April has come and now wanes. The days seem to get gradually longer. The cold of Winter is now just a distant memory. The cherry blossoms hang heavy from their branches. The early blooms of dogwood explode against the deep blue sky. The buds wisteria and peonies swell. Spring has climbed to apex and, now, begins to close. The gradual shift to Summer comes slowly, yet, all around, it is palpable.
In the world of 茶の湯 chanoyu, the tea practitioner marks this with the closure of the 炉 ro. For the tea person, this moment, 炉塞 ro–fusagi, marks the end of the cold months, when heat needed to be conserved, and guests gathered closely to the sunken hearth. As with the shift of the seasons, this transformation is gradual, first with the hanging kettle (釣り釜 tsuri–gama) being suspended with a chain, later succeeded by kettles that may have a wide flange (透木釜 tsukigi–gama), held up by small wooden supports.
As the shape and style of each kettle changes, so too, do their relation to heat, becoming cooler as Winter’s chill fades. So loved is the ro, with its cozy, informal attitude, that poet and tea person 三味 Sanmi stated 「塞ぐ炉に五徳の痩もなつかしき」, “Even the naked trivet is missed when we close the ro”.
Now, in the final days of Spring, as the heat increases, one must decide when to close the ro all together, to begin the other half of the tea year. In saying goodbye to the ro, one says goodbye to the past.
While I do not have a ro, I bear all of this in mind. My attitude towards tea during the ro season is to keep things more 侘び wabi, more rustic, more understated. Rather than use my 風炉 furo, I opt for using an antique 火鉢 hibachi, one made of a single burl of 桐 kiri. Like the ro, the hibachi brings about a more relaxed feeling, one which favors simple austerity over refinery.
Early this morning I set up the hibachi under the window of my tearoom. Next to the charcoal, I place a small hand-shaped ball of 練香 nerikō into the ash, and set the iron kettle over the heat of the brazier for it to boil.
As the water warms, I begin to prepare for tea, sifting bright green 抹茶 matcha into a multi-color 若狭塗棗 Wakasa–nuri natsume. In my New York City kitchen, I wash a teabowl and wet a white linen 茶巾 chakin and 茶筅 chasen made of spotted bamboo. I bring these into my tearoom, right as the water begins to come to a boil.
As I prepare the wares for tea, I set them before me. A small teabowl made by contemporary potter 二階堂明弘 Nikaido Akihiro accompanies the Wakasa–nuri natsume, its deep purple interior and rough exterior, swathed in brushstrokes of carbonized lacquer, harmonize with the irregular patterns of polished lacquer of the tea container.
I cleanse the natsume. It sparkles like a jewel.
I shift my attention to the simple wooden wares set into the teabowl.
The 茶杓 chashaku of dark bamboo, which I set atop the lid of the natsume.
The chasen, which I warm and cleanse in the water drawn from my kettle.
The bowl dries unevenly. Tiny facets of sand shine, embedded in the clay.
I place three scoops of matcha into the center of the teabowl. With a light tap against the interior, I remove any excess tea dust from the tip of the chashaku.
I draw water from the kettle and pour half a ladle’s worth into the bowl. With this last ladle of water drawn from the kettle, what will I make? The last water warmed by the hearth of Winter. Half a year has come and gone. What has happened during this time? What will be left in the past?
I breathe deeply and bring the whisk into the water, mixing the tea as I begin to whip it into a fine foam. The scent of tea and the aroma from the nerikō meld together into a sweet, spicy, warm fragrance. The world around me feels quiet as my mind and body concentrate.
As I lift the chasen from the teabowl, a low peak of tea is formed. As I sit and turn to the informal hibachi, I join it, the stillness, and the sound of the water climbing back to a boil.
The teabowl is warm in my hands. The rough surface of its outer walls feel like bark on an old cypress tree. The uneven patination of its interior of deep purple contrasts against the bright green of tea. I take a sip, letting the warmth of the tea sink into my body. I sip again, filling my heart. I take one final sip, pulling up the last of the foam in one inhalation.
All that remains are the dregs.
I close the sitting by cleansing the wares once again. The chasen is wetted. The bowl is rinsed. The dust that clings to the chashaku is wiped away and brushed off into the 建水 kensui. Cool water is drawn from the 水指 mizusashi and mixed with the warm water of the 茶釜 chagama.
The tearoom becomes still again and in this silence I sit and meditate.
From the 床間 tokonoma, I bring out a small 織部焼き Oribe–yaki 香合 kōgō by 松本鉄山 Matsumoto Tetsuzan.
Its rough shape and uneven application of glaze feels relaxed yet warm, comforting. Memories of the past Winter and early Spring, when new sprigs were bright green on the pine, when drifts of snow first came and last melted away. A sense of nowness melding with the bittersweet quality of the past. This is how memory works. It is joy tinged with sadness. What is gone shall never come back. When we see it again, what reappears shall be different, transformed.
I open the little kōgō to find two remaining hand-formed balls of nerikō. Their fragrance is soft, warm, spicy and relaxed. In time, this too will fade. Everything subtly, constantly, instance-over-instance, transforming, waxing and waning, until Winter turns to Spring, then Spring to Summer. In this, we are always saying goodbye. Saying goodbye to the past.