Tag Archives: Taiwan

Bright Golden Leaves Collect in the Gutter

In Autumn, the deep emerald green of Summer wanes and fades in exchange for the umber, ocher and amber of Fall. Looking up into the canopy, gilded edges circle each fluttering leaf, and those which have since fallen gather like flecks of gold in the gutters and gullies of the broad city streets.

In the remaining heat of the day, a lone cicada calls out a solitary threnody to its fallen brethren until it, too, becomes a hollow shell, victim to the chill and the gusting winds. Yet, as seasons shift, not all is lost. Instead, as one moment fades, it transforms, and in this change, something new materializes. Fall’s resplendent colors emerge and encourage meditation.

Golden leaves inform my choice to bring out a bright yellow 黃泥 huáng ní (“yellow clay”) Yixing teapot. Similarly, I select a small leaf Taiwanese red tea, the initial aroma of which strikes a harmonious tone with the sweet, fleeting scent of decaying Fall leaves.

Sitting alone in my tearoom, a single grey Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel) accompany me. In the air hangs the warm scent of lingering incense and the rising steam from my boiling kettle. In this time, I give myself a moment to pause. So often do we forget to do this; to sit with the change we are constantly caught within.

Peering down at the small yellow teapot, I see this transformation embedded in the pores of its clay body. A subtle shift from gold to brown. Quiet marks upon its skin from every tea it’s ever steeped. A slow metamorphosis to maturation.

The soft glazed surfaces of cup and cooling vessel, crazed and crackled, too, bear the imprint of time. Once immaculate, the patterns laced upon them now look like the veiny remnants of decomposing leaves. In this there is beauty too.

Laying the tea leaves atop a scoop fashioned from old bamboo, they appear dormant, caught in hibernation.

Placed within the belly of the small teapot, they slowly begin to wake, releasing a faint aroma which is sugary and rose-like.

A quick steeping wakes them and they begin to writhe and unfurl. Poured out, the liqueur they produce is tawny and slick.

Decanted from sookwoo into the lone cup, I first savor the color, then the scent, and finally the taste.

Straightforward and satisfying, simple and sweet is the nature of this tea. As I drink, I am reminded of its origin; a gift from a friend years ago, procured from a farm tended by a group of Buddhist nuns. How in these years the flavors have changed. How in this time, the essence of this tea still remains.

The chattering of the iron kettle in my tearoom. The rustling of leaves outside my window. The final notes of incense passing as I continue to brew tea. A parade of clouds in a clear azure sky. The sharp chirping of a cricket off in the distance.

2 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, Hongcha, Meditation, Tea

The Wisteria Vine Winds Up the Tree

It is Summer and balmy breezes carry the fragrant aroma of flowers and fresh leaves. As I walk around my neighborhood, I crisscross paths and can’t help but to take the long way home. Strolling over a tattered bridge under which train tracks run, I look along the causeway’s edge. A wisteria vine, in full bloom, winds up an old gnarled tree. Its bright purple flowers cascading and jostling in the wind like long silk sleeves. I breathe in the air around it in the hopes to glean some of its fleeting scent, a perfume that has probably passed and remains elusive.

Coming home, I am reminded of its beauty. The hue of its petals. The fresh verdant color of its leaves. Wanting to quell the heat that followed me inside, I opt to make a pot of tea.

Feeling inspired, I draw from my tea cabinet a small ceramic teapot, glazed in a flamboyant purple 鈞窯 Jūn yáo (Jun kiln) glaze. Next, I produce a small celadon 振出 furidashi, a ceramic sweets container which I have turned into a tea caddy. Along with this, I bring out an antique tea scoop, three Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi teacups and sookwoo (decanting bowl).

Letting a kettle come to a roiling boil, I quietly prepare to brew tea, enjoying the array of colors and textures set before me.

The muted grey of the Korean ceramics next to the deep purple of the teapot.

The warm color of the wooden plank against the assembled teawares.

The soft, creamy green of the celadon tea container.

Issuing-out a small measure of tea, I admire the hand-twisted leaves of a Winter-harvested 高山烏龍茶 gāoshān wūlóngchá (high mountain oolong) from 阿里山 Ālǐshān in Taiwan.

Placing the leaves into the warmed teapot, this produces an initial release of fragrance. It is sweet and ephemeral.

Pouring hot water over the leaves, I briefly witness their unrolling before placing the lid atop the teapot.

I wait as the tea brews, and as I do, I enjoy the sound of a light breeze outside my window. As this pause lingers longer, I let the tea continue to brew. As a tea now out of its season, I hope to draw forth its flavor.

Upon decanting the tea, a golden liqueur emerges, along with the bright scent of oolong tea.

Poured into three cups, I sit and relax, letting time pass, letting the heat subside. Once sufficiently cooled, I bring the first cup to my lips. A soft aroma of sugarcane and guava. A gentle flavor of honey, rock sugar, fruit and flowers arises with every sip.

As it was brewed with a glazed vessel, the tea’s flavor is brighter and crisper than it would have been had I brewed it with a more porous, unglazed Yixing teapot. The result is satisfying, refreshing, like the tranquil Summer breezes that come from the south, cooling the air that lingers in my tearoom.

I am reminded of poetry written by the Song period writer, poet, painter, gastronome, and statesman 蘇軾 Sū Shì (1037-1101):

薰風自南來,殿閣生微涼。

“Xūn fēng zì nán lái, diàn gé shēng wēi liáng.”

“The balmy summer breezes come from the south. It becomes a bit cooler at the palace.”

As time passes, so too does the heat. The sun shifts in the sky. The fragrance of tea mixing with the swirling scents of Summer.

* Translation from Chado the Way of Tea: A Japanese Tea Master’s Almanac by Sasaki Sanmi (Tuttle Publishing, 2011).

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, History, Meditation, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Green Tea, Tea, Tea Tasting

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.”

2 Comments

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

When Sunlight Joins for Tea

Often is the case that when I am making tea in my meditation room, time passes and the light of the day naturally shifts. Facing West, the morning light is soft, with a distinctive bluish tone. However, as morning fades and the light of the afternoon grows, warmer hues emerge, and the golden rays of sunlight pour through the window of this tiny room, joining me for tea.

As I was quietly brewing tea this morning, I let time meander. The water in my antique Japanese 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle) quietly came to a boil, leading to an hour of brewing various teas.

Shifting from a roasted 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiě guānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Goddess of Mercy” oolong tea) from China’s Anxi county to an aged 水仙 Shuǐxiān (“Water Immortal”) from Wuyishan in Fujian, I finished my tea brewing session with a green Taiwanese 高山茶 gāo shān chá (“high mountain tea”).

As one hour turned into two, the kettle was refreshed with cool water and the sun climbed higher in the sky. Just at the moment I began to let go of time, warm rays of light came flooding through my window and settled down onto my setting for tea.

It set alight the steam that rose from the water, beamed across the stippled iron face of the old chagama, and cast shadows across the assembled teapots which I had set to dry.

The sunlight encouraged me to make another cup of tea and so I did. Scooping water with the 柄杓 hishaku (bamboo ladle) and carefully pouring it into the small tea vessel.

Sunlight lingered over ever facet of the moment, warming the teapot before I decanted its fragrant liqueur.

And, like the sunshine that joined me for tea on this day, the tea shone bright, first in a Korean sookwoo, then in an antique Japanese 染付 sometsuke blue-and-white cup.

And, as the sun often does, it passed along, leaving the room out from the window it arrived through. Much like the small crawl-through-door (躙り口 nijiriguchi) that leads into the tea hut (茶室 chashitsu), it had come in, bowed, sat for tea, and left, leaving no trace save for a moment shared and a memory.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, Japan, Korea, Meditation, Oolong, Tea

A bright green mountain as if it were smiling

By the middle of March, Winter has receded and the verdant splendor of Spring arrives. Before the flowers bloom and the buds that swell upon each branch blossom, the tiny shoots and grasses make their presence known. The effect is refreshing, crisp, and clarifying. To be present in this moment is quite enjoyable, and an effervescent quality can easily overtake one’s spirit.

In his text 《林泉高致》“Línquán Gāo Zhì” (“The Lofty Message of Forest and Streams”), 11th century Song period literatus poet, painter and scholar 郭熙 Guō Xī offered up his own observations on this sudden change of the season. In the opening verse of 《山水訓》”Shānshuǐ Xùn” (“Instructions on Landscape”), Guō reflects upon viewing a mountain vista in the emergence of Spring, saying that with the appearance of such brilliant green colors in the mountains, it appeared as if they were smiling (春山澹冶而如笑, “Chūnshān dàn yě ér rú xiào”).

Feeling just as content in this moment, I decide to make tea. Selecting a fresh, 杉林溪烏龍冬茶 Shān Lín Xī wūlóng dōngchá (Winter-picked Shān Lín Xī oolong tea), I pair this to an impromptu teaset, made up of a 綠泥 lǜ ní (“green clay”) Yixing teapot, and an antique (possibly Song/Yuan) 青白 qīngbái (“green-white”) porcelain teabowl.

For a 茶荷 chá hé (“tea leaf viewing vessel”), I select a piece of contemporary Taiwanese 汝窯 Rǔ yáo (“Ru kiln”) celadon.

Set inside the soft-colored celadon vessel, the leaves remain coiled, hinting at their potential.

Upon viewing teapot and tea leaves together, I can’t help but to smile.

Placed into the teapot and allowed to brew momentarily with the lid set beside it, the aroma of the awakening tea is intoxicating. Bright and floral, with notes of tropical fruit. A preview of what’s to come.

Set to steep for only a few minutes, I pour the brewed tea into the shallow teabowl. Set side-by-side, the teapot looks like the dark void of nature (青 qīng), whereas the teabowl, filled with fresh-brewed tea, is vibrant and glowing.

The color of the pale celadon of the qīngbái porcelain brings out the tea’s natural green-golden hue.

Pausing to view the tea for just one more moment, I feel refreshed. Bringing the antique bowl to my lips, I notice the liqueur has cooled. The flavors are crisp and complex. The mouthfeel is full and buttery. The lingering finish (回甘 huí gān, “returning sweetness”) is long-lasting, with a distinct minerality. The energy (茶氣 chá qì) that is left is uplifting and strong.

As a tea from the mountains, this Shān Lín Xī, is just coming into its own. With energy stored in its leaves to survive a cold Winter’s frost, it opens now, bright and green, as if it, too, was smiling.

For those interested in the entirety of Guō Xī’s 《山水訓》Shānshuǐ Xùn” (“Instructions on Landscape”), I offer up the poem below (a full translation featured in “Chado the Way of Tea: A Japanese Tea Master’s Almanac” by Sasaki Sanmi):

春山澹冶而如笑

夏山蒼翠而如滴

秋山明淨而如妝

冬山慘淡而如睡

Chūnshān dàn yě ér rú xiào

xiàshān cāngcuì ér rú dī

qiūshān míngjìng ér rú zhuāng

dōngshān cǎndàn ér rú shuì

“A bright spring mountain as if it were smiling,

An emerald summer mountain as if it were oozing with moisture,

A clear fall mountain as if it were all dressed up,

A withered winter mountain as if it were sleeping.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Meditation, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

The Future is Female. The Past was Female.

Today is International Women’s Day. To celebrate, I find myself sitting down and enjoying a pot of tea, a beautiful aged 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiě guānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Goddess of Mercy” oolong tea), purportedly harvested in the mid-1990s.

The namesake of this tea, the Buddhist bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin in Chinese), is a being that is associated with compassion, one who “perceives the sound of the world”, and is often depicted as being female (though, throughout history has been depicted also as male, androgynous, and genderless). In China’s Fujian province, where Tieguanyin is grown, Guanyin is seen as a protector of traders, seafarers, and has the power to grant wishes. The origin story of Tieguanyin involves one such instance of her wish-granting powers.

As an aged tea, this Tieguanyin is a bit of a time capsule. A look into how tea used to be made. As such, looking at the leaves alone, one can see that they are considerably darker than their contemporary counterparts. This is largely due to a higher oxidation most traditional Tieguanyin oolongs received, a style dating back to their origins in the early Qing period. This higher oxidation (which hovers around 30-40%) causes the leaves to darken to an “iron-like” rusty green color (unlike modern interpretations that receive 10-20% oxidation). Additional subsequent finishing roasts darker the color further, giving the tea it’s distinctive “iron” hue. As an aged tea, previous tea masters may have performed additional roasts on this tea, adding to its already roasty flavor profile and deepening its color.

To brew this rare and unique tea, I select an equally rare Yixing teapot, one that was gifted to me by my tea teacher on my recent trip to Paris. It is a small, eight-sided vessel, found by my tea teacher in Taiwan while he lived there in the 1980s.

Being so small, it only enough volume to brew tea for two equally minuscule antique 若深 ruò shēn teacups (bearing the mark 若深珍藏 ruò shēn zhēncáng).

Viewing the teapot, it seems impossibly small to fit the tea leaves within it. However, as an aged tea, these leaves will not open as readily as the more pliable younger variants. Similarly, as they have been roasted and re-roasted, this final processing “locks” the leaves into shape.

Once inside the tiny pot, I pour boiling water over them, steeping them at a high heat. It is only with this heat that these leaves will give off their extravagant flavors.

For several minutes I wait to let the tea brew, waiting for meniscus to recede down the teapot’s spout and for the color of the clay of the vessel to deepen. It is only after this that I know the tea is ready.

Opting to make tea on a mirror-topped table in my sunlit room, I can enjoy this process from every angle. Viewing the teacups from this vantage point, I can see their painted exterior and the transparency of their egg-shell thin construction.

Once filled with the brewed tea, they glow like amber. The tea is floral, fragrant, with an aroma of raw honey, dried apricots, and toasted biscuits. Upon tasting, the tea contains a slightly medicinal note; an indication of its age.

And as the warm morning light shifts to the afternoon’s rays of sun, I continue to steep this tea. Cup after cup, round after round, an aged tea such as this can brew for hours.

For a tea like this, we can enjoy the past and the present. From something that was once vibrant, vegetal, green, time has forever changed it. The power of nature. The power of time passing. Evinced in flavors that evolve.

With age comes complexity, and in this tea, that is quite beautiful, something quite indescribable. Named for a bodhisattva, a being that transcends time, form, gender, all this seems quite fitting.

3 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting