Early August and Summer’s heat peaks. Out in the garden, daylight glows radiant orange, beaming off of the flat broad maple leaves, through skin of squash flowers, through vines that crawl over the wire trellis down onto sunburst tomatoes.
In the high heat of late Summer, 大署 Taisho (Dàshǔ in Mandarin, lit. “Major Heat”), the intense warmth of the day is inescapable. Tea practice, if in the environs of my makeshift tea hut, is limited to the very early mornings or late evenings when the air is cooler and the light is low. Otherwise, I sit by the glass doors of my studio, looking out on the garden, waiting for the inevitable rainstorm to grace me with a momentary respite from the heat.
Summer rain in the Hudson Valley is frequent, so much so that I’ve begun to sense it. Bright sunlight gives way to dark clouds and warm breezes kick up, pushing the canopies of trees in great green tumbles and swirls. Within minutes, a storm can swell and, for a moment, abate the heat of the day.
As I walk and wander through the garden, enjoying vignettes of flowers and foliage, daylight dims and the first drops of rain begin to scatter.
Quickly, I pluck small, ripe fruit from beneath jagged leaves and bring them with me back into my studio space before the downpour begins to swiftly overtake me.
In my studio, the air is sweet with lingering incense. The temperature cool. The smooth surface of the wooden floorboards invite me to sit upon them and set before me an arrangement of objects for tea.
It is an informal affair. The sound of water boiling echoes the sound of rain. The shuffle of my bare feet across the floor and the quiet landing of a lacquer tray upon a flat plank of wood. Tea and teabowl. A clean cloth and utensils of bamboo. A deep breath and I let thoughts and feelings fall away.
The neatly rounded edges of a small 平棗 hira-natsume feel slick in the hand. If left to wander, the plain curving pattern of time-polished wood grain would have me imagine the cool climes of an 縁側 engawa, the kind of enclosed porch I wish my own home had on days like today.
The cream color of the old bowl is welcomed and relaxed.
The soft crazing of the antique glaze feels at ease alongside Summer’s heat and the sudden showers.
I cleanse each object.
I cleanse the bowl.
Hot water from the kettle feels refreshing and cool as it sparkles translucent, catching sunlight as it filters through the rain clouds, through the glass doors of my studio,
…through the thin cut bamboo tines of the wetted 茶筅 chasen.
Even when wiped clean does the old bowl exude freshness. Even as it sits within the wide expanse of the shallow vessel does the white linen 茶巾 chakin feel inviting like a crisp breeze.
Tea is drawn from the wooden caddy and placed down in the center of the bowl where a circle of glaze sits, surrounded by exposed clay where once the bowl had been stacked with others upon it in the kilns of Vietnam perhaps as long ago as the 14th or 15th century.
The bright green mound of freshly sifted tea glows against the soft earthen colors of the old bowl. Three scoops. A sigil is carved.
The 茶杓 chashaku is lightly tapped against the inner edge of the bowl.
Shadows collect in the cool concave.
On the hottest of Summer’s days, I relish when I am given the chance to make a bowl of tea, when I can softly set the whisk’s tines upon the heap of powdered matcha, and delight as I pour water from my kettle down through their spindling structure.
Small beads of water cling to these thin cut tines, resembling drops of dew, glittering jewels. So refreshed I feel upon seeing these that I, perhaps just for a moment, forget the heat of the day and the worries of life. I sometimes struggle not to daydream, caught in the vision of being contained with such a dewdrop.
Hand to chasen, I center myself and whisk the tea. Soon, 抹茶 matcha powder, water, bowl, motion, and breath combine, giving rise to a fine light foam. The shallow bowl cools the tea and, as I lift the whisk, a slight dome rises upwards from the center of the 茶碗 chawan.
Light dims as thunder peals and the sound of rain surrounds me. I pluck a fruit that I’d picked from my garden and remove it from its lantern skin. Tart and sweet akin to the pressed sugar sweets I once savored in tea gatherings long ago.
I pause for a moment and let the flavor of the fruit fade. I observe the time it takes for the sensation to pass. For the light to shift.
For bubbles to burst within the foam that floats upon the tea. I note time in the space it occupied, in the shape of the tea bowl, the cracks in its glaze, the unevenness of its edges.
I breathe and lift the chawan, holding it wide in the palms of my hands. The heat of the tea radiates through the clay and glaze and out onto my skin, and, although warm, the effect it has on my mind is cooling.
I watch as the matcha’s foam crawls down the inner walls of the shallow bowl. Down the cream colored slope of the surface. Down until the ring of exposed clay emerges. Down until the tea reaches my lips.
Three sips is all it takes and then it’s gone, save for a bit of residue that has collected against bubbles and bursts in the glaze.
As the storm outside settles, I cleanse the bowl and objects once more. The bowl is wiped clean and the chasen is set upright as one does in my school during the hottest days of Summer. The scoop is set beside it.
The natsume is moved once more.
Bowl and objects are placed once again atop the lacquered tray. At rest.
Summer rain and a bowl of tea. Shadows collect in concave shallows. Cool comfort and moistened surfaces. The lingering flavor of tea, of fruit from the garden, of fragrance of long faded incense. As Summer’s heat peaks, rain clouds come and cause reason for pause. As they part and the heat rises again, what did we glean from this momentary respite? Was it enough to cool the mind? Is this the first sign of Autumn?
Take the time you need. No one will give it to you otherwise.
Take the time you need it takes to boil water. To set out wares for tea. To sit.
Take the time you need to breathe in and to exhale.
Take the time you need to step away from work. To put space between you and your job. Between you and your expectations. Between the expectations you have of others and the expectations others have of you.
Take the time you need to pour boiled water into pot. Boiled water from pot to empty cup. Warmed cup to waste water bowl.
Take the time to sort through leaves, to pick those you want to steep, to place them into the open pot.
Take the time you need to inhale aromas awakening, sense flavors arising, arouse thoughts from a curious mind.
Take the time you need to brew tea leaves. As much time as you need. As much time as the tea likes to steep. As much time you like to sit.
Pour out brewed liquid into cup and take time to ponder how long it will take you to drink it up.
Take the time you need to do all of this. Again and again and again if you need.
Take the time you need to take up space, both here in this world but also in your mind and in your heart.
Take the time you need to stretch out your body, your wanting soul, your unmet desires.
Stretch each thin until opaque becomes transparent and take the time you need to explore each facet of yourself. Of your inner world and outer world. Of your insides and of your surroundings.
Take the time you need. Take all that you can spare. And when you’re done, return back to your day, knowing you’ve given yourself the time you need.
Dear Beloved Blog Reader,
Upon publishing this article, I thought I’d offer my afterthoughts on writing my 200th blogpost on Scotttea, which I’ve included below.
Thank you for your support, your feedback, your continued readership.
“Take the time you need”
Words that kept rattling around in my head.
I have not been on social media for a short bit and I plan not to be on for a while longer. Life, expectations, social and professional demands. These things can push one inwards and, hopefully, allow for an investigation into what truly matters.
Years of being on social media, fighting screen addiction, and fretting daily about am I on too much or too little has come to this. A breath. A long, drawn-out breath. I’ve chosen to just sit with this feeling and to just engage with the act of not acting, not using online life to become a replacement for the real thing.
Hikes in the forests with friends. Sunlight and the warmth of a Summer’s day. The slow growth of gourds in the garden. The sounds of birds in the trees.
I can’t cling to these things but I also can’t capture them and share them the way technology seems to want to promise it can. Can we truly experience these phenomena through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Twitch? Can an hour on YouTube teach you both how to fix your furnace and fix your life?
Will comments and likes, link shares and photo album memories spark the real change we all need to see in our lifetimes? Or, is it a carousel that keeps us spinning, approximating forward motion but amounting to stasis, to stagnation over decades of use and being used?
For all this, I feel like I still have accomplished nothing. Friendships and memories are the jewels drawn from this hard time spent and these I cherish.
200 blogposts on tea. Digital paper and words. Flavors and phantasms. Pictures and poetry about things long passed.
I hope for more meaningful moments. More life not led online. More connection through cups of tea shared, not facilitated through fiber optic cables.
Summer comes but once a year. In our lifetimes, perhaps, if we’re lucky, we’ll experience enough to count 100. Then where will these Summer’s warm days be? In memories. In the sensations of heat against our skin as we sip from warmed cups of tea. From the feelings of friends and family whom we still can meet.
To do this, all this, we must all take the time we need.
Spring has faded and the first warm days of Summer of the old lunisolar calendar have arrived in the Hudson Valley. Birdsongs peal against the bright blue sky. Rhubarb flowers climb and explode in the garden and I don’t have it in me to cut them down.
Heat rises. So, too, does a wisp of smoke from my incense burner, filling my studio with the soft scent of 伽羅 kyara. The plastered walls and wooden floors remain cold to the touch. How long before these will warm as well and no cool solace will exist until Autumn arrives?
I pour fresh water into my kettle and sit myself down upon the floor before a sliding glass door that looks out onto my garden. Sounds and fresh breezes blow in, mixing with the incense in the air.
As the heat from the kettle grows, I produce a small ceramic container: a celadon jar originally intended for sweets turned tea caddy with a lid made of dried leaves, cork, and thread.
Inside are the tightly rolled leaves of a 大禹嶺高山茶 Dàyǔlǐng gāoshān chá that a friend gifted to me last Winter. Will their flavors be as tightly kept as their leaves are bundled? Or will they open as Summer has here in the river valley I’ve called home for these past few years?
I loosely arrange objects across the wooden plank I use for a tea table. Cloth. 茶船 chá chuán. A vintage 綠泥西施壺 lǜní Xīshī hú. A shallow 青白茶碗 qīngbái cháwǎn from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279). Objects are kept informal, alluding to the feeling of the day.
I measure out a portion of tea and place it into the hollow of my warmed teapot.
I wait for a moment and watch the sunlight filter through the pines and maples that tower over the garden outside the open door.
Birds cackle and dogs in the distance bark but do not wake mine who sleeps beside my work desk. A relaxed state seems to settle all about me as I wait for the tea to brew.
Pot in hand, I draw it to the wide opening of the shallow teabowl.
With a simple downward tilt of my wrist and the pot and the tea pours effortlessly into the empty vessel. The color of tea is initially bright and clear against the pale blue-green of the qīngbái cháwǎn.
As the liqueur continues to pour, the color deepens and darkens, until jade turns to gold.
The light of the day is caught against the flat surface of the warm liquid. Blue sky against the crystalline tea liqueur.
As I set the teapot back down into the chá chuán and lift the lid off and angle it upon the open top, the distinctive scent of Dàyǔlǐng becomes present. Big, clean, a mixture of fresh vegetation and fragrant magnolia. Even before I let the liquid cross by lips, I feel as if I’ve already slacked my thirst.
As I take the first sip, I am met with minerality. Next, sweetness. Cascades of flavors followed by a pronounced lingering mouthfeel. Dàyǔlǐng is a unique tea.
Often harvested in Winter, the leaves produce a markedly sweet, if not cane sugar-like, flavor, which recede and evolve into notes of fresh greens and flowers that bloom on trees. The feeling left over is soft, buttery, almost chewy. The qualities of this tea meld into the environment of the cool climes of my garden-level studio.
I relax more and, as I do, so too does my brewing style. I let the tea steep longer.
The color, accordingly, darkens.
The liqueur seems to glow as the sunlight does against the trees and the mountains in the distance.
As the day fades, so too does the tea. Countless steepings have pushed this tea to evolve into a calm, crisp elixir. Still holding on to its Wintery sweetness, although, gone is the intense complexity that the first infusions produced.
Early Summer, too, feels this way. Gone are the radical shifts that marked the previous seasons. Gone is the ice and the garden locked with snow. Gone is the hardened soil, the bare trees, the dark clouds.
What has come is sweet, mellow, easy. The birds relax, as do the leaves in the breeze. The sound of a frog is heard nearby as creeks throb and gurgle beside willows and rocks in gullies and between homes and hillocks of the Hudson Valley.
The sun has woken this world around me and now it stands tall and shimmers in shades of green. The tea leaves, too, evoke this change, this quality, this coming to life from Winter’s hold.
Cool shadows cast darker and darker shade across the stretch of wood and floorboards of my studio. The ease of early Summer spreads and collects in the cooling vessels of my assembled tea set.
Warm winds and a shallow bowl. Winter’s tea and Summer’s flavor.
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.
The tradition that associates this aspect to Summer is based on an understanding of the peony’s significance in ancient East Asian culture.
The presence of the flower woven into silk, which I splay open to reveal the ceramic chaire it contains.
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.
Finally, Winter’s cold seems like a memory as Spring’s first warm day is here. Birds call and breezes push through the trees whose branches now brim with red and green buds of the new season. April’s air is fragrant and fresh. So, too, is the soil, waking from its hibernation.
Shoots and seedlings push up from the wet earth, soaked and saturated by the weekend’s rain.
Stepping across the garden to huddle in my makeshift hut, I dust-off the floorboards and bring with me a bowl to make tea.
A 棗 natsume.
A wooden scoop of speckled bamboo that looks like dew, that looks like intermittent showers.
An old thermos filled with hot water.
A 建水 kensui to collect the dregs.
Sitting in my hut, I meditate. Wisps of incense smoke fade and the sound of a bird scratching at the moss upon the roof wakes me, rousing me to make tea.
I arrange the wares to make an informal bowl of 薄茶 usucha.
The silk of my 袱紗 fukusa is folded and pressed against the lid of the tea caddy and then again against the spotted surface of the tea scoop.
Bowl and whisk are warmed and in the sunlight that pours through the one window of my hut, steam is seen rising from wetted objects as they wait to be used to make tea.
Unlike Winter, the world of Spring throbs with life, pulsates with energy, and booms with noise and sound from all directions. The ring of the 茶杓 chashaku against the inner edge of the grey-glazed clay of my 井戸茶碗 Idochawan pairs with the sound of a robin digging for worms outside my garden hut. The rush of water from the thermos into the bowl harmonizes with the song that the wind and the trees sing above me.
The back and forth of the whisk as bright green foam rises creates a rhythmic tune that syncopates against the hum of the warbler’s whistle, the crow’s caw, the horn of the train along the river’s edge, and the din of the town in the distance.
I am reminded that what we often call peace is just another word for chaos. What we often label as silence is just a cacophony of sounds that blend and meld together.
Spring in full vigor is activity emerging from below the soil, from the wooded husks of once dormant trees, from the silvery swirl of clouds against a bright blue sky.
Tea alone at this moment is just that. A moment borrowed from an otherwise busy world, on an otherwise ordinary Monday.
Time taken to reinvigorate the heart and remind the soul that the seasons are changing constantly.
Momentarily replacing the glowing screen and clicking keyboard for the dim light of a tearoom and the sparkling foam of 抹茶 matcha radiating from within a matte grey teabowl.
For this moment, the only thing I have to examine are the last drops of tea that remain.
The unctuous glaze that has collected and congealed along the 高台 kōdai of an antique chawan.
The rippling lacquer that shimmers atop a natsume.
The speckled pattern of black dots that nature has arranged upon the skin of my bamboo tea scoop.
As the incense burns down, the light of the day shifts, the call of songbirds collect and crescendo, I take my cue to gather-up my items again.
Dregs in a teabowl are wetted and wiped clean. Water evaporates off of the thin tines of an old and broken 茶筅 chasen as it’s set upon a folded 茶巾 chakin. The tea scoop is dusted-off and laid across the chawan’s ceramic rim.
Tea caddy and chawan set side by side before they are put away.
I screw the cap back onto my old metal thermos and open the door of my garden shed to walk back across the stone path that leads to my studio.
Birds call. Wind blows. Branches shift. The soil softens and the first leaves of a radish pushes up to greet the sun. All of these moments combine and culminate together, contributing to April’s air. Fragrant and fresh. Sweet and fleeting.
As I write this, it’s late February and the air is still cold and wet. A week ago, the ground was still covered with snow, but with the recent rains and the passing of 立春 Risshun and the arrival of 雨水 Usui (February 19-March 4), the earth has begun to thaw, the ice has all but melted, and the flowers of early Spring have begun to push up in small clusters beneath the trees around my garden. But in this liminal period, even as Winter feels long passed, reminders of the season that once was still abound.
A cold and windy morning brings rain that turns to snow. Its transition happens over a course of an hour, marked first by the tapping of raindrops against my studio window, then a sudden drop in temperature, followed by an occasional snowflake passing by, carried upon a strong breeze. Light showers transform into flurries of white against the grey sky. Pools of water that have collected on the concrete flat outside my studio door freeze and are slowly covered by thin layers of mounding snowflakes.
In the world of 茶の湯 chanoyu, none of these events come as a surprise. Tea people of Japan have noted such atmospheric anomalies for centuries, giving them poetic names such as 余寒 yokan, a “lingering cold” that suddenly returns just as Spring begins to warm, 春雪 Shun-setsu, the snow that comes in Spring and quickly melts, or 淡雪 awa-yuki, light snowflakes that fall, producing a pleasant sound that harmonizes with the wind blowing through the pines (松風 matsukaze).
Sitting at the threshold of the sliding glass door of my studio that overlooks the garden, I see all of these before me. Rather than wander out into my garden hut, I decide to sit beside my boiling kettle and enjoy the dance of snow, as it turns the waking garden of Spring back into a Winter scene for perhaps the last time for a long while.
I gather objects from their hiding places. An old carved circular lacquer tray.
A bamboo teascoop with emerging sprout on its 節 fushi. A 茶筅 chasen whisk made by a master based in Nara. A cream-white teabowl, the shape of which is perfect for this sudden cold.
A 棗 natsume tea container, the surface of which is made up of layers of interchanging red and black lacquer.
I set the objects upon the tray and bring them to the large plank of wood that has sat beside the window door of my studio all Winter and into early Spring. The feeling is markedly informal, quick to assemble, sudden like the snap of cold that has come and may soon fade. Unlike the more formal and structured temae, 盆点前 bon temae for the 宗徧流正伝庵 Sōhen-ryū Shōden-an school is remarkable for its simplicity and directness. There is little flourish, just enough action to allow for one to sit and make a bowl of tea. The motions, while not abbreviated, are contained to the space of the tray and to the area in front of the kettle and brazier. When moments immediate such as a chance snow flurry come by, I favor this temae most of all.
The pace of making tea is like the snow outside. Intervals of fast and slow. Of space and closeness. As snowflakes tumble slowly, with a measured grace, I try and let my movements mirror this. The objects and tray are come to rest in a smooth downward motion, hovering momentarily above the wooden surface of the table and then placed just to the right of the 鉄瓶 tetsubin. Body and tray move down in one motion, with one out breath.
The 茶碗 chawan and its accoutrements are lifted and moved, from left to right hand and then down on the table before the kettle. The natsume follows and is set before the bowl. Items are lined up along a central axis before they are cleansed, one-by-one, and placed to rest before being called into action.
The natsume is first. The grooves of the 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer prove difficult for the soft folds of my purple 袱紗 fukusa cloth to fall into. Their many layers of red and black echo the layers of ice and snow that have been accumulating outside the doorway to my garden.
Cut at curvaceous angles, alluding to cloud mushrooms, bats, and foliate forms, the feel is balanced, organic and mechanic, archaic and modern, flamboyant and austere.
Next comes the 茶杓 chashaku.
Bright bamboo set against the white glaze of the teabowl, the low light of my studio during Winter’s last gasp, against the swirling grain of the tea table that I’ve laid across the wooden floorboards.
Three passes within the folds of the fukusa and I set it upright atop the natsume. For the first time, its fushi visible, appearing like a bud that is about to emerge from a dormant tree.
Finally, the whisk and 茶巾 chakin are removed and set upon the tray.
For a moment, the bowl sits empty, cold to the touch.
Both whisk and bowl are cleansed and warmth returns to the chawan, not used since last year. The tines of the chasen spread from the heat of the water.
The center whirl of the tea bowl becomes more apparent as the water glistens off its rounded edges.
I lift the tea scoop and remove the lid of the natsume and as I place tea into the warm, white interior of the chawan, snow begins to fall more steadily.
The dance of snowflake produces a silent symphony, one in which the mind can easily lose itself.
A quiet quality of peace that hold, if only for the space in time when the eye first catches sight of snow falling to until it lands upon the ground, lost in the mound of a forming snow drift.
As I write now, recalling this moment, the world in which I live in still seems at peace. How tenuous a last snow feels, how fleeting.
A bowl of tea comes and goes and the sensation of it quickly disappears, dissipating like Winter into Spring, Risshun to Usui, and swiftly soon to 啓蟄 Keichitsu (lit. “Awakening of Insects”, the period from March 5-19).
Peace, as defined by snowfall, might feel like a long time, but when one recognizes that this moment is the last day of snow, that peace feels fragile and forlorn.
February 19th, I sit down for tea. Come the next day, the world is changed, a palpable heat returns to the Northern Hemisphere, a thawing of something that laid cold and dormant has re-emerged, and the anxiety of what’s to come arises.
As I sit, now, at this time when whisk meets tea, whips it into a fine foam, releases sweet aromas of 抹茶 matcha into the air, and stare out into the white abyss of this last snow day, my breath does, for the while, seems smooth.
The pit in my stomach, the pang and fear that will come the next morning is not here.
Instead, I let my heart become full with the last layers of snow. 雪見 yukimi.
Layers of snow. Layers of time. Soft snow followed by hard ice rain and back to soft. Layers of lacquer, of growth on a bamboo stalk.
Layers of glaze that cover the foot of an old chawan.
From these layers, newness emerges and ultimately becomes the harbinger of things to come.
While the last snow may seem sad, while the passing of peace may bring fear, the heart carries both as if they weighed the same, not knowing how long one will last, not knowing when one will return, just hopeful that life continues on until the next day.
In this, there exists a knowing that this last snow may not indeed be the last. That peace as we know it now, may return in the future, although different, and at what time.
Today, the cold of Winter remains, pressed up against the warming weather of early Spring. Entering 立春 Lìchūn means that the snow will eventually begin to thaw, although the ice that still remains in the mountains won’t melt until later in the month. The result is scattered snow flurries combined with rain. The birds in my garden, as much as I, are left darting for cover, for warmth, for a hollow to call home for the while as the weather decides what to do.
I, in my studio, have set up a small tea session. Kettle boiling. The sound of the falling snowflakes melding with the soft hum of boiling water. The faint scent of incense I burned earlier this morning is still present.
As the heat of the water rises and crests, I pour a small draught from the kettle into a small 四方壺 sìfāng hú (square-shaped teapot) by 施小馬 Shī Xiǎomǎ (1954-present) that I’ve set within the center of a 宜興朱泥茶船 Yíxìng zhū ní chá chuán.
Next, the water from the pot is poured out into a small 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup made by famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.
A small portion of an aged 餅茶 bǐngchá made from the compressed leaves of a 渥堆 wòduī processed 南糯山 Nánnuòshān 熟普洱茶 shú pǔ’ěr chá is placed into the angular interior of the small dark clay teapot.
These angles are the mark of years of craft and study that reflect the skill of Shī Xiǎomǎ. These same angles will test my own skill as a tea brewer, as I will need to account for how they will affect the expansion of the tea leaves as they saturate, open, and offer their flavor.
Pouring hot water onto the leaves and closing the pot, I am left with very little information to work with.
Not pouring water over the teapot will mean I cannot rely upon the evaporation of the hot liquid from the surface of the vessel to tell me when the tea has fully steeped.
Neither can I observe the small meniscus bubble traveling down the teapot’s spout (which I often do with 烏龍茶 wūlóngchá, as the expansion and unfurling of these leaves leads to the absorption of some of the water, resulting in a slight reduction in the water’s overall volume in the pot).
Instead, I have to rely on intuition and on my experience using this teapot.
With any luck, noting the darkness of the tea cake, the compression of the leaves, and even how the portion of tea broke from the compressed bǐng, I’ll be able to have some control on the final outcome.
I wait and then pour-out the warm water from the waiting buncheong-jagi cup. Once emptied, it is filled with tea.
The steeped liquid set against the cream-colored canvas of the cup reveals the true color of the shú pǔ’ěr. It is rich in tone, a dark sanguineous umber, almost a deep red. The aroma is equally complex. Notes of tilled earth, old desiccating wood, of warm, wetted leaves.
Sipping the tea and setting the cup back down, I taste sweeter flavors akin to apple’s skin, dark berries, dried raisin, and black fig.
Remaining still with these flavors, I lift the lid from the four-sided teapot and pour into it more water from the boiling kettle.
Rather than fully empty the teapot, I allow for the first steeping to meld with the next. Doing this allows the tea’s flavor to gradually change, concentrating between each cup poured, building and ebbing like a great, slow-moving wave that eventually grows and crests and presses up against the shore of a lake, peeling back and retreating to the calm center.
Upon finishing the first cup, letting the flavors linger and play-out on my palette, I pour a second. This time, the color of the liqueur is dark, almost black.
Only at the very edge of the pool can I make out the true color of the tea. I am reminded of the unique hue of old red lacquer that is covered by a thin, almost translucent layer of black lacquer. The effect is a muted tone. Neither red nor black. A color in between. What is achieved by this process gives depth and a sense of wonderment to the object. Creating something that is both dark and glowing.
The tea is very much like this. Its flavor is the same. What I am most struck by is the intense change that two steepings have produced. The first was light and its flavors still emerging. The second, conversely, is fully developed, balanced, with brighter fruit tones followed closely by those more similar to an aged port wine, tobacco, and thick molasses. The sweet and savory registering on the same level.
As I sip this tea my concentration remains on deciphering the myriad of sensations it gives rise to. All around me continues the sound of snow and rain, the kettle bubbling away, the faint scent of incense still hanging in the air of my studio. I breathe in and this cold, fragrant air blends with the warm flavors of the tea that hold strong within the back of my mouth and top of throat, inside my nostrils and behind my teeth. I close my eyes and, even here, the taste of tea seems to reside, as I grow more awake from the first and second cup.
I pour another stream of hot water from the kettle into the tiny pot and close the lid again.
Between steeps, I smell the interior of the cream-colored buncheong-jagi cup. Inside, soft floral notes are captured and expressed against the crackled surface. Tea-soaked spots where once one cup sat atop another while they were fired in the kiln now collect and offer-up aromas unlike those when the cup was full. Even empty, a trace remains, markedly different from moments before.
Another cup and another are poured. Countless more after that.
The small squared pot is a stalwart support against the cold of early Spring. Its thick walls of carved and cut 紫砂 zǐshā maintain the heat of the water from the kettle, allowing for the compressed leaves of the bǐngchá to slowly and evenly open over several hours.
The tea changes from opaque to increasingly translucent. Eventually, I can begin to see to the bottom of the cup. This transformation of the liqueur, like the leaves, is gradual, exhibiting the qualities of both the tea and the fine Korean ceramic over time. The two, tea and cup, feel balanced. The relaxed and organic form of buncheong ware feels like a natural vessel for the dark shú pǔ’ěr to reside.
I am reminded of how when I first travelled to Korea, during a cold Winter, I learned that pǔ’ěr was a popular tea of artists and aficionados alike. Much like the buncheong ceramic, pǔ’ěr was brewed in a way that felt natural, relaxed, heartfelt and austere. I remember being huddled, much like I am now, beside a brazier and a wooden table, listening to the sound of wind and snow pressing up against the windowpanes, feeling warm and centered around the enjoyment of tea with new friends.
It was here that I first began to learn about buncheong-jagi, and was introduced to the wares made by Shin Yong-Gyun. Since then, I’ve kept several of his cups into regular rotation. Over this time, they’ve become more worn, more crackles have emerged, their color has become softer. Where once they were snow-white, they now feel like soft linen that has been broken-in by regular use, washed and tended to, loved.
As I look to the small teapot again, peering into its open top before filling it once more, I am reminded of its past too. I was in my early 20s, just out of college. I’d begun working for a small, family-owned business in San Francisco’s Chinatown selling tea and traditional medicinal herbs. Quite poor at the time, any tea or teapot I acquired seemed like an achievement of my own ability to work and save and rationalize my burgeoning tea practice over other luxuries such as food or rent.
The small four-sided pot has remained on the shelves of the tea shop for several years before I’d purchased it, a hold-over from the previous decade. Loving its pure form and clean lines, I had aspired to bring it into my, then, small collection and learn how to brew tea with it. Unable to read seal script at the time, it wasn’t until recently that I was able to decipher the artist’s seal imprinted onto its clay body. When I did, I learned the pot was made Shī Xiǎomǎ, a contemporary master of Yíxìng wares, active since the 1970s.
Set in the center of the circular chá chuán, the four-sided pot and tea boat remind me of the ancient forms of 琮 cóng and 璧 bì, ritualistic objects that came to represent earth (believed to be square) and the universe (believed to be round). As I finish brewing the final cup, knowing that there are still many more to come, I let the objects become a meditation.
In tea we are given the rare opportunity to bring the art of two masters together. Pot and cup alone are forms that feel complementary. One is self-contained, closed. The other, open to the elements. One conceals a mystery. The other offers a mirror upon which flavor, color, heat, and textures are reflected. Each operates in its own manner yet enhances the output of the other. In this way, two masters can enjoy tea together, albeit separated by time and space. Neither artist may know of this moment, save for if they were to stumble across this recounting.
Sitting and savoring the flavors of this instance, I let the sound of the kettle boiling rise again. I note the din of light rain against retreating snow drifts play, the boom of the large metal bell in my garden gong on breeze that seems softer now that early Spring is here. The light of the day grows longer. The cold of the morning seems to fade more each afternoon. Grass, too, begins to push up out from the ice, as do the thin green blades of the narcissus, long before they bloom.
As I begin writing, I await the coming of the new season. One more day, a few more hours, and we pass from 大寒 Dàhán (lit. “Big Cold”) to 立春 Lìchūn (the beginning of Spring). In the mountains and rivers of New York, cold rain comes, just warm enough to melt snow. The process, the thin winnowing-away of Winter into Spring, is slow. It doesn’t happen all at once (not yet, at least). Nature reminding us, always, to pause, appreciate each moment, savor the length of time things take to emerge, grow, mature, ebb, flow, and then wane and fade into nothing.
Looking out onto my garden, the snow becomes soft until it gives way to thick frosty puddles, where grass that survived the cold Winter pushes upwards through. Leaves that fell last Autumn emerge preserved from their chrysalis of ice. Colors still vibrant, but only for today.
Looking out onto this world, a mirror of what transformative forces nature brings, I sit and set a kettle to boil beside me. While the air grows warmer, the space of my studio remains cold, its walls cut into the side of the hill atop which my house is built. Warmth comes from the brazier, the kettle, the sunbeams that stretch across the wooden floor and wooden board I use to make tea upon.
As water warms, I ready objects to steep. A cloth. A scoop made of carved bamboo. A pick fashioned from a twig of a fruit tree.
A small purple-glazed pot gifted to me years ago by an artist acquaintance.
A cup gifted to me by a tea friend from South Korea, its maker a famed ceramicist from the same country.
An archer’s ring for a lid rest.
Soft light stretches across the tea table. Warmer in tone than days before.
This same warm light flickers against warm water which I use to heat the pot and cup. This same warm light settles and creates soft shadows on the twisted leaves of old white tea.
野大白 Yě Dàbái, a wild large leaf white tea from Fújiàn province, was once a fresh tea. Bright, green, silvery in its complexion. Now, more than seven years old, the leaves have darkened. What was once emerald and lacquer-like in appearance now looks leathery and worn. Spring-picked leaves for the last day of Winter.
Lifting the lid from the pot and placing it down atop the jade archer’s thumb rest, I place the leaves inside the tiny vessel.
Warm water is poured atop the tea and the leaves tumble and twirl within the teapot before they come to rest.
The lid is lifted and placed over the opening of the pot and the tea begins to steep.
Waiting for the tea to steep. Waiting for Winter to fade into Spring. Waiting for this world to change. Each season seems to bring something new to us all. Anticipation building each time the weather warms. An unarticulated promise that things will get better and we, somehow, collectively, will be able to step out from our own self-enforced solitary confinement.
As each season arrives, this promise, however, invariably falls flat. Steep expectations eventually evolve into deep resentment. Underlying aggravation arises from the denial of simple freedoms. Reluctant realization sets in as we recognize that the big problems of life don’t just melt away.
The tea, once poured, gives me some hope for what waiting may bring. Patience for a pot to brew brings deep colors and warm amber hues. While outside my window Winter wanes, the flavors inside this now aged tea still remain strong. Subtle notes of caramel, of cardamom, of honey, and sweet dew. They linger and last, as successive cups are poured, each deepening in color and flavor, until no more liquid is left in the pot.
Lifting the lid off the teapot again, more water is added and a second steeping begins.
The sound of rain is gentle and silvery pools of water begin to collect between the shrinking mounds of snow that have covered the concrete platform that leads out to the garden. Concentric circles of ripples from raindrops bend and break.
I pour out the next round of tea into the same small cup from South Korea. The color darker than before. The flavors more open and complex.
One cup turns to two, then three, and then more water is poured onto the leaves again for another steeping, and another steeping after that.
Light from the day continues to shift and, too, wanes like Winter, and I set the lid back atop the teapot once more, this time, empty of liquid. I opt to stop brewing tea for now and to wait until morning comes the next day to return for one final steeping. The cold of my studio space enough to preserve the leaves in the pot and let me enjoy the tea for one more day.
The next morning, I wake to the sound of ice rain against my window. Bright, crystalline, like unearthly chimes in their resonance against the quiet that only exists before the sunrises. Lìchūn is here and yet the cold seems stronger. Where once there were pools and puddles that harkened to an early Spring, today there is sleet and carpets of piling ice that blanket the concrete platform and pathway stones of my garden.
Trees, too, are coated in a frozen sheath. Plum are covered. So, too, are the pine.
The preserved Autumn leaf that inspired my tea time the day before is covered again in a layer of ice, returning to its hibernation for a few more hours or a few more days.
I sit down again beside my kettle like I had done before a day ago. Today is Spring and still there is snow. Ice rain seems to be a fitting harbinger for the new season. A light chiming knell for the end of Winter. A bright shining sparkling tree covered in ice.
The day-old tea, when brewed for one last time, the color that comes is light.
The flavor has faded. The last notes from a Spring seven years passed are finally gone.
A new Spring is here, and yet it’s colder now. For how long will it remain?
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-yakitsutsuchawan.
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.
The new year has come and quickly it feels as if it has grown old. The depth of Winter is upon us now in the Northern Hemisphere and I remain locked within my studio, left to look out upon the snow that covers my garden. In the waning days of 小寒 Shōkan, Minor Cold, a period extending from approximately January 6-20, I’ve grown anxious to return to my tea practice and to offer up a first kettle for the new year.
初釜 hatsugama, “first kettle”, is typically conducted during the first weeks following the new year. For me, work, busyness, and the myriad of other excuses I use to put-off doing the important things in life have kept me from just simply sitting and giving into the deeper practice of preparing 濃茶 koicha. The itch I feel when I haven’t made a bowl of tea climbs inside me until it feels a bit unbearable and I find myself early one morning pouring fresh water into my old iron 茶釜 chagama…
…into the white-glazed interior of my tall, four-cornered 水指 mizusashi.
For many schools of tea, hatsugama is one of a multitude of cardinal points on the tea calendar. It is the moment of relative pomp amidst the otherwise withered and cold atmosphere of Winter. Fine objects and offerings may find their way into the 床の間 tokonoma. The dual silver and gold-glazed teabowls poetically known as 島台 shima-dai, the Isle of Eternal Youth, are often employed when making tea for invited guests. And finer foods and 屠蘇 toso (spiced 酒 sake) are often served during 茶懐石 chakaiseki, the meal served before tea is prepared.
For me, I’ve made it my practice to abstain from these ostentations and, rather, attempt to situate the first kettle within the simpler, more pared-back nature of Winter. As I look out onto my garden, I have enough seasonal references and focal points of vitality against the cold weather to fill a thousand alcoves. Plum and pine. Small birds with their ruffled feathers. Snow-capped hillsides and silvery skies.
I situate my tea table beside the large window that looks out onto my garden and make it a space to prepare a bowl of tea. Beside it I set my kettle. Atop it, my mizusashi. Before the cool water vessel, I place a small 茶入 chaire, wrapped-up in a light blue and silver 仕服 shifuku, tied together with a brown silk cord.
From where I’ve been readying the objects for making tea, I return with a bowl set atop a wooden cup stand. It is an old 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan and accompanying 天目台 tenmoku-dai. Its colors are dark and austere with flashes of blue and copper-like hues.
Atop the bowl, I’ve placed a carved 茶杓 chashaku made of striped cypress. Beside it, a 茶筅 chasen made of black bamboo, set atop a folded 茶巾 chakin.
The items and their arrangement, the way the chakin is folded, the shape of the tea scoop, the bowl and its wooden stand, are formal, harkening back to forms that have their origin in China during the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279), back to when tea was both beverage and medicine. In my school, these objects and the actions used when employing them are specific to making a bowl of koicha and presenting it to an esteemed guest. With no guest available, I sit down to make a bowl of tea for myself. My guest, perhaps, is myself of this very moment, as I welcome my new year of tea practice with the water drawn from this “first kettle”.
Objects are first cleansed and then placed into their position for making tea.
First, the chaire is removed from its silken shifuku pouch. I loosen the cord and gathered cloth that once held the small ceramic container and its bone lid safely together.
Next, I place the wrapped object in my left hand and peel the two sides of the brocaded fabric away from the rounded surface of the chaire, revealing the smooth silk interior of the shifuku.
The chaire is lifted from its protective pouch and placed before the teabowl.
The shifuku is placed beside the mizusashi.
I unfold my 袱紗 fukusa made of purple-dyed silk and inspect it before I refold it and use it to cleanse the surface and lid of the tiny 文淋 bunrin-shaped chaire.
Next, I refold the fukusa again and use it to cleanse the chashaku made of 檜 hinoki cypress.
I place the scoop atop the lid of the chaire and fold the fukusa, returning it to the side pocket of my woven Winter coat.
The chasen is removed from the chawan and placed beside the chaire momentarily. I lift the bamboo 柄杓 hishaku ladle off of the 蓋置 futaoki and, as I do so, I admire the images of auspicious objects rendered in blue colbalt upon the white porcelain.
I pinch and lift the chakin out from the center of the chawan and use it to remove the lid of the bubbling kettle beside me. The lid is placed atop the porcelain lid rest.
Water is drawn from the steaming kettle and poured into the teabowl.
The whisk is placed into the hot water to warm, wet, and soften as it soaks.
As it does so, the wooden tenmoku-dai is cleansed. The fukusa is folded and used to first purify the rim of the 酸漿 hōzuki (uppermost supporting cup). Next, the flat surface of the wooden flange (羽 hane).
With bowl and its wooden stand cleansed, all that is left to do is make a bowl of koicha.
As I lift the chashaku and chaire from their resting position and place the white bone lid beside the bowl and stand, a thought enters my mind.
The bowl I’ve chosen for this year’s hatsugama, for this first kettle, was one of my first teabowls. Ever since I’d begun my practice in tea, I’ve been drawn to tenmoku chawan. Their form, their history, their austerity. Yet, to use one properly, one must first learn how.
In the world of 茶の湯 chanoyu, a tenmoku chawan is reserved for the most formal of tea settings, often to serve tea to an important guest. To make tea for one’s self with one is odd. Yet, during this time of separateness, during a pandemic, it feels like a form of meditation to offer one’s self a bowl of tea. A recognition that even as we cannot yet connect with others, we can use this as an opportunity to connect with ourselves.
I pause and breathe and place three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder into the center of the teabowl.
I follow this by setting the chashaku down atop the wide wooden flange of the tenmoku-dai.
The scoop’s rounded tip, made of carved hinoki covered in a light dusting of matcha.
Its smooth handle pointed towards the white bone lid of the chaire.
I tilt the small bunrin chaire over and let the fine tea powder cascade downward into the center of the tenmoku chawan. It piles into a low mound, the shape of which creates a small chaotic impact of tea dust against the dark interior of the glazed teabowl.
I place the lid back onto the chaire and return it to rest beside the chasen. I mark the mound of matcha with the rounded edge of the tea scoop, making the sigil of my school into the tea dust.
I place the chashaku atop the chaire.
A measure of hot water is drawn from the kettle with the hishaku and a small amount is carefully poured into the teabowl to mix with the matcha.
As the green tea powder saturates, it darkens to a deep emerald hue, almost black within the low light that enters the concave of the tenmoku bowl.
I lift the whisk and press it downward into the tea and water concoction. I gently hold the teabowl with the outstretched thumb and index finger of my left hand. The tea is worked and kneaded into a thick paste and an additional draught of hot water is drawn from the kettle and mixed with the tea. This is blended further until the right consistency is met.
As I lift the chasen from the now fully blended koicha, I pull it vertically out of the tenmoku chawan, allowing any residual tea liquid to drip back down into the teabowl.
I then turn the whisk so the tines point upwards, each lacquered in a thin coat of the thick tea.
Setting the whisk beside the chaire, I turn my attention to the teabowl.
A deep pool of jade looks up at me from the dark, iron-spotted interior of the tenmoku bowl. From its center, I can make out the reflection of my shoulder.
Peering closer, I see the volume of the tea, the waves upon its surface. Thick, rumpled at the edges where the flat expanse of tea meets the downward sloping walls of the teabowl. A slick, viscous veneer of tea still clinging to the sides, marking the extent to which the whisk traveled from side to side, back and forth in a figure eight motion as the tea was blended.
I lift the bowl by the wide wooden flange of the cup stand and bring the both closer to me. I turn the bowl a quarter turn, so that the 正面 shōmen, the front of the bowl marked by an opalescent cascade of glaze, does not touch my lips as I drink the tea.
I breathe in as I sip the thick tea. Its heat and aroma radiates and surrounds me, filling my senses, banishing any lingering sleep of the morning. As I pause and tilt the bowl back down, I peer over its metallic rim, out onto the garden. Bright white light filtering through the trees, reflected upon the snow. As I tilt the bowl again for another sip, I am met by the dark interior, the deep green of the tea, the slow movement of the liquid down the ceramic sides of the tenmoku chawan.
With the final sip of koicha, I place the bowl back down with the wooden tenmoku-dai. From my pocket, I produce a piece of white 懐紙 kaishi paper, which I fold and use to wipe excess tea liquid from the rim of the tenmoku chawan.
Looking down at the bowl of koicha, my eye is caught by the trail of thick tea pulling from the once deep reflective pool. This trace, this record of a moment. Tea blended with the water from the first of many boiling kettles that will hopefully come throughout this year. How, even as this moment feels still alive, still present, it, too, has just passed.
I set the tenmoku chawan atop the wooden cup stand aside and bring forth a separate 替茶碗 kae-chawan to cleanse the chasen. The bright white splash of spiraling brushed glaze of the 刷毛目唐津茶碗 hakeme Karatsu chawan sits in stark contrast to the more formal bowl that came before it.
I pull water from the mizusashi and pour it into the new teabowl. I dip and whisk the tines of the tea-covered chasen into the cool water. Clouds of green residual matcha billow and churn in the clean, clear water. The thin carved blades of the tea whisk glisten in the light of the morning.
I pour the liquid from the bowl and place chakin and chasen into the bowl.
I cleanse the chashaku once more, removing the tea dust that had coated its rounded tip.
Items are placed back at rest. Bowl beside chaire. Lid atop kettle. Ladle beside me.
In the quiet that comes once the kettle has been closed, I sit and look out upon the small stand of trees outside my garden. Pine trees. Plum. Hardy friends of Winter who, along with bamboo, weather the coldest of days yet to appear.
Shōkan is followed by 大寒 Daikan, “Major Cold” (approximately January 20-February 1), and then comes the new year of the lunisolar calendar.
I ponder this as I prepare each of the objects for 拝見 haiken.
Hatsugama marks a moment in time. Each bowl of tea does. Each time I sit down before the brazier, beside the sunken hearth, to offer tea to either guest or alone to myself. These moments accumulate. Yet as time moves forward on the calendar, do these moments do so as well?
I pause as I lay each object beside one another.
The round bunrin chaire beside the scoop.
The scoop beside the shifuku pouch.
When we offer tea for hatsugama, the emphasis is on freshness, cleanliness. You offer tea at the beginning of the new tea year and, with it, you say goodbye to the year that has passed.
In this way, 清 sei, or “purity” of the four fundamental principles of tea, 和敬清寂 wa kei sei jaku, takes on a dual meaning.
Sei can mean to purify one’s space, to offer up items and objects and tea in a clean manner.
However, it can also mean to offer one’s practice, one’s self, in a pure, unadorned, unattached way.
This can be the purity from that which came before it, a moment cleaned of a past that might end up influencing and causing distraction from the present.
It can also mean that, with a heart and mind unattached to goals or objectives, ambitions or desires, as one offers a bowl of tea to someone else, they do so without a motive or gaining thought.
As I sit and look upon these objects, their shadows cast against the swirling grain of an old 香盆 kōbon, I think of the difference between shadow and trace. Of tea and practice.
Which leaves a lasting impression? Which affects which?
What do I hope for this year to come, this year of the Tiger? What to learn from hatsugama, the first kettle?