Tag Archives: Teahouse

International Tea Day: Today, and Everyday

Wishing everyone a beautiful International Tea Day! Drink a cup, bowl, or pot of tea and think of all that went into the growing, harvesting, processing, packing, shipping, selling, and sending of that tea so you can enjoy it! There are lots of people and beings that work towards making that little cup you and I savor. As they say, it’s all in the tea! So, drink up, give thanks to all the labor and love that went towards making this moment happen, and share!

Today, I brew up a personal favorite of mine: a 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá poetically named 《兄弟》“Xiōngdì”, “Brothers” which I and two of my own “tea brothers”, So Han Fan of West China Tea in Austin, Texas, and Steve Odell of Enthea Teahouse in Portland, Oregon, sourced while traveling in China in 2013.

The tea is grown, tended by, picked and processed by the 林 Lín family on the high slopes of 烏崬山 Wūdōngshān in 潮州 Cháozhōu, in northeastern 廣東 Guǎngdōng province.

The tea’s poetic name alludes to how it is made up of two distinct cultivars that are grown in a single grove, which when processed, maintain a unique harmony and balance in their flavor.

I brew the tea in a contemporary 汝窯 Rǔ yáo celadon teapot gifted to me by So Han, long before he had opened his tea house.

I brew the tea in a contemporary 汝窯 Rǔ yáo celadon teapot gifted to me by So Han, long before he had opened his tea house. The cup is one of a pair, a gift from 郑国谷 Zhèng Guógǔ of the Chinese artist collective the Yangjiang Group, whom I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with on several art projects, namely the 2016 site-specific participatory installation Unwritten Rules Cannot Be Broken at the Guggenheim Museum.

Using the cup today, I’m reminded of my time working and making tea with Guógǔ, who, while widely known for his art, is also a skilled practitioner in tea, often infusing tea and local tea culture into his art practice.

Flavors and memories always seem to mix and bring up emotions from the past.

Gratitude. Joy. Bittersweet remembrances. Longing to be with friends whose paths I’ve crossed a myriad of times or just once and never again. Teachers and students. Tea masters and aficionados. Farmers, artists, poets, musicians, and monks. Deepest of thanks and warmest of thoughts to all who’ve been part of my life in tea, each somehow pointing the way. So much to celebrate. Today, and everyday.

Leave a comment

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

Future, Past, Present

Today is the fifth of May. Ostensibly, it is the beginning of Summer on the traditional lunisolar calendar (立夏 Rikka). And, yet, all around me it still feels like Spring. Rain clouds gather overhead. New green leaves bristle on trees. Shoots rise from the earth. Peony bushes push upwards in the garden, yet their showy blooms have yet to burst. There is a feeling of anticipation, a longing for flowers to unfurl, for skies to clear, for the heat of the day to grow. Alas, the cool of the previous season still lingers and morning’s mist hangs long until noon.

In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, May 5th, the fifth day of the fifth month, is marked by celebration, flavored heavily by its culture of origin. Double five, or 重五 Chōgo in Japanese, is one of the five seasonal festivals on the traditional calendar of Japan, and is associated with a myriad of observances.

Today is 端午の節句 Tango no Sekku, which demarcates the beginning of the month of the horse (the fifth month). At this point in the year, one should begin to feel the heat rise. Yet, here in Upstate New York, a chill remains.

子供の日 Kodomo no hi, or Children’s Day (historically 男の節句 Otoko no Sekku, or Boy’s Day) also falls on this day. The birth of the new season, rites of passage, youthful vigor, 鯉幟 koinobori fluttering atop homes with children. All around boasts the promise of great things to come. Alas, here, Summer’s throb still feels faint.

It is also 菖蒲の節句 Shōbu no Sekku, referring to the practice of hanging shōbu (sweet-flag, Acorus calamus, or Japanese iris, Iris ensata var. ensata) and 蓬 yomogi (mugwort, Artemisia) from the eaves of one’s home (which were believed to ward-off evil spirits and fire).

Here in the Hudson Valley, the iris have yet to bloom, although I still manage to create a bundle of mugwort and iris leaves, which I hang-up against my makeshift tea hut.

With such a multifaceted day, it might feel overwhelming for a tea person to choose what they will do. So much expectation on just one day. For me, it offers a unique meditation, one which I infuse into today’s tea offering.

Setting off across my garden to the dark interior of my weathered shed, I’ve created within it a space to ponder time. Outside, purple-capped deadnettle and broad-leafed garlic mustard grow high. Remnants of Spring.

Inside my hut hangs the soft scent of 白檀 byakudan. The sound of water boiling within the bronze and iron kettle is faint but audible.

Summer in the world of tea is marked by many aspects. One major event is the closing of the 炉 ro and the beginning of the use of the portable brazier, the 風炉 furo. 初風炉 shoburo (lit. “first furo”) marks the first use of the furo. Today, I will use my furo for the first time, in anticipation for Summer’s emergence.

As I look forward to the new season, I also look back time. The bronze and iron 風炉釜 furogama are of an ancient tripod form, akin to those used during the 唐 Táng (618-907) and 宋 Sòng (960-1279) periods.

Beside it sits a square-shaped 鬼萩水指 Oni-hagi mizusashi, and before this I’ve placed a small round 茶入 chaire, enrobed in a blue and silver brocaded 仕服 shifuku, emblazoned with a design of peonies.

As I place a peach-hued 茶碗 chawan beside the tiny tea container, I recognize the significance of the choice in wares I’ve made.

In the practice of tea, we sit and hope to become connected to the moment. “Now”, as a distinct moment in time, is fleeting.

The instance we recognize it, it has passed. Rather, the moment we find ourselves in is often experienced tangentially.

The peonies on the brocaded pouch refer to a flower that has yet to bloom.

Future.

The tradition that associates this aspect to Summer is based on an understanding of the peony’s significance in ancient East Asian culture.

Past.

The presence of the flower woven into silk, which I splay open to reveal the ceramic chaire it contains.

Present.

Angles shift in the tearoom as object are oriented and reoriented based on their action and function.

During the furo seasons, objects are typically set in line with the brazier.

Then, as each object is cleaned, they reset again against the line that runs parallel to the mizusashi.

The bowl remains between host and furo.

The lid of the kettle is removed.

The 柄杓 hishaku rests against the open mouth of the steaming 茶釜 chagama.

During Kodomo no hi, or, more specifically, Otoko no Sekku, references to ancient 武士 bushi (warrior) culture abound. As a rite of passage, it marked a moment in time where a child could take on the affects of a 侍 samurai. In the realm of tea, the hishaku becomes an arrow, the iris becomes a spear.

Here, too, future and past oscillate to triangulate the present. A child assumes the role of an adult, even if just for a day. The adult longs for the carefree nature of when they were a child. Objects used to mark the coming of a new season are imbued with ancient connotations. Between these vectors exists, somewhere, now.

The lid of the tea container is removed and tea is heaped into the center of the peach-glazed teabowl.

A small mountain to climb rises within.

Hot water is drawn from the boiling kettle and poured atop the bright green 抹茶 matcha powder. The tiny mountain collapses, sinking slowly into the warm sea.

As the kettle murmurs and birds call, the tea is mixed in a slow, methodical manner. A slight breeze kicks up outside and I can hear the leaves of shōbu and yomogi beat against the exterior of my tea hut.

In the darkness of this tiny space, I make a single bowl of 濃茶 koicha. An offering for the season to come. A medicine of the past to fortify me as Summer arrives.

Drinking the tea down and concluding my lone tea session, I am yet again drawn to ponder time.

A shallow teabowl is employed as a 替茶碗 kae-chawan to cleanse the whisk. Perhaps I will use this piece for a future tea gathering.

I observe the angle at which I place the bowl down and arrange the cleansed objects upon it and within it.

These angles point towards the heat that will rise as Summer continues.

Cold water is added to the chagama and the bronze lid is placed back upon it.

The bamboo ladle is laid across the rim of the 建水 kensui.

A final 拝見 haiken is prepared to mark the first use of the furo.

Light from the small window beams and catches against the gold foil beneath the lid of the chaire.

Light catches against the curved surface of the tea container.

Against the carved tip of the 茶杓 chashaku.

Against the woven fibers of the shifuku pouch.

Future, past, present caught in light.

Exposed. Laid bare. There to be pondered.

As Spring shifts to Summer. As the portable brazier is used for the first time.

2 Comments

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

An Unseen World

Late January and the depth of 大寒 Daikan (Dàhán in Mandarin) is here. I woke this morning to mounding snow drifts, falling flurries, pine trees capped in white. A storm had passed during the night and continued on through the dawn, bringing wind and cold and ice on windowpanes. Although, inside my home is comfortable and warm, I wish to experience Winter in its fullest and feel determined to make tea outside, within the confines of my makeshift hut.

Trekking through the garden, wares packed and wrapped-up in 風呂敷 furoshiki, I come upon a realization.

The world of snow is mysterious. Forms covered and obscured and made unknown by layers of ice and air. The steps of my path are softened.

Rocks and branches from sapling trees feel formless.

Wind makes hollows. Snow creates volume.

Undulations and caverns that once weren’t there.

The door to my tea hut is frozen shut.

Once I pry it open, I find that snow has entered before I have. Soft sprays of snow.

Fine white crystals scattered on the floor and below the crack between window and sill.

I set the kettle to boil and fill my 水指 mizusashi with cool water.

In the 床の間 tokonoma, I place incense to burn and a 蜜柑 mikan citrus as an object for meditation. As I sit and wait for the water to boil, I listen to the hollow howl of the wind against the small shack I have chosen to make into my space of practice. Thin walls of pressed wood abating the cold but not by much. My breath and the steam from the kettle conjoined in our efforts.

Objects for tea are unwrapped and unboxed and placed in accordance to their various usage.

The tall form of a slender 茶入 chaire before the mizusashi.

Much like the stones outside my tea hut, the true shape of the tea container is obscured by the striped and spangled silk of the 仕服 shifuku pouch.

Beside this, I place a 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsuchawan, a teabowl used only during the coldest days of the year.

Chawan and chaire sit as I pause to listen to the sound of snow tapping against the single windowpane that lets light into my small tea hut.

Ice crystals forming slowly as the cold of the world around me deepens.

As I move objects from rest to motion and back to rest, I observe how shadows shift and move with them.

The chaire is shrouded in its shifuku pouch.

Once removed, the shifuku becomes an empty vessel.

The chaire, a full, voluminous form.

The teabowl, tall, slender, tube-like in shape, is cavernous, dark, full of shadow, dwelling at the bottom unseen.

I pour a dipper’s worth of hot water from the kettle into the open mouth of the tsutsuchawan. Everything that goes in, the water…

…the splayed tines of the 茶筅 chasen

…the white linen 茶巾 chakin

…and eventually, the tea…

…disappears into the deep void of the tube-shaped teabowl.

Only employed during this time of year, before the first hint of Spring arrives, tsutsuchawan convey the depths of what this ice-locked season represents.

In the low light of my makeshift tea hut, the bowl seems without end.

A tunnel rather than a vessel. An portal into something unknown, unseen. What lies at the other end?

Pouring hot water from the kettle into the bowl requires focus and practice. Concentration as liquid cascades from the sunlit cup of the 柄杓 hishaku into the darkness of the narrow opening of the tsutsuchawan.

Pressing whisk into the tea-and-water concoction to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha presents another unique challenge. The bowl is deep and the walls close together, limiting one’s motion. Even knowing what is happening as one kneads the tea is difficult.

Unlike other bowls, one cannot easily see into a tsutsuchawan. Compounding this, the dark umber color of the Bizen-yaki fades to black in the low light of the tea space, in the dull glow of Winter during the last days of the period of Major Cold. In an unseen world, one must rely on practice alone to grope and clamor through the darkness.

In the time it’s taken me to whisk a bowl of thick tea, spindly needles of frost began to form and make intricate patterns against the outside of the windowpane.

As I move teabowl from the host’s position to guest’s, I observe the light from the window push through the steam rising from the boiling kettle. The soft hum of the water. The high-pitched whirl of wind between cracks in the door.

I look down at the bowl. Both empty and full. The bright green tea invisible in the dark hollow of the tsutsuchawan. Its presence only known by the heat contained in the ceramic, from the aroma of the koicha rising into the room. Deep and vegetal during the cold torpor of late January, of Daikan, of Major Cold.

I lift the bowl and drink the tea. For a moment I pause and let the flavor and the heat of the tea permeate throughout my mouth, my throat, my body. My cold, stiff fingers hold the narrow bowl tight, as if it were a warm being radiating heat to help me survive the harsh weather outside the walls of my tea hut. I sit and hold it longer, meditating for as long as the heat remains within the clay.

Several minutes pass and the heat fades. The hollow of the bowl cools. The dregs cling and thicken against the dark, blistered walls of the tsutsuchawan.

I return to clean the bowl, not with cool water from the mizusashi but with the hot water from the 茶釜 chagama. In the depth of Winter, I opt not to waste anything. The final dregs of koicha are no different.

Water warms the bowl again and I whisk the remnants of thick tea liquid into a bright foamy bowl of 薄茶 usucha.

Thousands of tiny bubbles look back up at me like thousands of bright lights peering from the end of a long dark tunnel.

The flavor of the tea is sweet, grassy, light. It comes and fades gently against the harsh cold of this day of practice I’ve made.

As I clean the bowl once more with cool water, I close the tea session. Objects for tea are laid back to rest.

The lid of the chagama is placed atop the steaming kettle, save for a small gap to let the heat rise freely.

The light of the day grows brighter through the windowpane yet the frost has grown thicker too.

As I prepare an informal 拝見 haiken for one, I recognize that the light that now reflects off each object will grow brighter more and more each day.

With the end of Daikan comes 立春 Risshun (Lìchūn in Mandarin), the start of Spring in the lunisolar calendar.

During this liminal time, the new year will begin.

What will come in this fast approaching Spring, this Water Tiger year?

What we’ve seen so far is an unseen world.

Dark, cold, foreboding, with new rules and new expectations.

A deep tunnel devoid of light, of murky dimensions. A space cold, save for the heat trapped within our bodies, within the clay body of a Bizen-yaki tsutsuchawan.

Even as steam climbs skyward from the hot kettle, that which lies within it is a mystery.

How do we exist in an unseen world, one that has never existed before, a world with an unseen future? Do we seek the comforts of warmth, of home?

Or do we trek out into the cold, with only a few objects wrapped-up and packed upon our backs?

And what do we do when the terrain changes, landmarks shift, the path becomes obscured? What if there is no way back home? Just towards a future unknown? Footsteps fade as snow falls.

Wind blows over once sure stones that pointed the to the Way. An unseen world lies ahead, with only one’s practice to perhaps fortify you.

Leave a comment

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

Dark Days

Winter is here and the days grow colder, the shadows that are cast from the bare trees grow longer, daylight’s passage shorter. The festivities of the Western calendar seem to run headlong against the chaotic times we all seem to find ourselves in. The pandemic. The global climate crisis. War. Indifference. As the year draws closer to its close, to pause and sit and meditate on what we’ve just been through seems like a heavy task. And, yet, in these most difficult of times, it is when meditation seems most fitting.

It is December 21st, 2021. Today is the Winter Solstice. 冬至 Tōji in the old lunisolar calendar of Japan (Dōngzhì in Mandarin). On this day, I prepare the last kettle for the year that has now grown older and colder over these last few months. Since Autumn, I’ve transitioned from using the portable brazier to my improvised 置き炉 okiro made of an old New York apple crate. Its pine wooden walls are about the shape and size of the real thing, close enough for this tea practitioner to adopt it into his little world of tea in an act of 見立て mitate, whereas items not normally used in 茶の湯 chanoyu are incorporated and adapted for this purpose.

In the cold dark world of my tiny makeshift tea hut, I light a candle in the 床の間 tokonoma.

I carry the old iron kettle from my studio across the still frozen pathway that weaves from my home through the garden. I set the dark iron and patina’ed vessel down into the old wooden crate and within ten or so minutes small threads of steam begin to rise from the gap left open in the lid. Soon after comes the faint sound of the water boiling. 歳暮の釜 seibo no kama. Kettle for the year-end.

I wander back out into the cold world of the garden and then back into the warmth of my studio to gather more items for the 点前 temae. Since my makeshift tea hut has yet no 水屋 mizuya attached to it, I venture back and forth server al times before all tea objects are brought into the tea space. A tall, white glazed 水指 mizusashi made by a former tea teacher. A small eggplant-shaped 茶入 chaire enrobed in a 仕服 shifuku emblazoned with motif of pine sprig and chrysanthemum.

Other items come in last. A blush-colored 赤志野茶碗 akashino chawan, a 茶筅 chasen by 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango, a 茶杓 chashaku made of carved cedar. These, I place beside the tiny tea container. Finally, I trek once more from hut to studio and back, bringing with me an old 建水 kensui, a 蓋置 futaoki made of a piece of mottled bamboo, and 柄杓 hishaku.

In the dim light that illuminates the speckled and patterned plywood floor of my makeshift tea hut, items are arranged by their use. I place the futaoki beside the old apple crate. Atop this, I set the cup of the hishaku. The kensui is moved upward towards the edge of my left knee.

The chawan and its accompanying wares upon and within it are set at an angle beside the mitate okiro. The chaire in its pine sprig and chrysanthemum brocaded coat are set before this.

In a 炉点前 ro temae, during the season of the sunken hearth, objects are placed at forty five degree angles against the right angle positions of the open 炉口 roguchi or okiro and accompanying mizusashi. This all in accordance with the angle in which the host sits, which, during the dark and cold days of Winter, is made more informal and adjusted to feel as if closer to the guests. Even in my solitary practice, I take this stance, angling myself so that the small space between the upper left corner of the okiro and the uppermost border of my knees becomes the area in which tea will be made. While it may initially feel more limited, the movements of the host become more open as the Winter position allows for the arc of the right hand to move from one’s far left to draw water from the mizusashi to its far right to offer a bowl of tea to the invited guest. In this, there remains a naturalness to it all, with a heightened sense of down-to-earth informality that embodies the markedly more rustic and 詫び wabi aesthetic found in Winter.

The meditation of the tea practice continues well before its beginning and well after its end. The pause that comes before one sets forth to make tea is preceded by a myriad of actions to enable this moment to happen. Steps in the path between this moment and the many moments that led to it. I feel this most of all during the silence that exists once I place the chaire before the chawan and before I reach down with both hands to untie the cord that binds it within its shifuku pouch.

The motion is simple and direct. Both palms remain flattened, fingers pointed downward as they gather first around the base of the brocaded bag and then upward towards the purple braided cord. One finger holds onto one loop of the tie, the other loosens the other and pulls.

The 緒 o is drawn towards the body and the knot opens.

The tiny tea container and pouch are turned a quarter turn and each side of the gathered fabric is pulled flat. The tiny object and its covering are then placed in the left palm and each side of the cloth is peeled away with the heal of the right hand.

The chaire is then lifted out of the pouch and placed before the chawan.

The shifuku is placed beside the mizusashi.

In preparing a bowl of tea, each step flows into the next. In a similar fashion, Winter emerges each day. At no time does one day seem more different than the next. The change over time is gradual until one suddenly realizes the truth of what it means to be cold, to see ice, to know what snow feels like and how it sounds as is falls. In the tearoom, the stillness is broke too by action, silence broken by the sound of the kettle coming to a boil, of the gentle setting down of wares, of the gliding of cloth over objects as they are cleansed.

The folding of the 袱紗 fukusa comes first with an inhalation and the sensation of cold air filling my chest. The left hand grips the silken cloth and pulls it from the side pocket of my Winter jacket. Pinched with the thumb and index finger of my right hand, I open it along one of its folded corners as if lifting a page from a book. I lift it upward and the cloth unfurls. with my left hand, I fold the cloth in midair into a series of triangular corrugations and then over onto itself. It is folded and then folded once again, moving from the right hand to the left and then back again.

With the left hand, the chaire is brought upward and cloth and tea container meet. The chaire is turned against the smooth silk fabric of the fukusa, first cleansing the sides. The fukusa is then pinched and the corners are used to lightly cleanse the lid of the tea container. The lid is then lifted momentarily to inspect that the chaire contains tea, and the chaire is closed once again.

Once the tea container is placed down, now between mizusashi and okiro, my gaze shifts to the teabowl with its collected wares. First the fukusa is refolded and the chashaku is cleansed. The silk cloth runs over the thin handle and carved top of the cedar scoop several times. It is then placed atop the white bone cover of the chaire, beside the nodule that is unique to the 瓶子づくの牙蓋 heishi-zuku no gebuta style lid, the shape of which is reminiscent of ancient jars used to hold offertory 酒 sake in 神道 Shintō shrines. The angle in which it is set points away from me towards the crack in the door that I entered, towards a small shaft of light that tells me that morning’s time continues to pass.

I breathe again and lift the chasen out from the deep-set teabowl and place it beside the resting chaire and chashaku. The line that the whisk and tea container creates connects the space between the place of the cold water container and the position of the okiro, the heat of the hearth, and the element of water boiling within the void of the iron kettle. Between this small space is contained all that is needed to make a bowl of tea. Heat and cold. Fire and water. Metal and wood. Leaf and clay. Space and the air between.

The bowl is moved forward, the 茶巾 chakin is pulled from its interior, refolded, and placed momentarily atop the lid of the mizusashi.

I breathe and, upon the exhalation, I reach for the long thin handle of the hishaku that has been resting parallel to my right thigh. I shift the water scoop from right hand to left. With my right hand, I return to lift the chakin, pinched between thumb and the first two fingers. The angle of my arms opens up as keep the hishaku stationary, pointed cup facing upward, in line with my left thigh, while I move my right arm to reach to uncover the boiling kettle. I use the chakin, pinched between my forefingers and thumb, to grasp the hollow copper knob of the kettle’s lid. The thin, folded linen cloth protects my hand as I tilt and lift the circular metal top from the boiling 茶釜 chagama.

Steam rises wildly from the kettle as I remove the lid and place it atop the cut bamboo futaoki. I let go of the hollow bronze finial of the lid and rest the chakin beside it. The shadows these resting objects cast are dark and muted in the low light that filters through the sole window of my makeshift tea hut.

I transfer hishaku from left to right hand and dip its bamboo cup into the hot and boiling water of the kama. The stippled and curved shape of the ladle disappears in the dark world of the kettle’s interior, reappearing filled with bright clear water.

For a moment I naturally pause, the cup of the hishaku hovering above the open mouth of the chawan.

A moment more and, with the turn of my arm, the water cascades into the empty teabowl.

I set hishaku down upon the open kettle, its cup turned downward, the flat side of the bamboo handle rests against both the rim of the kettle’s mouth and the pine wooden edge of the okiro.

I return my gaze to the teabowl. Clear, clean, steaming water glistening within its concave interior. What little light of the morning enters and curves against the edge of the water that meets the inside surface of the bowl. Colors and cracks and crazed glazes come forth from what were once dull features. The heat and the liveliness of the boiled water reanimates the body of this small, handheld tea vessel that hasn’t yet been used since last when Winter’s words were spoken, during the final moments of the cold months, before Spring’s arrival, as the days grew incrementally lighter. Today, on the shortest day of the year, the darkest of days, seeing this bowl again is like being visited by an old friend. The passage of time, of the almost twenty years now since I first made tea with this bowl. The decades seem as if they are momentarily forgotten as I peer down at the bowl, the sparkling light through the water, remembering when we were both much younger than we are now.

I lift and dip the bamboo chasen into the warm water held within the chawan. The carved and sharpened tines fade into the shadows and the steam.

Pressing and whisking and placing the chasen back beside the chaire. Lifting and turning and warming the round teabowl in my hands before I pour its contents out into the until now empty kensui. I catch the last drop of hot water with the folded chakin and begin to use this simple moistened cloth to cleans both rim and interior of bowl.

Surfaces where lips will touch, where tea will be made. These are wiped and made clean, both for the eyes and for the mind. As I cleanse the bowl, it remains firm in my hands. Whereas other schools may tilt the bowl, my school holds it level, steady, keeping it upright as a gesture of respect and reverence to the object. The bowl is set down in a similar manner, leaving the chakin pressed against its inner edge.

The moistened cloth is then plucked up by the right hand, placed into the left, and then refolded to be set down again atop the kettle’s lid.

For a brief moment, everything in the tearoom is still, save for the rolling water of the boiling kettle. The shadows of the morning light rest on each object, collecting in dark pools.

The deep, narrow concave of the round 鉄鉢形茶碗 tetsubachi-nari chawan (iron basin-shaped teabowl) seems especially dark in the low light of the Winter solstice. A faint layer of steam still rising off of its red and umber glazed skin.

Minute amounts of still warm water collected in the tiny fissures that mark where heat caused expansion in the kiln sparkle like snow and ice.

I set forth to begin to make tea, a hearty bowl of koicha to fortify my spirit and body on a cold day. I grip the thin handle of the chashaku between my thumb and fingers of my right hand and bring it towards my body within the span of one exhalation and inhalation. One out breath and I reach for the chaire with my left hand. One in breath and I bring the tiny ceramic jar towards me.

The lid is removed with the right hand and is placed beside the teabowl.

The chaire is brought down to the level of the chawan’s rim and the chashaku is dipped into the dark open void of the tea container, the carved cedar scoop disappears in the shadows cast by the low light of the early morning.

Three heaps of powdered tea are placed into the center of the bowl and the chashaku is placed at an angle along the edge of the iron basin-shaped chawan.

The chaire is held in both hands and is tilted and turned slowly over the teabowl, sending a thin, bright green cascade of 抹茶 matcha downward, piling into an ever-growing mound of tea at the center of the chawan. Once fully emptied, the chaire is turned upward again, the lid placed back upon it, and the small ceramic tea jar is set back beside the chasen.

I lift the chashaku once more, and with its rounded tip, carve the sigil of my school into the small hill of powdered tea.

With chaire, scoop, and bowl at rest, I draw a scoop of hot water from the boiling kettle. Carefully, I pour a small measure of the water down upon the mound of green tea, focusing my awareness on how much water I am adding and what initial effect it will have on the matcha. I pour the remaining water in the hishaku’s cup to the kettle.

I return the bamboo ladle back to the kettle and lift the chasen with my right hand. With my left hand forming a half moon shape, I grip the side of the teabowl to steady it against the wooden floor of my makeshift tea hut. With my right hand, I bring the chasen downward into the hollow of the chawan, pressing down into the wetted mound of matcha and begin to slowly and methodically whisk the concoction into a thick, even paste.

As I stare down into the dark world that exists within the teabowl, I feel as if it is a mirror to the world which I currently occupy. Dark yet warm and full of activity, creation, transformation. To successfully produce a bowl of 濃茶 koicha requires a keen understanding of uncertainty and meeting a multitude of challenges. In the cold of Winter, the kettle requires a higher heat. In the dark of the year’s shortest day, one cannot see clearly into the depths of the teabowl and, therefore, must feel one’s way through the action, as water and tea combine into one fluid matter.

At this point, all one has is the senses. The feeling of the resistance of the tea as it slowly melds and blends. The intense aroma of matcha as it lifts upwards into the cold air of the tea space. The sound of the whisk as it slowly pushes through the thick tea liquid.

I move the handle of the chasen from right hand to left, keeping the tines inside of the teabowl. With right hand, I lift and dip the ladle into the hot boiling water of the kettle, drawing from it another draught. Carefully, calmly, I inhale as I bring the hishaku’s cup down towards the bowl. I exhale and let a minute amount of hot water pass from ladle’s bamboo cup through the tea-covered tines of the chasen whisk to the dark interior of the teabowl.

指湯 sashi-yu. Adding more hot water so one can adjust the thickness of the tea. If this is done correctly, it means that the koicha’s consistency will be perfect. Too much water and it becomes too thin. Not enough and the reason won’t flow down the tall, narrow walls of this particular teabowl. In this practice, experience leads to balance.

I return the remaining water in the ladle’s cup back to the kettle and set the hishaku back upon the kama and okiro. Breathing inward, I return my focus to whisking tea. Breathing outward, I press the whisk back and forth, slowly, attentively, until the mixture is even, the surface of the liquid flat, glossy, mirror-like akin to that of lacquer.

I lift the whisk upward above the bowl and turn it right-side-up in mid-air. A thick coating of koicha still clings to the cut bamboo tines of the chasen.

I set the whisk back down beside the chaire, beside the carved cedar scoop.

For a moment I sit once more, pausing to hear the sound of the kettle, to the breeze pushing through the pine trees that tower over this simple garden shed, to the large iron bell that hangs beneath the eaves of my home on the other side of the curving stone path.

The bustling world outside the quiet of the tea hut. The chaos and clammed as people rush from this place and that in preparations for the holidays and for the year’s end. The craziness of the current state of the world and the death that hangs heavy in the air. The fear, the sadness, the longing and grief.

To think this is kept at bay by these thin walls of mine, to fool one’s self into thinking that the crack in the door that lets in the light of the early morning won’t also let these energies pour forth into here as well. To resist the crashing waves only leads to one’s collapse. To dive deep into the swirling and turbulent times may prove to be a wiser choice.

In the dim light of my garden shed, the koicha I’ve made looks especially dark. As I lift the bowl to turn it and place it in the guest position, I notice how the light wraps around its round, globe-like shape. How the shadows it casts stretch and crawl across the chaotic patterns upon the plywood floor. How the edges of these shadows fade into light so that the boundary between light and darkness is not defined but permeable, nebulous.

As I stand up and reposition myself to accept the bowl of tea as a guest, I’m given a new perspective of the space I’ve been sitting in. From this vantage point the light is brighter, catching in the wisps and plumes of steam that rise from the kettle’s open mouth. I see the shaded outlines of bare tree branches, of roof tops in the distance, of ice crystals that form at the edges around the sole window pane. I see the dark lustrous emerald green of the warm, flat, lacquer-like surface of tea that I’ve produced for myself as host enjoy by myself as guest.

The small world of the empty tea room feels both constrained and expansive. The space between where I once sat and where I sit now seems a world away, yet barely an arm’s length.

The alcove in the corner, with its lone burning candle light shimmers and glows, flickering with the wind that creeps between the boards, between the joined edges of walls.

I lift the bowl of tea and drink from it whole heartedly. The liquid is thick, warm, awakening. The bitter and bittersweet of koicha is arresting. A shock to the system. All previously drowsiness abated. The instantaneous quality of the moment made incredibly clear.

I tilt the chawan back again and drink twice more from it, the remainder of the tea is reduced to a thick coating upon the inside of the bowl. I set it down once more before me to appreciate its shape, its dried persimmon-like color, the upward path of the residual koicha along its inner walls.

I return the bowl back to the host’s position and return myself to the position of the host. Before I opt to cleanse the bowl, to close-up my day’s tea practice, and to close-up the small tea hut to retreat once more into the warm interior of my studio space, I decide to use the remaining tea left in the chawan to make a bowl of 薄茶 usucha.

To do this, I draw cool water first from the mizusashi and blend it with the hot water of the kama. Next, I draw water from the now cooler kettle and pour half-a-ladle’s-worth into the bowl.

I whisk the tea in a vigorous manner, pulling it from the inner walls of the teabowl and whipping it into a bright, light foam.

I pause for a moment more as I enjoy the sight of this impromptu bowl of tea. Observing how the light of the day dances on the surface made of tiny bubbles. It serves as a reminder that even in these dark days there is still light, however minute they may be. It is found clinging to the imperfect, rough surfaces of everyday life, of practice, of the choices we make, as we take time to sit and be silent with ourselves away from the clamoring masses and social requirements. The light of meditation found in the dark corner of an old, run-down garden shed at the edge of a small forest.

I lift and turn the bowl and silently thank the madness of the world that pushed me to take time to be alone. I tilt and drink up the last bowl of tea made from the waters of the last kettle of the year’s end. It is sweet, bright, sparkling with a gentle flavor that lingers.

As I place the bow in my hands to inspect it, I gaze upon the small collection of foam against its dimpled surface. The depth of darkness of this deep-set bowl. Light and the residue of tea just eking-out a foothold.

With cool water I cleanse the bowl finally. I place the chakin back within its hollow form.

I set the chasen against the fold of the linen cloth, the thin bamboo tines silhouetted against its pale white woven surface.

I cleanse the chashaku once more with the folded silk of the fukusa and place it down upon the rounded rim of the teabowl.

I return chawan and chaire before the mizusashi. Cool water is placed once more into the steaming center of the boiling pot. The lid placed once again on top. The hiss and tumble of water settles momentarily to a quiet stop.

In the stillness that exists as the water cools and the light shifts, I put objects at rest.

The hishaku is placed atop the kensui and the bamboo lid rest placed below it.

Items once used to prepare tea are then arranged once more to be viewed and appreciated in a simple 拝見 haiken.

An old 香盆 kōban incense tray becomes an open field upon which objects are placed upon. First the carved lid of the chaire is set on its side, waiting as its corresponding other half is cleansed.

When they finally meet again and are placed upon the tray they appear jewel-like in the low glow of the morning light.

Next, the shifuku is lifted from its resting place beside the mizusashi and is formed in the hand to appear full, voluminous. It is placed down beside the chaire it had first enrobed, now both empty of their hallowed contents.

Finally, the carved chashaku scoop is set between both brocaded pouch and small tea jar.

These, the tools that came into contact with the tea.

Offered up to the guest to enjoy once more before they are, like a memory, packed away.

Warm light cast against cooling objects. Dark pools of shadows collecting in corners. Set within the alcove there is a single candle light. No flower for this gathering. Just the flicker of a flame and the cold iron rings of the kettle’s 鐶 kan set on old weathered Beacon brick. Dark days for this moment in time, followed by the deepening of Winter’s cold. This, the last kettle for the old year. What potential to come from its boiling and bubbling core? What will come from the chaos with its dark interior? Perhaps it will engender this practice of mine as I sit in these shadows now.

2 Comments

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

Let Life Get in the Way

It’s the morning of the ninth day of the ninth month. In the old lunisolar calendar, this is Chrysanthemum Festival. Sitting in my studio, looking out across the garden, vines wrapped around the trellis, flowers of the bitter melon bursting against a dark green canvas, I think about the months that have passed since I’ve given myself time to write, to put thoughts down on page.

The cicada’s hum seems to now be giving way to the sound of field crickets, to the call of crows, to the geese and katydid. Gone is the heat that, as a tea person, I sought to abate with references to water, to coolness, to impossible ice. Soon, the decay of Autumn will be all around me. Winter’s withered repose soon there after.

To sit and ask “what happened?” or “how did I get here?” will not do. Questions of the past rarely help to give a clear picture of the present. Instead, as I sit, I find myself using the stillness as an opportunity to examine my current practice and reflect on this Summer as a great moment of change.

It began amidst a flurry of activity. I had become engaged to my partner earlier in the end of Winter-beginning of Spring, and found myself planning for a wedding in the time of an unpredictable pandemic. For what “free time” I was sporadically given, I used most of it to piece together the logistics and physical material that would eventually make up the wedding celebration. Like a massive 茶事 chaji, I threw myself into the act, ideating with my partner, collectively envisioning what a day built on intention and mindfulness would look like. In those brief in-between moments, I would make tea.

As the heat of Summer climbed, I sought momentary solace in my garden shed. With resources and time stretched thin, my hopes of transforming the meager structure into a full-fledged 茶室 chashitsu was put on hold. The result was a meditation on what life gave me. A weather-worn hut. Barely walls enough to keep the rain out, barely doors firm enough to keep a mouse or squirrel from wandering in. Spiders clinging to the rafters. A butterfly caught against the window pane, let free to soar skyward.

The hut became a refuge against the world outside. The path became grown-over. Slick with dew in the morning, the high humidity of the day left the stones wet until dusk.

Inside the shack, I made impromptu 点前 temae. 葉蓋点前 Habuta-temae became my regular favorite, using leaves from the local maple trees found around my property.

Hydrangea from my garden glistened in my makeshift 床の間 tokonoma.

Mulberries from the woods made for a readily available 和菓子 wagashi, their uneven leaves providing for a perfect surface to set them upon.

Old wares kept me company.

A shallow tea bowl from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279) became my Summer bowl.

A 茶杓 chashaku fashioned from speckled bamboo became my wish for rain.

The light that gathered on the plywood floor of my teahouse was the first to fill the cup of my 柄杓 hishaku, well before hot or cool water did.

It was a world of light and a world of shadow. A realm to calm the mind, to cool the soul.

The practice that evolved over the Summer, from one tea session to the next, came in fits as starts. All the while, I felt my hands becoming steadier, my form more fluid. Subtle adjustments that had come from regular practice joined now with accepted muscle memory.

Water from kettle to 茶碗 chawan. Light flooding into water, illuminating the interior of the small, shallow bowl.

Tines of the 茶筅 chasen opened up. The practice expanded into regions of my life I had not anticipated.

The mere act of setting down the tea scoop lost its gravitas. In exchange came the ordinary.

Wiping of the tea bowl from when it was first wetted felt like polishing a mirror, in that I could see my reflection on the action.

Cool light against a warm ceramic surface. Woven textures. Rumpled edges. Old fabric, as old as my practice.

The steam that rose from the 茶釜 chagama and the freedom of being able to make tea outside of the home gave me a new sense of levity against the deadlines and time stamps that came with planning a wedding and building a life. Work felt like it was somewhere else, somewhere outside the four thin plywood walls of my tearoom. The regular roar of a far-off road a reminder of how busy everyone and everything can be. The hum and hiss of the kettle became a quiet reminder of the need to stop everything. To sit and practice.

Scooping tea from the wooden interior of an old 平棗 hira-natsume felt like Summer. Deep, soft, luscious tea powder placed into a crisp blue-green celadon bowl. The mark of my school’s sigil upon the bright green mound.

The delicate tap and bell-like sound that rang from the small shallow bowl.

The shadows that collected in the concave, in the pits and scratches, the ripples and edges fashioned and formed a thousand years ago.

The kiln of life shaping me now as I practiced tea in the heat of a Summer morning, in the scant spare time I gave myself, in the brief interludes between work and work after work.

The lifting of the large maple leaf off of the glass 水指 mizusashi.

Folding it and placing it into the dark void of the 建水 kensui.

Dipping the ladle into the depths of the cool water so as to bring it forth and let it mix and coalesce with the bubbling boiling water of the 釜 kama. Fierce forces merging with the gentle. Quiet and still with moving and churning. Sitting amongst these forces, the mind isn’t given the chance to discern which is “right” or “wrong”. No value to these elements as they conjoin. Instead, just a reverence for their place within a practice. Their importance to the moment. As important as the tea. As important as the wares. As important as the space they all occupy. As important as the persons who brought them into being.

Tea and water are brought together, first in a great wave, one upon the other.

Whisked and whipped into a single concoction, both combine, suspended one alongside the other.

The bowl is lifted and passed.

I, practicing alone, move to the space of the guest and delight in the flavor of wild fruit before enjoying the soft, bittersweet flavor of tea.

Light gathers upon the foamed 薄茶 usucha.

Sipped and savored and gone, the empty interior of the tea bowl feels vacant.

Warmth still radiated from its clay and glazed body. The scent of tea still lingered in the air. The afterglow of a moment still present.

Cleaned and objects put away, the practice in the shed did not end when it was over. The steady pace of work and life kept on and pushed me forward.

Tomatoes grow green on the vine, slowly turning red as they ripened.

Okra flowers blossomed and bloomed and bore their bright green and red pods.

Ground cherries formed little lanterns upon their hairy stems.

My partner and I wed, first over a bowl of tea, then before our friends and family. Like a beautiful storm, it came and passed, and scattered all who came to witness the moment back across the earth, back to their homes and back into memories. Now, savoring the flavor of the tea that was served in silver and shared between my love and I, it’s impossible to encapsulate the experience of this Summer in words alone.

There were sounds, sensations, scents. A great fragrance made of a myriad of qualities wafted through the terrible and terrific world and kept me buoyant throughout it all. Stress and pressure would sometimes rise and crescendo, but in moments like this, I’d walk across the garden and find time with myself alone.

Now as Summer is gone and Autumn is here, the clinging to desires, to goals, to wants and needs, seems to have mellowed. Where once I had wracked my mind to write and to perform the very best I could, to turn each moment with tea into poetry, each allotted time at work into productivity, I’ve now since let this give way to a settled practice.

I am reminded of sitting by a rushing stream; its movements fluid and sure. Water passes over the rocks and around the rocks. Rocks and trees and mountains get in the way of the water and yet a river forms between them. Letting life get in the way of practice does not hinder it but shapes it. Let life get in the way. Assuredly, your practice will form around it, with it, conjoining into one form, one concoction of the surrounding elements.

As Summer turns to Autumn, the earth cools again. The skies, once a bright azure, turn a buff grey. The pumpkin blossoms bloom.

The wild grape leaves grow weathered more and more each day.

Old carrot flowers dry beside fresh morning glories.

The path and the first fallen leaves.

****

As a final note: Thanks to Sam Bufalo LLC, @sambufalo for the photo of the outdoor tea gathering!

4 Comments

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

The Sun Shakes Off the Snow

Sometimes Winter stays. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to want to go away. A cold day can last for hours but feel like an eternity. There is a somber quality to snow; it blankets the ground, producing a clean white canvas where trees and rocks and hills are reduced to minimal shapes. This might feel like a welcoming world for those who enjoy the stark quietude that arises from this setting. For others, this icy encasement is a tomb. Cold, barren, deathlike.

Yet, assuredly, Winter slowly fades. Not all at once, but like someone who is waking from a long sleep. Feeling returns to the body. Light becomes perceivable through the thin membrane of the eyelids, through the crisscrossed latticework of lashes. Eyes open. Forms begin to materialize. In these moments between slumber and waking, we forget our dreams and the inexplicable unease of a nightmare. Visions that once enthralled us are now inaccessible, the chasm of unconsciousness too vast to cross.

As Winter thaws and its icy grip loosens, Spring’s warm light slowly creeps in. The sun shakes off the snow, causing crystalline cascades to crash down from the bowed limbs of pine trees. Birds emerge from their hideaways. Rabbits lollop and bound over snowdrifts. Foxes dart and skip from the corners between garden and forest. Shadows bend and play in the new light that comes with this time, running over mounds and valleys articulated in the melting snow. Water drips from the eves of my house, from the standing pole in the field. The old lunisolar calendar is right. This is the first of Spring. 입춘 Ipchun (立春 Lìchūn in Mandarin, Risshun in Japanese , Lập xuân in Vietnamese). The first solar term of the new year.

As the Northern Hemisphere warms, humans, caught in their myriad of global existential crises, still seem locked, frozen in place. Nature always seems to be one step ahead of the human world, waking before them. Spring winds begin to blow, the first buds form on the iron-like plum branches, and cracks form across the ice that covers ponds, snapping and popping and echoing in the silence of the cold.

I sit inside my indoor tea space, waiting, wanting to reconnect with friends I haven’t seen since this pandemic, friends whom I haven’t seen for years. Staring across the rolling hills of snow in my garden, I hear footsteps tread across the path to my front door.

A package from a dear friend in Korea bearing gifts wrapped in red and yellow handmade paper, tied up in colorful thread. Although I haven’t seen this friend in over a decade now, the package awakens memories of when we first met, one frigid Winter long ago. I spread the gifts across the long-stretched length of my wooden tea table. A world wrapped in snow. Gifts wrapped in paper.

I slowly pull the ribbon way. Peel paper apart.

A bundle of tea, compressed within a tube of bamboo. 죽통차 jugtongcha. Bamboo tube tea. I am elated. A tea I’ve never tried before. Although similar to 後發酵茶 hòu fājiào chá of Southwest China, 후발효차 hubalhyocha (post-fermented dark tea) is distinctively its own form of tea. Produced from semi-wild tea leaves grown on the slopes of 지리산 Jirisan in South Korea, the leaves will undoubtedly be a tangled mix of compressed green tea buds.

Printed upon the small packet in Chinese characters (oftentimes reserved for honorific names) is the tea’s poetic name 「碧芽春 」Biyachun. “Azure Bud of Spring”. A nod to what is soon to come. I gently feel the shape of the compressed tea through the white paper covering before setting it down and moving on to the next package.

This neatly wrapped item is heavier in the hand. Something solid with mass is hidden within the paper sheath.

I remove the tied string and paper to reveal a small, high-shouldered 분청사기 buncheong-jagi vase. I set it down and appreciate its form and beautiful blush and grey color. Closer inspection shows a fine network of crazing upon its surface and small iron-oxide spots formed by the heat of the kiln.

I pick the vessel up, roll it in my hands. Enjoy its pure and deceptively simple shape. I upend the piece and set it down to inspect its base. The mark of famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun. A favorite of my friend. This is truly a gift.

I return the small vase back to its upright position and begin to unwrap the final package.

It is light, almost as if it were just the paper itself.

Loosening the red paper cover, I find the contents to be roll of dark cloth, hand-stitched with red thread along the edges.

As I unfurl the woven fabric, I recognize what it is: a 다포 dapo (茶布 chá bù in Mandarin). A cloth for setting teaware upon.

This is special. This is a surface upon which tea can be made, a plane upon which possibilities are endless. The color is surprising, unusual. It is the result of a traditional permission tannin dying technique. The edges stitched by my friend’s hand. The three items are a call to action, to set the kettle to boil, and to slow down and make tea. 

As if unwrapping a gift all over again, I peel the paper from the bamboo tube-packed hubalhyocha.

Picked last Spring, the tea leaves are still dark green, save for the downy silver-tipped buds that only occur during the early harvest. 

I unsheath a tea knife and begin to gently pry off a measure of tea, being mindful not to break the delicate young buds in the process.

I set the tea aside and lay out the dark cloth across my wooden tea table. Like the snow outside, the persimmon-dyed dapo is a blank canvas.

I wander out to my garden and cut a sprig of pine from the small forest. I return to the warmth of my indoor tea space and begin to arrange the wares upon the long cloth. The pine is placed into the buncheong-jagi vase.

A wooden tea tray and square of woven hemp cloth are placed atop the dark fabric.

Atop this I place a buncheong-jagi teapot and 숙우 sookwoo. An archer’s thumb ring for a lid rest.

Matching cups are placed one on top of the other. Wooden cup stands are stacked beside them.

A tea scoop made of bamboo with a poem is placed along with these objects.

The heat of the kettle rises and steam begins to coil upwards from the iron spout.

I place the measure of tea into the upturned bamboo scoop.

I arrange the wooden cup stands. I place the cups upon them.

I breath and lift the iron kettle from the heat of the brazier and pour a draught of hot water into the sookwoo. The grey and white glaze of the ceramic reacts to the warmth of the water, deepening in tone, revealing a new array of colors. Blues and pinks, purple and amber emerge from the clay.

As the water heats the sookwoo, I remove the lid from the teapot, setting it down atop the archer’s ring.

Water is then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

From teapot to cups.

As the three small cups warm, the measure of tea is further broken down and placed into the open cavity of the teapot. A gentle scent of tea rises, the first hint of what is to come. It is sweet, tannic, reminiscent of the soft aroma of Spring rain.

Water is once again poured into the sookwoo and then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

The lid is placed back upon the teapot and the tea is left to steep. One after the next, the cups are emptied, their clay bodies warmed by the heat of the water, ready to receive the first steeping of tea. I do not let the tea brew for long, knowing that, regardless, this tea will be powerful.

As I pour into the cup closest to me (usually the “host’s cup” in the traditional 茶禮/다례 darye “tea rite”), I inspect the initial color of the tea, determining whether it is ready to be fully decanted. The color is lively, deep, golden. As I begin to pour into the cup furthest from me, I see the color of the tea’s liqueur darken. The next cup is slightly darker. The cup nearest me darkens with the additional pouring. I move back the the remaining cups, adding tea to them and back the the host cup. The final drops of tea are distributed to each cup until the teapot is fully emptied of liquid.

The pot is returned to its resting position and lid removed to allow the leaves to cool, for the remaining heat to rise out of the pot.

Three cups of tea for myself and two unknown guests.

This number frequently appears in traditional East Asian numerology. It is the number of strength during tough times. The number of heaven, earth, and humanity. It is the number of Buddhist “jewels”, the three “refuges” of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

In Winter, it takes on another meaning too. As Winter is at its coldest, it is said that only three plants survive to Spring. The pine. The bamboo. The plum. Poetically, these are called the “Three Friends of Winter”. 歲寒三友/세한삼우 Sehansam-u in Korean (Suìhán sānyǒu in Mandarin, Saikan san’yū in Japanese, Tuế hàn tam hữu in Vietnamese).

I pause for a moment and reflect upon this. Friends making it through challenges together and making it to Spring.

Outside my window, snow still remains. Shadows stretch across the sparkling hills and icy drifts. The desiccated stocks of yarrow and grass poke up here and there.

Small plants peak out from icy holes from where they once grew in Spring and Summer.

Inside are warm cups of tea. A kettle boiling. What treasures these are! Old friends and memories!

The tea, the vase, the hand-stitched dapo; these are reminders of resilience. Long after the tea is gone, the last leaf steeped, long after the ceramic vase breaks, long after the deep color of the dark cloth fades; friendship will make it through to the next season, to the next lifetime.

I raise the first of three small cups to my lips and savor its beautiful aroma. Rich, warm, akin to the skin of a dried persimmon. I take a first sip. Wild, active flavors dance across my tongue, filling my mouth. It is nothing like any other tea I’ve had before. Not bitter but full-bodied. Not smoky or excessively dry, but juicy and alive.

Hints of pine resin, of tart forest berry and grape leaf. Marigold, honeysuckle, and bamboo pith. As I finish the cup, final notes of walnut skin and apricot arise. A distinctive minerality and mallow texture coats the cheeks and throat. It lingers and does not fade. I drink the second and third cup and, each time, the flavors grow in their intensity, piling up like the many thin layers of snow outside my window.

As I sit, radiant in the sensations that come from enjoying a fine tea, I pour a second draught of hot water from the kettle into the sookwoo.

Steam rises, catching sunlight. I pour the cooling water into the teapot, submerging the leaves once again. In the daylight, they begin to look more alive. Their verdant colors awaken more. Their aroma becomes more pronounced.

I place the lid back atop the small mottled grey pot and wait again for the tea to steep. The kettle sighs as it boils.

The cups sit empty, waiting for a second pour.

The bamboo scoop, with its poetry carved, rests. Who knows when next it will be call upon in service for making tea. Light filters through the sprig of pine.

I lift the teapot and begin to pour the tea again. First to the cup nearest me.

Next, to the cup furthest away. Then back and forth, from cup to cup, until each is full of the golden liqueur.

I lay the pot down again. The lid placed back upon the archer’s ring. The second steeping was intentionally faster, pulling back to express more delicate flavors.

The color of the cup is lighter, brighter. Gone is the intensity, but each flavor remains strong, pronounced.

I sit with the tea for several hours more, letting the kettle rise to a boil, refreshing it with cool water.

Outside my window, the light dims as afternoon recedes to evening. The sun settles its final beams down across the snowy landscape of my garden. Icicles hang from the plum tree beside my home, catching light. Leaves in my teapot rest.

This time I’ve had, tucked beneath the mountains that stretch along the Hudson, has revealed to me the microcosm that each season brings. There are minute steps that the world takes away from the cold of Winter and to the opening of Spring. Almost imperceptible is this transit, evinced only in the subtle shift in sunlight or the way the wind curls and carries warmth where once it produced a chill.

Friendship, too, slowly transforms, evolves, deepens even as the time between meeting widens. This change, like the incalculable shifts that occur between seasons, are not always felt. Perhaps like the seasons, it is when we are inspired by our friends to endure and to create despite all our challenges, that we feel their presence the most.

While the snow remains, Spring slowly approaches. Indeed, it is already here.

10 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, Education, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

The Cold Earth

The journey through Winter unfolds like a walk into the wilderness. At first, it comes with the frost that overtakes the garden and is retained at its edges. The hoary frost that clings and encapsulates toothed leaves.

The freeze that finally takes the last remaining chrysanthemums.

The jagged crystalline structures that accentuate the natural geometry of twisting artemisia.

These are the final sounding knells of late Autumn as it succumbs to the dormancy of the cold season. After this point, Winter has begun. We and the whole world around us is engulfed. The untamed wild that is Winter will only feel deeper, darker, more formidable as time progresses.

The depth of Winter does not come until late January. While each day is growing lighter, temperatures continue to plummet until the earth grows hard and the mountain streams freeze over. Here, one must harden the self and to test one’s resolve in their practice.

Since moving my life closer to the mountains and streams, I’ve become evermore aware of the seasons’ cycle, their waxing and waning, entrance and climax.

Now in the depth of Winter, the mountains remain locked in ice. While not constant, when it does snow, it stays, no longer melting as it had in early January.

The garden is blanketed in white. Neighboring houses appear through the gaps between the trees, as if huddled to stay warm. On the coldest day, the apex of what is known in Japanese as 大寒 Daikan (Dàhán in Mandarin), I resolve to put my practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu to the test. Since Winter began, I’ve avoided making tea within the confines of my makeshift tea hut. Its thin walls are no true barrier to the elements. Enrobed in a layer of frozen snow, it is a difficult place to envision making and enjoying a bowl of tea. However, on the coldest day of the year, when temperatures dip to their lowest, it seems evermore a welcoming challenge.

Packing up wares and kettle, scroll and an ad hoc portable 置炉 okiro made of leftover floorboards, I make my way across the snowy garden, down a stone path to the small tea hut. As I walk, I note how even the garden has been transformed by Winter’s grip. Shapes become obscured, softened.

The thorny patch of wineberry and roses are coated in downy snow.

Rough stumps look like ink-painted mountains envisioned by 范寬 Fàn Kuān (c. 960- c. 1030). Have I, too, become a traveler among mountains and streams?

I walk over carved stepping stones, their chiseled edges wrapped in a layer of snow. I feel a tinge of sadness having disturbed their perfect, untouched form.

Even in the coldest of extremes, I notice moss still growing on the shingles roof of the wooden hut.

I push a small stone that keeps the door closed and open up the old garden shed. Cobwebs collected in the corners. Light filtering through the one window. I unroll the scroll and set the kettle to boil.

I rest the 鐶 kan upon the rough bricks that make up the 床の間 tokonoma.

For a moment, I sit and contemplate the meaning of the 掛け軸 kakejiku. 「千載一遇」Senzaiichigū. “Once in a lifetime”. Literally “to encounter once in a thousand years”. The cold is biting, even as the kettle and heat of the 炉 ro begins to warm the small interior of the hut.

I pour fresh water into the 水指 mizusashi. Before it, I place a tall 茶入 chaire, wrapped in a multicolored silken 仕服 shifuku.

In the shadows that are cast upon the surface of the rough-hewn wood. In the silence of the lonely tearoom. In the quiet that only happens when the world is covered in snow. I sit. I observe. I take in the solitary moment.

The bright spangled pigments and dimpled texture of the silken pouch. Its riotous colors against the cold white of the 鬼萩 Oni-Hagi mizusashi. The rich purple of the braided knot that keeps the lid of the chaire on tight.

I bring tea bowl and 茶筅 chasen, 茶杓 chashaku and 茶巾 chakin, and place them beside the tall chaire.

The bowl, a 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsu-chawan, is only used on the coldest days of Winter. Its high walls and slim profile help to keep the heat of the tea within its interior, keeping it warm for the guest to be served the hottest bowl of tea possible on the coldest day.

Alone, I will be both host and guest. A practitioner practicing in solitude, resolved to test his mettle against all that Winter can muster.

I position the 建水 kensui beside me. I set the 柄杓 hishaku down atop the 蓋置 futaoki. The sound of the kettle is a low, resonant hiss.

I breathe and reposition the teabowl, from left hand to right hand to down before the upper corner of the ad hoc okiro. A jumble of old floorboards. A pile of dust. I lift the chaire and place it before the tsutsu-chawan. Both bowl and tea container are of equal height.

I reach down with both hands and delicately untie the braided cord of the shifuku pouch.

I loosen the strings and gathered fabric. I peel the silk from the smooth ceramic sides of the chaire.

I place the ceramic tea container down before me. I place the shifuku beside the mizusashi. The multicolor pattern upon its dimpled surface now muted in the cold light and shadows that stretch across the floor made of the pressboard within the austere interior of the wooden hut.

I let my gaze rest upon the tall, slim chaire. The bone lid.

The iridescent drip of glaze that runs down its front. Its refinement and its rustic qualities. I lift it and cleanse it with my folded 袱紗 fukusa.

Once purified, I place it beside the lower corner of the mizusashi. The chashaku follows, cleansed and placed atop the lid of the chaire. Finally, the chasen is placed beside these objects, set between mizusashi and okiro.

All that is left is to remove the chakin and add hot water into the teabowl.

I remove the lid from the iron 茶釜 chagama.

The sound of boiling water rises, competing with the sound of the slight breeze that passes through the pine trees that hang over the hut.

The bamboo ladle is dipped into the open mouth of the old iron kettle and hot water is drawn and poured into the tube-shaped chawan. A plume of steam rises from the dark void of the teabowl. The kettle is closed again to retain its heat.

The chasen is placed lightly into the center of the teabowl. The thin tines of the bamboo whisk disappear into darkness and shadow. The whisk is softened by the heat of the water, flexed and inspected and placed back beside the chaire, between the mizusashi and okiro. The chawan is emptied and wiped with the chakin. Only the inner walls are cleansed. The bottom of the bowl is too deep to reach into.

I breathe and lift the chashaku from the atop the chaire and pause before I lift the tea container. I remove the lid and place it to the side of the tsutsu-chawan. The two become a contrast of dark and light, rough and smooth.

Even the floor provides a juxtaposition to the lid which now rests upon it. The scattered array of chipped wood and jumble of printed words; a curious canvas upon which this object has been placed.

I remove three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder from the chaire and place each, one on top of the other, into the dark center of the teabowl. Next, I lay the wooden chashaku down upon the rim of the chawan and tilt the chaire over, letting the remaining contents within it cascade downward into the teabowl.

The chaotic pile it creates is akin to the mounds of snow that have accumulated around the eaves and corners of my house, made out in vibrant green.

I replace the lid atop the chaire and set it back down between the mizusashi and chasen. I inscribe the sigil of my school into the tea with the curved top of the chashaku and tap it lightly against the inner edge of the teabowl. I bright, bell-like sound chimes from the high-fired clay of the ceramic tea vessel.

Tea powder now in bowl, I reach for the hishaku once more and remove the kettle’s lid to draw water once again. A high, constant his emerges from the mouth of the iron kettle as I pull water from it, adding a minute amount to the tea powder within the tsutsu-chawan.

I set the hishaku atop the kettle, to wait until I need it again. I reach now for the chasen, lifting it from its resting position and placing within the mixture of matcha and hot water. I slowly begin to press and knead into the two substances, methodically mixing them together until the form a thick aromatic paste. Unable to see into the bowl of tea, I rely solely on muscle memory. I feel the tea and try to recognize when it is ready.

I lift the hishaku once again from the kettle and with right hand holding the ladle and left hand lifting the chasen slightly out of the chawan, I pour a second measure of hot water into the teabowl.

I continue to mix the tea together, its consistency becoming thinner, though still viscous. The fragrance of tea filling the space, blending with the crisp scent of snow. My breath matching the slow, controlled cadence of the whisk, as I try not to let the carved bamboo blades touch the inner walls of the teabowl. Even whisking in a tube-shaped chawan is done differently, more mindfully. All of this against the backdrop of the coldest day of the year.

As I finish, I lift the whisk out of the bowl and place it upright beside the chaire, between the mizusashi and okiro.

The bowl of 濃茶 koicha is complete.

I pause and stare down at the tall chawan. A glint of green light shines back up at me from the depths of the dark vessel. Dark clay. Dark shadows. Dark pitted patterns against its inner walls. I lift the bowl and turn it so that the 正面 shōmen faces away from me. I offer a small bow and give thanks for my health, for the health of my friends and family, and for this moment, once in a lifetime.

I tilt the bowl as I bring it to my lips. The intense aroma of tea, of warm unglazed ceramic, of snow and ice, of the iron kettle and the paper scroll in the alcove. I peer down the long, dark cavern that is the tsutsu-chawan. In the dim light of the tea hut, the interior of the vessel appears mysterious, the tea an apparition at the end of a tunnel. Winter is like this. At one moment a beloved entrance into a season of togetherness, of warmth, of celebration and the coming of new possibilities. In this same moment, it is long, unending, cold and cruel, dormant and dead. In this environment of extremes, one’s practice is tested.

In the traditions of 禅 zen and the various martial arts of Japan, Winter was historically treated as such. During the coldest days, ascetic practitioners engaged in 寒稽古 kangeiko, to test the limits of their spirit. On this, the coldest day of Winter, I have been tested.

As I set down the teabowl, steam rises from my mouth and from the mouth of the tsutsu-chawan. A single trail of thick tea crawls slowly back down the inner wall of the vessel.

The deep green color caught in a streak of light that enters the empty void of the teabowl. I pour hot water into the chawan and pour this into the kensui.

I remove cool water from the mizusashi and use it to cleanse the teabowl and chasen. Extra effort is made to do this as the residual tea is thick and not easily lifted from the surface of the bowl, from the bamboo tines of the tea whisk.

Once cleansed, I place the folded chakin back into the center of the chawan. The chasen I place atop this. The chashaku, with tea dust now wiped from its curved carved tip, is set along the rim of the teabowl.

The objects, still warm to the touch, are placed beside the chaire, which has been shifted back in front of the mizusashi.

Space exists between them both.

Room enough to breathe.

Room enough to coexist. 間 ma.

Cold water it drawn from the mizusashi once more and placed into the open mouth of the boiling kettle. Cold water and hot water mix and calm the roiling boil contained in the 釜 kama. The sound, the bright and lively hiss, returns to a dull hum. There is the sound of crows cawing and sifting through the snow outside the tea hut.

The hishaku is moved from right hand into left. The bronze lid slides back onto the kettle’s mouth, set slightly ajar. A thread of steam rises from the gap. The mizusashi is closed. The hishaku and kensui are placed together.

The top of the futaoki is wiped and placed with the ladle and waste water bowl. Shadows have shifted. Light collects inside objects and concave volumes. Glaze with crackles that resemble ice. Cold, defined shapes in soft, dull sunlight.

I move the teabowl and produce a wooden tray to conduct 拝見 haiken. The grains of the old 香盤 kōban somehow remind me of time passing as I place the lid of the chaire atop this surface. Humble and ordinary are the rings on a tree. Only when cut on an angled bias do they stretch and yawn and expose themselves. Time, once deemed a collection of interchanging intervals, stripes that circle the heartwood, are pulled apart. Left to be examined as long, uneven patterns, random, chaotic, beginning and ending with no apparent meaning.

When Winter brings death and dormancy, sickness on a vast scale as we’ve seen, with these memories stretch and yawn and sear into our collective consciousness? Will we avoid them, shut them out, close the door and create walls around them as we do on this coldest of Winter’s day? What will the tree rings of time show of this year? Of the next? Of the final years that we cling to this fragile earth, now hardened and cold? Was this the coldest of day or will tomorrow be? Will this coldness never end? Are the plum branches outside my window made of iron or will they once again bloom?

「千載一遇」Senzaiichigū.

“Once in a lifetime”.

“To encounter once in a thousand years”. What will we see while we are still alive? 

The chaire is cleansed and set down. Next, the shifuku. Finally, the chashaku. Arranged beside one another. Caught in the dim light. Caught in the contrasting shadows. Against the craziness of the construction plywood and of my madness that drove me out into the cold to practice tea. Kangeiko called me and forced me to make a bowl of thick tea, to prove I could, against all odds, to live even as there is death and desolation all around me.

The empty chaire. Gold foil under its bone lid.

The silk shifuku pouch. Empty. Made of fabric of found 着物 kimono.

The wooden chashaku, carved from an evergreen.

Like those that hang over the roof of this hut.

Warm hues. Cold light of a Winter day. The rising hiss of the kettle returning. Heat radiating from its iron skin.

Haiken is a nonverbal answer to an unspoken 公案 kōan (gōng’àn in Mandarin, 공안 gong-an in Korean, công án in Vietnamese).

To provoke great doubt into one’s practice. To push it to the point where logic falls to the wayside. To the point where only known, lived truths dwell. To awaken to this.

Objects are set aside. The bowl is brought back before me.

A void. A dark mystery still.

The flame-licked exterior of the tube-shaped bowl, discolored where ash and heat brushed against its clay surface.

I lift it up slightly and roll it in my hands. The clay is still warm from when it once held the heat from the kettle, the vitality from the tea. I turn it over and inspect its 高台 kōdai. It is low-slung. Cut and carved-out.

The name of its maker, possibly that of the contemporary Bizen potter 黒田 美紀 Kuroda Miki, is barely decipherable. Small stones and pebbles and grains of sand explode out onto the exterior. A mess of reds and purples, browns and whites. Like a rejected old brick.

I return the bowl to its upright position.

The form is obscured when viewed from up close. The individual thumb prints. The pinches that pressed against the outer walls. Again, marks of its maker, but if a different kind. No name, just the reminders of the action. No words, just truth.

Does what forms the exterior also form that which is found within?

Is the surface an indicator of the void?

Tracks of a solitary animal caught crossing the snow.

An excursion out into the cold on the coldest day of Winter.

Once in a lifetime.

Perhaps, soon, the ice will melt.

6 Comments

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

What Welcomes Winter

November began and now seems as if it is almost over. What began as a last stand for Autumn’s glory now seems torn and tattered like the many leaves that still cling to the trees around my tea house. Save for the few maple trees that still hold onto their leaves, the small forest that abuts my wooden hut is bare, wind whips through the branches, whistling sweetly. Mornings are cold. The rain of October is replaced with lighter occasional showers, intermittently broken by bright blue skies of daybreak.

Frost forms. A thin surface of ice covers small pools of rainwater left on the edges of my garden. Bright red rose hips alight the otherwise colorless world. Autumn’s last hydrangeas are dry and brittle. What welcomes Winter are these minute indicators. Not one but all at the same time seem to arrive like a royal retinue, heralding the new season, forcing all beings to bow to Winter’s undeniable influence.

The tea world is not immune to these effects. Everything about the practice shifts at this time. Gone are the regular outings to the river’s edge for an impromptu 野点 nodate. The matchstick partitions and 簾 sudare blinds that once welcomed cool breezes have been folded up and stored away, not to return until Summer’s heat rises. The last of Autumn’s wild grasses are featured in the 床間 tokonoma, but hazel and Winter chrysanthemum seem more appropriate. The tea jar is cut open and the 風炉 furo is finally put away in favor for the 炉 ro. The tiny world of the tearoom becomes all the more intimate as people gather closer to the sunken hearth.

In these times of pandemic, I have only one guest, my partner, and I do not invite friends to share tea. We huddle together in the biting cold on the first day of the tenth lunar month to mark the shift in season. 立冬 Ritto. The first day of Winter on the old lunar calendar. In lieu of having a sunken hearth, I use an old 火鉢 hibachi made from a single burl of paulownia wood. In the makeshift tearoom, it, and the iron kettle set within it, are the only source of heat.

Typically, the opening of the ro (炉開 robiraki or 開炉 kairo) comes sometime between late October to early November, when the presence of Winter is first felt. The 16th century teapractitioner千利休 Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591) took a rather poetic approach, shifting to the 囲炉裏 irori only once the 柚子 yuzu turned color. Others, still, wait for the first day of the tenth lunar month. It was believed that on the tenth (double) hour of the first day of the tenth month (the hour of the boar on the first day of the month of the boar) that it would be safe to transition to a sunken hearth, as this hour was linked to the element water, ensuring a safe use of fire in the house (and tea space). I have chosen to make tea in accordance with this tradition, however, given how cold the day was, I opted to set the time earlier.

Regardless, as we enter the small tea hut, the light remains dim. Steam rises from the kettle, its lid resting at an angle. The sound of the boiling water within it produces a steady hiss, akin to the sound of wind pressing through the small forest.

With the door closed behind us, we spend a brief moment to appreciate a lone dried-out sprig of hydrangea flowers, worn and weathered yet still brilliant and sparkling like silver in the limited light of the tearoom.

As I set down in the position of host and my partner in the position of guest, I offer a bow and tea sweets made of fragrant jelly and sweet chestnut, set atop a large leaf plucked from a nearby maple tree.

Before me sits the 水指 mizusashi and 茶入 chaire enrobed in a silk 私服 shifuku pouch.

Stitched upon the green and gold brocade are the patterns of chrysanthemum and pine. One, the last echoes of Autumn. The other, the fresh arrival of new Winter’s growth. A time of transition.

I move the chaire over to the right and place the tea bowl, 茶筅 chasen and 茶杓 chashaku beside it.

Next, I bring out the 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and 蓋置 futaoki, setting these on either side of me.

Preparing tea in the ro season calls for a more intimate arrangement. The 茶碗 chawan and chaire are placed at an angle, set closer to the guest and to the heat of the sunken hearth.

As each object is cleansed, they are set between the mizusashi and kettle, bridging the gap between the source of hot fire and cool water.

The chaire is removed from the shifuku.

The chashaku is placed atop the lid of the tea container.

The chasen is placed beside this.

The chawan is brought closer to the host. Hot water is drawn from the kettle for the first time and poured into the black void of the 黒瀬戸茶碗 kuro Seto chawan. Steam rises and swirls in thin plumes as the water enters and settles into the tea bowl.

I set the flat tines of the chasen into the bowl and for a moment they catch the light that filters through the one window cut into the tearoom. The whisk and bowl are cleansed and warmed. The chasen is returned beside the chaire.

The water is poured from tea bowl to kensui. I pause and wait for the final drop of water to roll out of the chawan before wiping the vessel dry with the 茶巾 chakin.

I return the bowl before me and reach for the chashaku. I bow and motion to my partner to enjoy the sweet as I begin to prepare a bowl of tea. I bring the chaire to my center and remove the lid, placing it beside the tea bowl. I press the curved tip of the chashaku into the opening of the chaire and pull out three scoops of bright 抹茶 matcha powder.

I place the teascoop atop the rim of the chawan. As I tilt the chaire over and pour powdered tea into the tea bowl, I notice how light and shadow play off of one another. The bright green cascade of tea falling into the black bowl. The angled darkness forming from the edges of the chawan and lid of the chaire. The dark skin of the smoky-colored bamboo and the thin layer of tea clinging to it.

I lift the tea container and place the lid back atop it. I pick up the chashaku and mark the mound of tea.

I remove the lid of the iron 茶釜 chagama and pull water from it, pouring a some of the water into the chawan and over the tea and returning the rest to the kettle.

The tea is kneaded slowly with the thick, flat tines of the chasen. Slowly the concoction becomes a thick green paste. Slowly the scent of tea overtakes the aroma of incense, of the decaying leaves outside, of the fresh pine needle buds that brush against the moss-covered roof of the tea hut.

More water is added to the mixture and the tea is, again, slowly whisked until it achieves a mirror-like appearance. Light once again enters the tea bowl, illuminating now the emerald pool of thick tea.

I lift the bowl and place it in front of my partner. A bowl to share, unconventionally, between guest and host. As they lift the bowl and enjoy the first sip, I wait in silence.

As second and third sip are enjoyed, I pick up the last lone tea sweet and eat it before the tea is passed to me.

A single trail of 濃茶 koicha runs up one side of the inner wall of the tea bowl. As I lift and turn the bowl to drink from it, I make sure that I drink beside this track of tea. Slowly, as I tilt the bowl to drink from it, the koicha climbs down from the center. Light from the window bounces off the rounded well of the chawan, off the unctuous layer of tea that lines the vessel, off the minuscule pocks and pores of the black glaze. The tea slowly makes its way to my mouth and soon is gone. All that remains is a thin layer that now coats the bottom of the tea bowl.

With bowl placed once again before me, I opt to make an informal gesture and whisk the remaining tea into a bowl of 薄茶 usucha. Hot water is scooped once again from the chagama and poured into the chawan.

In the swirling steam that emanates from the tea bow, I quickly whisk a bowl of tea for my partner, offering another moment to enjoy the shift from Autumn to Winter, from something somber to something light, unexpected, relaxed. In this transition from furo to ro, the sentiment in the tea space becomes less formal and less constrained.

The ro, itself, was not part of the formal tea room arrangement, only making its way into the emerging practice of tea as the rustic aesthetic of 侘茶 wabicha became more widely adopted. Appropriating, adopting and adapting forms from kitchens, travelers’ inns and hermit huts, the sunken hearth calls host and guest to gather closer, to share the heat, to offer everything that one can muster as what is available becomes more meager in the cold Winter months. To transform the “waste” and dregs of tea as an offering to one’s guest is, itself, a gift during this time. Unconventional but welcomed. Like the ro itself, or, in the case of my makeshift tea hut, an old hibachi.

With the final bowl of tea drunk, I cleanse the bowl one last time. Water is added first from the chagama to the bowl and then poured into the kensui. Next, cool water is drawn from the mizusashi and poured into the chawan. The bowl and chasen are cleansed and placed one inside the other. The chashaku is wiped again with the 服紗 fukusa, removing the residual tea dust from the tip of the tea scoop.

The chaire is moved back to rest in front of the mizusashi. The chawan and collected wares resting within it are placed beside the chaire. A drought of cool water is added to the chagama and the lid is placed atop it.

The mizusashi is closed. The black lacquer lid appears like a dark void, caught in the angular light that beams through the small tearoom.

In the waning moments of the tea gathering, I offer 拝見 haiken to my partner, giving them a final opportunity to appreciate the tea ware and the quiet of the tea space. Each item is purified before presented.

The lid of the chaire and the chaire itself.

The shifuku is plucked from its resting position beside the mizusashi and rearranged to sit beside the chaire it once covered and protected.

Finally, the chashaku is cleaned one last time and placed between the shifuku pouch and tea container.

In the low light of the tearoom each item glows.

The glaze of the small chaire holds an iridescent golden shine.

The shifuku pouch, emblazoned in a tessellated pattern of pine and chrysanthemum, sparkles.

The hazy pattern upon the bamboo skin of chashaku appears like a moon peering through a thick clouds of night. Despite the chill in the air, the light in the tearoom is warm, echoed by the heat that radiates from the simmering kettle.

Objects are returned to the host and the chawan is offered for one last viewing. A kuro Seto tea bowl.

Coated mostly in a black glaze, the texture of which is reminiscent of the dimples surface of citrus skin (柚子黒 yuzu-guro), save for the exposed clay of the foot.

The cut calligraphic mark of the potter, 杉浦芳樹 Sugiura Yoshiki (1915-1982) catches shadow and light.

The imprint of the artist’s life left within the clay, felt by the palm of those who’ve since held his work. The imprint of this moment left in the minds of guest and host, two partners as we endeavor to make a life together amidst the chaos of the world. All set against the ever-changing constant swirl of the seasons, one transitioning into another.

What welcomes Winter is what we see and what we feel. Demarcations on a calendar, one the freezing of the earth, on the chafing colors of the leaves on the trees and on the surface of a citrus’ skin. A hole cut out in the center of a tea space. A void where once the furo sat in Summer. The exchange of one thing for another. Of time. Of things that may no longer return come the next year. Of death and decay. What welcomes Winter now may, indeed, never be seen again, save for the impressions they’ve left on our mind.

Leave a comment

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

Autumn’s Decay

Autumn wanes and all around the world seems to be settling into a state of slow, eventual decay. The fire-hued leaves on trees have mostly fallen, tumbling and collecting in copper-colored patches along the edges and corners of the garden and earthen forest floor.

Flowers have all but succumb to the chill in the air, save for the few that remain, twisted and torn. Bushes once verdant and full now appear as a threadbare patchwork of twigs and thorns and tattered pages that tell the story of a hard year gone by.

Even the stones contain a sense of cold melancholy, coated in moss and lichen and the cold dew of the morning. All that remains of Autumn is the thin offering laid before the altar of Winter to come.

A hollow hornets’ nest, a fitting home now for the whipping winds and all that is now dead. Its grey paper walls greet me this morning as I set out along the garden path to huddle in my tearoom in the biting cold.

Gone are the crickets sounding their high-pitched melodies. A lone crow caws across a silver sky.

Before I open the wooden door to my tea hut, I pluck one of the last flowers from a bristling thicket. In the dark interior of my tearoom, I place the bright yellow flower in my 床間 tokonoma. It stands stalwart, despite its damage, rising from a cut-out channel in a old red brick.

With the door now closed behind me, I sit down to prepare a solitary bowl of tea. The soft glow of morning illuminates the small space of the tearoom.

Shadows collect in the teabowl, behind the thin tines of the 茶筅 chasen, and along the woven contours of the white linen 茶巾 chakin.

The uniform grains that envelop the wooden 平棗 hira-natsume disappear into the darkness that lingers around its smoothed edges.

Scant rays of light stretch and bend around the surface of the antique metal thermos flask. In the early morning, I prepared just enough to make tea. No kettle. No brazier. Just a handful of objects, put into motion to make a bowl of 薄茶 usucha. Tea paired down to its simplest form. Just enough.

Objects are cleansed, one after the other. The natsume. The 茶杓 chashaku. The tea whisk made of mottled bamboo. The pressed-metal cap of the thermos flask is removed and steam rises upwards, catching the morning light.

The teabowl, a simple grey 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan, mirrors the colorless sky over the roof and trees and mountains that surround the tiny tea space. Flecks of vitrified sand and muted purples and blues hide in the clay, awoken as the heat of the water touches them.

I rest the thin tines of the bamboo whisk into the hot water, allowing them to open and expand outwards.

The bowl is cleansed and the refuse water is poured into the adjoining 建水 kensui.

The chakin wipes up the residual moisture inside of the bowl, refolded, and placed into the upturned cap of the thermos flask.

I breathe and for a moment am able to taste the sweet aroma of decomposing leaves mixed with morning dew. In the stillness of my tearoom, once inaudible sounds stand out. The flapping of a sparrow’s wings. The falling of a single leaf. The last drops of the previous night’s rain.

I reach out for the teascoop and wooden natsume. I measure three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha and place each into the center of the grey teabowl.

I lightly tap the edge of the teascoop against the inside rim of the chawan, knocking off the remaining tea dust that clings to the curved tip of the chashaku.

I return the natsume and scoop back to rest, one on top of the other.

I lift the chasen and place the blades of the whisk over the small mound of matcha. I breathe and lean forward to lift the thermos flask, untwisting the stopper from its metal mouth, and pouring a steady stream of hot water from it. The water runs through the thin tines of the bamboo whisk, dispersing over the tea powder. A plume of steam gusts high from the teabowl, from the thermos flask, from the space between the blades of the chasen. So thick is the steam on this cold morning that one can barely see the tea rising within the chawan.

As the steam settles, so too does the matcha, resting on the bottom of a moss-green pool of hot water. With my left hand in a half-moon shape I grip the side of the teabowl. With my right hand, I grasp the handle of the chasen. One hand steady, the other in motion.

The tea is whisked into a light foam. I lift the chasen from the surface of the freshly whisked tea and set it down beside the natsume.

In the dull glow of the early morning I sit for a moment, resting to appreciate the tea, the teaware, the way shadows amass around the edges of objects and then blur and fade into the floor, into light and into shadows.

I lift and turn the bowl and place it before where a guest would sit. I rise and reposition myself. I sit as a guest. A host becomes the guest.

I admire the teabowl and tea I’ve presented to myself. An offering of time, of effort, of a pause to practice. I lift the bowl and bring it closer to me, across the boundary that is normally demarcated by the brocaded boarders of 畳 tatami.

I bow and thank myself for this gift and, as I do, I peer into the depths of the teabowl.

Minuscule bubbles cling to one another. Huddled like leaves collected against the edge of a pond. Light collects here too, like a thin crescent moon, like a fine silver ring. I lift the bowl to my center, turn it a quarter turn twice and drink from the reverse face of the faceless chawan.

The teabowl emptied, I rest it in the palms of my hands to inspect it in the low light.

Rough clay emerges underneath unctuous glaze. The form of a potter’s knife cut edge beneath undulations of a grey coat.

Up close, the shape of the bowl is not perceived. Instead, light and shadow, articulated form and unarticulated improvisation.

Intention and chance. The form wears-away. Fine lines obscured by the randomness of coincidence.

I turn the bowl over once again and look into the center void. A stark line between light and dark.

I return it to the place of the host. Repositioned, I prepare to cleanse the bowl once more. The whisk is wetted and washed and placed with the chakin together into the open well of the teabowl. The chashaku is wiped of the last remaining particles of tea that remain on its curved carved tip.

The natsume is placed beside the teabowl. Outside my tearoom the wind whips and scatters leaves. Inside, I prepare a solitary 拝見 haiken. For this I bring forth an old 香盤 kōban. Regularly used in my previous tea space in New York City, it seems like a new object in the roughly-hewn environment of my makeshift hut.

I lift the natsume from beside the chawan and cleanse both the lid and inner rim with my folded 袱紗 fukusa.

Once cleansed, I place the tiny wooden object upon the swirling grain of the kōban.

I refold the fukusa and purify the chashaku, placing the carved scoop next to the natsume.

In the new setting of the makeshift teahouse, light and shadows enrobe each of the objects in unexpected and unfamiliar ways.

A once unobserved depth emerges from the grain of the wooden tray. Volume and form appear more pronounced in the soft morning light.

The warmth of the lathe-hewn wood.

The mysterious world captured in the smoky patterns upon the bamboo scoop.

The abruptness between surfaces, finished and unfinished.

In the world of 茶の湯 chanoyu, the boundaries between worlds is emphasized and celebrated. One often enters the tearoom through a crawl-through door, the 躙口 nijiriguchi. A refined piece of smooth lacquer if often contrasted with a piece of rustic bamboo.

The sacred space of the tokonoma often contains the most mundane of item: a single flower or a word or phrase to meditate on.

Yet, with time and through practice, these once well-defined borders begin to fray. The threshold between spaces and surfaces begin to erode. The clean lines give way to tattered edges. In the almost twenty years of practicing tea, even my fukusa has begun to look threadbare. In these almost twenty years, the once impermeable partitions between the world and the world of tea have all but been torn apart. All things, with time, decay. In the cold, late Autumn air, this truth is unavoidable.

Leave a comment

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

Early Snow

Before Autumn’s end, snow falls. I wake to the sound of sleet gently tapping against my bedroom window. Light filters through trees, silhouetted against a matte grey sky. In my kitchen, I boil water and prepare for tea.

Stepping out with teawares and thermos in hand, smooth rocks and Autumn leaves sparkle, slick with snow.

With early snow, the boundary between seasons commingles and fades. Where the fiery colors of Fall reside, now are blurred along the edges of freshly mounding snow.

Grass pushes up through the crystalline veil, as do the rocks and stones that sit along the borders of the garden path.

Crunching and cracking are the sounds of every footfall as I traverse this transformed world to the stone step that sits before the door of my makeshift hut.

Two river rocks greet me, performing their task of holding the wooden doors closed from the gusts of wind.

I remove my boots and close the door behind me. A sliver of light breaks through a gap between the doors.

A soft cascade of light pours through a single window, illuminating the space where I will sit and prepare a bowl of tea. No brazier, no 炉 ro in my makeshift teahouse. Only bare floors made of roughly-hewn plywood. Each flattened particle sparkles and beams against the diffused light. I set the old metal thermos before me.

Next, a 茶碗 chawan and a wooden 平棗 hira natsume.

Beside me, I place a crackle-glazed 建水 kensui.

I rearrange the teaware so they align to a central axis.

I cleanse the natsume and place it beside the thermos.

Next, the 茶杓 chashaku, placing it atop the natsume. As I perform each motion, I breathe. As I breathe, thin clouds of condensed air appear with each exhalation.

I remove the 茶筅 chasen from the chawan and place it upright beside the natsume.

I bring the bowl closer to me and remove the 茶巾 chakin. I slowly uncap the old thermos. Weathered steel and green metallic lacquer against the cold air. A gust of heat and steam rise from its open mouth as a stream of water enters the teabowl. I tighten the cap back atop the thermos bottle and place it again behind the chawan.

I lift the chasen and press its tines into the hot water, down against the inner void of the teabowl. Steam lifts upward as I cleanse the bamboo tea whisk. The sound of the wind outside my tearoom walls. The warmth of the water beginning to radiate out from the ceramic bowl.

I return the whisk back beside the wooden tea container and hold the teabowl in my hands. I slowly roll the vessel and the water within it until I can feel the clay become warm. I pour the excess water from the bowl into the kensui and dry it with the chakin before I place it, now empty, before me.

For a moment, I inspect the humble piece of teaware. Two swathes of dark green glaze against a cream-colored body, typical of 織部焼き Oribe-yaki ware. Two cursory images of plum blossoms painted in iron-rich pigment, today look more like snowflakes that fall and collect atop the maple trees and the wooden roof of my makeshift hut.

One blue-green drip of glaze caught mid-movement stopped as it did glide down the inner edge of the teabowl’s empty pool. Captured in suspension by the heat of the kiln, preserved now as an object of inspection for the host and guest to enjoy and ponder.

I lift the chashaku. I lift the natsume. I remove the carved wooden lid off the tea container and place it before the teabowl. I scoop three mounds of 抹茶 matcha from the natsume and place them one on top of the other in the center of the chawan, marking the pile with the sigil of my school. I tap the teascoop against the inner edge of the teabowl’s rim and return it atop the natsume.

A measure of hot water is poured over the low hillock of tea and the chasen is placed atop this. Layers of actions, one on top of the other, leave their mark. Even a snowflake makes a hole in the snowdrift as it falls from the sky. Only over time do these actions make something of substance. Something that the mind can eventually perceive.

As I whisk the tea, I focus on the sound of the hot water and the chasen, of the thickening foam and glazed ceramic. The light that comes through the one window and down upon the floor also enters the void of the teabowl as I lift the whisk and uncover the soft, flat field of prepared tea.

Minuscule bubbles collect and create low-lying drifts upon the surface of the thickened liquid.

Steam rises from the teabowl in the cold air of the tearoom. Upon the instruction of my teacher, I serve myself as if I were a guest, turning first my body and then the bowl of tea and placing it beside me. Next, I stand up and move to where the 正客 shōkyaku would sit. Here, I observe a different vantage point. The light of the room changes. The borrowed scenery from the one window of the tearoom is visible. The contents of the 床間 tokonoma can be seen. Even the teabowl looks different, as light and shadows play off of its form.

I bring the bowl towards me and set it down. I pause for just a moment and lift the bowl to my center, turning it so the 正面 shōmen faces away from me. I lift the bowl to my lips and take the first of three sips. Instantly I am caught by a realization: to take tea outside, as snow falls, is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The bitter cold. The chill of the air. The silence of the space, save for the sound of snowflakes falling upon the roof of the wooden hut. All this met with the gentle warmth that the teabowl contains. The heat that radiates outward from its ceramic skin. The same heat that enters oneself as each sip is taken.

I enjoy the remaining draughts of tea and place the bowl back before me. The dregs cling to the inside of the chawan. I lift the bowl once more and inspect it, looking first at its interior and then its exterior.

The snowflakes upon the shōmen. Persimmons on the reverse side. Early snow before Autumn’s end. Like many subtleties in life, a surprise.

I return the bowl to where the host would sit and return to cleanse the bowl and collected wares. Water is once again poured from the thermos into the chawan and then from chawan to kensui. The chakin is placed into the teabowl and the chasen on top of this. The chashaku is cleansed again, removing the residual tea dust that clings to its bamboo skin, and is placed atop the teabowl. The natsume is placed beside this. The metal cap of the thermos is secured atop the shaped steel flask and the solitary preparation of tea concludes.

The sound of snow falling upon the wooden roof of my hut increases. The scent of incense fades. A bright Autumn leaf clings to the stone step outside my makeshift hut.

Snow accumulates upon the wireframe of a garden trellis and the twisting thread of a long bean vine. Early snow before Autumn’s end.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, Matcha, Meditation, Tea