Tag Archives: Summer

The Cicada Emerges and Sheds Its Skin

IMG_1470Within the month of August, Summer’s heat gradually fades, giving way to Autumn’s cool. While the days remain hot, breezes push through the canopies of the large, broad-leafed deciduous trees, and press through the fields of grass, creating great waves upon an emerald ocean.

Amidst the gentle rustling of the wind, the cacophonous sound of cicadas is unavoidable, like an endless chorus, with each species offering-up a different melody. While rarely present to the eye, the melodious cicada we may encounter, in fact, is the final growth stage of what is often a decade’s-old being. Crawling out from its underground burrow, the cicada nymph will climb the nearest tree and break-through its old dull-colored skin, emerging as a brightly-colored, fully-formed adult.

This transformation and the shedding of skin is laden with symbolism. In East Asia, this can mark the exchanging of Summer for Autumn, but also may represent rebirth, analogous to spirits rising up to take on a purer form as they pass into the transient realm. For this reason, in ancient China, cicada-shaped amulets made of jade were often placed in the mouths of the dead.

It also comes as no surprise that in many East Asian cultures, August is the month when people collectively observe the passing of those who had died during the year. While to many this may seem grim, to those who regularly take note of the ever-changing seasons, this is just part of the way time holds sway over all aspects of our lives.

6696AF57-34FE-4B05-BF72-13A4A10D3DCEIn my tearoom, this feeling is ever-present. Outside my window, the cicadas cry from early morning through the evening. Even today, they make their presence known. To celebrate their lives (and eventual passing), I offer them a bowl of 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”). For this, I bring out a special collection of teaware: a small 茄子茶入 nasu-chaire (“eggplant-shaped tea container”) and 海鼠釉天目茶碗 namako-yū tenmoku chawan (“sea cucumber-glaze” tenmoku teabowl).

IMG_1402As I begin the process of cleansing each object, I can’t help but to see the connection between removing the small ceramic chaire from its silk brocade 仕服 shifuku pouch and the emergence of the cicada from its discarded skin.

5A1F25F5-5138-44E6-9914-89F7B97B8D7EEach movement is calculated, revealing more and more of the hidden object.

65BACCB0-9BE0-48E8-8E4B-8CDEC2F57AF6A thin sheath, to reveal a jewel within.

E41C2279-8B7F-4CE3-9AF5-726BA6F9AC85The teabowl, too, bears a resemblance to the often vibrantly-colored insect, with nebulous pools of blue intermingling with threads of white set against a deep chocolate brown.

2F62AB52-29EC-45A1-B6C4-9B7551F1C01BOnce cleansed, each object, from the chaire to the 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop), are set into motion.

BF8E1D7A-BCEF-4FFA-990A-F641D244D480Upon doling-out three scoops of 抹茶 matcha (“powdered tea”) from the chaire, I then pour the remainder of the tea left in the tea container into the teabowl.

IMG_1471Rather than whisk the tea (as is done when making a bowl of 薄茶 usucha, “thin tea”), I knead the concoction of tea powder and water into a thick slurry.

7E6C3640-A37B-4EF0-B244-5A7E289726FDThe end result is a slick liquid with a lacquer-like shine.

D7E8D031-DC7E-4D2A-9786-ED5E27381F16Set atop a silk brocade 古帛紗 kobukusa (a thick square of brocaded silk used to present a tea object), I take the first sip from the teabowl to honor the thousands of tiny sonorous guests outside my window.

IMG_1452With the rich flavor of koicha still lingering and the chiming of the cicadas still audible, I begin to close the private tea gathering.

24F61BC6-15BC-420D-B86D-9FF3092A3B38Before I put each object back into their respective 桐箱 kiribako (boxes made of paulownia wood), I perform a simple 拝見 haiken. Shifuku, chashaku, and chaire are set together. Implements brought into the service of making tea for but a brief moment. Like a flash, they appear and then recede from sight. To pause to appreciate this fleeting interaction, the interplay of colors and textures, materials and shapes, is akin to the recognition of the passing of time itself.

As one season transforms into another, as a cicada sheds its skin, we, too, are changed by this subtle process. We, too, are moved by it.

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

As Summer Wanes, No Autumn Leaves

Late Summer sees the loosening of heat’s grip over the day. Cool breezes flutter even as the asphalt of the streets outside simmers in the sun. Day after day is met with rain and thunder, and I am left to make tea indoors.

On such a day, I pull together a teaset to brew a sample of tea recently sent to me from a tea farmer in China’s Wuyishan tea growing region. The tea, a 老欉水仙 Lǎo Cóng Shuǐ Xiān (lit. “Old Bush/Grove Water Immortal”), is a long-leaf dark oolong, harvested from tea bushes over fifty years old.

To brew this, I select a teapot I rarely use, a small stone weight-shaped 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot). In the murky light of a rainy day of early Autumn, the teapot’s crisp form casts hazy shadows from the sharply-hewn lines.

The subtle dome of the lid rises gently off the conical body. The bridge-like handle atop the lid seems to be carved as if emerging out from a mist. The delicate pattern of grains in the clay give the piece an overall glow.

In contrast, the clean white surface of three contemporary 哥窯 Gē yáo cups beam brightly against the warm wooden top of my tea table. Thin lines of crazing, long-ago given the poetic name 鐵弦 tiě xián (lit. “iron wire/thread”), cover each cup and break their circular form into minute fractures for the mind to wander through.

In preparation for brewing, I issue-out a portion of the Shuǐ Xiān leaves into an antique 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”, nickel silver) scoop, itself in the shape of a broad banana leaf that were commonly featured in the classic gardens of scholars and poets of China.

Once the water comes to a rolling boil, I open the teapot and pour hot water inside to warm the tiny vessel.

Emptied, I place the tea leaves into the pot’s warmed interior.

Filling the teapot once again, I close the lid and pour hot water over its exterior, further warming the tea within.

Moments pass and the sound of rain fades. I pour the tea out into each cup until the pot is completely empty. Lifting the lid and placing it against the ridge of the handle, the hot, moist air caught inside the teapot is allowed to escape, rising upward, cooling the tea leaves for subsequent steepings.

Peering upon the copper-colored liqueur of the brewed oolong, my mind is caught in the anticipation of Autumn’s arrival.

As I look out of my tearoom window, the leaves on the trees still shine a slick emerald green, not yet ready to transform into the lacquer-like reds and golds of Fall. As I quiet my mind, the sound of thunder rises in the distance, sounding against the cacophony of the cicada’s cries. As I sip from the first cup, I am reminded of the scent of fallen leaves, of cold weather’s warming spices, and the clean crisp air of Autumn.

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Celebrating Qīxī with Tea Made in the Song Style

An ancient Chinese myth tells of two celestial lovers 織女 Zhīnǚ (the star Vega) and 牛郎 Niúlán (the star Altair) kept apart, only united on the seventh evening of the seventh month. It is believed at this time, these stars align and a bridge made of magpies stretches across the Milky Way, linking the two sky-bound lovers. While some within East Asia may observe this day on July 7th in accordance with the Western calendar, the true date of 七夕 Qīxī is variable, dependent on the lunar month and day.

On this 7th of August, I sit down to prepare a very special bowl of tea in observance of Qīxī, one in the style of the Song period (960-1279). To give as accurate of an approximation of this approach, I utilize methods described in such texts as Emperor 宋徽宗 Sòng Huīzōng’s 大觀茶論 Dà Guān Chá Lùn (“Treatise on Tea”, 1107) and 蔡襄 Cài Xiāng’s 茶錄 Chá Lù (“Record of Tea”, 1049-1053). Additionally, I use teaware that closely reflect those which are depicted in Song period paintings and in the 1269 illustrated text 茶具圖贊 Chájù Tú Zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”) by 審安老人 Shěnān Lǎo Rén (Old man Shenan).

Much of my time making tea in this manner is spent not with the boiling of water or the whisking of tea, but in the hours-long process of sorting, sifting, and grinding leaves of a wild white tea to make a fine powder.

Once ground-down to a fine enough powder, I place this Song style 抹茶 mǒchá (powdered tea) into a small gourd-shaped celadon container.

Boiling water and assembling teaware becomes its own meditation, set to the scent of incense wafting in the air of my tearoom. Once put together, I offer up what is as close of an approximation to tea during the Song period that I can muster.

A vintage Japanese-made 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan made in reproduction of a Song period 建窯 Jiàn yáo teabowl sitting atop a wooden cup stand.

A bright celadon tea container. A simple scoop fashioned from wood.

A bamboo whisk modified to approximate that which would have been used during the mid-to-late Song period. All items I place atop a tray carved from mulberry wood.

Each item is then cleansed and readied to prepare a bowl of Song style mǒchá.

With the teabowl warmed, I draw-forth six scoops of powdered tea from the small celadon tea container.

Placed in the center of the tenmoku chawan, the faint aroma of tea can already be detected.

Next, I pour a small measure of boiled water over the tea powder and begin to knead it into a thick, consistent paste with the tea whisk.

Once fully kneaded, I add a little more water, just enough to turn the tea paste into a thick liquid.

Whisking slightly faster, I begin to whip the tea into a light foam.

More water is added and I whisk faster.

More water is added and more foam is produced.

Seven times I add water before the tea is fully whisked into a proper bowl of mǒchá as described by Huīzōng during the 12th century.

The soft foam and minuscule patterns of collected tea upon the surface poetically resembling freshly-fallen snow.

Served atop the wooden cup stand, the tea is exceedingly fragrant, surpassing the light aroma of aloeswood that still lingers in the air.

In observance of two star-crossed lovers, as they make their way silently across the sky, I slack my thirst with tea prepared in accordance to an ancient style. The flavor of tea and the time of year melding together into a moment of meditation.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Matcha, Tea, White Tea

In the Mountains on a Summer Day

As the apex of Summer’s heat lingers on in late July, seeking solace from the sun is paramount. Since ancient times, hermit poets wrote of this, sometimes going to extremes measures to avoid the heat. As the temperature climbed higher, so too did these solitary eccentrics, disappearing into the mountains, where even in Summer, they could hide in the mist, enjoy the coolness of mountain streams, and relax to the sound of wind rushing through the pines. In their pursuit to escape the oppressive forces of society and overbearing governments, they also found a respite from the tyranny of Summer’s heat.

In his poem 《夏日山中》”Xià Rì Shān Zhōng” (“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”), Tang period poet 李白 Lǐ Bái (701-762) wrote of his attempts to evade the heat at Summer’s peak, sitting naked in the mountains, with barely enough energy to fan himself. His only relief coming from a light breeze that pushes through the pine trees.

As I find myself sequestered in my tree-top apartment in New York City, looking down on the forest outside my window, I can see the shimmering waves of heat rising from the concrete below. Rolling-down the shades to block-out the sun, the heat still enters the space of my tearoom.

To escape this, I set my clay kettle to boil and assemble a tea set together. A small antique Japanese blue-and-white porcelain teapot from the early 1900s set atop a 染付 sometsuke plate. I pair this with a contemporary Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel). The overall effect is exceedingly casual, in keeping with the sense of relaxation I am hoping to achieve.

Epitomizing this intention, however, is my choice of tea: a fresh 鴨屎香鳳凰單烏龍茶 Yā shǐ xiāng fènghuáng dān wūlóngchá (lit. “duck shit fragrance phoenix single grove oolong tea”). Originally given a vulgar name by a tea farmer who sought not to share his most prized tea, quintessentially “Duck Shit” oolong is a balanced, full-flavored tea. Long, wiry leaves bear the evidence of mid-oxidation, with shades of dark red, earthy olive, and the blue-black color of a crow’s plumage.

Once saturated by the hot water from my kettle, the tea awakens and begins to release its flavor and golden liqueur.

Brewing this tea in the particular manner native to the region of Chaozhou, I let the time pass, allowing the high heat of the boiled water to access every layer of flavor found within the tea leaves.

Once fully decanted, the resting tea reveals a spectrum of colors that once were dormant.

Leafy tendrils edged in crimson, copper, emerald, and rust elude to the flavors developed by the partnership of nature’s forces and the skilled hand of the tea master.

Set against the matte grey of the sookwoo, the brilliant color of tea radiates like the golden sun outside my tearoom window.

I take a moment to pause and pour from sookwoo to small cup. Fleeting flavors escape into the air, hinting to the tea’s qualities.

Lifting the buncheong-jagi cup to my lips, I hesitate before sipping, appreciating the rich aromas akin to a field of flowers, of juicy tropical fruits, of a deep verdant forest in Summer’s heat. Finally, I savor the bright liqueur of this fine tea, awash in piquant floral notes, the flavor of ripe longan and sweet honey, followed by the bitterness of orange peel and the soft astringency of a pomelo. The warmth of sunshine, the abundant complexity of mountain air, and the lushness of a forest holding-back the sweltering heat of a Summer’s day caught in a cup.

Joining the poets of old in their pursuit to escape to the wooded peaks during the height of Summer, I slack my thirst alone, enjoying my solitude save for the company of tea.

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If you would like to read Lǐ Bái’s poem “In the Mountains on a Summer Day”, I’ve provided a copy below, along with translation by retired politician and scholar of poetry 黃宏發 Huáng Hóngfā (Andrew W. F. Wong).

《夏日山中》

懶搖白羽扇,裸袒青林中。

脫巾掛石壁,露頂灑松風。

“Xià rì shānzhōng”

Lǎn yáo bái yǔshàn, luǒ tǎn qīng lín zhōng.

Tuō jīn guà shíbì, lù dǐng sǎ sōngfēng.

“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”

The white feather fan too lazy to use,

In the green grove I simply go naked.

Off with the head scarf, hang on a stone wall,

Revelling in the pine breeze bare-headed.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Japan, Korea, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

Big Heat: Tea at Summer’s Peak

As July comes to a close the heat of Summer climbs evermore. In the twenty-four seasonal points of the traditional Japanese calendar, this moment is called 大暑 tai-sho, literally “big heat”. As breezes calm, rain subsides, and shadows offer no respite from the heat of the day, to make a bowl of tea can seem counterproductive in assuaging the high temperatures of Summer’s apex. Yet, here, too, one can find relief.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu, Summer is eagerly met by tea people with the opportunity to induce upon their guests a sense of coolness. Through creative means, the host will make subtle changes to the tearoom to evoke a sense of lightness into the space.

As I sit for tea today, I select a low-slung and irregularly-shaped 黒織部 kuro-Oribe (“black Oribe”) 沓形茶碗 kutsu-gata chawan (lit. “clog-shaped” teabowl).

For a tea container, I choose a 切子 kiriko cut crystal cup, atop which I place a light piece of smoothed and lacquered wood to act as a well-fitted lid. Through its transparent faceted walls radiates the bright, refreshing color of 抹茶 matcha tea.

The slick surface of the black teabowl and accompanying 茶巾 chakin (linen tea cloth) and bamboo teascoop offer refreshing layers of contrasting textures, evoking the coolness of a bamboo grove following a Summer’s rain.

Set alone after its purification, the oblong chawan seems more natural than handcrafted, resembling a slick flagstone or deep pool of water.

To my attending guest, I offer up ice-like pieces of わらび餅 warabi-mochi atop a cut-glass plate, itself in the shape of a folding fan.

As my guest begins to enjoy the refreshing tea sweet, I begin to prepare a bowl of tea, measuring-out three scoops of matcha from the crystal tea container.

As is done in Summer, I lay the 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk) over the mound of powdered tea.

Doing this produces a bit of an obstacle for the hot water as it is poured into the chawan, resulting in a gentle sound of liquid passing through the tines of the bamboo whisk and allowing small droplets to collect on their thin blades.

Whisking of the tea in the kutsu-geta chawan feels considerably different than a typical tea bowl; its flat bottom and overall organic form creating an enjoyable challenge for me to overcome.

Once whipped into a bright foam, the tea quickly begins to cool. Passed to my guest, they are able to enjoy a rare treat: hot tea served during 土用 doyō (the “dog days” of Summer).

To quash the heat of the day with a warm bowl of tea. To induce a sense of coolness as the temperature has reached its peak. This challenge and opportunity lies at the heart of tea practice in chanoyu.

Rinsing and cleansing the tea implements one last time, we both notice the subtle changes that have arisen. The light of the day has shifted. The sound of a wind chime rings in the distance. The song of an ice cream truck rolling through some far-off neighborhood. And yet, the heat of the Summer seems to have faded in our minds.

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In Morning When the Lotus Bloom

With mid-July comes 小暑 shōsho (“minor heat”), the week’s that precede the hottest part of Summer. Even so, the heat of the day is hard to bear, leaving tea people to want to gather in the early morning.

In the dim light of dawn, a sense of coolness pervades, the muted colors and dark pools of shadow paring down the environment to its essentials. In the tearoom, this continues, with only the bare minimum used. A teabowl, a bamboo 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk), a well bucket containing cool water.

On this morning, as a light rain aids in keeping down the heat, I bring into the tearoom a small porcelain tea container from the 景德鎮 Jǐngdézhèn kiln, upon which blossoming lotus flowers have been painted in a deep cobalt blue. For my guest, this becomes a subtle nod that in July lotus viewing tea gatherings (蓮見の茶 hasu-mi no cha) are held in the early morning, right at the moment the floating aquatic flowers begin to bloom.

Holding it in my hand, I purify the porcelain container, the soft silk of the 仕服 shifuku gliding off its smooth surface.

Next I cleanse the 茶杓 chashaku.

I take pause, to let myself and the guest appreciate the bamboo of the teascoop, its skin dappled with tiny spots which resemble light rain.

Finally, I cleanse the teabowl, an antique 萩焼茶碗 Hagi-yaki chawan, the color of which is similar to the light blush pink of a lotus bud.

Placing the first scoop of tea into the teabowl feels like entering into a dark cavern; the dawn producing voluminous swaths of glowing light and soft shadows.

Whisking the tea into a foam, I can’t help but to peer down into the teabowl, appreciating the low peaks and minute textures that give rise.

Finished and ready for my guest, we sit to enjoy the glowing presence of the 抹茶 matcha, itself, like a blossoming lotus, fragrant and electric.

Quietly enjoyed, the teabowl is returned to be cleansed once again, a thin residue of tea foam still clinging to its interior.

Concluding the tea gathering becomes its own meditation. The sound of the 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle), the light patter of rain, the shifting of silk over the chashaku once more.

A final appreciation of the teaware and the light of the day begins to creep through the screen of 簾 sudare (woven blinds made of reeds).

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Two Magpies

This week saw the coming and going of the seventh day of the seventh month of the year. Throughout East Asia, this day is celebrated, each culture with its own observation. In China, 7/7 marks 七夕 Qīxī (“Evening of Sevens”, Tanabata in Japanese, Chilseok in Korean).

In the ancient mythology that describes this day, lovers 織女 Zhīnǚ (the star Vega) and 牛郎 Niúlán (the star Altair) were not allowed to love one another. Banished to the opposite sides of the 天河 Tiānhé (“Heavenly River”, the Milky Way), they were only allowed to join on the seventh day of the seventh month. It is said that on this day a bridge made from a flock of magpies would span across the Heavenly River, allowing the two lovers to meet.

In Chinese symbolism, the magpie is believed to be the bringer of joy. The word of magpie, 喜鵲 xǐquè, contains the word “joy” (喜 ). In Chinese art, when two magpies are seen together, they are supposed to represent “double happiness”, a wish for eternal happiness between lovers.

On 7/7, while I spent the morning preparing a bowl of 抹茶 matcha in observance of Tanabata, I spent the remainder of the day enjoying steeped tea in observation of Qīxī. As this day is sometimes called “Chinese Valentines Day”, I opted to use a pair of antique celadon 蓋碗 gàiwǎn (lidded tea cups), each of which were decorated with images of two magpies.

Made during the late 清 Qīng to early Republican (中華民國 Zhōnghuá mínguó) period (1880s-1920s), the two gàiwǎn, like the magpies painted upon them, had been kept together. Originally the two tea vessels would have probably have been given to a married couple, the image of the two magpies acting as a visual wish for perpetual happiness. Used on Qīxī, the two gàiwǎn reunited again, across space and time, to make tea together.

Recently arrived from China, I place the thin, wiry leaves of a 杏仁香鳳凰單欉 Xìngrén xiāng fènghuáng dān cóng (“almond fragrance phoenix single grove”) carefully into the two tea vessels.

Entering into the empty and warmed gàiwǎn, this lets off a subtle hint of the flavor the oolong tea has to offer.

Finally, with the water used from the morning’s tea gathering, I begin the quiet process of brewing tea. The pale color of tea liqueur begins to steep-out from the unfurling tea leaves. The soft green-blue color of celadon darkening as the tea continues to brew.

Placing the painted lid atop each cup, I let the tea sit and strengthen. Time passes, the silence of the interim pause offering a moment to reflect on the meaning of love. Who had enjoyed these cups together before? How long was their happiness shared? A lifetime of love one can only wish for. Perpetual happiness.

I tilt back the lid of one of the gàiwǎn to reveal the deepening color of tea. Slowly I sip from my cup, and offer the other to my partner.

Once emptied of their liquid, the tea sits ready again, all that remains is the fleeting, quiet flavor of crisp, bitter almonds, soft on the palate.

As it often does, one cup becomes two, two becomes three, and countless cups come from this wedded pair. Cups that bring joy. Two magpies joining each other over time and space. On this, the seventh day of the seventh month.

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To note (for all you who know your traditional Chinese lunar calendar), the date which 七夕 Qīxī falls on changes every year. In 2019, it falls on August 7th. That said, stay tuned for when tea is made on this day… More to come!

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