In the flurry of the end of November and the beginning of the holiday season, I found it difficult to sit down and put pen to paper to recount my last tea gathering. Having described the first part in which 濃茶 koicha had been served, it has since taken me about a week to catch my breath, balancing work and the festivities of Thanksgiving.
However, in tea practice, we are always of the moment, always anticipating emergence. It is for this reason that when we place a flower in the alcove, we don’t use a flower in full bloom. Rather, practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu will use a bud, one that is still full of potential, one that may actually bloom during the course of the tea gathering.
In tea, everything is ideally timed “just right”. The charcoal is laid and will bear the greatest heat right when koicha is being served. Once 薄茶 usucha is prepared, the heat should feel less intense, just right for the whisking of thin tea.
The notion of “just right” seems to go hand-in-hand with the austerity that chanoyu promotes, a sense that what is offered is “just enough”. When I served my guest a simple bowl of お茶漬 ochazuke before tea, this was just enough to stave off hunger. When something is referenced to in the tearoom, from aspects of the season to visual or material hints that may relate directly to the invited guest, these too are just enough. Nothing too overbearing or ostentatious.
When my guest and I sat down for our final bowl of tea, I purposefully kept the arrangement simple, more 侘び wabi, especially when compared to the more formal offering of koicha. Reflecting this, I selected a vintage 赤津焼 Akazu-yaki 茶碗 chawan, paired with a small wooden 平棗 hira-natsume and a dark bamboo 茶杓 chashaku. The feeling that these items, when presented together, was a sort of harmonious rusticality.
The hira-natsume, on its own, looked like a smooth burl of wood; its surface warm, weathered, glowing beneath a thin layer of persimmon juice lacquer.
The teabowl, with 茶筅 chasen, 茶巾 chakin and teascoop, felt like an old ceramic roof tile, with generous drips of dark green glaze running down into its center.
The chashaku, when set atop the tea container, appeared unpretentious, just sufficient for the task of aiding in the preparation of a bowl of tea. When set in action, these objects transcend their individual use, working together to bring forth something special.
The chawan and chasen are then warmed and cleansed. A ladle’s worth of hot water is drawn from the 茶釜 chagama and poured into the teabowl. The chasen is then placed within the hollow of the bowl, tilting slightly, partially submerging the thin tines. I press the chasen into the water and lift it upwards to inspect the blades, returning it back into the hot water to repeat the process until every tine has been examined.
In this process, the chasen subtlety begins to open and expand, much like the flower that graced the alcove.
With the bowl warmed and finally dried, I begin to scoop tea into the chasen. A small mound of bright powdered matcha is heaped in the center of the bowl, broken slightly by a sigil I mark into it with the curved tip of the chashaku.
A slight tap of the chashaku against the inside wall of the chawan removes excess tea powder and it is then returned to atop the lid of the hira-natsume. Much like the objects themselves, no motion is flowery or conspicuous. Instead, they are direct, smooth, understated. Just enough to make a bowl of tea.
I breathe as I pour a measure of water into the teabowl and begin to whisk the tea into a bright foam. My guest finishes their tea sweet and I pause. I turn towards them, taking teabowl in hand, and place it before them.
At first they see the “face” of the bowl. Upon it is painted with glaze a simple image of two persimmons hanging from an unseen eave. This, in turn, acts as an unspoken gesture, motioning towards the arrival of Winter, as 干柿 hoshigaki, dried persimmons, are a commonly enjoyed snack during the cold season. Much like the unopened flower bud, this is symbolic of the “now” moment.
Lifting the bowl and turning to drink from its other side, my guest is treated to the image of stylized plum blossoms. “What does this mean?” they ask, taking a sip from the bowl.
I remain silent for the moment as they finish the bowl of tea, leaving them time to view the dregs; the bright green of the residual tea foam echoing the unctuous drips of the dark green glaze.
I cleanse the bowl once more and we close the ceremony with a bow.
Still curious, my guests asks to see the bowl once again. They hold it in their hands, turning it over to reveal its carved foot and the seal of the artist, famed Seto-based ceramicist 中島春草 Nakajima Shunsō.
“So,” they start, “What does it mean? The flowers?”
I smile and offer a response. “Plum blossoms.”
“Why?” they returned.
In my reply I offer further detail. “Tea is not just about this moment. It is also about recognizing the potential of what is to come. Upon the first chill of Winter, we begin to ready ourselves for its deepest cold. It is at this moment, at Winter’s coldest, that the plum blossom blooms.”