Tag Archives: Seasonal

In Accordance with the Dance of Snowflakes

Winter’s sojourn continues to unfold over the city as December’s first snow falls gently down from a matte grey sky. Looking out upon the vista from my tearoom window, snowflakes fall as birds alight from leaf-bare trees. With only the warmth of a glowing brazier by my side, I sit for tea in the silence that is brought by a snowy day.

In the calendar for Japanese tea ceremony, the first snow of Winter is met with a quiet celebration, 雪の茶 yuki no cha (“tea for snow”). Low 下駄 geta (wooden clogs) and wide-brimmed woven sedge hats are given to the guests before they cross into the 露地 roji (the rustic garden leading to the teahouse). Warm water with cut ginger is offered to drink as they wait to warm their bodies.

In the tearoom, no flower is placed in the 床の間 tokonoma alcove, and a window is left open for all to enjoy the sight of falling snow. Teaware is left to be simple as, on this day, nothing is meant to compete with the beauty of the first snow of Winter.

As I sit to enjoy tea to this sight, I bring out a 鉄鉢形茶碗 tetsubachi-nari chawan(iron basin-shapes teabowl) to make 抹茶 matcha, the poetic name of which is 柿 “Kaki”, for its resemblance to a large, round persimmon. Balancing the bowl’s rustic feel, I select a carved lacquer 棗 natsume tea caddy. For the 茶杓 chashaku teascoop, I choose one carved from a bright piece of bamboo, the center node (節 fushi) of which is set with an emerging bump of a forming branch.

As I prepare to make tea, I cannot help to remain quiet. The teabowl is cleansed with a scooper of hot water, drawn from the boiling kettle.

Once warmed and set down, the bowl is ready for its use to make tea.

Three measured scoops of freshly-ground matcha are drawn from the natsume and placed one on top of the other within the void of the chawan. After the last scoop is issued, I tap the chashaku against the cream-colored rim of the teabowl, releasing the last remaining portions of matcha powder from its hand-shaped tip and producing a light, bell-like chiming from the chawan.

Tea is whisked as a bright, airy foam rises from the thick, emerald green brew.

Set before me, the bowl of tea glows within the low light of the tearoom.

As if to herald the coming future, the delicate matcha foam lifts up like a drift of snow, the aroma of which is crisp and refreshing. Without a pause, the bowl of tea is whole heartily enjoyed.

In the silence that follows, the gentle roll of the kettle boiling is met with the sporadic tapping of falling snow upon the windowpane. A joy to make tea in accordance with the dance of snowflakes.

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

Every Season Has Two Faces

Part of the enjoyment of tea is the continual meditation it provides on time and the constant changing of the seasons. In Winter, this change is marked in many ways. The transition from the 風炉 furo (portable briazier) to the sunken hearth of the 炉 ro, types of incense used in the tearoom, and even the shape of teabowls from shallow to deep; all are mindful adjustments made in reflection of the subtle shifts in the environment and the desire to stay warm.

Even as a season may be conceived as a “single moment”, it, too, is made up of many smaller moments. This may be the appearance of certain flowers or animals, the enjoyment of particular foods that become available during the cold months, and even specific celebrations. In tea these abound and offer ample opportunity to center one’s self and focus on “the now”.

Today is no exception as I sit down in my tearoom to make a bowl of 抹茶 matcha.

Pulling together items that I feel will harmonize with this moment in time, I bring out an array of objects from my tea cabinet.

A vintage 赤津焼 Akazu-yaki 茶碗 chawan paired with a small wooden 平棗 hira-natsume (a type of tea caddy) and a weathered bamboo 茶杓 chashaku (teascoop).

For the tea, I select a fine matcha produced from tea plants grown in Uji, freshly-ground by my friends at Setsugekka, a local tea shop in Manhattan’s East Village.

The teabowl, produced by famed Seto-based ceramicist 中島春草 Nakajima Shunsō, is unique in that it has two “faces” (正面 shōmen).

As one prepares the tea and serves it to the guest, the bowl shows the abbreviated image of two 柿 kaki (persimmons), drying from the eaves of a roof (to produce dried persimmon, 干柿 hoshigaki, a favorite early wintertime treat).

However, as one turns the bowl to respectfully drink from the obverse side, the bowl reveals another image: two 梅 ume plum blossoms, a flower that only blooms during the coldest days of Winter.

The meaning here is subtle but direct. What we enjoy now in early Winter (dried persimmons) is fleeting. What is to come (the ume blossoms) will come sooner than you can realize. Enjoy this moment, for it is in this moment that life is truly actualized.

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A Gathering for Thick Tea

After filling a 茶入 chaire (ceramic tea container) with 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”), one can sit to make tea. Clearing the mind, one can give with their heart. Purifying the utensils encourages this and clarifies intention.

First the chaire is removed from the brocaded 仕服 shifuku pouch and is purified with the folded 袱紗 fukusa. Next, the 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) is cleansed.

Finally, the 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk) is cleansed along with the teabowl itself.

Preparing koicha is a process, one that involves giving everything to the gathered guests. In this, tea is first scooped from the chaire and, then, the remaining tea left inside the tiny ceramic caddy is poured into the teabowl.

Everything is offered up. Nothing is left over.

Unlike 薄茶 usucha (“thin tea”), koicha is not whisked.

Instead, it is “kneeded” into a thick, glossy liquid. The flavor is intoxicating, inescapable, memorable.

A single bowl is shared between the guests. A single moment is enjoyed. A single spirit emerges.

Even when the guests have left and gone their separate ways, they are forever joined in this memory. A gathering for thick tea.

As we gather around together, whether it be over a feast or over nothing at all, let our spirits join together. In the receiving of a bowl of tea, we first bow to host who made it so careful. Then, next, we raise the bowl as if offering thanks to the universe, to the myriad of forces that united together to enable a moment to occur. Tea is always a thanksgiving. It is always a feast, for the eyes, for the heart.

Today, fill your heart, your mind, and open your spirit to the moment at hand.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

Red, White, and Blue-and-White

I am not typically political in my writings (at least on such a public and tea-focused forum). Alas, to remain politically inactive and indifferent is not only a fallacious privilege but is also callous to the many ills and terrible abuses that our political system has engendered (and continues to engender).

On this day, a cold, rainy Tuesday in November, I encourage all who can vote to vote (I voted by mail). Remember, many have fought and dedicated their lives to ensure this right. To vote is to honor this and protect your own agency in this world.

As dark storm clouds gather outside my window, a 鉄瓶 tetsubin (“iron kettle”) softly bubbles atop the warm, glowing embers inside an antique 火鉢 hibachi. Deciding to drink a bowl of hand-ground powdered white tea, I pull-together the implements needed to properly whip-up a delicate bowl of Song-style 抹茶 mǒchá (matcha in Japanese).

A 15th century Vietnamese blue and white teabowl. A red and black 根来塗り Negoro-nuri lacquer 茶杓 chashaku teascoop. A carved Song period-style lacquer tea caddy. A bamboo tea whisk made in Nara, Japan. A lacquered tray atop which all the items are carried. With everything assembled tea can be made.

Opting to make tea today in a relaxed style, I decide to adapt the informal 盆点前 bon temae of the 宗徧流 Sōhen Ryū school to make a bowl of Song period-style white tea. Against the dark crimson field of the red lacquered tray, the assembled items seem to harmonize, their subtle differences still shining through.

Against the rich hues of scarlet, the rough and refined qualities of the Negoro lacquer are evermore apparent. In this style of lacquer, famously produced by the monks at Negoro-ji Buddhist temple in Wakayama prefecture in Japan, layers of black lacquer emerge beneath top layers of red lacquer. The result is an understated elegance.

With all tea objects purified and readied, the moment arrives to make tea. For a brief instance, I sit and enjoy seeing each item as they exist and interplay with each other.

Gathered from around the world, spanning through history, from a multitude of cultures, each have by some unique way come together to enable something beautiful to be made.

A bowl of tea and a moment to meditate. A calm within a violent storm. What will come from this day is not entirely up to me. Which way will the wind bend? In what direction will the storm blow?

To sit and observe these moments is not enough. To act and act with right intention is a start.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, Vietnam, White Tea

Ripening Gourds in a Cold Field

October has come and nearly passed. The last day of the month always stands as a liminal period, a two-faced Janus looking to the future and to the past. What moments will the new month bring? What did we learn from the old month, now a not-so-distant memory? Walking through life on this blade cutting through time, one cannot help but to feel a rush.

Even in the quietude of the tearoom, this energy can be quite the stimulus to creation.

Selecting a small antique Japanese Meiji-period 古染付け ko-sometsuke (“old blue-and-white” porcelain ware) teapot modestly-adorned with a curling vine and gourd motif, I pair the little pot with a 紅茶 hóngchá (“red tea”) from Wuyishan. Opting to enjoy the warmth of an antique Japanese 茶釜 chagama (iron lidded kettle), I decide to use a water dipper fashioned from a lacquered gourd to pour boiling water into the tea vessel.

With the sound of a gentle wind outside my window and the soft gurgling of the kettle rising, I sit to brew tea. Waiting for the leaves to steep, I allow my eyes to drift and view the changing colors of the leaves outside.

A mild Autumn produces an array of hues. Dappled patterns on the tree tops outside and weathered markings on the surface of my old wooden tea table.

The color of tea when poured becomes the most brilliant tone to be seen. As red as a ripened gourd sitting in a field on a cold and foggy morning. How it captures the light of the sun.

Time captures moments like this as if it were a crystalline vessel. Tiny vignettes and faceted memories stored within. Tea, too, acts this way. Poems on a tea scoop recounting conversations between a traveler and a mountain hermit. Residue from past teas brewed clinging to bright white porcelain. Withered tea leaves hinting at the warmth of the Sun from a Spring years ago.

The gourd ladle tilted atop a hand-cut bamboo 蓋置き futa-oki (lid rest) dries after the tea has long-since brewed-out. The teapot sits partially open to cool. The scent of tea faint now when it was once readily present. A month comes softly to a close.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Hongcha, Japan, Meditation, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

The Exuberance of Imperfection

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With Autumn in full swing and the chill of Winter creeping in, I sit down to enjoy an afternoon of tea within the warmth of my tearoom. The sky is a muted grey, framed by bright, white clouds above and the emerging Fall colors upon the tops of every tree.

IMG_1122As I sit and take in this changing view I pull a treasured antique 石灣窯 Shíwān yáo (Shiwan pottery) teapot from my tea cabinet. In the soft light of the day that filters through the tearoom window, the bottle-green/blue glaze of the tiny teapot seems to glow and radiate in flamboyant swirls and unctuous pools. Paired with two 織部焼 Oribe-yaki cups (upon which the abstract motif of rain and/or 簾/すだれ sudare “blinds” are inferred upon their surface with an iron-oxide glaze) from a now-extinct kiln, the tea objects seem to be in a sort of silent conversation.

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Deciding to brew a beautiful 九龍袍 Jiǔlóng páo (literally “Nine Dragon Robe”) Wuyishan oolong tea with this vessel, I pull a scoop-full of dark, twisted leaves from a large ceramic tea leaf storage vessel. On closer inspection, they appear slightly purple in cast, due to a specific mutation found within this variety. As such the tea is sometimes referred to as 紫紅袍 Zǐhóng páo (“Purple-Red Robe”, as it is a mutation from the famous 大紅袍 Dàhóng páo, “Big Red Robe”).

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The curling leaves enter the dark, empty void of the Shiwan teapot like a dragon entering a cave.

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The roughly-hewn shape of the teapot becomes more apparent with every passing moment. Often unseen, the underside of the lid bares the marks of simple hand construction, the subtle indentations of the maker’s fingers visible from when they last touched the soft, unfired clay.

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Filled with hot water from an antique 鉄瓶 tetsubin (“iron kettle”), a fine foam bubbles to the top of the Shiwan teapot and the tea leaves begin to wake. Gentle aromas evocative of wet wood, incense and warm spices rise from the open tiny ceramic vessel.

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The teapot, made in the bustling kilns of Nanfeng (located in Shiwan town of Foshan City) during the late-Qing/Republican period, is a loving tribute to the mass-produced common-ware that once dominated the Pearl River Delta of southern China. Enticed by the more luxurious (and expensive) works of the famous kilns of the Song, Ming, and Qing (Shiwan potters were highly active starting in the late Ming), the artisans of Shiwan pottery developed their own style that both made reference to and “riffed” upon antique forms. The result were the employing of beautiful glazes, and pure forms. Now a relative rarity at the tea table, this little Shiwan teapot still exudes a simple elegance.

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Rough in form and full of imperfections, from the way the lid rests awkwardly or how liquid pours unevenly from its spout, the little teapot has a vibrant sense of character that most other teaware lack. Unlike the crisp, precise forms found in the teapots from 宜興 Yíxìng (the shape of which this vessel is undoubtedly attempting to replicate), the Shiwan teapot, in contrast, feels softer, more natural, humble, human.

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Brewing the beautiful 九龍袍 Jiǔlóng páo, its deep flavor unfolds over the course of the afternoon. Hints of carob, marigold, rose water and blueberry swirl and emerge from every cup the little teapot produces.

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Light shifts and clouds lift and the little Shiwan teapot is emptied and left to dry, waiting for the next time it is invited to brew tea. Even in its resting state, there is a sense of liveliness in this antique pot. From the soft impression of the artisan’s stamp to the ice-like crackles upon its glazed surface, to the sandy grit of the exposed clay; every aspect of this tiny vessel is a celebration of imperfection.

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If you are interested in learning more about Shiwan ceramics, I highly recommend the book Shiwan Ceramics: Beauty, Color, and Passion by Fredrikke S. Scollard, Terese Tse Bartholomew, and the Chinese Culture Foundation (1995).

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

Tea for a Broken World

With October at its halfway point, Autumn’s grip on the world seems at once soft but typified by a growing chill. Cold winds whip through the trees, pulling leaves from limbs and giving the world a distinctive weathered and worn appearance.

Sitting down for tea this afternoon, the sound of the wind outside my window, I cannot help but to be inspired.

Desiring something darker and stronger, as if to offer some sort of resistance to the weather outside, I select a 老欉水仙 lǎo cóng shuǐxiān (“Old Bush Water Immortal”) Wuyi oolong. To brew it, I choose an antique 思亭壶 Sī Tíng hú Yixing teapot, set within a broken Ming-period shallow celadon bowl.

With a kettle set to boil, I methodically warm each vessel; the teapot, the Korean sookwoo, the three small buncheong-jagi cups.

The light of the day shifts from bright to muted dark as clouds pass over the sun. The large, twisted leaves of the dark oolong tea offer up their aroma upon first wetting.

The frantic actions of the bending trees outside offer a stark contrast to the thoughtful, measured movements within the tearoom.

Small vignettes of water rising from the teapot’s spout, steam swirling from the kettle’s mouth, and the Yixing clay darkening as the tea fully steeps.

As the world outside my window tears itself apart in preparation for Winter’s still and ice-bound cadence, within the world of tea, life continues to change and evolve.

The tea is brewed and it’s liqueur seems to glow like copper in the tiny grey cups.

A moment is left to linger as the leaves drift upon a softening breeze.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Korea, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting