle coming to a boil heralds the beginning of a second and third steeping of the floral oolong in the small Yixing clay teapot. The clamor of the street outside subsides briefly and a beautiful sense of quietude is welcomed to sit with us in the room as we meditate. A light breeze mingles in the air and brings the scent of aloeswood incense to the guests.

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Steeping after steeping occurs, one after another. In this process, one finds a practice.

It is often said that in tea, one has to make a hundred bowls of tea before they can make a bowl of tea. Read literally, this statement makes no sense, but taken as a koan to aid in one’s meditation, the reality of this saying becomes clear.

After performing an action over and over again, one becomes more comfortable in it. After one sits cross-legged or in the lotus position for the first time, it may hurt one’s legs. However, if one makes a practice of it, the posture becomes more routine and more second nature. Similarly, the first time to meditate might seem difficult, and one’s mind might become preoccupied with questions of “Am I doing this right?”,  “Am I doing this wrong?”, or “Why can’t I focus”. However, as one’s body and mind adjust to the action, it, too, becomes more natural.

Tea, too, is like this. A tea not brewed before may present itself as a challenge. Naturally, questions of “Will I over-steep it?” or “Will I make it too bitter?” may arise. Yet, here, the focus is not the tea, but is the “I”. This fear or preoccupation with how one will perceive (or be perceived) is additional and ultimately distracting from the action of making tea. In truth, tea can over-steep and tea is naturally bitter. With practice, one will get more natural with bringing out tea’s flavors. In time, one will just steep tea. In this repetition of action, the “I” falls away and all that is left is the tea.

In steeping 大烏葉 Dà wū yè (“Big Black Leaf”) this morning, the actions of brewing the tea may seem repetitive, and, to some extent, this is true. Boiling the water, pouring the water, brewing the tea, and pouring the tea. Repeat.

However, as the challenge of brewing this tea results in the better understanding of the tea and how to access its myriad of flavors, a new sense of freedom develops. It is at this point that one no longer is attached to the notion of making the tea too bitter. Instead, one just makes the tea. With this mindset, aspects such as the teapot, the heat of the kettle, or even something as subtle as the temperature in the room can further inform each steeping. In this moment, the mind is fully open, ready to mindfully respond to everything it can perceive.

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With the tea fully brewed-out, its final flavors become just a sweet remembrance of its initial strength. After the last steeping, I conclude by pulling every leaf from the tiny Yixing clay teapot. This, too, helps those gathered to admire the tea and to focus on the moment. A minute later, as the mind settles, a final chime of the bell marks the end of this morning’s meditation.

At times like this, I cannot bring myself to speak. Instead, I let the moment convey its countless volumes. A poem in every sensation. A stanza comprised of sunshine written across the grass mat, collected in a teacup. Verses made of steam rising from a teapot and the smile of anticipation that forms on my face.

When tea accompanies meditation, it, too, becomes the meditation. With each rising of the kettle’s boil comes the potential for infinite possibilities. Each moment different from the last. Flavors from one steeping to the next change and transform, and the mind is left to explore itself. A fresh-picked mulberry leaf can become a tea cup stand and become a point of introspection upon one’s self in space and time. A paper fan can typify the moment and cool the mind. The simple act of brewing tea can awaken one during a warm Summer’s morning and become the means to cultivating a lifelong practice.

 

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Meditation, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

EXCLUSIVE: All About Green, Yellow & White Tea

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Dearly Beloved Readers of Scotttea,

I am excited to share with you the tasting notes and LIVE video feed from my most recent tea talk and interactive workshop “All About Green, Yellow & White Tea”. Held in the intimate confines of Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, this tea gathering offered participants a “three hour tour” (literally three hours) of green, yellow and white teas from all over China, Korea and Japan. Beyond being a highly-caffeinated evening, the tea talk and workshop was also highly-immersive, as I offered up my tips and quips on tea history, production, and brewing styles.

Needless to say, I am forever grateful to both Floating Mountain Tea House and to the folks who attended and made this memorable evening happen. For all those who could not attend, I offer to you now, in all its glory, the full video and tea tasting lineup from “All About Green, Yellow & White Tea”!

“All About Green, Yellow & White Tea” (Link to video)

Teas Tasted:

1st Tea: Spring 2018 蒙頂甘露 Méngdǐng Gānlù, Meng Ding Shan, Sichuan
2nd Tea: Spring 2918 西湖龍井茶 Xīhú Lóngjǐng Chá, Hangzhou, Zhejiang
3rd Tea: Spring 2018 六安瓜片 Lù’ān Guāpiàn, Liu An, Anhui
4th Tea: Spring 2018 太平猴魁 Tài Píng Hóu Kuí, Hou Gang Village, Anhui
5th Tea: Spring 2018 야세작 Wild Sejak, Hwagae, South Korea
6th Tea: Spring 2018 かぶせ煎茶 Kabuse Sencha, Nara, Japan
7th Tea: Spring 2018 蒙頂黃芽 Méng dǐng huáng yá, Meng Ding Shan, Sichuan
8th Tea: 2000s 老單芽黃茶 Lǎo Dān Yá Huáng Chá, Yunnan or Sichuan
9th Tea: 2017-2018 芽寶 Yá bǎo, Nannuoshan, Yunnan
10th Tea: 2014 白牡丹茶餅 Bái mǔdān chá bǐng, Fuding, Fujian

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Korea, Sencha, Tea, Tea Tasting, White Tea, Yellow Tea

The Heat of Summer. The Quietude of Tea. The Sound of Wind and Approaching Rain.

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As Summer deepens its presence tea, too, transforms. The 風炉 (furo, literally “wind brazier”) has long since replaced the sunken hearth in the tearoom and the hope of the host is to induce a sense of coolness in the guest. In this effort, the inventive nature of the tea person comes alive, from replacing the stoneware 水指 (mizusashi, “fresh water vessel”) with a plain well-bucket (木地釣瓶水指, kiji-tsurube) which has been soaked in water over night, to employing items made of clear glass or pieces that contain visual allusions to water (famous being the kettle lid rests (蓋置, futa-oki) in the shape of a crab in a river stream or that of water wheels).

The teabowl, too, changes its shape during Summer, becoming more shallow, allowing for the otherwise hot water pulled from the kettle to cool down, making the experience of holding the bowl and drinking the tea more enjoyable for the guest.

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As I make tea today, I use one such bowl, an antique Shigaraki-yaki (信楽焼) chawan. Light, informal, and perfectly imperfect with its pockmarked and vitrified surface, it offers-up a subtle reminder to enjoy the moment (and the heat) of a Summer’s day.

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I pair the chawan with an exposed-wood hira-natsume (平棗, a jujube fruit-shaped tea container in which its width is twice its height) and a chashaku (茶杓, tea scoop) hewn from a piece of smokey-hued bamboo. The wood of the natsume and chashaku seem to shine in a way that seems to add to the refreshment of the moment, reminiscent of the washed and weathered boards of an engawa (縁側, the open-air “veranda” that often surrounds old Japanese homes and temples).

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On closer inspection of the chashaku, it reveals a hidden landscape of mountains enveloped in mist. Caused by the natural pigmentation and aging of the bamboo, this chance shān shuǐ (山水, literally “mountain and water/mountain and river”) painting, contained within the slender frame of the chashaku (in a way akin to a tanzaku (短冊, a thin, vertical strip of paper often showcasing calligraphy or painting, often hung in the tokonoma alcolve)) offers an additional layer to the tea gathering. It is a landscape so minute that only the host and guest can observe it within the intimate confines of the tearoom. As such, it is an inferred space for both to travel through as they join together to enjoy tea.

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The faint hiss of the boiling water in the chagama, a sound poetically referred to as the sound of “wind in the pines” (松風, matsukaze), accompanies every action during the tea gathering. Not only the element with which the tea is brewed, water is also employed to “purify” the tea implements, from the chawan to the chasen (茶筅, tea whisk). In this process, the chasen is placed gently into the teabowl, itself filled with one hishaku(柄杓, bamboo ladle)’s-worth of boiled water. The tines are then lightly pressed against the center of the bowl, flexing them and testing their strength. In this patient act, the host is both checking for damages (that may result in particles of the whisk adulterating the guest’s tea) and cleansing the tea object in a manner that displays attentiveness and hospitality. Once complete, the chasen is left to sit upright, its thin bamboo tines, like blades of grass at dawn, are left moistened and refreshed.

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The Shigaraki-yaki chawan, once washed and wetted by the water from the chagama, sits ready to accept the powdered tea. Here, too, the act of cleansing has brought out a new sense of life and vitality from the tea object, revealing bright colors and a deep range of textures that once remained dormant. Born out of the laborious process of hand-feeding a wood-fueled anagama-kiln (窖窯, literally “cave kiln”), the Shigaraki-yaki chawan bears the distinctive marks and patterns that are the result of extreme heat.

As with the chashaku, the chawan, too, contains an inferred “landscape” (景色, keshiki in Japanese, literally “scenery”). Through the hand of the potter, a light and loosely-applied glaze was poured over the rim of the teabowl. The result gives the appearance of an undulating mountain range, articulated through the uneven dissipation and pooling of the yellow and blue-green-hued glass-like glaze (ビードロ, bidoro, from the Portuguese word vidoro meaning “vitrified”). This visual feature becomes yet another “vista” for the guest and host to admire during the tea gathering, offering a moment to pause and imagine the refreshing breezes that often blow through the mountains on a Summer’s day.

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Three scoops of bright, fragrant matcha are pulled out of the natsume (as is the practice within the Sōhen-ryū (宗偏流) school of chanoyu) and placed into the chawan. The presence of the powdered green tea against the rough, earthen-toned well of the teabowl is striking and seems other-worldly.

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Whisked and whipped with the chasen, the matcha is transformed into a bright and airy foam. Instantly, the aroma of the fresh green tea fills the space of the tearoom. One merely needs to breathe to take in its flavor.

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Picked-up and turned in the hands of the host so that the teabowl’s “face” (正面, shōmen in Japanese) greets the guest, the bowl of matcha is then left to sit between the two individuals. After a friendly bow of gratitude (offered simultaneously by both host and guest), the guest accepts the bowl of tea. Turning the bowl’s face away from their own out of respect to the chawan, the guest lifts the vessel to their lips. Within three slow sips, the bowl is savored, the freshly-prepared tea enjoyed to its last frothy dregs.

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The Shigaraki-yaki bowl is held quietly in the hands of the guest, the warmth of the tea it once contained still lingers within its earthenware body. The roughness of the clay, the unevenness of the glaze, and the words of a poem painted on its sides are all appreciated by the guest before the bowl is returned to the host for its final cleaning.

In the silence that follows, there remains a stillness that is the quintessence of a moment with tea. Although no physical distance has been crossed, both host and guest have traveled together. While no mountains have been climbed nor landscapes entered, they have both viewed vast vistas and wandered a path together. At journey’s end, no words need to be exchanged. No need for a thoughts nor response. Just to be quiet is enough.

In the heat of Summer, a moment to take tea offers a chance to to quiet the mind and to hear the faint sound of the wind and approaching rain.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Japan, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

Curling Leaves and Unfurling Flavors

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Sitting down to brew a fabulous 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (Phoenix single bush oolong tea) gifted to me by a visiting artist and tea collector. The tea and the moment it creates is the perfect complement to a Summer’s morning, just minutes after a light rain and illuminated by the warm light of the dawn.

As I have done countless times before, I choose to brew tea with a well-loved 肉扁 Ròu biǎn (literally “flattened portion of meat”-shaped) Yixing teapot. Acquired in San Francisco at the city’s famed Imperial Tea Court (founded by the Bay Area-based tea master Roy K. Fong), the little teapot has been brewing Phoenix oolongs for over a decade. Well-loved and well-seasoned, the little russet-colored 朱泥 zhū ní teapot now bears the patina of years of continued use, transforming its surface from a dull terra cotta to soft and almost luminescent cinnabar.

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For this morning’s tea I employ an antique Japanese tea scoop (茶合, sagō) cut from the stalk of an old bamboo and fashioned in the manner of a wooden wrist rest, an object once commonplace within a scholar’s studio of classical China. Written upon the surface of the scoop is a poem, a fourteen-character 山水詩 (shānshuǐ shī, literally “mountains and rivers poem” or “landscape poem”), within which are allusions to life amidst mountains and clouds.

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The old piece of bamboo is perfectly suited for the large leaves of the Phoenix oolong, allowing them to sit loosely upon the expansive, concave hollow of the scoop. Like the Ròu biǎn teapot, this tea scoop, too, has enjoyed its fair share of tea, acquiring the luster that comes only from years of tea oil accumulating upon its surface. It, too, seems to glow and hold a presence that time has imbued it with.

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The shape and construction of this teapot is perfect for the long, twisted leaves of the Phoenix oolong. The wide opening of the teapot helps to allow the wiry leaves that are typical of this style of tea to enter the vessel naturally. The tea slides smoothly from the scoop into the pot with a single, effortless motion.

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While it may appear to be small in size and volume, every leaf seems to sit with ease, gently inside the teapot.

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Its low, flat profile lets the leaves of the Phoenix oolong expand outward, allowing them to unfurl and offer-up their abundant flavor and spectacular fragrance.

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The egg shell-thin walls of the Ròu biǎn teapot retain just enough heat for a short, hot steeping. Only moments after water is poured into and then over the pot it evaporates, indicating that the tea is close to being suitably brewed.

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The result is a series of beautifully-hued and complex-flavored cups of tea, revealing endless layers and notes of fresh flowers, incense, citrus peel, and tropical fruits.

In a finely-crafted piece of teaware such as this Ròu biǎn teapot, the mindful decisions of the artisan can inform the subtle practice of the tea brewer. When form and function are perfectly balanced, intent and action can meet in unison. When a teapot’s construction both alludes to the tea it prefers to make and offers insight into how it should be brewed, then the teapot can become the teacher.

 

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

The Taste of Meditation

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There is an old saying that “Tea and Zen are of one taste” (茶禅一味). A bit of a kōan (公案; Chinese: 公案, gōng’àn; Korean: 공안 kong’an; Vietnamese: công án), the phrase is meant to both give rise to “great doubt” and spark the onset of a meditative mind. At the core of this mindset is the realization of one’s inability to grasp that which is logical, therefore forcing one to inquire withing and rely upon intuition, direct experience and wisdom.

The phrase also alludes to the close link that tea and meditation have had over the centuries. Beginning in the Tang and continuing through the end of the Song (from 500-1300), the rise of both tea culture alongside Buddhist meditation (chán 禪, Chinese for the Sanskrit word dhyāna ध्यान , meaning “meditation”, the Japanese word being zen, seon 선 in Korean) had a profound effect on one another. Commonly produced in monasteries for its medicinal properties, tea was also consumed as a means to wake the mind (through tea’s energizing properties). Paired as an aid to meditation, the physical act of making tea was similarly viewed as meditative, as it requires a certain level of mindfulness to achieve the desired results.

As tea continued to evolve in tandem with Buddhist schools of meditation, it was shaped by the people and cultures it came into contact with. Subsequent practitioners, from the Japanese Zen Buddhists and lay people of the Sengoku period (c. 1467 – c. 1603) who developed chanoyu  (茶の湯, the Japanese tea ceremony), to the Korean Seon Buddhist monks like Cho’ui (writer of the Dashinjeon 다신전(茶神傳, literally “Tea Spirit Record”), 1830) who linked meditation more directly to tea preparation, would continue this trend, pointing the way for modern tea people to follow.

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To the tea practitioner, the mere act of making tea can bring about a meditative state of mind, as each tea, vessel, teapot, kettle, cup, and scoop can bring about a myriad of possibilities. From the way a certain clay cools to when or where a tea was harvested, to how one pours water over the tea leaves, or even the temperature of the air, attentiveness to all of these factors and more is the essence of “now-mindedness”.

32207696_10103510293954638_2219173296484646912_nIt is in this moment, the moment of sitting down to make tea, that one must rely upon what they know and how it ultimately bears against what they do not know. It is from this interaction with and inquiry into these dual aspects that great tea can be made.

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This morning, as I make a meditation out of preparing tea, I ponder this. Brewing a jakseol (작설, literally “sparrow’s tongue” green tea from Jirisan in Hadong, South Korea), the movements it requires to slowly and mindfully express the tea’s flavor are apparent. Any thoughts of the world around me, of deadlines, of things to do become nothing more than thoughts, things at the moment outside of my control.

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The water rises to a quiet boil, the buncheong-jagi 분청사기 teapot, sookwoo (water server), and tea cups (each a gift from a dear friend) are warmed. As I warm the vessels, I roll each slowly within my hand, feeling the radiant heat of the water within them climb up the inside of their earthenware walls, permeating through their dull-colored glazed exteriors.

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I carefully place the leaves of the tea within the open mouth of the teapot. The lingering heat trapped within the vessel’s clay walls begins to wake the tea and a slight hint to its flavor rises sweetly into the air.

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The water that was momentarily set to cool within the sookwoo is poured into the teapot and the lid is placed upon its top. The tea is left to brew. All visible clues as to the tea’s progress are kept at bay as the teapot sits. All information that one is left to rely upon must come from one’s own intuition and direct experience.

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The elegant yet roughly-hewn buncheong-jagi cups sit awaiting the tea. Even at this moment of stillness, of emptiness, there is a sense of meaning as the tea continues to brew.

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In a matter of mere seconds, the tea is poured and its light, bright color is exhibited against the soft, mottled grey surface of the teacup’s interior. All of the moment spent sitting in a still and mindful quietude is summed up here. All of colors of a gentle Korean Spring in the mountains of Jirisan are apparent in this cup.

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The tea is brewed and the leaves unfurled. The aroma is released and the flavor of the tea becomes, as I become, fully present.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Korea, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

When a Carp Turns Into a Dragon

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Japan, Korea, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting, Uncategorized

During the Heat of Summer

IMG_8638Dear beloved blog readers,

In my lapse as a blogger (if I can actually be called such a thing), winter turned to spring and spring turned to summer (as of seven days ago). During this time, much has changed: the seasons have shifted, the snow came and melted, and the spring rains are now summer thunder showers. The fireflies have emerged and the mugwort now grows wild in the yard. Gone are the narcissus, replaced by the climbing wisteria and emerging, ripening apricots.

From this perspective, a lot has changed. While I do plan to “back track” and discuss all the many “tea moments” that I’ve had in this past year (2016 to 2017), I would be remise if I didn’t opt to live in the moment and offer up my own take on “the now”.

An earlier entry, “Making tea on a hot day” (August 17, 2016), was a general post to offer my insight and advice in brewing tea when the weather is hot. Now that New York is beginning to heat up, my mind returns to this topic and how to, once again, quench my thirst.

Remaining from spring are the now-aging shincha (新茶,”new tea”) that have come to me by way of the Japanese tea farms of Uji (located near the ancient capitol city of Kyoto). Tea from the Uji region, where tea was first planted by the Buddhist monk Kohken in the 1270s (around 1271, after Eisai popularized the drinking of tea in Japan around 1191 with his writing of the 喫茶養生記, Kissa Yōjōki (“Drinking Tea for Health”)), typically produces a full-flavored liqueur with a notably creamy mouthfeel (when compared to teas produced in Shizuoka or Yame). On hot days, I find myself preferring to take this tea at lower temperatures, sometimes even cold, brewing the tea much longer, the result of which is a very viscous and full-bodied brew. Much like brewing gyokuro (玉 露, “jade dew”), the flavor can become slightly savory.

FullSizeRenderWhen mindfully brewing this tea, I find myself pulling out a small Oribe-yaki (織部焼) teapot, the walls of which are thin enough to allow the tea to cool down and enable a longer, more laid-back brewing. When at work, I opt to brew the tea casually in a wide-rimmed glass cup. Much like a summer teabowl used in Japanese chanoyu (茶の湯), the wide, shallow shape allows the liquid to cool down. This allows for the lukewarm water, which I use to brew the tea, to cool down fast enough for the tea to remain submerged for close to an hour without becoming bitter. This is ideal for simple tea while focusing on work.

With the passing of spring also comes the arrival of new matcha from Japan. During this time, too, the heat does not prove an obstacle, merely an opportunity to respond to it. While in Japan (and, similarly, New York), the hottest time of the year typically arrives mid-August, I chose today to bring out my kuro-Oribe (黒織部), “black Oribe”) kutsu-gata (沓形, “clog-shaped”) summer teabowl. While usually reserved for later in the year, I couldn’t help but bring this out, its shape alluding to things to come.

FullSizeRender_9The act of making tea is, in itself, a refreshing practice. Often, as in the case with Japanese tea ceremony, referring to aspects that infer coolness during a hot summer’s day helps to induce a lighter attitude. Unboxing the irregularly-shaped teabowl from its lightweight pine box was just the first of many steps that would help to psychologically bring the temperature down.

FullSizeRender_1Once open, the box presented a sight that I hadn’t seen in over a year: the light cotton furoshiki (風呂敷, literally “cloth for the bathhouse”, historically used to wrap one’s belongings while at a bathouse, now commonly used to wrap anything from gifts to groceries and, informally, teabowls) emblazoned with the motif of a water leaf (or, sometimes seen as asanoha, 麻の葉, lit. “hemp leaf” pattern), wrapped securely around the teabowl. Even the loose knot, in the shape of a bridge, helped to refer back to the coolness of the imaginary water that would flow beneath such a structure.

FullSizeRender_2Pulling back the cloth, the shallow, squat, roughly-hewn teabowl revealed itself. The glaze, smooth and glass-like, terminated in a slight whirlpool-like form in its center. On either side of the bowl (its face and back) were cursory brushstrokes; on one side was painted a water well motif, on the other were blades of grass (though such motifs are always up for different interpretations).

FullSizeRender_4On this day, as the still summer heat filled the tearoom, I began to prepare a bowl of matcha. First went the damp chakin (茶巾, the hemp cloth used to clean a teabowl), folded and placed into the bowl (in the shape of a butterfly, in keeping with the practice of the Sohen-ryu school). Next, the chasen (茶筅, “tea whisk”), placed upright, its tines exposed, droplets of water sparkling in the late-afternoon light. Finally, a tea caddy and bamboo teascoop (made from a type of bamboo that has dark, tiny spots, resembling a light rain) were brought together.

FullSizeRender_5Making the tea was casual and meditative. A perfect way to center oneself amidst the heat of the day. The matcha, whipped into a light foam, was further enhanced by the addition of a simple ice cube. While almost common today, the incorporation of ice into a bowl of matcha would have been an incredibly rare treat for someone centuries ago. Ice would have been hauled by specialized handlers from distant mountains into the cities of ancient and pre-modern Japan to enable for such a delectable refreshment.

FullSizeRender_6To put this into perspective, similar ice treats, like the ever-popular kakigōri, かき氷, or shaved ice, date back to at least the Heian period, with the first written account of the delicacy being found in the Makura no Sōshi (枕草子, “The Pillow Book”) by Sei Shonagon, completed in 1002. Such a delight was reserved only for those in the imperial court, until better transportation and refrigeration came to Japan in the Meiji period, when kakigōri  (and, for that matter, matcha with ice) became available to a mass audience.

FullSizeRender_7Today, the ice is a kind reminder of how tea remains a simple luxury. One does not need to be wealthy to enjoy its rich flavor. Just to take time and be mindful of one’s actions is all one needs. Soothing both in taste and texture, matcha with ice is a great way to wind-down the day.

As the summer’s sun dips lower on the horizon and lingers longer than it had a season ago, this moment is meant for savoring. Tea, during the heat of summer, helps.

 

Now that I’m back at my blogging (wish me luck that I can continue), I am curious what everyone is doing to relieve the summer’s heat? How do you enjoy tea, typically a hot beverage, amidst the increasingly hotter days?

In posts to come, I will explore various summer teawares and share my approaches to complimenting the climbing temperatures. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and, as always, learning more.

FullSizeRender_8(IMAGE: Good even to the last drop, I drink the wash of the teabowl. A light rinse of the remaining matcha can still produce a vibrant green and a delicious taste.)

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Sencha, Tea