Tag Archives: Tenmoku

Everything for the First Time

With the beginning of the year, there is a sense of renewal and potential for firsts. The first rays of sunlight cascading over the horizon on New Year’s morning. The first flecks of snow dancing in the grey skies of January’s Winter. The first moment we enjoy time with close friends. The first opportunity we have to truly sit in silence.

In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, the first gathering for tea is often heralded as a celebratory occasion, as everything from a bowl of tea, a flower in the 床間 tokonoma, the scent of incense wafting in the air is greeted with a renewed sense of freshness, as if the year itself was unfolding before one’s eyes.

For the first gathering, known in chanoyu as 初釜 hatsugama, literally “first kettle”, an atmosphere of freshness is emphasized. Sprigs of new pine often greet the guests as they wait. In the tearoom, long arching branches of green willow rise from a single tube of freshly cut bamboo, tied into a single circular knot, representing the commitment to togetherness and camaraderie in the year to come. For teabowls, often two are offered, one of gold and one of silver, together poetically called 島台 shima-dai, the Isle of Eternal Youth.

For my own hatsugama, I chose not to be so ostentatious. For me, a single black 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan would do. Serving this atop a wooden 天目台 tenmokudai, I would offer up a single bowl of 濃茶 koicha to my partner, a formal 感謝 kansha, an offering of deep gratitude.

Echoing yet another first, this would be the first time that I would prepare tea in such a manner after a series of focused trainings that I had conducted with my tea teacher. During these sessions, he had meticulously drilled into me the precision of form required to prepare tea with a tenmoku chawan and tenmokudai.

From the way the teabowl is carried into the tearoom to the way that the hand glides over the wide rim of the wooden flange of the three-section tenmokudai when setting it beside the 茶入 chaire, to the cadence adopted between each motion; each have been subtly changed and adjusted, following the instruction of my teacher. As these movements slowly become muscle memory, they open my mind again, as if for the first time, to the great expanse that is the creativity and endless meditation of tea practice.

Uncovering the 茄子 nasu (eggplant-shaped) tea container from its brocaded 仕服 shifuku pouch felt like opening the New Year’s potential.

Once the silken cord was loosened, a weight seemed to have been lifted, a burden unbound.

What emerged was a humble jewel made of mottled ceramic containing just enough tea to share.

Once purified, I set about to cleanse the other tea implements. The 茶杓 chashaku, fashioned out of a piece of 檜 hinoki cypress, was cleansed with my 袱紗 fukusa and placed atop the lid of the chaire. Hot water was pulled forth from my antique iron kettle and poured into the chawan. The 茶筅 chasen was placed into this and allowed to warm.

The tenmokudai was then purified, running the folded edge of my purple silk fukusa first along the rim of the 酸漿 hōzuki (uppermost supporting cup), and then upon the top surface of the wooden flange (羽 hane).

The bowl, itself, was as black as a starless night, save for an oily splash of glaze on its outer surface and for a rim framed in metal. Once clean, it stared up at me like a mirror, like a void.

Into its center, like a crucible, I issued the first scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder.

Next, setting the chashaku upon the flange of the wooden tenmokudai, I emptied the remaining tea into the teabowl.

Tilting the chaire, the matcha cascades downward, collecting into a free-form mound.

Closing the emptied chaire, I place it beside the chasen and set the chashaku once again atop its lid.

Pouring a small amount of hot water atop the tea, I begin to slowly and meticulously knead the concoction of water and powdered tea into a thick paste. Adding an additional measure of water into the bowl, I hold the chasen at an angle with my left hand so as not to let it touch the rim of the teabowl.

This, like many of the silent motions performed in this 点前 temae are a show of deep respect to both the honored guest and to the teaware itself.

Once fully mixed, the tea becomes a flat, opaque material; it, too, mirror-like in its appearance.

Pausing for a brief moment, I allow myself to breathe before I offer the bowl of tea to my partner. For a moment, we both peer upon the collected wares. Together, we wait for one another to respond. I break this pause as my hands meet to lightly grip the right and left edges of the hane of the tenmokudai. Lifting it up and setting it down closer between myself and my guest, I then turn my body to face my partner. Lifting the bowl atop the tenmokudai once more, I set it before my partner and we exchange bows. In this instance, I offer this bowl of koicha completely for her.

Offered in the formal manner using the tenmoku and tenmokudai, it harkens back to an earlier form once practiced during the 宗 Song period (969-1279), when tea was served to scholars, nobles and individuals of high honor atop lacquered stands. In this approach, the bowl is elevated above the dust and clutter of the world and was presented as an offering to one’s longevity, as tea was considered as a healthy elixir. As I offered this bowl of koicha to my partner, the first of the new year, I did so as an offering to her good health and continued vitality.

Finishing the tea, the residue of remaining koicha in the black expanse of the tenmoku chawan’s center appeared as a mere imprint of the passing moment.

As we finished our final pause before closing the early morning gathering, and before we both would part to begin our day of work, I arranged a simple 拝見 haiken of the 茶道具 chadōgu. A tea container in the shape of a small, round eggplant. A tea scoop fashioned from a portion of red-grained hinoki wood. A brocaded silk pouch decorated with chrysanthemums and pine needles. All arranged along the center of an old wooden tray for incense.

And in the alcove, a celadon 香合 kōgō made in the image of a glimmering moon, a reminder of the lunar eclipse, another first for the year.

In a singular moment such as this, we are offered the opportunity to enjoy something as if it were bestowed upon us for the very first time. The heat rising from the kettle. The soft, gentle sound of boiling water contrasting with the gusts of wind pressing through the trees. The bittersweet taste of tea still lingering in one’s senses.

As these moments come and fade, we are reminded that all time is like this. Constantly arising and constantly dying, one moment after the next. What we perceive to be future and past are merely shadows and echoes of what we know as now. One continuous moment. This first kettle for the year. The last dregs of tea. The beginner’s mind found when learning a new and ancient form. Everything for the first time, all the time.

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A Solitary Maple Tree: A Burst of Color in Winter

November is a month of surprises. As Winter takes hold of the northern hemisphere, plants and animals begin to retire into hibernation, save for those who will brave the cold. The colors of Autumn fade into drab greys and browns. In the ever-increasing rush towards the holiday season and the year’s end, it can sometimes be difficult to stop and appreciate the few colorful standouts of early Winter.

As I went walking through my neighborhood in preparation for a small tea gathering, I came across a glorious Japanese maple tree, still bearing bright crimson and gold leaves. Delighted, I quickened my pace homeward, inspired to bring an element of this moment back into my tearoom.

As I prepared for my guest’s arrival, I put together the elements for the 茶事 chaji. The first of two teas I planned to offer was a freshly ground 濃茶 koicha from Uji. To serve this, I decided to let inspiration take hold, selecting a brightly colored 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan, which I would serve atop a wooden 天目台 tenmoku-dai. For the tea container, I selected a small 茄子 nasu (eggplant-shaped) 茶入 chaire, enrobed in a pine and chrysanthemum motif 仕服 shifuku.

With tea sifted and placed into the ceramic container, and kettle at a rising boil, I was ready to accept my guest into the tearoom. Upon arrival, they were greeted by the light scent of incense paired with a cup of hot water to offer respite from the cold. As they waited in the tearoom, they were given the opportunity to pause and inspect the hanging scroll.

Rather than serve a formal meal, I offered a simple bowl of お茶漬 ochazuke, rice with tea poured onto it. Afterwards, warm barley tea was offered in lieu of sake.

Once finished, I gave my guest the chance to relax in my sitting room, enjoying the view of the forest outside my window. In this short period of time, I set up the tearoom to serve koicha, replacing the scroll with a flower and bringing in the 水指 mizusashi and setting the chaire before it. The effect of this transformed the small space of my tearoom, ready and refreshed for the guest’s return, purposefully arranged for the preparation of a single bowl of thick tea.

Closing the door behind me, both host and guest sit alone in the intimate space of the tearoom. The light of the day has grown dim, covered by a gauzy blanket of clouds. As I set the chawan down, balanced atop the wooden teabowl stand, I steady my breath and focus my mind.

Placing the chaire in front of the teabowl, I proceed to remove it from its silken shifuku pouch, pulling the twisted purple cord and peeling it out from the cloth.

Once removed, the little ceramic tea container glows like a small, mysterious jewel, inside which exists a treasure.

Turning my focus to the teabowl and tea implements, I begin to cleanse each, rearranging them into new positions. The 茶杓 chashaku to rest atop the lid of the chaire.

The 茶筅 chasen to sit beside the chaire.

Taking the chashaku with my right hand, I bow and invite my guest to enjoy a sweet. Taking the chaire with my left hand, I remove the lid and pull three scoops of tea from it. Setting the chashaku down across the rim of the chawan, I begin to pour out the remaining tea from the chaire.

The fine bright green powder begins to cascade in a thin stream out of the ceramic container, producing small plumes of tea dust as it falls into the chawan.

Once settled, the tea rests in brilliant contrast against the iridescent red and gold interior of the tenmoku chawan.

Adding a small amount of boiling water into the teabowl instantly awakens the intense aroma of the 抹茶 matcha powder.

From this, I begin the process of methodically kneading the tea powder into a thick, lacquer-like paste, enjoying the small vignette of dark green tea collecting on the thin tines of the bamboo chasen.

Adding an additional portion of hot water to the concoction, I finish preparing the bowl of koicha.

For a moment, both host and guest enjoy the silence of the tearoom and the vista within the teabowl.

Lifting the teabowl with the wooden tenmokudai, I set it in front of my guest. We bow and my guest enjoys the bowl of koicha at their own pace.

Returning the bowl back to me, all that remains is the thick residue of koicha, an echo of an action, a record written in tea.

I finish the offering of tea by cleansing the teabowl and setting the implements within its concave hollow.

I set the chaire beside it.

Curious to learn more about the arrangement, I prepare an informal 拝見 haiken for my guest.

Silently we inspect the teaware together.

They ask about the maker, the origin, the reasoning why I might select one object over another.

Why would an eggplant-shaped chaire be fit for November?

Why a teascoop carved from a section of cedar be appropriate?

Why invoke a pine tree and chrysanthemum, stitched within the fine brocade of a silk shifuku pouch? In tea these are all 公案 kōan. Questions without any logical answer.

When asked what the name of the teabowl was, I answer “暈け Boke”. When then they ask for what reason I have named it thus, all I can reply is “It reminded a photographer of the blurring and obscuring of fine details in a photograph. Today it is the many leaves of the 紅葉 momiji. Tomorrow, who knows.”

We bow again and I set the objects aside. In the quiet of the tearoom, the kettle begins to boil again, the clouds begin to lift, and the day wanes towards mid-afternoon. Perhaps it is time to enjoy looking upon the forest outside my window again, to return for a final bowl of 薄茶 usucha.

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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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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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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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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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