Tag Archives: Tenmoku

The Cicada Emerges and Sheds Its Skin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating Qīxī with Tea Made in the Song Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More water is added and I whisk faster.

More water is added and more foam is produced.

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

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

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

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

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

Over the Vast Sea of Time

On June 5th, 栄西忌 Eisai-ki is observed by tea people throughout Japan. Often performed with offerings of incense, sutra recitation, and tea, the event commemorates the death 明菴栄西 Myōan Eisai (whose actual death was on July 2, 1215), most known for bringing both the 臨済宗 Rinzai-shū (Línjì zōng in Chinese) sect of Zen Buddhism and green tea to Japan.

It was upon Eisai’s final return from China in 1191 that he brought with him, tucked within a small ceramic jar, tea seeds, which he would plant on the hills around Uji. Having witnessed tea culture and the practice of taking tea firsthand while visiting Buddhist monasteries in Song China, Eisai was an early proponent for tea consumption in Japan. In his 喫茶養生記, Kissa Yōjōki (“Drinking Tea for Health”), Eisai wrote about tea’s ability to bring balance to the body and ward-off disease.

Today, as I sit down for tea, I bring with it the intention to remember the history of tea and the memory of Eisai. For this, I select an antique 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan, made to resemble the famed 建窯 Jiàn yáo (Jiàn kiln) teabowl of the Song period (960-1279). I set this atop a simple, wooden 天目台 tenmoku-dai (tenmoku stand). For a 茶杓 chashaku (teascoop), I select a more formal scoop which has been carved from a single piece of cedar. For a tea container, I select a 大海茶入 daikai chaire (“great sea” tea container), within which is held finely-sifted 抹茶 matcha tea powder for 濃茶 koicha (thick tea).

This chaire, the form of which resembles that which contained the tea seeds Eisai brought back from China, is enrobed in a silk brocaded pouch (仕服 shifuku). The cord is tied in a way that resembles a fluttering insect, perfect for Summer.

As I untie the pouch, I pull the silk cord to its full length (which is referred to in the shifuku‘s poetic name 長緒 nagao, “long cord”).

As I loosen the cord I peer down into the pouch, revealing the dappled glaze and bone-white lid of the chaire.

Once removed from the shifuku, I begin the process of purifying the tea container and other assembled teawares.

Once cleansed, I lift the chashaku from atop the lid of the chaire and begin to scoop tea into the tenmoku chawan.

After issuing three scoops into the teabowl, I set the chashaku upon the rim of the chawan and then proceed in emptying the remainder of the tea from the chaire into the bowl.

Adding only enough water to wet the mound of tea, I proceed in kneading the matcha powder into a thick paste with the 茶筅 chasen. Crafted by the famed tea whisk carver 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango, the chasen’s tines are intentionally cut thicker to provide the needed strength to knead koicha.

Once the tea is kneaded into a consistent paste, additional boiling water is added. Rather than whisking the tea into a foamy concoction (as is done with 薄茶 usucha, “thin tea”), koicha is left flat, shiny, lacquer-like. What is produced is a mirror-like finish. A mirror into the mind.

As I finish whisking the bowl of tea, I take a moment to reflect. To reflect upon the history of tea. Upon the vastness of time between now and the age of Eisai. Upon the blink of an eye life can seem to be. How many single moments like this can comprise a lifetime?

As I lift the bowl to my lips, I am overcome with the fragrance of tea, more pungent. As I sip from the bowl, the thick texture and rich flavor of koicha fills my body and mind and I become engulfed by its strength. While it is more common to share a bowl of koicha, I enjoy this alone, almost instantly becoming intoxicated by the powerful brew.

Setting the bowl down, I enjoy the slick pattern created by the residual dregs upon the iridescent surface of the tenmoku chawan.

Opting not to waste the remaining tea, I joyfully whip this into a final bowl of usucha. On a solemn day to remember Eisai, I meditate for one final moment. The scent of incense lingering in the air, mixing with the fleeting aroma of tea.

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

The Opening of a New Year

The beginning of the new year contains with it many meanings and many observances. In tea, these abound, as each moment reflects the “first time” one will perform such an action for the new year. In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), 初釜 hatsugama (the “first kettle” of the year) is often met with great celebration. Winter has arrived and yet we can enjoy that we are together. The year can begin fresh.

As I sit to enjoy my “first kettle” of the year, I play off of the formalities often found in hatsugama. I opt to utilize a vintage 文琳 bunrin (“apple-shaped”) 茶入 chaire (ceramic tea container), but rather than use it for 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”), it fill it with hand-ground Song period-style powdered 白茶 báichá (“white tea”).

With this I aptly pair an antique Japanese 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan.

The revealing of the chaire from its 仕服 shifuku (brocaded silk pouch) feels like the opening of a new year.

With this action, I somehow, silently, commit to a promise I’ve made with myself, a resolution.

As I whisk the Song period-style 抹茶 mǒchá (“powdered tea”), each folding of the whisk into the thick paste of tea seems to push time forward.

I do this mindfully until the tea is whipped into a fine, bright white foam.

A final moment passes before I lift the tea to my lips.

A first kettle alone. A meditation in silence. The aroma of tea.

What endless possibilities this year has.

If you are interested in learning more about Song period-style powdered white tea, please read my article on “History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea of the Song Period”, in which there is a link to a video of and slide presentation for a tea talk I gave in 2018 focusing on tea and tea culture of the Song (960-1279).

Should you be interested in tasting this tea, which I hand-grind from various varieties of contemporary Chinese white, green, and oolong teas, please reach out to me via this blog or by email at scotttea888 (at) gmail.com.

Thank you and here’s to a beautiful new year!

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, White Tea