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.
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.
When we offer a bowl, or cup, or pot of tea, do we think of the effect it will have on our lives and the lives of others?
Do we think beyond the singular moment that this simple gesture represents?
The leaves are selected with care…
…and placed within the teapot gently.
The kettle is warmed to a boil…
…and water is poured with attentiveness.
The pot is closed and, through one’s own awareness of what is happening within the tiny vessel, tea is brewed to a quality nearing perfection.
In truth, much of this effort to make this happen was already complete well before the tea made its way into the pot. Effort by the countless farmers, artisans, and trades people who cultivated, picked, produced, packaged and delivered tea to you and I, the tea brewer or lucky tea drinker, was done with a level of mastery and attentiveness that we may never fully appreciate.
What one is left with is the mere navigation of knowledge of leaves and wares, of material qualities and the qualities of one’s own self.
In steeping tea and offering tea, there is no true goal, only the hope that through offering tea you can somehow offer something of yourself to others.
This, coupled with showing one’s appreciation and respect to the art and craft and effort that went into producing the fine tea that you have chosen to brew.
Ten years ago, I published the first blogpost on Scotttea. Then, as now, I set out with no goal in mind, just a hope to explore the world of tea and the thoughts that would invariably arise as I sat down to make tea. Since then, a lot has happened.
Almost two hundred blogposts have been written, with enough content to fill several books. Incalculable amounts of tea were made, some shared with others, most savored alone.
However, as I’ve discovered since starting this blog, the vast expanse that defines the digital divide seems less expansive. In many ways, the space that separates you and I is the width of my tea table, the space between one 畳 tatami mat, the space between where we sit in my makeshift tea hut.
The true distance I find that changes is time. Time between ten years ago and now seems vast as it does miniscule. Ten years ago I was living and working and making tea in San Francisco. Less than an hour away from where I grew up. Less than a walk away from the hospital where I was born. Living in a small apartment in a 100-year-old Victorian townhouse furnished with three tatami mats, a few antique 箪笥 tansu cabinets, and a collection of tea and teaware.
For almost a decade I lived in this space and continued a tea practice that I had begun since my childhood, one I further honed and developed during my formative years in college. Little thought was given to writing down these experiences. When I did, they never amounted to much. I’d start a blog about tea and soon after abandon it. There was little staying power. In many ways, Scotttea was no different.
What kept me writing is hard to define. Perhaps the desire to log memories. Perhaps a hope to guide others in the often confusing crossroads of the internet and tea. Maybe it was just to see if writing about tea could encourage myself to just keep at it. An experiment at best. No expectations for an outcome.
Looking back at many of my old posts, all I see are the glaring mistakes of a neophyte, groping and stumbling along the Way. A misplaced 茶杓 chashaku. Too much or too little tea. Poor camera angles. Missed opportunities.
In trying to overcome all of this, my posts seem to have grown in size and length. The desire to want to say everything and show everything combined with a sort of endless thread of thought approach has seemed to evolve over the years, much to the chagrin of readers who may have hoped for a quick musing on tea, a poetic vignette, or singular statement.
The practice that has emerged has been one that longs more and more for the connection with others in the real world, in real time. The hut on the edge of my property remains empty, save for maybe the pair of mice I once evicted or a queen hornet trying to survive the Winter cold. Instead of opening the door, I write and hope that once this pandemic ends and once the sickness of our too busy world is over that you and other tea people like you may join me in a bowl or cup or pot of tea.
Until then, I share with you the same tea that I made ten years ago. A fantastic aged 水仙武夷山巖茶 Shuǐxiān Wǔyíshān yánchá from the mid-1980s that was gifted to me by a dear friend more than a decade ago, the same I featured in my first blogpost. With ten additional years of age on this tea, the leaves have an aroma akin to a fine incense. The brewed liqueur is medicinal, both in its flavor and its affect of the body.
Tea like this is rare and special not because it exists but because of the forces that work against it. It’s delicious. It’s too good to pass up. A fool would store it away. And, yet, I’ve done this so I can enjoy it today.
Perhaps this blog is similar. The tea it documents is, more often than not, amazing. It demands to be savored and enjoyed in the moment. To snap photographs, to think about what I will write about it, memorializing each tea experience with word, prose and pictures to produce a blogpost is, in some sense, madness. I’ve often thought of what happens as I make tea and then invite these thoughts and actions into my otherwise unobstructed, often austere practice.
It is a fool who saves these moments. Old used up tea leaves. The dregs of 抹茶 matcha. The dust and patina that accumulates on old teaware. Memories captured and catalogued. And, yet, here we are. Ten years since I put word to virtual page and pressed share. I’m deeply thankful to all who’ve joined me. I hope some day we can join for tea together in real life, beyond this digital space. Just know that the door to my tea room is always open and my message box is just a click away.
Ten years. Almost two hundred posts. Several books somehow locked within these pages. Who will know where we’ll be in ten more years. More tea leaves? A darker patina on my old teaware? Oil and residue accumulating in the cracks and fissures of old teabowls and old tea pots? We’ll see. Until then, let’s have another cup and see what it inspires.
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?
The year is new and the tea I crave is old. What comes to mind is singular: a memory of a 1999 金帆牌 Jīn Fān Pái “Golden Sail” 熟普洱茶 shú pǔ’ěr chá from a life long ago. This tea was easily one of my first pǔ’ěr experiences when I was still wading around in the shallow waters of my then nascent 工夫茶 gōng fū chá practice back in the early 2000s when I was still a wide-eyes college student in Santa Cruz, California. I can remember when David Wright of Chaikhana offered me a sip of this tea. Back then, it was sold to me under the name “Sailing Vessel” and, indeed, it helped me to venture further into the depths of the larger tea world.
I can recall the experience drinking this tea quite vividly. It was dark, earthy, inky. The texture was slick, viscous, one that would leave a slight resinous feeling in the mouth. Notes of redwood, pine sap, clean wet river stone. I was hooked. Even then, when this tea was relatively young, I felt it had a lot to say. The favors were incredibly active in the mouth for a shú pǔ’ěr, let alone one that is relatively widely produced.
I remember purchasing this tea (for a price now so low that I am amazed I didn’t buy more) and running back to the house I shared with my fellow tea-heads So Han Fan and Sylvia Levine and drinking quite a bit of it (probably all of it, which makes this particular cake the second one I must have bought soon there after). It became the tea that I’d learn how to brew cake pǔ’ěr with, studying how the compression unique to 餅茶 bǐngchá affects the way it brews, how the heat of the water and saturation of the tea are key to unlocking the tea’s potential, and how the shape of a teapot (from the circumference of its opening to the height of its profile) can determine the trajectory of the steeping experience. Tea as teacher became a core understanding from this point onward.
I’d shelve this tea for years, pack it away and almost forget I had it. As I moved from Santa Cruz to San Francisco, and then from San Francisco to New York City, the tea would travel with me, wrapped-up in paper and a Japanese 風呂敷 furoshiki.
Since moving to the Hudson Valley, I kept the tea stored away in an antique 桐箪笥 kiri-dansu, the light, relatively porous wood of the Paulwonia acting as a great neutral environment for the tea to live and age. Now that Winter has arrived here along the rivers and mountains of the Hudson, the tea is dormant, its oils and active flavors less readily available.
The cold air that continues to creep through the windows and doors of my studio are both a challenge and an opportunity to make tea. The kettle that I keep by my side is drawn closer to me on the coldest of days. I remove the tea cake from its cloth and paper wrapping and set it down beside me. The compressed leaves look unchanged from when I last opened this cake up for inspection years ago. The scent of the dried tea is sweet, akin to loamy wood and dried black mission figs.
I arrange a setting for tea upon the swirling grains of my tea table (admittedly less a table and more a plank of wood that rests upon two tea boxes).
A pick for loosening a portion of tea from the cake.
A scoop fashioned from a piece of bamboo to set the leaves within.
A dark 紫砂仿古壺 zǐshā fǎnggǔ hú by ceramicist 尹紅范 Yǐn Hóngfàn (1963 – present) which I’ve employed for making cake and brick pǔ’ěr for almost fifteen years now. A shallow 宜興朱泥茶船 Yíxìng zhū ní chá chuán to set the pot within.
A wooden cup stand made of cherry wood.
A small 鬼萩焼 Oni Hagi-yaki teacup with unctuous white glaze by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan that has been accompanying me on many of my tea sessions since Winter came.
The pot and cup are warmed by the water that has been boiling in my iron kettle. The portion of broken-off tea cake is set within the open pot. The scent of the dried tea leaves coming in contact with the warm and wetted interior of the teapot reveals just a hint of the tea’s flavor. Again, notes of redwood, of dried black mission fig.
I pour hot water upon the compressed leaves within the pot and close the lid. I wait and do not rinse the tea fearing that this extra step will remove some of the flavor that this tea has acquired over the years.
In waiting I watch the steam rise from the water inside the tiny white-glazed cup, the steam rise from the spout of my boiling kettle, the slight wisps of steam that hover over the dark clay pot.
Waiting has brought this tea here today for me to taste. Waiting has made this moment happen. Waiting will let this now-aged tea express what time and change has allowed it to achieve.
Minutes pass and I pour the first of many draughts from the teapot. The color of the tea is dark, inky, opaque. I am reminded of the first time I sat to drink this tea with David two decades ago.
The aroma wafting from the cup, the sparkling wave that dances across the surface of the dark red liqueur, the bareness of its presentation. I lift the cup to my lips, inhale its profuse aromatics, and sip from the tiny teacup. Time evaporates. I’m for a brief moment brought back to that old time. I feel as if I’m about to cry.
The tea is nothing special and yet it really is. The flavors are big and sweet. There is complexity and layers and unfolding of depth but I am brought back to when I was just first beginning to perceive these things.
I can remember the layout of David’s old shop. The nooks and cavernous shelves that seemed to contain a trove of then-unknowns. Teapots and teas. Books and postcards. Lamps and cups. Tea picks and tea boats. Old lacquered items nexts to objects and figures carved of boxwood and rose wood and agate and jade. The jumble of things and the curl of David’s short beard and the wry smile he’d make when he’d tell you a dry joke that would invariably go over my head.
“Clouds,” he once told me. “Goals are like clouds. You watch them pass in the sky. You might focus on one or two, but you can’t grasp at a cloud.”
They disappear. The dissipate. The dissolve into the something bigger that’s out there. He never said the last part. I’d have to come to realize this on my own years later.
Sitting with this tea I look into the past from the vantage point of now. I’ve aged, no longer the young man I was. This tea has aged too, and yet it contains with it the bright, fresh, buoyant memories of my youth. It’s a good tea.
It steeps for days. On day two, on steeping who-knows-now, the color begins to wane and the once dark opacity it had held breaks and the liqueur becomes slightly transparent. Sunlight finally enters the bottom of the cup and the crimson leathery tones of a typical pǔ’ěr finally emerge.
The staying power of this tea amazes me. So, too, does the staying power of these memories. Sweet and bittersweet. Sad in a sense. Longing. Unable to go back. Happy that I’ve come this far. The cake that we called “Sailing Vessel” has in some way lived up to its name. “Golden Sail” sounds a bit luxurious. This is a simple yet sturdy tea and it and I have ventured for quite a while, for quite a distance. Far from when we first left off.
With the first day of the new year, I find myself wanting to climb a mountain. Ever since moving away from the city, I’ve used these moments of wandering the trails and streams to reset the mind, recalibrate the heart, and refresh the spirit. With the chaotic year that was 2021 now behind me, momentarily losing one’s self within the ramble of woods and ravines feels like closing the door on the world behind me and opening another on what’s to come.
The path, as always, is winding. However, today, it seems noticeably different, shockingly similar to when I last hiked along this trail. This Winter has been warm. Autumn leaves still lay scattered on the forest floor.
Ferns and the green leaves of mountain plants still abound.
The water that normally by now would be frozen still cascades and pools as it runs down the carved cut it created over centuries.
Memories of trying to climb this mountain last year return. Memories of ice and snow, of Winter’s lock in frigid torpor. These running headlong against what I see today, which is a forest that is very much awake, very much alive in a warmer time.
As I climb higher, I relish the rare instance I find myself in. While I fear that this weather is somehow linked to the greater warming pattern that our future holds, I cannot help but to find myself enjoying the sight of spiny moss poking up through the rocks…
… of bright yellow mushrooms in bloom…
…of buff and woody shelf fungus climbing up a tree. Simple pleasures found in times of warning. These are for certain demarcators of things to come.
More twists in the trail, more steps up the steep hill, and I find myself back beside my usual waterfall stop. The same rocks and fallen trees welcome me as if it were months ago, still full of energy and color and water surging forth from the recent Winter rains. I sit down upon the wet rocks and spread out a cloth kept in my rucksack. Upon this, I sit a teapot and cup. The sound of water rushing off the rocks. The sound of water pouring from my thermos into the open pot over rolled leaves of 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiě guānyīn wūlóngchá. The last of this tea for the first of this year.
Pot closed, I wait and wonder what the year will bring, what the tea will taste like, and what the warm weather will set forth for years to come. The sound of the waterfalls rushing beside me. The occasional chatter of birds and backpackers in the distance. Silence before I pour out the pot into a single red and white cup, pouring out as much as the tiny open vessel can contain.
Golden hues from the tea leaves left against the enameled interior of the 宜興 Yíxìng cup.
Gold and the reflection of the trees above it.
The bare cold trees that stretch skyward against the dull grey expanse. Their branches skeletal against the sky.
Below, copper-colored leaves collect in wetted piles and flat, matted carpets across the forest floor.
Between these two worlds, the river cascading…
…the rock which I sit upon…
…the tiny tea set which is keeping me warm.
With each successive pouring of the pot the tea grows darker, the flavors more complex, shifting from sweet butterscotch to deep notes of incense wood.
Bitterness is there and so too is a lingering complexity that coats my tongue and throat.
In the ancient texts, they note the occurrence of 甘露 gānlù, an auspicious omen, the sweet dew that comes from nature, moisture that clings to leaves, that is said to be a medicine that is far above others to replenish the body and bring immortality.
In tea, it can describe the saliva that is produced on the back sides of the cheeks, that carries the flavor of the tea into the body, that continues to permeate long after the tea is gone (producing the sensation of 回甘 huígān).
My only hope is that this flavor lingers longer as I pack up my bag and head up the mountain, and that this may be a harbinger for a harmonious year to come.
The warm Winter weather makes the trek up the mountain gentler. No footsteps in the snow to mark the way. Instead, an uneven ripple of leaves that runs up the side of the hill points to where others have gone before me, guiding me to the top.
Fallen trees and the forest thins as I get closer to the mountain’s peak.
Toppled limbs and trunks with scarlet veins brought to life and luster in the moisture of the morning.
At summit, I see nothing. Just a blanket of fog across the town and wide river below. The sound of a train in the distance is muffled by the soft lumbering clouds. Thick mist and no vista to speak of.
I’m reminded of the tradition in many East Asian cultures, where upon the first of the new year, people climb mountains to watch the sunrise for the first time, to see its rays of golden glow peek and creep over the horizon. Wishes are made and offered up to the new day on the new year in the hopes that they will come true.
On this first of the year, in the obscurity of the fog and cold clouds, I wish to remain up this mountain a little longer, waiting for Winter’s chill to bite me. On this warm Winter day, I worry for our little planet, for the forces that we don’t yet know. I hope for a better year than the one that has now since passed, and for a better future not yet here.
Winter is here and the days grow colder, the shadows that are cast from the bare trees grow longer, daylight’s passage shorter. The festivities of the Western calendar seem to run headlong against the chaotic times we all seem to find ourselves in. The pandemic. The global climate crisis. War. Indifference. As the year draws closer to its close, to pause and sit and meditate on what we’ve just been through seems like a heavy task. And, yet, in these most difficult of times, it is when meditation seems most fitting.
It is December 21st, 2021. Today is the Winter Solstice. 冬至 Tōji in the old lunisolar calendar of Japan (Dōngzhì in Mandarin). On this day, I prepare the last kettle for the year that has now grown older and colder over these last few months. Since Autumn, I’ve transitioned from using the portable brazier to my improvised 置き炉 okiro made of an old New York apple crate. Its pine wooden walls are about the shape and size of the real thing, close enough for this tea practitioner to adopt it into his little world of tea in an act of 見立て mitate, whereas items not normally used in 茶の湯 chanoyu are incorporated and adapted for this purpose.
In the cold dark world of my tiny makeshift tea hut, I light a candle in the 床の間 tokonoma.
I carry the old iron kettle from my studio across the still frozen pathway that weaves from my home through the garden. I set the dark iron and patina’ed vessel down into the old wooden crate and within ten or so minutes small threads of steam begin to rise from the gap left open in the lid. Soon after comes the faint sound of the water boiling. 歳暮の釜 seibo no kama. Kettle for the year-end.
I wander back out into the cold world of the garden and then back into the warmth of my studio to gather more items for the 点前 temae. Since my makeshift tea hut has yet no 水屋 mizuya attached to it, I venture back and forth server al times before all tea objects are brought into the tea space. A tall, white glazed 水指 mizusashi made by a former tea teacher. A small eggplant-shaped 茶入 chaire enrobed in a 仕服 shifuku emblazoned with motif of pine sprig and chrysanthemum.
Other items come in last. A blush-colored 赤志野茶碗 akashino chawan, a 茶筅 chasen by 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango, a 茶杓 chashaku made of carved cedar. These, I place beside the tiny tea container. Finally, I trek once more from hut to studio and back, bringing with me an old 建水 kensui, a 蓋置 futaoki made of a piece of mottled bamboo, and 柄杓 hishaku.
In the dim light that illuminates the speckled and patterned plywood floor of my makeshift tea hut, items are arranged by their use. I place the futaoki beside the old apple crate. Atop this, I set the cup of the hishaku. The kensui is moved upward towards the edge of my left knee.
The chawan and its accompanying wares upon and within it are set at an angle beside the mitate okiro. The chaire in its pine sprig and chrysanthemum brocaded coat are set before this.
In a 炉点前 ro temae, during the season of the sunken hearth, objects are placed at forty five degree angles against the right angle positions of the open 炉口 roguchi or okiro and accompanying mizusashi. This all in accordance with the angle in which the host sits, which, during the dark and cold days of Winter, is made more informal and adjusted to feel as if closer to the guests. Even in my solitary practice, I take this stance, angling myself so that the small space between the upper left corner of the okiro and the uppermost border of my knees becomes the area in which tea will be made. While it may initially feel more limited, the movements of the host become more open as the Winter position allows for the arc of the right hand to move from one’s far left to draw water from the mizusashi to its far right to offer a bowl of tea to the invited guest. In this, there remains a naturalness to it all, with a heightened sense of down-to-earth informality that embodies the markedly more rustic and 詫び wabi aesthetic found in Winter.
The meditation of the tea practice continues well before its beginning and well after its end. The pause that comes before one sets forth to make tea is preceded by a myriad of actions to enable this moment to happen. Steps in the path between this moment and the many moments that led to it. I feel this most of all during the silence that exists once I place the chaire before the chawan and before I reach down with both hands to untie the cord that binds it within its shifuku pouch.
The motion is simple and direct. Both palms remain flattened, fingers pointed downward as they gather first around the base of the brocaded bag and then upward towards the purple braided cord. One finger holds onto one loop of the tie, the other loosens the other and pulls.
The 緒 o is drawn towards the body and the knot opens.
The tiny tea container and pouch are turned a quarter turn and each side of the gathered fabric is pulled flat. The tiny object and its covering are then placed in the left palm and each side of the cloth is peeled away with the heal of the right hand.
The chaire is then lifted out of the pouch and placed before the chawan.
The shifuku is placed beside the mizusashi.
In preparing a bowl of tea, each step flows into the next. In a similar fashion, Winter emerges each day. At no time does one day seem more different than the next. The change over time is gradual until one suddenly realizes the truth of what it means to be cold, to see ice, to know what snow feels like and how it sounds as is falls. In the tearoom, the stillness is broke too by action, silence broken by the sound of the kettle coming to a boil, of the gentle setting down of wares, of the gliding of cloth over objects as they are cleansed.
The folding of the 袱紗 fukusa comes first with an inhalation and the sensation of cold air filling my chest. The left hand grips the silken cloth and pulls it from the side pocket of my Winter jacket. Pinched with the thumb and index finger of my right hand, I open it along one of its folded corners as if lifting a page from a book. I lift it upward and the cloth unfurls. with my left hand, I fold the cloth in midair into a series of triangular corrugations and then over onto itself. It is folded and then folded once again, moving from the right hand to the left and then back again.
With the left hand, the chaire is brought upward and cloth and tea container meet. The chaire is turned against the smooth silk fabric of the fukusa, first cleansing the sides. The fukusa is then pinched and the corners are used to lightly cleanse the lid of the tea container. The lid is then lifted momentarily to inspect that the chaire contains tea, and the chaire is closed once again.
Once the tea container is placed down, now between mizusashi and okiro, my gaze shifts to the teabowl with its collected wares. First the fukusa is refolded and the chashaku is cleansed. The silk cloth runs over the thin handle and carved top of the cedar scoop several times. It is then placed atop the white bone cover of the chaire, beside the nodule that is unique to the 瓶子づくの牙蓋 heishi-zuku no gebuta style lid, the shape of which is reminiscent of ancient jars used to hold offertory 酒 sake in 神道 Shintō shrines. The angle in which it is set points away from me towards the crack in the door that I entered, towards a small shaft of light that tells me that morning’s time continues to pass.
I breathe again and lift the chasen out from the deep-set teabowl and place it beside the resting chaire and chashaku. The line that the whisk and tea container creates connects the space between the place of the cold water container and the position of the okiro, the heat of the hearth, and the element of water boiling within the void of the iron kettle. Between this small space is contained all that is needed to make a bowl of tea. Heat and cold. Fire and water. Metal and wood. Leaf and clay. Space and the air between.
The bowl is moved forward, the 茶巾 chakin is pulled from its interior, refolded, and placed momentarily atop the lid of the mizusashi.
I breathe and, upon the exhalation, I reach for the long thin handle of the hishaku that has been resting parallel to my right thigh. I shift the water scoop from right hand to left. With my right hand, I return to lift the chakin, pinched between thumb and the first two fingers. The angle of my arms opens up as keep the hishaku stationary, pointed cup facing upward, in line with my left thigh, while I move my right arm to reach to uncover the boiling kettle. I use the chakin, pinched between my forefingers and thumb, to grasp the hollow copper knob of the kettle’s lid. The thin, folded linen cloth protects my hand as I tilt and lift the circular metal top from the boiling 茶釜 chagama.
Steam rises wildly from the kettle as I remove the lid and place it atop the cut bamboo futaoki. I let go of the hollow bronze finial of the lid and rest the chakin beside it. The shadows these resting objects cast are dark and muted in the low light that filters through the sole window of my makeshift tea hut.
I transfer hishaku from left to right hand and dip its bamboo cup into the hot and boiling water of the kama. The stippled and curved shape of the ladle disappears in the dark world of the kettle’s interior, reappearing filled with bright clear water.
For a moment I naturally pause, the cup of the hishaku hovering above the open mouth of the chawan.
A moment more and, with the turn of my arm, the water cascades into the empty teabowl.
I set hishaku down upon the open kettle, its cup turned downward, the flat side of the bamboo handle rests against both the rim of the kettle’s mouth and the pine wooden edge of the okiro.
I return my gaze to the teabowl. Clear, clean, steaming water glistening within its concave interior. What little light of the morning enters and curves against the edge of the water that meets the inside surface of the bowl. Colors and cracks and crazed glazes come forth from what were once dull features. The heat and the liveliness of the boiled water reanimates the body of this small, handheld tea vessel that hasn’t yet been used since last when Winter’s words were spoken, during the final moments of the cold months, before Spring’s arrival, as the days grew incrementally lighter. Today, on the shortest day of the year, the darkest of days, seeing this bowl again is like being visited by an old friend. The passage of time, of the almost twenty years now since I first made tea with this bowl. The decades seem as if they are momentarily forgotten as I peer down at the bowl, the sparkling light through the water, remembering when we were both much younger than we are now.
I lift and dip the bamboo chasen into the warm water held within the chawan. The carved and sharpened tines fade into the shadows and the steam.
Pressing and whisking and placing the chasen back beside the chaire. Lifting and turning and warming the round teabowl in my hands before I pour its contents out into the until now empty kensui. I catch the last drop of hot water with the folded chakin and begin to use this simple moistened cloth to cleans both rim and interior of bowl.
Surfaces where lips will touch, where tea will be made. These are wiped and made clean, both for the eyes and for the mind. As I cleanse the bowl, it remains firm in my hands. Whereas other schools may tilt the bowl, my school holds it level, steady, keeping it upright as a gesture of respect and reverence to the object. The bowl is set down in a similar manner, leaving the chakin pressed against its inner edge.
The moistened cloth is then plucked up by the right hand, placed into the left, and then refolded to be set down again atop the kettle’s lid.
For a brief moment, everything in the tearoom is still, save for the rolling water of the boiling kettle. The shadows of the morning light rest on each object, collecting in dark pools.
The deep, narrow concave of the round 鉄鉢形茶碗 tetsubachi-nari chawan (iron basin-shaped teabowl) seems especially dark in the low light of the Winter solstice. A faint layer of steam still rising off of its red and umber glazed skin.
Minute amounts of still warm water collected in the tiny fissures that mark where heat caused expansion in the kiln sparkle like snow and ice.
I set forth to begin to make tea, a hearty bowl of koicha to fortify my spirit and body on a cold day. I grip the thin handle of the chashaku between my thumb and fingers of my right hand and bring it towards my body within the span of one exhalation and inhalation. One out breath and I reach for the chaire with my left hand. One in breath and I bring the tiny ceramic jar towards me.
The lid is removed with the right hand and is placed beside the teabowl.
The chaire is brought down to the level of the chawan’s rim and the chashaku is dipped into the dark open void of the tea container, the carved cedar scoop disappears in the shadows cast by the low light of the early morning.
Three heaps of powdered tea are placed into the center of the bowl and the chashaku is placed at an angle along the edge of the iron basin-shaped chawan.
The chaire is held in both hands and is tilted and turned slowly over the teabowl, sending a thin, bright green cascade of 抹茶 matcha downward, piling into an ever-growing mound of tea at the center of the chawan. Once fully emptied, the chaire is turned upward again, the lid placed back upon it, and the small ceramic tea jar is set back beside the chasen.
I lift the chashaku once more, and with its rounded tip, carve the sigil of my school into the small hill of powdered tea.
With chaire, scoop, and bowl at rest, I draw a scoop of hot water from the boiling kettle. Carefully, I pour a small measure of the water down upon the mound of green tea, focusing my awareness on how much water I am adding and what initial effect it will have on the matcha. I pour the remaining water in the hishaku’s cup to the kettle.
I return the bamboo ladle back to the kettle and lift the chasen with my right hand. With my left hand forming a half moon shape, I grip the side of the teabowl to steady it against the wooden floor of my makeshift tea hut. With my right hand, I bring the chasen downward into the hollow of the chawan, pressing down into the wetted mound of matcha and begin to slowly and methodically whisk the concoction into a thick, even paste.
As I stare down into the dark world that exists within the teabowl, I feel as if it is a mirror to the world which I currently occupy. Dark yet warm and full of activity, creation, transformation. To successfully produce a bowl of 濃茶 koicha requires a keen understanding of uncertainty and meeting a multitude of challenges. In the cold of Winter, the kettle requires a higher heat. In the dark of the year’s shortest day, one cannot see clearly into the depths of the teabowl and, therefore, must feel one’s way through the action, as water and tea combine into one fluid matter.
At this point, all one has is the senses. The feeling of the resistance of the tea as it slowly melds and blends. The intense aroma of matcha as it lifts upwards into the cold air of the tea space. The sound of the whisk as it slowly pushes through the thick tea liquid.
I move the handle of the chasen from right hand to left, keeping the tines inside of the teabowl. With right hand, I lift and dip the ladle into the hot boiling water of the kettle, drawing from it another draught. Carefully, calmly, I inhale as I bring the hishaku’s cup down towards the bowl. I exhale and let a minute amount of hot water pass from ladle’s bamboo cup through the tea-covered tines of the chasen whisk to the dark interior of the teabowl.
指湯 sashi-yu. Adding more hot water so one can adjust the thickness of the tea. If this is done correctly, it means that the koicha’s consistency will be perfect. Too much water and it becomes too thin. Not enough and the reason won’t flow down the tall, narrow walls of this particular teabowl. In this practice, experience leads to balance.
I return the remaining water in the ladle’s cup back to the kettle and set the hishaku back upon the kama and okiro. Breathing inward, I return my focus to whisking tea. Breathing outward, I press the whisk back and forth, slowly, attentively, until the mixture is even, the surface of the liquid flat, glossy, mirror-like akin to that of lacquer.
I lift the whisk upward above the bowl and turn it right-side-up in mid-air. A thick coating of koicha still clings to the cut bamboo tines of the chasen.
I set the whisk back down beside the chaire, beside the carved cedar scoop.
For a moment I sit once more, pausing to hear the sound of the kettle, to the breeze pushing through the pine trees that tower over this simple garden shed, to the large iron bell that hangs beneath the eaves of my home on the other side of the curving stone path.
The bustling world outside the quiet of the tea hut. The chaos and clammed as people rush from this place and that in preparations for the holidays and for the year’s end. The craziness of the current state of the world and the death that hangs heavy in the air. The fear, the sadness, the longing and grief.
To think this is kept at bay by these thin walls of mine, to fool one’s self into thinking that the crack in the door that lets in the light of the early morning won’t also let these energies pour forth into here as well. To resist the crashing waves only leads to one’s collapse. To dive deep into the swirling and turbulent times may prove to be a wiser choice.
In the dim light of my garden shed, the koicha I’ve made looks especially dark. As I lift the bowl to turn it and place it in the guest position, I notice how the light wraps around its round, globe-like shape. How the shadows it casts stretch and crawl across the chaotic patterns upon the plywood floor. How the edges of these shadows fade into light so that the boundary between light and darkness is not defined but permeable, nebulous.
As I stand up and reposition myself to accept the bowl of tea as a guest, I’m given a new perspective of the space I’ve been sitting in. From this vantage point the light is brighter, catching in the wisps and plumes of steam that rise from the kettle’s open mouth. I see the shaded outlines of bare tree branches, of roof tops in the distance, of ice crystals that form at the edges around the sole window pane. I see the dark lustrous emerald green of the warm, flat, lacquer-like surface of tea that I’ve produced for myself as host enjoy by myself as guest.
The small world of the empty tea room feels both constrained and expansive. The space between where I once sat and where I sit now seems a world away, yet barely an arm’s length.
The alcove in the corner, with its lone burning candle light shimmers and glows, flickering with the wind that creeps between the boards, between the joined edges of walls.
I lift the bowl of tea and drink from it whole heartedly. The liquid is thick, warm, awakening. The bitter and bittersweet of koicha is arresting. A shock to the system. All previously drowsiness abated. The instantaneous quality of the moment made incredibly clear.
I tilt the chawan back again and drink twice more from it, the remainder of the tea is reduced to a thick coating upon the inside of the bowl. I set it down once more before me to appreciate its shape, its dried persimmon-like color, the upward path of the residual koicha along its inner walls.
I return the bowl back to the host’s position and return myself to the position of the host. Before I opt to cleanse the bowl, to close-up my day’s tea practice, and to close-up the small tea hut to retreat once more into the warm interior of my studio space, I decide to use the remaining tea left in the chawan to make a bowl of 薄茶 usucha.
To do this, I draw cool water first from the mizusashi and blend it with the hot water of the kama. Next, I draw water from the now cooler kettle and pour half-a-ladle’s-worth into the bowl.
I whisk the tea in a vigorous manner, pulling it from the inner walls of the teabowl and whipping it into a bright, light foam.
I pause for a moment more as I enjoy the sight of this impromptu bowl of tea. Observing how the light of the day dances on the surface made of tiny bubbles. It serves as a reminder that even in these dark days there is still light, however minute they may be. It is found clinging to the imperfect, rough surfaces of everyday life, of practice, of the choices we make, as we take time to sit and be silent with ourselves away from the clamoring masses and social requirements. The light of meditation found in the dark corner of an old, run-down garden shed at the edge of a small forest.
I lift and turn the bowl and silently thank the madness of the world that pushed me to take time to be alone. I tilt and drink up the last bowl of tea made from the waters of the last kettle of the year’s end. It is sweet, bright, sparkling with a gentle flavor that lingers.
As I place the bow in my hands to inspect it, I gaze upon the small collection of foam against its dimpled surface. The depth of darkness of this deep-set bowl. Light and the residue of tea just eking-out a foothold.
With cool water I cleanse the bowl finally. I place the chakin back within its hollow form.
I set the chasen against the fold of the linen cloth, the thin bamboo tines silhouetted against its pale white woven surface.
I cleanse the chashaku once more with the folded silk of the fukusa and place it down upon the rounded rim of the teabowl.
I return chawan and chaire before the mizusashi. Cool water is placed once more into the steaming center of the boiling pot. The lid placed once again on top. The hiss and tumble of water settles momentarily to a quiet stop.
In the stillness that exists as the water cools and the light shifts, I put objects at rest.
The hishaku is placed atop the kensui and the bamboo lid rest placed below it.
Items once used to prepare tea are then arranged once more to be viewed and appreciated in a simple 拝見 haiken.
An old 香盆 kōban incense tray becomes an open field upon which objects are placed upon. First the carved lid of the chaire is set on its side, waiting as its corresponding other half is cleansed.
When they finally meet again and are placed upon the tray they appear jewel-like in the low glow of the morning light.
Next, the shifuku is lifted from its resting place beside the mizusashi and is formed in the hand to appear full, voluminous. It is placed down beside the chaire it had first enrobed, now both empty of their hallowed contents.
Finally, the carved chashaku scoop is set between both brocaded pouch and small tea jar.
These, the tools that came into contact with the tea.
Offered up to the guest to enjoy once more before they are, like a memory, packed away.
Warm light cast against cooling objects. Dark pools of shadows collecting in corners. Set within the alcove there is a single candle light. No flower for this gathering. Just the flicker of a flame and the cold iron rings of the kettle’s 鐶 kan set on old weathered Beacon brick. Dark days for this moment in time, followed by the deepening of Winter’s cold. This, the last kettle for the old year. What potential to come from its boiling and bubbling core? What will come from the chaos with its dark interior? Perhaps it will engender this practice of mine as I sit in these shadows now.