Tag Archives: Seto-yaki

Tea in Time of Turmoil

For the past months, the world has seemed to grow increasingly more tense. In January, we saw the US and Iran lock horns in an episode that briefly saw both nations mobilize and perform acts of violent retaliation. Years of civil war in Yemen continues to spiral into a bloody quagmire. Protests in Hong Kong, France, Chile, Palestine, India, and Northern Syria are just a sampling of the ongoing and ever-worsening environment of instability. Even on a biological level, with the outbreak and worldwide spread of the Coronavirus COVID-19 (2019-nCoV), the fragility of our little world seems to be evermore at the whims and caprice of unforeseen and uncontrollable forces.

In such a situation, how can one even think of tea? Yet, perhaps it is at this very moment that tea is most needed. For the bulk of two decades now I have practiced 茶の湯 chanoyu, an art that has its origins in meditative self-cultivation of 禪 Zen Buddhism and collaborative arts like 連歌 renga and 香道 kōdō.

Yet, especially during times like we see today, I remain ever-aware that chanoyu was also an art appropriated and practiced by the warrior class of medieval Japan. Developed during an age of chaotic extremes, what today we call chanoyu emerged during the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai, “Age of Warring States” (c. 1467 – c. 1615). In a period which saw endless military, political and social strife wreak havoc in all corners of the Japanese archipelago, the Way of Tea (茶道 chadō) was not merely a means to escape into a world of quietude, it was also a way to reclaim space and time, defiantly, if need be, against the pale of constant violence and upheaval.

While the current situation surrounding the COVID-19 virus may not be as violent, it is quite jarring. People are suffering and many have died. The word I knew a month ago is not the world I live in today. Governments at large seem to offer little guidance in this moment and, instead, the response has been largely grassroots. For the while, all we can do is remain in self isolation, hoping for the worst to pass and that our mere presence does not adversely affect those around us.

During this last week, as mandatory social distancing and quarantine swiftly became the new norm, I found myself far from my little tea room in New York City, instead lodged-up alone in a friend’s vacated and empty home in rural upstate New York. As I knew I would be here for a while, I managed to bring with me a small collection of teaware, just enough to make a bowl of 抹茶 matcha during my sequestering, made portable through the means of packing the tea objects away in an old vintage metal tool box.

As I sat in the sparsely furnished attic of my friend’s house, spent a morning I arranging a small setting for tea. In lieu of 畳 tatami, I used a broad stretch of woven indigo cloth to define the impromptu tea space. Setting the tool box at the upper end of this cloth, I undid its mechanical latch, opening its machine-hewn lid, and pulling forth a simple 黒瀬戸茶碗 KuroSeto chawan, 茶筅 chasen, and 茶杓 chashaku. For a tea caddy, I opted to keep the matcha in the metal tin it came in, it seemingly harmonizing well with the old tool box.

Lacking any proper brazier or traditional iron kettle, I made due with a small mass-produced kettle. Wanting to keep everything together and self contained, I placed the kettle atop the old tool box, itself becoming something like an improvised shelf for a modified 点前 temae I hoped to perform.

Setting the teaware before me, I began to make a solitary bowl of tea. As I began, I could sense my mind shift from the din of world events to the silence of the tea space. The wares before set before me, having travelled in the small metal tool box, seemed smaller than before, as if they were all that remained of a life I left back in the bustling, chaotic city.

The black lacquered tea tin is cleansed with my folded 袱紗 fukusa and then is placed atop the old tool box.

Next, I turned my gaze to the chawan and assorted wares collected within it. I purified the chashaku.

I warmed the whisk. I waited and watched it sigh heavily, observing its submerged tines expand outward in the in the warm water collected within the teabowl.

I arrange each object, shifting from their place of rest into action and back to rest again. Where they had once begun, they since moved, ready to perform.

The bowl, now a vacant void, is ready to receive the matcha.

Scooping out three small portions of tea powder, I place each into the center of the chawan, creating a small heap in the vessel’s center.

Placing the chasen over the tiny mound, I then pour water over the thin bamboo blades, producing a delicate cascade and evenly distributing the liquid over the tea. As with every time before, the result of the hot water mixing with the freshly-ground green tea produced an effluence of bright, intense aroma. However, for some unknown reason, my response to this feels different. A sense of distance, of detachment from the world outside my window fills me, a feeling of longing for home yet not quite being able to locate where that is.

As I whisk the tea into a thick foam, my mind lingers on this thought, it floating buoyant amidst my otherwise focused mind which keeps in step with my task at hand. I sit back to appreciate the bowl of tea, first as it is set before me and then, again, as I place it against the wide expanse of woven indigo cloth.

The bowl and my mind seem to be adrift, caught upon an endless sea. I pause and take the first sip.

My eyes gaze upwards to exposed wooden beams that cut laterally across the apex of the attic’s ceiling.

I take another sip and my eyes settle upon a wound-up ball of hempen rope, its appearance reminiscent of the rope-bound 止め石 tomeishi that mark a closed path within the 露地 roji.

I finish the final dregs matcha and set the bowl back before me, appreciating the remnants of foam that cling to the inner walls of the black-glazed chawan. In this moment of meditation, I am reminded of the stories of the early warrior tea practitioners.

During the height of the “tea craze” that swept through Japan’s elite classes during the 16th century, it was not uncommon for high-ranking samurai to accept a bowl of tea before heading out to face battle. Often was the case that this would be their last. The notions of ephemerality and impermanence that permeates chanoyu was, in many ways, the very essence of these individuals whose lives were marked by endless martial conflict.

Words we now may casually admire upon a scroll such as 一期一会 ichigo ichie, were brutally realized by many in their own, often short lifetimes. Now facing these uncertain times, will I, too, or those near and dear to me come to realize this with the passing of their own lives? To avoid such realities is itself a delusion.

In tea, we practice recognizing the evanescence of all things that come and go. A season. A flower. A moment. A life. There is an uneasiness when we try to hold on to something that must, in truth, pass. We all feel this. To ignore it is a delusion as well. To sit with it, however, to meditate upon what it means and how it feels, perhaps this is the way.

As I cleanse the teabowl once again, I wipe away the remaining residue of tea from the ceramic vessel. Traces of green collect in the woven fabric of the white linen 茶巾 chakin. I brush off the remaining tea dust that clings to the chashaku, and shake this off into the 建水 kensui.

I place the objects back to rest, their purpose being met. I sit back once more and admire the wares.

The small kettle. The old tool box. The array of teawares of ceramic, bamboo, tin and cloth. All to be packed up again, collected into a box. Ready to make a move. Ready for action. Ready to create a space for tea and for time at any moment.

I remember looking up to the window peeking out the gabled roof. What world resides out on the other side? What world will that be tomorrow?

Now back in New York City, days since this bowl of tea, the moment long since faded, these questions still have no resolution. The tomorrow I had envisioned in the past never came. Something else, entirely unknown and unexpected, has come in its place. Yet the broad expanse of sky that I peered out upon back then is the same that I see today. What change will come?

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Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Travel

In the Longest Night, Tea by Candlelight

The arrival of the Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere marks the middle of the cold season and a foreshadowing of the year’s close. In the ancient twenty four term lunisolar calendar of East Asia, the Winter Solstice is the twenty second term, 冬至 Dōngzhì (Tōji in Japanese, 동지 Dongji in Korea), literally meaning “Winter’s Extreme”. While this may not represent the coldest moment of Winter (that usually arrives in the middle of January), it does define the extreme point in which the Sun’s rays recede, producing the shortest day and longest of the year.

In celebration of this, my partner and I have decided to hold a small gathering of friends. As the darkness of night begins to roll across the evening sky, we finish our gathering and friend part ways. My partner and I remain and decide to finish the evening with a bowl of 抹茶 matcha which we will share.

Arranging a small setting for tea in our tearoom, we keep things simple: a single 黒瀬戸茶碗 Kuro-Seto chawan, a small 肩衝茶入 katatsuki chaire (“shouldered” tea container) wrapped in a brocaded silk 仕服 shifuku pouch, a 茶杓 chashaku and 茶筅 chasen carved by the Nara-based master craftsperson 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango.

Gathering in our small tearoom, we are accompanied by the light of one burning candle, set between host and guest. The light it casts creates curious shadows across the serpentine grain of my wooden tea table, producing dynamic bands of light and darkness.

In the shadows, the figures of Silk Road travelers rendered in vibrant golds and purples upon the brocaded shifuku are obscured.

So, too, are the thin tines of the chasen as they descend into the dark abyss of the deep chawan.

Warm wooden tones sit side-by-side the slick surfaces of ceramic glaze. The sudden flicker of the candle sends shadows shifting and scattering, settling once again. Inside the tearoom, silence and sound vacillate as I move through the methodical actions for making tea. The low hiss of the old iron kettle coming to a boil. The movement of water from 柄杓 hishaku to teabowl to 建水 kensui. The cleansing of the chawan to prepare a boil of 濃茶 koicha.

I pause and offer my partner a tea sweet made of tart citrus rind wrapped in 餅mochi, atop which ice-like flecks of crystalline sugar glisten in the candle’s light.

Next, I set about preparing a bowl of koicha. I first draw three scoops of powdered tea from the chaire, followed by pouring the remaining contents out into the teabowl.

A small measure of hot water is issued into the teabowl and I slowly begin to knead the tea into a thick paste. More water is added and I continue to mix water and tea until it reaches just the right consistency.

In the low light of the candle-lit tearoom, one can barely make out the deep emerald green of the koicha against the black of the Kuro-Seto teabowl. I pass the bowl to my partner for her to enjoy the first few sips. She then passes the bowl back to me and I finish the remaining tea.

I take a moment to cleanse the bowl once more so we can admire its form, its dark glaze and its carved 高台 kōdai. Peering into its interior, the pebbled and pocked surface of the teabowl catches every stray beam of light, illuminating the center 茶溜まり chadamari where once a small mound of matcha had once been set.

Turned over, the carved name of the artist appears outlined in shadows.

My partner and I pause once more, enjoying the view of the ink-black sky outside our window, before I begin preparing a final 拝見 haiken.

Set beneath the flickering candlelight, we enjoy what may be the last moment of the year these objects will be seen. In the week in which the Winter Solstice comes and goes, we, too, enter a period of darkness. The days feel short yet each day is filled with activity. We cannot wait for moments when we can find ourselves around those we love, whether they be distant or near.

As with every closing of a tea gathering, we bid farewell to the honored teaware. All that remains is the solitary candle, the light of which too dims with morning’s arrival.

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A bowl out of season. A Summer too soon.

In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), a strong emphasis is placed on realizing things as they come and existing in the “now” moment. For this reason, we use tea objects in accordance with the seasons. For Winter, a high-walled teabowl is employed, whereas in the heat of Summer, shallow 茶碗 chawan (teabowl) are used. To use a bowl out of season is quite peculiar, if not all together incorrect. However, sometimes we may use a teabowl for other reasons.

In chanoyu, there is a concept of 取り合わせ toriawase, roughly meaning the intentional bringing together of objects in a time and space that reflect a sentiment or feeling. Expressing oneself through toriawase can be quite specific and is often meant to bring the host and guest closer through the host’s acknowledgment of the guest’s own perspective (whether it is their life’s story, grasp of history, etc). This interplay of tea object, host and guest can be heightened if the they share a common reference point. In this way, sharing a bowl of tea can be akin to conversing in a shared or common language only known between friends.

Several weeks ago, a dear friend and fellow tea person died from a brief but intense battle with cancer. For my small cohort of friends who knew him, he was quite the bright light in our lives. A student and teacher of the Urasenke school, an artist, poet, and Zen practitioner, he often offered up his sprawling home-come-art installation to us as a practice space, a shared hermitage, and respite from our regularly busied lives. He lived in poverty but he lived richly.

Since his passing, I’ve felt a bit hollow. The small corner of my heart that his spirit once occupied had emptied. The gentle guidance he once offered seemed distant. I kept opening up the sliding door of my antique tea cabinet and would look upon the wooden box that held a teabowl he gave me when we first met. I wanted to use it but couldn’t bring myself to opening it up. The knot of silk seemed unable to come untied.

I talked with friends and lit incense. Recited sutras and meditated. I wrapped my mind around my thoughts but as much as I could, nothing seemed to come undone.

In the midst of this, I thought of offering my dead friend some tea; to memorialize his life and offer solace to his memory and to those who knew him. I opened the tea cabinet door. Pulled out the box. Undid the silk cord that held the lid on tight. Unearthed the shrouded bowl from the shallow box and unwrapped it from its crumpled cloth.

The bowl was a gift from Simon, my now-deceased friend. As a 沓形茶碗 kutsu-gata chawan (lit. “clog-shaped” teabowl), it is usually only used during the hottest days of Summer. Its low-slung walls and wide body help to dissipate the heat of the tea, allowing it to evoke a sense of coolness to the guest. Its nebulous shape and equally informal stylings as a kuro-Oribe (黒織部), “black Oribe”) teabowl are both arresting and relaxed. To use this bowl now would be intentionally unseasonable. However, as a memorial object, something to invoke the spirit of a friend, I feel it is only right.

Bringing the 風炉釜 furo-gama (“wind furnace” kettle) to a boil, I set my tea space for a somber session. A white flower in the alcove. The scent of temple incense. The dull glow of morning’s light.

As I sit down to prepare a bowl of tea, I purify each object. A white-glazed Korean porcelain tea jar.

A dark bamboo 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop). A 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk).

I set the chashaku atop the tea jar. The dark ebony color of the bamboo in stark juxtaposition to the funerary white of the icy glaze.

These, set together, are tools for tea, implements for remembrance.

I pour a ladle’s-worth of hot water into the teabowl and wet the chasen, its thin tines relaxing and expanding as they warm.

Cleansing the irregularly-shapes teabowl, it appears to shine as if it were an imperfect ceramic roof tile that had been polished into a jewel.

Scooping-out bright 抹茶 matcha powder and placing it into the center “pool” of the chawan, the fragrant scent of fresh tea rises into the air. A sense of life returns to the melancholy space.

I draw water from the 水差 mizusashi (cold water jar) and mix it with the boiling water of the kettle. I draw water from the kettle and pour it into the chawan. As I lift the whisk and set it into the bowl, I relax my wrist and exhale, easing my shoulders and finding my center. As if settling-down to meditate, I focus my mind and whisk tea. What rises is a fine foam, lustrous and radiant.

As I sit alone to enjoy this moment with tea, I can’t help but to offer the bowl to others. As I will never again be able to enjoy tea with Simon, I offer this bowl of tea to those who knew him. To my friend Mikey who introduced me to Simon years ago and who, himself, learned about the Way of tea through him. To my friend Djefsky, whose world travels would at times cross through Simon’s hermitage in Healdsburg, California, and they would sit and laugh like two eccentrics. To others who may never know Simon, may this humble bowl reveal his sensibilities to them. May this object teach them his simple dharma.

As I sit with this bowl in hand, its dissipating warmth creeps into my palms. As I sip from its warped edge, the flavor of tea fills my body. As I finish the last of the dregs, no residual foam clings to its walls. A clean slate. A bonfire fully burned. Nothing remains.

I cleanse the bowl again and sit for a while before putting it away. Would I use it again this year? Would Summer come and I feel the need to hold it in my hands again?

I wrap it up once again and place it back into its wooden container. It stares up at me. From a funeral shroud, a hidden treasure.

I tie the silken cords across the wooden top. The artist’s mark among the shadows cast from my tearoom window.

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

Flames and Lacquer

Returning from weeks away from home, I found myself exhausted from travel. Away from my tearoom, I could not wait to sit down for a bowl of 抹茶 matcha and to find peace again. To find that moment where everything was “just right”. Alas, on the day I had set time aside to finally sit for tea, I received distressing word from friends in Paris; their much-loved cathedral of Notre Dame was burning.

Having lived in Paris, the news came as a shock. As a piece of history deeply connected to a culture that I have encountered, I could not help but to share their sadness. As a space where I had meditated many times, this was personally tragic. Yet, for the moment, all I could do was watch as eight centuries of history was being turned into ash.

As I came home that afternoon feeling depressed and unable to affect change on this situation I noticed a small package at the door. Coming inside, I sat in my tearoom and began opening the small wrapped cardboard box. What emerged from a nest of crumpled Japanese newspapers was quite remarkable: a small 若狭塗棗 Wakasa-nuri natsume (“Wakasa lacquer tea caddy”). Sparkling of bright pools of black, red, green, yellow, gold and copper, the tiny lacquered tea container instantly reminded me of one I had seen in my tea teacher’s 茶室 chashitsu (tearoom) when I was last in Paris. With its flame-like patterns of layered lacquer, it seemed like a strange omen to have arrived on this day under such a terrible circumstance.

The effect this had instantly encouraged me to meditate on this moment. Filling my 茶釜 chagama (tea kettle) with water and readying my tearoom, the act of preparing for tea felt uneasy, albeit automatic.

Despite my sadness, I acted through well-practiced muscle memory. Teawares were brought together: a 瀬戸黒茶碗 Seto-guro chawan (“black Seto teabowl”), a 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) made of cut bamboo, an old and weathered 茶筌 chasen (tea whisk) made by a craftsperson in Nara.

Finally, I methodically scooped fresh matcha powder into the Wakasa-nuri natsume, one scoop after the other until a small mound was formed in the center of the lacquered container.

Assembled together, the mood they struck was somber. The light of the room muted every color to soft, quiet tones.

As I purified the new natsume with my 袱紗 fukusa (a silk cloth used to symbolically “cleanse” tea objects), the details of the container’s surface were revealed. Layers upon layers of colored lacquer had been applied and then removed over a lengthy process. As each individual layer was built-up, it was covered by additional layers until the craftsperson meticulously polished them down. The end result created uneven, imperfect patterns akin to brightly-colored flames and scorched wood.

Upon opening the natsume (a feature of the 宗徧流 Sōhen-ryu school of tea), the soft mound of bright green matcha seemed to glow like a hidden jewel set against the reflective surface of jet-black lacquer.

Turning to the teabowl, it seemed infinitely dark, perhaps funerary. With all items set together and ready for the making of tea, they exuded a sense of solemnity, albeit one of memorial.

Lifting the chashaku from atop the natsume, I began the process of scooping tea. Three scoops into the dark recess of the teabowl, and a void created in the bright green mound of tea.

Whipped-up with hot water from the chagama, the matcha seemed to enliven the atmosphere of the tea space, its aroma rising from the well of the teabowl, and moving throughout the room. Lifting the chawan to my lips, I savored the tea’s flavor; a vibrant and lively energy transferred from bowl to body.

Sitting in the calm that returned to the room, I paused to meditate upon the small tea container that had arrived to me. Its soft, sculpted lines and the flame-like patterns upon its smooth surface.

To meditate on lacquer is to ponder accumulation over time. To imagine this, too, would one day be gone, perhaps burned-away as some things do. To be consumed and fully extinguished like a good bonfire does. With nothing left to offer. Is this not the mark of a life well lived?

The sadness of the day continued to remain, yet the meditation I had set to tea helped. To be reminded that not all things remain constant is natural. That all things must come to pass, whether tragically or in joy. That which was destroyed by fire may rise again, whether from memory or through the skill and talent of craftspeople. This is what we learn in tea and can learn when we take a moment to meditate, even when we are sad.

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

Unwrapping Presence

In the depth of Winter, the swirl of preparation for the New Year can pull one’s mind away from the moment. Planning for the near future is always fraught with expectations. How we can situate ourselves amidst all of this can be a challenge. As I’ve been practicing tea for almost two decades, remaining mindful in every moment is a constant test.

The act of making tea forces one to slow their pace. Nothing can be done too quickly. Water cannot come to a boil faster than the charcoal can make it do so. Even the act of preparing tea is a measured process.

Having stored-away a collection of vintage and antique 茶入 chaire (ceramic tea containers), I bring them out to decide which will be used for 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”). This process of unwrapping and unboxing is, itself, part of the meditation that arises from tea.

Does the shape reflect the season? Might the 仕服 shifuku (silk brocaded pouch that holds the chaire) contain an image that relates to an attending guest? Will the glaze of the ceramic tea caddy harmonize well with the 茶碗 chawan (tea bowl)? In 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), this is called 取り合わせ toriawase, a collection of items for tea, selected mindfully with intention.

As we bring friends and family together to celebrate the end of this year, observe how you sit in this moment. What do you bring to this moment? How do you let it unfold?

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Things That Are Hidden Become Revealed

There is something mysterious about tea. Not that tea, itself, tries to obscure or rarify itself, nor is it “exotic” (in fact, it can be quite ordinary), but tea does not present itself wholly upon first view. To better know tea, one must become quite intimate with it.

In some cases, this means climbing a mountain to see where tea plants are grown. In other instances, it means working in the hot and sweaty processing stations where raw tea leaves are tossed, steamed and roasted to express the desired flavors. In other instances still, one must focus in very closely on the specific ways certain cultures present tea to truly understand it.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”) is kept within a small ceramic container called a 茶入 chaire. This small vessel is, in turn, enveloped in a cloth sleeve (雌伏 shifuku), tied together with a piece of cord.

In the case of this specific chaire I have chosen today for a koicha gathering, it is a mid-20th century 瀬戸焼 Seto-yaki 肩衝茶入 katatsuki (“shouldered”) chaire.

Rather than fully reveal itself to those gathered, I (as the host) must first go through a methodical process of untying the cord and removing the little tea jar from the shifuku. The modest Seto-yaki chaire slowly appears from the soft folds of the glistening silk pouch. Its glossy brown glaze contrasts with rich blue, gold and purple thread.

Pulled from the shifuku, the chaire is purified with the purple silk cloth of the 袱紗 fukusa and then set down before tea is made.

For the briefest of moment, both host and guest are able to enjoy the shape of the chaire.

Prior to making tea, the chaire is placed next to the shifuku. Images of travelers on the Silk Road emblazoned on the silk seem to remind those who see it of tea’s ancient past.

With tea, time slows, revealing everything at a meditative pace. Slowly, the pouch is removed and set aside. Slowly, powdered tea is scooped and tumbled from the tea jar.

Slowly, small moments and vistas reveal themselves. Slowly, a mystery becomes understood. In time, tea, too, becomes ordinary.

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