Tag Archives: Spring

Spears of iris flowers. A ladle for an arrow. A teabowl as a jewel.

In the traditional Japanese calendar, 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”). On this day, items are on display to encourage the strength and success of children (traditionally boys): warrior helmets and suits of armor, swords, spears and arrows, and other, more playful items like paper balls and colorful spinning tops. Brightly colored fabric windsocks in the shape of carp (鯉のぼり koinobori) are unfurled and lifted high above the homes whose families have children, and leaves of 菖蒲 shōbu (sweet-flag) and 蓬 yomogi (mugwort) are hung under the eves. A strong mixture of the martial and of the more shamanistic, folk medicine cultures of Japan (and, more broadly speaking, East Asia) are put on prominent display as it was believed that to show such items would help young boys become great warriors and help them persevere during the hotter months when plague and ailments might take them.

On this day, these elements pervade Japanese tea culture as well. In the tearoom, allusions (both direct and indirect) are made to masculine aspects of Japan’s warrior culture, as too are elements of childhood.

Given that 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) was deeply influenced by the warrior class of feudal Japan, these elements should come as no surprise. While I don’t consider myself to be so 武士 bushi (warrior), I can’t help but to appreciate the elegant and mindful forms such warrior-tea people developed and incorporated into their own tea practice as they sought peaceful respite from a life of violence.

On this day, I decide to inaugurate a new 茶碗 chawan (teabowl), a small contemporary piece by Sapporo-born, Chiba prefecture-based ceramicist 二階堂 明弘 Nikaido Akihiro.

For a tea container, I use a simple, unadorned wooden 平棗 hira-natsume (“flat” tea caddy).

Set with the teabowl is a new 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk) and an antique 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop).

As I sit to greet my guest, I set the 柄杓 hishaku (bamboo ladle) atop an antique 染め付け sometsuke (blue-and-white porcelain) 蓋置き futaoki (lid rest),.

It is adorned with precious symbols to encourage wealth, wisdom and strength.

Purifying each item, I eventually wet the new chawan, warming it and letting the water run out from it. Setting it before me, I notice how water both absorbs into and evaporated from its surface, a byproduct of the artist’s unique process of lacquering and firing his ceramics. The result is a deep, shimmering purple, akin the the color of iris buds used during Boys’ Day celebrations, their sharp points representing spears.

As I lift the chashaku, I admire the natural pattern upon its surface. Pausing for a moment, I can’t help but to imagine the image of a high mountain pass, with a long, wispy waterfall cutting through it. Here, too, is an allusion to the myth of a carp pushing up a waterfall in search of a magical pearl only to become a mighty dragon in the process, a story often told to children as they push forward in life to attain success.

Offering my guests fresh 柏餅 kashiwa-mochi (sweet rice cakes wrapped in oak leaves), I begin to prepare a bowl of 抹茶matcha.

Three scoops of bright green tea powder sit in the center of the new teabowl, ready for its first taste of tea. Lifting the hishaku as if I were notching an arrow to a bow, I draw water from my iron 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle) and pour half a ladle’s-worth of water within the bowl.

Whisking the tea lightly, a fine foam is produced. Returning the chashaku to sit atop the lid of the hira-natsume, I pause before I offer-up a bowl of tea.

As this is the first time to use this new tea bowl, I place a silk brocade 古帛紗 kobukusa (a cloth square used to handle and protect teaware) below the chawan. Against this field of richly-colored silk, the new bowl and matcha seem to glow, jewel-like.

Whole-heartedly enjoyed, I cleanse the bowl and allow a final moment to enjoy the unique qualities of this chawan. In one’s hands, the bowl feels feather-light. Peering into its open void, the interior appears both dark and boundless, iridescent even in low light.

Set down, the exterior, with evidence of the artist’s hand, layers of lacquer, and marks of the kiln’s high heat, tells the story of its creation.

At this moment, I cannot help but to meditate on tea’s tumultuous past. An art marked by a meditative mindfulness, yet often born from the minds of those who were forced by their birthright to fight in bloody combat. How they sought refuge in this art. How they made it a counterpoint to a life of violence. The martial elements that permeates Boys’ Day perhaps hint at this, but, as one sits to prepare a bowl of tea, to live a life of tea, one exchanges a spear for an iris, an arrow for a ladle, and material gain for a simple teabowl.

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

Remembering the Blossoms of Spring

Time has a funny way of playing tricks on you. A year can come and go in a blink of an eye. A lifetime can pass and yet we are reminded constantly of our youthful days. And even when you have taken years to master a craft, in an instant you can be brought back to the mind of a novice.

Tea can be this way too. Constantly changing, all the while one’s expectations somehow remaining fixed. As the great equalizer, tea and time has the ability to humble even the most rigorous of practitioner. This is a recollection of such a moment I recently had.

Last month I met with respected Taiwan-based tea blogger and practitioner of gong fu cha, Stéphane Erler. Having begun his blog “Tea Masters” in the early 2000s, his writing and practice has always been inspiring to me. Finally having the opportunity to meet with him, I was excited to sit and learn directly from him.

Meeting at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, we decided to sit beside the window and enjoy several pots of tea. Upon sitting down, Stéphane produced a collection of porcelain cups and a gold-plated silver teapot. Stéphane then unrolled a handmade 茶布 chábù (tea cloth) and began to arrange his equipage atop it. He explained that the cloth and selection of tea and teapots was part of a philosophical approach to brewing tea harmoniously.

Where 功夫茶 gōng fū chá may be primarily utilitarian in its approach, 茶席 cháxí (roughly translates as “tea performance”) suffuses this functional approach with an overall attention to harmony. The result is practice that is both elegant and melodic, with tea and teaware fitting into an overall cadence and rhythm attune to season, breath, and the emotional interplay of host and guest.

Opting to first brew one of Floating Mountain’s teas, we selected a 2018 信陽毛尖 Xìnyáng Máojiān (Xinyang “hairy tip”). Produced in late Spring in China’s colder Henan province, the tea leaves are thin, dark and wiry, having the appearance of pine needles. Set against the bright green and pink field of Stéphane’s chábù, tea and teaware were already bringing to life the harmony Stéphane was hoping to achieve.

Additionally, Stéphane began to further adapt his presentation to the location, employing one of Floating Mountain’s signature stone slab 茶盤 chápán (“tea tray”) into his setup.

For a brief moment we sat and enjoyed the silence before tea.

Once the water came to a boil, Stéphane began the process of warming teapot and cups.

Mindfully, he transferred the hot water from the silver teapot to the porcelain teacups.

Next, using the boiling water, Stéphane began to brew the Máojiān. Initially surprised by his choice, I was delighted to learn that both Stéphane and I shared this approach, utilizing high heat to unlock flavors of even the most delicate of teas, modulating only tea amount and brew time.

In the span of only a few breaths, the tea was steeped and decanted, producing a bright golden hue.

Set atop the wide field of pink and embroidered flowers, the feeling was fresh and serene. The result of this dramatic approach was a sweet, clean flavor that awoke a tea now a year old.

As the first of many teas we had this day, we enjoyed this opening overture together, recalling our first introduction to tea and how we have practiced this art over the decades. For this moment I felt humbled. A new friend. A new approach. Years peeling off of me as my mind returned to those early days of reading Stéphane’s blog, reminded of my “beginner’s mind”.

The tea, too, now a year old, seemed like part of a memory. A year gone by and flavor remaining despite the time that had passed. And now, reflecting on this moment almost a month since it had occurred, how the memory sweetens, softens at its edges, until it, too, will fade. A flavor wafting from a cup. An impression on the mind. A field of flowers remembered in a woven fabric.

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The tree peony flowers. The season of the furo begins.

In tea, there are two major shifts that mark the year: the time when the 炉 ro (sunken hearth) is used and the period when the 風炉 furo (portable brazier, lit. “wind furnace”) is used.

Encompassing both symbolic and functional reasons, the shift from ro to furo at the height of Spring reflects the necessity of the tea person (茶人 chajin) to instill a sense of coolness in the tea space. With the furo, one is able to move the source of heat further away from the guest, which, as Summer approaches, is not only preferred but necessary. The arrival of the furo in early May happens coincidence with the blossoming of 牡丹 botan (tree peony).

For me, a person who practices both 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) and 功夫茶 gōng fū chá (a traditional Chinese method of brewing tea), the shift to furo is a joyous occasion. The furo which I use is a replica of a Song period (960-1279) kettle. In many ways, this shift represents a uniting of these two traditions.

Today as I stare out of my tearoom window upon the deep verdant green treetops, I am drawn to make tea. Alone, I bring out my furo and 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle). As I wait for the water to come to a boil, I light incense, a gentle 白檀 byakudan (sandalwood), and scoop fresh-ground 抹茶 matcha powder into a red and black lacquer 棗 natsume tea container. Set together with an antique Vietnamese blue-and-white teabowl from the mid-to-late 15th century, a new 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk) and 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) both by the Nara-based artisan 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango, I finally sit to enjoy an informal 初風炉 sho-buro, the first use of the furo.

Purifying each tea object offers-up small landscapes and vistas. Valleys of carved lacquer.

The mottled skin of a bamboo stalk.

The wiry canopy of finely cut bamboo paired with the rough texture of an old bowl’s rim.

Once cleaned, the antique vessel seems to glow in the soft light of the day.

With no flower set in a vase, the cursory painting of a tree peony blossom within the center of this antique bowl will have to do.

Lifting the tea scoop from atop the red lacquer lid of the natsume, I begin to measure-out scoops of tea into the 茶碗 chawan (teabowl).

Three scoops and a light tap of the chashaku within the inside of the teabowl as a sign of respect.

Pulling water first from my 水差 mizusashi (fresh water container) to then pour into the boiling water of the chagama, I finally ladle one half-scoop of water into the blue-and-white chawan. Whisking the matcha into a fine foam, the small space of my tearoom is transformed by the scent of tea. Where once the warm, spicy scent of sandalwood lingered, now the aroma of a tea field in Spring arose, overtaking my senses and lifting my spirit.

With teabowl before me, I bowed to all that worked together to bring me to this moment.

Another sho-buro! Another Spring! Another time to see the tree peony blossom again!

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Green Tea, History, Incense, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Vietnam

The Singular Moment for Fresh Tea

All year round I drink tea. Everyday. Often multiple times a day, and usually different varieties. As a tea collector and lover of aged teas, this means that much of what I drink is “old tea” (tea that is not fresh and is often older than a year, sometimes older than a decade. Often categorized as 老茶 lǎo chá (lit. “old tea”), such tea has a myriad of enjoyable flavors and characteristics that can only be found in aged teas, ranging from earthy to loamy, incense-like, with notes of dried fruit and spices. Their energy is soft, deep, and relaxing.

Even when I drink a “fresh” tea, I must recognize that they may be as fresh as they can be, having been picked and processed a month or two prior to me brewing them. As such, they are not really “new” (新茶 xīnchá, “new tea”), just very fresh. Even the most excellent 抹茶 matcha is aged for several months, picked in Spring and then stored away until Autumn when it is ground into a fine powder. So, when I do have the opportunity to enjoy a truly fresh tea, one that had been just picked and finished, the experience can be quite eye opening.

One such moment occurred this week when Roy, a dear friend, tea person and founder of New York Tea Society returned from a sourcing trip to China and Taiwan. Welcoming me into his home and tea space, he produced a cornucopia of teas, ranging from freshly-picked 普洱毛茶 Pǔ’ěr máochá (Puer “rough tea”) and minimally-produced 紅茶 hóngchá (“red tea”) from Yunnan, and fragrant oolong and baozhong teas from Taiwan.

First came the clean and clear flavors of a delicate 月光白 Yuèguāng Bái (“Moonlight White”) from 景谷 Jǐnggǔ, Yunnan. Its leaves, smooth and silvery in appearance, with a shimmering downy velvet enrobing a dark green interior. Once brewed, the flavor was bright and full, with a viscosity and freshness of crisp cucumber, honeysuckle, and sweet grass.

Following was a gorgeous 金芽滇紅 Jīn yá diān hóng (Yunnan “Golden bud” red tea), the leaves of which resembled the first tea, though with subsequent oxidation, had darkened and achieve a bright golden hue.

Placed into the large porcelain 蓋碗 gàiwǎn, their color shone like threads of gold.

Steeped for just a moment, the tea quickly revealed its qualities.

Once decanted, the result was a deep, rich amber liqueur. Much like the Yuèguāng Bái, the Jīn yá diān hóng exhibited the viscosity and freshness that is only found in very new tea.

However, through the light processing that involved sun-drying, oxidation, and a final “baking” of the leaves, the flavors were malty, akin to baked sweet potatoes and light caramel.

The day finished with two excellent máochá, one from Jǐnggǔ, the other from the famed growing region of 老班章 Lǎo Bān Zhāng. The first was a fresh-picked, lightly-processed 藤条毛茶 téng tiáo máochá.

Coming from a large leaf varietal found in Yunnan, the flavors it exhibited were dramatically different from the previous teas. Its flavor was crisp and grassy, with a satisfying juiciness.

In contrast, the final tea, a máochá from Lǎo Bān Zhāng, was more wild, its leaves exhibiting a wider range of colors and shapes, forms and sizes.

Once brewed, the flavors shifted from sweet to savory, gentle to astringent, straightforward to complex. Although not initially as pleasing to the palate, this pointed to a tea that would ultimately age better.

And, so, as we enjoyed tea together, we assessed how tea, which was only weeks old, may change over time. What was now sweet may with time fade. What now is bitter may mellow and reveal new levels of complexity. What energy exists in a new tea may dissipate over the years, settling, as all great tea does, to calm the mind and spirit when joined with friends or enjoyed in solitude.

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And just like that, the blossoms have come and gone.

April arrives and leaves like a blur. The air gets crisp and clean, the sky bright and clear. The small shoots of grass that were once pressing upwards through the last drifts of snow in March are now climbing skyward, abundantly across the rolling hills. The bulb-bound flowers have all bloomed. The blossoms on trees, like fireworks above our heads, have all exploded and are now cascading downward, blowing with the wind and collecting in small pools and eddies at our feet. What heralded the peak of Spring has now come and gone and the approaching heat of Summer seems closer than ever before. Winter is now just a distant memory.

In my tea practice, this means coming change. The last days of the 炉 ro (sunken hearth) have waned. The 風炉 furo (lit. “wind furnace”, portable brazier) is eagerly waiting for its use. The wooden incense container sitting at the ready. The scent of sandalwood arriving again, replacing the soft and warm scents of the 練香 nerikō (kneaded incense). And the shape of teabowls begin to change too.

In this remaining Springtime, I collect myself and make a bowl of tea. To this, I feel as if the motions come too quick. The moment passes too fast. 拝見 haiken (the final instance to view tea objects used during a tea ceremony) comes too soon. As I sit to look upon the lacquered tea container, with its swirling layers of colors, I cannot help but feel this tumbling energy about me.

As I hold the 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) made of cherry wood in my hands, I cannot help but to feel as if this, too, will disappear.

Will I again employ this object to make tea? Or, like the blossoms that have since faded, will I have to wait for another year to pass before I can see it once again?

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Incense, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

One Mile Eastward. One Mile Westward.

In the weeks now that I have been back from two weeks spent at my childhood home, I miss the brief moments of relaxation I had and the sense of minimalism that comes from traveling. With only the clothes on my back, a small suitcase, and no tea to speak of, I was left to rely on less than usual to get by for the time away.

A small, hand-stippled Taiwanese-made 宜興茶壺 Yíxìng cháhú (Yixing teapot) and a set of vintage 1970s blue-and-white Dansk ware cups and saucers became my impromptu 功夫茶 gōng fū chá tea set. The weather and sun-bleached wooden table that sits in my parents’ garden became a welcoming tea table. Regardless of what the weather was, I made it a daily practice to make tea outside. The result was that everyday presented itself as dramatically different, greeted sometimes by rain or sun, the sound of birds or pure silence save for an intermittent rush of wind.

The small tea set, an amalgamation of Chinese and European wares, seemed to fit this setting nicely. The thick bisque porcelain, with its sturdy construction and modest form paired sweetly with the warm and textured clay teapot. And, upon closer inspection, even the clean white and blue of the Danish porcelain revealed its own charming imperfections in the form of spots of iron oxide pushing through the glaze.

On my final day before I returned to New York City, I decided to brew a favorite 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiě guānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Goddess of Mercy” oolong tea). Sourced from Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco, the tea holds a nostalgic quality for me. Years ago as I first began to practice gong fu cha, I used this tea to train my hand and palate to skillfully brew tea. Now, brewing this tea feels just as much a part of coming home as is the literal act.

Initially set in my hands, I measure out the “correct” amount for a hearty pot of tea.

Next, I place the tightly-curled leaves into the teapot and pour hot water over them. They tumble and rise as they make their way to the opening of the small clay vessel, offering up a small waft of tea aroma.

Waiting for the tea to brew in the cold of an overcast day, I let my mind wander. My gaze falls on to the brightly-painted surface of a vintage porcelain teapot that I use to hold boiled water. Looking down, I enjoy the blossoms vividly painted on its lid.

Sitting down, my eyes trail downward across its side, revealing twisting branches full of ripening peaches; a sign of longevity and of the warmer season to come. Looking further still, a small 靈芝 língzhī (lit “spirit mushroom”, Ganoderma lucidum) painted in red is an informal and playful manner is perhaps the mark of the artist.

With the tea fully steeped, I decant the entirety of the pot into the blue-and-white cup. It’s color is bold and coppery. The aroma is strong, floral, with hints of dark sugar, toasted biscuit, and dried stone fruit.

Lifting the old cup to my lips as I have done since I was a child, the flavors remind me of my youth. Sweet and simple flavors of gardenias and chrysanthemum greens recede into more complex notes of caramels, wet granite and earthy marigold.

A long finish of raw honey arises as I peer into the small Yixing teapot. The once coiled leaves of the oolong tea are now just beginning to open. Further resteepings of each allow me time to linger as the day grows colder and small drops of rain and mist begin to fall from the sky and the old oak tree above me.

Now back home and my life in New York City, that time and place of my childhood home seems distant yet familiar. Now, surrounded by the objects and books and work and red dust of my adulthood, perhaps I long for the austerity of what I had as a child. Only just enough was all I needed then. What happened?

As I deepen my practice, I strive to reduce that which I use. Much like how I was when I was young and new to tea, when all I needed was a teapot, some locally-procured tea, and freshly-boiled water. To return to this was refreshing, eye opening. To be able to go back to this, even now, can still reveal something new to me.

As Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of my old Zen temple in San Francisco, once mused, “To go one mile Eastward is to go one mile Westward. This is vital freedom.”

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

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