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.