Tag Archives: Winter

Like Spring, History Slowly Reveals Itself

img_5473The first days of February have come and gone and with it so too have the first vital days of Spring. While February 4th officially marked the beginning of Spring with 立春 Risshun (Lì Chūn in Mandarin), little evidence of Spring’s arrival exists. Even for what was a rather mild Winter in New York City, frost still collects in puddles and birds still hold on to their thick down. Yet, Spring has begun, slowly, creeping into the psyche of city dwellers and tea people alike.

Frigid rain has replaced the chance of snow and the red buds of 梅 ume blossoms plump in neat rows along the branches of once barren plum trees. In cold nights they burst open, revealing their bright, pale hue in the electric moonlight.

In accordance with this, I draw inspiration for a morning’s sitting with tea. Caught for weeks in my own research on the preparation of 抹茶 mǒchá (matcha in Japanese) during the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279), of which I will be presenting on later this week, I decide to take what I’ve learned and apply it to making a special bowl of tea.

What is known about the preparation of mǒchá is hazy. As a researcher and tea person, I rely upon an ever increasing variety of texts and images to work off of. Documents like 蔡襄 Cài Xiāng’s 茶錄 Chá Lù (“Record of Tea”, 1049) or Emperor 宋徽宗 Sòng Huīzōng’s 大觀茶論 Dàguān Chá Lùn (“Treatise on Tea”, 1107) may discuss the finer points of whisking-up a bowl of mǒcha in the 點茶 diǎn chá fashion, though these omit aspects such as the “between steps” that may dictate how a tea cloth is folded, the exact motion of the whisk, or the way the hand should lift something so mundane yet important as a tea scoop. Juxtaposing this research to my own tea practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, more often than not, I am left to “fill in the blanks” and make “educated guesses” as to how some of the more minute actions of Sòng tea preparation would have occurred.

With each year I study this approach to tea, however, the deeper my knowledge develops. Looking back at the previous year and the year before that when I first began to hone my skills in hand-grinding white tea to get an approximation of what would have been made during the Sòng period, I can see that I’ve made strides. Still, though, it has been a slow accumulation of knowledge, one akin to walking out in a heavy mist. Over time, one will become fully-saturated, drenched to the core. Yet something as boundless and as equally intangible as tea during the Sòng period (no known tea cakes from this time survive nor does the tea powder), what I feel that I’ve been chasing is a bit of a phantom. And yet, in practice, this specter of history begins to reveal itself.

As I sit down, kettle coming to a steady boil, I recognize that the water is ready for tea not by any modern technology but by the sound of bubbles breaking the surface. By the Sòng period, the allusion of “wind rushing through the pines” would have been a staple to any well-seasoned tea person’s practice.

img_5585-1From my shelf, I pull forth a collection of teawares, all of which are Japanese in origin, yet are explicitly crafted to replicate Sòng wares.

5ee310dc-e57c-4281-8bcc-11241795863bFor a tea caddy, I use a small 京焼茶入 Kyō-yaki chaire, enrobed in a blue and silver silk brocaded 仕服 shifuku.

32eaf6e3-63ee-49d3-8a50-270a33ea83dfRemoved from its pouch, it reveals a shape that would have been common to both tea practitioners and apothecaries of the Sòng period.

468cb4a2-31c4-4537-8a11-1bdf3b8814a1For a tea scoop, I opt for a more 真 shin (“formal”) 茶杓 chashaku. While crafted out of a single length of cedar, the slender, uninterrupted form with a curved tip harkens back to scoops of the Sòng period which were made out of gold, silver or ivory.

fd0f92ae-270d-4948-8351-917a817e9750The whisk is a modified Japanese 茶筅 chasen, one in which I have straightened the many thin bamboo tines to reproduce the style depicted in 審安老人 Shěn Ān Lǎorén’s 茶具圖贊 Chájù Zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”, 1269).

1b7bc3ef-3693-4833-bf77-bac628240ce6Once emptied of its contents, the interior of the teabowl is exposed, revealing a dappled pattern with a scattered plum blossom motif. The style on display, called 黑釉剪紙貼花 hēi yòu jiǎnzhǐ tiē huā (“black glaze paper-cut appliqué”), was made famous by the 吉州窯 Jízhōu yáo kilns during the Sòng period.

img_5486This particular pattern is now considered to be quite formal in Japanese tea ceremony and, as it depicts ume blossoms, is only used at this time of year.

img_5489Warming the bowl and softening the whisk readies each of the implements to prepare a bowl of mǒchá. Practiced in chanoyu, these steps were originally noted during the Sòng period; the hot water softened the whisk, making it more flexible, and it purportedly allowed the tea powder to rise more easily off of the surface of the teabowl (to aid in the creation of a thick foam).

c8e8b905-a96c-4ba3-a0e8-284eae506b9bLifting the chashaku and chaire, I draw out six scoops of white tea I had hand-ground and sieved earlier that day.

img_5542-1Placed in the center of the teabowl, I pour a small amount of water along the inside edge of the ceramic vessel, allowing it to run down and under the mound of tea powder.

1425d03f-8fe2-491e-aff0-445ad3a8dd5fWhisk in hand, I begin to slowly knead the powdered tea and water into a thick paste.

img_5544Next, I gently pour water around the inside rim of the bowl, allowing it, again, to gently run down and mix into the thick concoction of tea and water. As this occurs, I begin to quicken the speed of whisking, loosening my wrist and allowing the whisk to move in broader strokes. Soon a soft, light foam begins to arise.

img_5547Again I issue water into the teabowl and, again, I whisk, further mixing the tea. The foam begins to mound.

img_5549A fourth pulse of water is issued, and again I whisk. The foam tightens, becoming finer, brighter in color and complexion.

img_5550A fifth round of water is poured into the teabowl and the foam rises higher, with an appearance akin to freshly fallen snow.

img_5552A sixth pouring of water and I begin to slow the pace of my whisking, causing the foam to become gentle and even.

img_5554Finally, a seventh gust of hot water is issued into the teabowl, and I finish whisking with a final circular motion around the circumference of the bowl’s interior, exited from the center of the foamy surface, resulting in a delicate peak.

21a45a98-3244-4223-9166-5135a905ee55For a brief moment I sit before the assembled collection of teaware. For a moment I ponder if what I’ve created is, indeed, what would have been enjoyed by literati, monks, emperors and skilled 鬥茶 dòuchá (“tea battle”) competitors of 建安 Jiàn’ān.

img_5556For a moment longer I wait to see if the foam holds, noting its edge against the dark glaze of the Jízhōu yáo-style teabowl. A minute passes and still it holds. A minute more and I cannot wait longer to drink the foamy concoction I’ve made.

img_5558Lifting the teabowl with the aid of a wooden 天目台 tenmokudai, I accept the bowl of tea in the formal manner I’ve learned from my tea teacher. Such formality is rather rare in modern tea practice, saved for when tea is served in ancient-styled wares, the origins of which are from Sòng period China.

This link is not lost on me as I realize that perhaps there remains within these motions the echoes of a practice not recorded by the essayists of the tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These motions I had to learn. I had to turn teachings into muscle memory. Even the scribbled notes and scant recordings I have cannot inform me enough to know how to conduct myself at this moment. This cannot be recorded by any medium save for the mind. Once forgotten, these will be gone. Over years, and by way of my teacher and his teacher and teacher’s teacher, it has taken centuries to transmit this knowledge. History, like Spring, is slow to reveal itself; to be fully realized.

As I lift the bowl to my lips, I sip and savor the sweet, floral flavors of this creation. It is unlike any other kind of tea I’ve had. As I finish the bowl of tea, I am mindful not to drink the last dregs. As I have hand-ground the tea, the process is still rough, resulting in a small amount of tea grit to remain at the bottom of the bowl.

img_5569However, since I am using a Sòng-style 天目 tiānmù (tenmoku in Japanese) shaped bowl, there is a articulated indentation that runs along the inner rim of the teabowl. This indentation collects the final particles that remain, keeping them from being consumed. This simple form was the genius of the Sòng period potter, still practiced by ceramicists of this chawan style today.

img_5582As I finish cleansing the teabowl and wares, I finish today’s sitting with a final 拝見 haiken. Arranging the caddy, scoop and silk shifuku on a 香盆 kōban, I meditate on how history can sometimes, quite literally, shape the world we live in.

img_5573Objects for tea, beautiful and, at times mundane, contain within them volumes of stories, many of which still remain untold.

img_5574As my ability to read old texts continues to improve, will my appreciation of these forms deepen? Is it through the reading of ancient treatises that I will come to some greater realization? Or, perhaps, will it be through the actions they inspire?

img_5575Will this quest to recreate an ancient bowl of whisked tea become my practice? What will I learn by doing? What will be learned through this direct experience with the material world? An accumulation of knowledge? Of mist until I’m drenched? Of dust until I’m weighed down? A Spring slowly emerging. A history slowly revealing itself. A plum blossom bursting open to the light of the full moon.

 

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

Passing Through the Gate of the New Year: Drinking Tea as Old as Me

It begins again, every twelve years. The cycle of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac have made their full rotation, beginning from Rat and returning to Rat. Each time around, the five elements have cycled. So too have the energies, oscillating from 陰 yīn to 陽 yáng. With each year, the world changes and we change with it, passing through countless gates, perceptible and imperceptible.

This year, 2020 (year 4718 in the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar), the year of the 陽金庚子 Yáng Jīn Gēng (“Yáng Metal Seventh-Rank Rat”), I find myself staring-down a threshold. I was born in the year of the Rat (specifically 陽木甲子 Yáng Mù Jiǎ Zǐ, “Yáng Wood First-Rank Rat”), 1984. As such, this year means that I will be passing through a “heavenly gate”, signifying major changes that will and have come about in the past twelve years and cumulatively in the past 36 years. For me and fellow Rats, this may mean hardship, but it also means growth. To pass through one of these gates is to look inward to oneself and see where one’s been and where one’s going.

On the eve of the New Year, I cannot help but to look upon this moment with both a sense of anticipation and reservation. Rarely do I find myself in this state. To ease my mind and, perhaps to keep myself a bit humble, I decide to brew a very special tea: a 1984 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá. As a tea that is as old as myself, I am interested to see how it has changed over the many decades it has seen, stored away within my tea chest and passed through the hands of previous tea collectors.

To brew it, I select a a small stone weight-shaped 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot).

Paired with this a contemporary celadon 茶船 chá chuán and three matching teacups, all made by the Taiwanese ceramicist Xu De Jia. With wares assembled, I begin to make the last pot of tea for the old year.

Kept within a red and black 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer tea container, I set out a measure of the dark, twisted tea leaves atop an antique 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”) scoop.

Looking closely at the leaves, colors emerge from their seemingly flat, black surface. Dark amber and the blue-black color of a crow’s feather hide among the undulations and curls.

Placing them into the warmed interior of the Yixing teapot, the first hint of their flavor emerges. A slight aroma of almond kernel and herbal medicine.

As I pour hot water from my iron kettle into the teapot, the leaves tumble and turn. A fine foam of tea oils rises and so, too, does the scent of the aged oolong.

Closing the pot, I pour water over its lid and around the structured shoulders of its clay body. The heat from the vessel’s interior radiates outward and evaporates the slick veneer of liquid I had just poured upon it. For a few minutes I wait and breathe, visualizing what is occurring within the unknown of the teapot’s interior. What has 36 years, three cycles around the zodiac, done to these leaves? Will they open readily or will they hold their form?

As I lift the teapot and decant its contents into the three small celadon cups, I look upon the crackled and aged surface of my unusual chá chuán. A circular form encompassed in a square. The ancient form of the universe.

Placing the teapot back upon the chá chuán, I lift its lid, releasing the heat kept within it, resetting the leaves for their next steeping.

Shifting my gaze to the three small celadon cups, I appreciate the rich russet color of the tea’s liqueur.

Selecting one, I lift it to my nose, breathing in its intoxicating, complex and medicinal aroma. As I take in the first sip, notes of dark fruit, bittersweet cacao, and the tannic qualities of walnut skin are all present. As I let the flavor linger across the back and sides of my mouth, a pronounced flavor of smoked plums arises, bringing back vivid and distant memories of my time when I worked in San Francisco’s Chinatown, remembering the distinctive smells one would encounter when entering its many traditional apothecaries.

Almost twelve years ago to the day did I first enter that world, working as a tea merchant for a friend’s family-run business. Twelve years ago, the flavor of this tea was more pronounced, with wild notes of sharp charcoal and fragrant 龍眼lóngyǎn wood. When I had first purchased this tea then I had been told that the leaves had been roasted and subsequently re-roasted across the span of its then-twenty-four years of storage, a practice traditionally done by tea people to help preserve the complexity of a tea’s flavor. Now, twelve years later, the charcoal has become subdued, the juicy aromatic lóngyǎn more apparent yet balanced.

As I continue to sip, cup after cup, I wonder how kind the years have been to this 老茶 lǎo chá. It has seen as many years as I have. It has been through the turning of the twelve signs three times, the changing of the five elements and the oscillating of the forces of yīn and yáng. In these years it has been tasted and tested and honed; picked and processed, roasted and left to breathe.

Age has made it sweeter and more quiet. Patiently applied heat over long intervals has attempted to preserve its finer qualities, yet this, too, will only go so far. Only mindfulness and a gentle hand can help it now to achieve its full potential. I can not force this tea to do anything. I can only sit and wait and let it slowly unfold. Steeping after resteeping lets this tea come into its own, and I, over the course of the afternoon and late into the night, patiently lets it open and wane.

As I wait for this next year to arrive, I share this moment with the aged tea, one as old as myself. Together we offer up that which is in us, curious to see what we will become.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting

Major Cold: Looking Down the Long, Dark Tunnel of Winter

It is late January and, by now, many of us begin to anticipate the warmth of Spring. However, as nature would have it, the coldest days of Winter are finally upon us. In the interim, between the New Year of the Gregorian calendar and before the New Year of the traditional lunisolar calendar of East Asia, the period of what is called 大寒 Daikan in Japanese (Dàhán in Mandarin), “Major Cold”, begins.

Extending from January 20th to February 3rd (changing slightly depending on the given year), this time sees the most extreme point of Winter’s chill, with winds that are wild and biting, the earth frozen and solid, and the ice ever-present. In the world of tea, practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu take heart and double-down on their commitment to live according to Rikyū’s old adage, “in the Summer suggest coolness, in Winter, warmth”. So dedicated to this latter notion are tea people that all manner of accommodations are made to ensure that the guests’ needs for warmth are met.

Warm water with ginger is often served to the guests as they wait to enter the tearoom. More charcoal may be added to the 炉 ro to boil the water and heat the tea space. Even the type of teaware used is adjusted to increase the warmth of the tea. It is during this time of year that the host will bring out the 筒茶碗 tsutsuchawan.

Named for its distinctive “tube-like” shape, the tsutsuchawan casts a visually different form in the tearoom when compared to the typical shape of the teabowl. Comprising of a vessel that is taller than it is wide, the height of the tsutsuchawan ensures that the hot tea made within it remains hot by the moment the guest receives it. Given that traditionally 茶室 chashitsu are constructed out of nothing more than wood, paper, grass, and mud, any means taken to retain heat is vital. Tea was (and still is) a medicine at its core.

As I sit in my own modern (and, frankly, modest) tearoom today, I find myself feeling far from the historical essence of chanoyu. In my New York City apartment, I sit in the artificial warmth of 20th century steam heat. The sound of the radiator seems a constant feature of my Winter-locked life here in the city. In stark contrast, I look out of my window to a world blanketed in a fresh coat of snow. Ice hangs on the eaves and dark grey clouds filter sunlight into a dull glow.

As I bring the water in my antique bronze and iron 茶釜 chagama to a boil, I arrange my teaware. A vintage 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsuchawan.

A small wooden 平棗 hiranatsume lacquered with persimmon juice.

An antique 茶杓 chashaku.

A 茶筅 chasen made of speckled bamboo. Peering out of the darkness of the deep chawan is the white linen 茶巾 chakin, folded in a manner favored in the 裏千家 Urasenke school (a subtle and mindful nod of appreciation to their form as I am a student of 宗徧流正伝庵 Sōhen-ryū Shōden-an).

As I cleanse each item, touching them with the smooth silk cloth of my 袱紗 fukusa or bathing them in the heat of the boiling water, I ready them for their action of making tea. The chashaku is rested atop the natsume. The chakin is removed from the teabowl. The whisk is wetted and warmed. The teabowl is empty and is radiating heat from the water it once held. These actions all have their intention and are supported by the purpose-built wares.

As I scoop tea from the small wooden natsume and place it gently into the center of the teabowl, I feel the heat still held in the clay. Its presence subtly activating the aroma of the fresh 抹茶 matcha powder. The shape of the bowl sends this flavor upwards to me as I pour half a ladle’s-worth of hot water into the chawan. As I whisk the tea, I am mindful to adjust my action to the unique shape of the tsutsuchawan. My movements are tighter, slightly faster, whipping the tea into a light foam.

Pulling the chasen from the teabowl with an upward motion, I see the results of my action: a soft, gentle foam, lustrous like mounding snow. It glows like a wondrous light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

As I sit in the makeshift tearoom of my urban apartment, listening to the wild wind whipping at my window, the sight of trees bending and heaving to the force of nature, I cannot help but to recognize the luxury and, indeed, the privilege I live in. Tea is a luxury. Heat is a luxury. The walls around me and the food in my belly are all a luxury, brought to me, in large part, by a privilege that I alone did not make for myself.

As I set the bowl before me and lift it in thanks for this moment it and my practice has brought me, I let my thoughts on this situation linger. I pause before I lift the bowl to my lips, its heat radiating, the fresh, fragrant liquid within it unavoidable and pleasant. How can I share this solitary bowl of tea with the world around me? How do I share this warmth that I have now during the coldest time of year?

As I sip and empty the tall vessel, watching the final dregs pool and collect within its flat base, no immediate answer comes to me.

As I turn the bowl over to appreciate the rough textures of its 高台 kōdai and to see the carved mark of the potter’s name, I find no reply from the great and boundless universe. To “just make tea” seems to be enough and yet so little. Today, the peace I often find myself having at the end of making a bowl of tea does not seem to arise. Instead, the problems of the world, the problems of privilege, still seem to remain.

As with other forms of meditation, the act of making a bowl of tea is said to be a kind of enlightenment. Alas, it is a misconception that enlightenment brings an air of settled peace or a sense of harmony. In truth, the enlightenment that arises is, instead, no different from the pain and suffering or the joy and exuberance of everyday.

When we look down the long, dark tunnel of life, sometimes all we see is the darkness. Sometimes when we look down the long, dark tunnel of a tsutsuchawan, all we see are the final dregs and residue of the tea we’ve finished. It is our practice to see this. It is also our practice to do all we can to make the guest warm, especially when we are living through the coldest days of Winter.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

Everything for the First Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgetting Time

On the final day of the final year of the decade, I find myself not wanting to celebrate in a bombastic manner. In stark contrast to previous years where New Year’s Eve was cause for loud, raucous festivities, my partner and I decided to make the journey from the clamor of New York City to the quietude of rural Delaware and the comfort of a close relative’s home on the banks of the Mispillion River. The attitude here is laid back, calm, pensive. The only thing that seems to shift is the wind that pushes through the pines.

Rather than stress about celebrations, I opt to make a simple bowl of tea for my partner and her aunt to mark the passing of the decade. Wishing to enjoy the waning light of the day, we decide to hold a small tea gathering in the chilly December air.

Upon a small table which has been built out of the scraps of an old wooden fence, I place a simple 盆 bon made of carved burl wood. Atop this are arranged the implements for tea: a vintage 益子焼茶碗 Mashiko-yaki chawan, an old bamboo 茶杓 chashaku, a red and black lacquer 甲赤棗 kōaka natsume.

Angular shadows of the late afternoon and Winter’s sunlight create a shifting landscape across the uneven surface of the old wooden table.

The kōaka natsume, which I tend to only use on days of celebration, looks like a large bright red sun against a pale blue sky.

Once opened, it reveals a low hill of bright green 抹茶 matcha.

As I move from cleansing the lacquered natsume to the implements within the teabowl, I move tea objects around the horizontal plane of the table, from table’s surface to bon.

For my partner’s aunt, who is new to the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, these actions seem as if they are part of some mysterious ritual. However, after the many years I’ve been practicing tea, they are nothing special. My movements are straightforward and direct, without flourish. Nothing fancy. Just enough. Everything I have prepared before, natsume, chashaku, tea whisk and tray are all I need.

The teabowl, the vessel which will convey the tea to my guests, is just that, a vessel. Nothing special.

I draw forth three scoops of matcha from the kōaka natsume, tapping the chashaku along the inside of the teabowl to remove the residual tea powder from its curved tip.

Pouring a measure of hot water from an antique cast iron kettle into the chawan, I whisk the tea into a thick foam.

Passing the bowl to my partner, I pause, listening to the wind pressing through the trees. The soft hum of pine needles shifting in the wind and the sound of an iron bell striking in the distance.

In the last days of the year, we can often feel as if we are working towards some sort of momentous climax. Even more so, we see the end of a decade as some final chapter closing. However, time rarely seems to work this way.

When we make tea, we begin not with the whisking of the tea or the heating of the kettle. It doesn’t even begin when we set up a tea space. Instead, it begins years before this, when we first learn how to make a bowl of tea. Perhaps it begins even earlier, when we first awaken to the mere idea of having tea.

Similarly, the tea gathering does not end when the guest finishes their bowl of matcha nor when the final bow is given between host and guest. It doesn’t seem to ever end. Instead, the tea further seems to meld seamlessly into one’s own tea practice and one’s own life.

Like layers of sand being pushed up, one on top of each other, by the continuous forces of the ocean. There’s no distinguishing between one layer or another. They just create this thing we call a beach, and this is only something that we can immediately perceive. There is much more sand on the bottom of the ocean. Time is rather like this.

We believe we see change and abruptness, and yet, when viewed in its totality, the change is regular, nothing special. We revel and rave at the shifting from one year to another, one decade to another, and yet, this, too, is nothing special.

In the practice of tea, my teacher has told me to learn the forms and then forget the forms. In learning the forms, we forget the self. When we forget the forms, we find that the once perceived barrier between form and self was merely something we had constructed, something we pushed up against. Much like how New Year’s Eve becomes New Year’s Day, this too is 無門関 mumonkan, a “gateless gate”.

When I cleanse the teabowl one last time and we take our last bows, the tea gathering doesn’t end, it merely transforms. When we forget time (年忘れtoshi-wasare, lit. “forgetting time/forgetting the year”), perhaps we can see what we get so worked up about. A year’s end. A decade’s beginning. Nothing special.

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Kettle for the End of the Year

The holidays have arrived and the frenetic running around that has characterized much of December is beginning to show signs of slowing. The weeks of preparation and fretting over the finer details of the festivities and tending to guests have given way to more relaxed improvisation. In this brief lull, we realize that the accumulated burden of seasonal responsibilities and expectations will never be sustainable. As this breaks, it feels like the spirit of enjoyment arrives and we steal short-lived respites amidst our currently busy lives.

In these moments, I find myself longing to be closer to friends and family. My 取り合わせ toriawase reflects this, as I pull together wares that remind me of close connections, new and old. In the final days before the New Year, I hold an intimate 歳暮の釜 seibo no kama (lit. “kettle for the end of the year”). The feeling is relaxed and simple, like the weight of all that has led to this moment has somehow lifted.

With my large antique 茶釜 chagama coming to a boil and the scent of kneaded 練香 nerikō still lingering in the air, I bring into my tiny tearoom the implements for making tea. The teabowl that I select is a smaller contemporary 茶碗 chawan created by 二階堂明弘 Nikaido Akihiro, whom I had the chance to meet earlier this year.

Holding a healthy helping of freshly-ground matcha is a red and black 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer tea container which I’ve now owned for over a decade. As I cleanse this piece with the dark purple silk of my 袱紗 fukusa, I am given the opportunity to closely inspect the layers upon layers of lacquer which have been applied one on top of the other in contrasting intervals of black and red, revealed in the deep cuts carved by the artisan.

Each layer of lacquer can take days, even weeks to stabilize, as it is applied to the object’s surface. As such, the tea container feels like a record of time itself. An abstract calendar marking time. A tree, growing outward, increasing in size layer by layer. Had it not been for the artisan’s elegant carving of the surface, we would only see the bright red surface. Instead, we see its depth, each layer representing the passing of time.

Even the teabowl, with the 茶筅 chasen, 茶巾 chakin, and 茶杓 chashaku, feels like a tiny universe; complex and self contained. Alone, it sits tightly arranged until through the action of preparing a bowl of tea does it explode into a myriad of pieces.

The chashaku, made from a piece of dark bamboo, comes to reside atop the carved surface of the 棗 natsume. The chasen is warmed and cleansed, alongside with the teabowl.

Tea is issued into the chawan and for a brief moment both guest and I ready ourselves for the tasks at hand.

I, marking a secret sigil of my school into the small heap of matcha that sits in the center of the teabowl.

My guest, enjoying slivers of candied 柚子 yuzu which I’ve served atop a small 16th century Korean lacquer dish that had been gifted to me long ago by an antiques collector I’d met in Seoul.

In this dance of objects, people, senses and motions, each have a place. Host and guest sit together, brought in union by their intention to share brief moment and perhaps nothing more. The objects, whether austere or exquisite, serve a purpose as well, with each piece collectively contributing to create a greater whole. If one were absent, the moment may not happen. As water is added to the matcha powder and whisked into a fine foam, the aroma of tea lifts upwards.

Now, too, the eye is drawn to the flecks of residual powdered green tea that still clings to the curled tip of the chashaku that rests again atop the carved lid of the natsume. We marvel in this vignette, something that is utterly spontaneous and happenstance.

As I lift the chasen from the teabowl, a tiny peak floats in the center of the matcha foam.

From this central point, the eye wanders outwards to incorporate other objects in its field of vision. The teabowl. The tea container. The bamboo scoop. The delicate tines of the chasen. Some who sit to enjoy a bowl of tea will become lost in these objects. They will see only the material of the world. The gifts, the glitter, the gloss. The layers of lacquer that have accumulated upon the surface of their life. The weight it places upon them. They may feel this and not even know that it is there.

In this daily practice of making tea, I have learned to offer up a bowl whole-heartedly and let it go. I give myself up to that action, offering everything I can. Practiced over the almost two decades that I’ve been wandering in this path, I cannot recall how many bowls of tea I’ve made. Today I make it for my partner. Tomorrow I may make it for you. Later, I may make a bowl of tea for myself. How many bowls of tea will I have to make until I will, as the late Ram Dass said, “awaken from the illusion of separateness”? When will I as your host and you as my guest make us both a bowl of tea? When will that bowl of tea satisfy us all together?

The last kettle of the year can mean so many things. It is sometimes translated as the 年の暮れ toshi no kure, or a “year’s end”. Conversely, it can also be understood as 行く年 yuku toshi, or the “passing of the year”. In this passing, we see the year die. Yet, in this death, we somehow understand that time continues. One layer of lacquer ends and another is there. The object we perceive has not disappeared. It has, instead, merely grown. We are not sad to see this happen. We do not judge time as harshly as we judge ourselves.

In this last kettle of the year, there is a serenity that arises with time, as responsibilities we once held close now seem to ease. I now look at my guest with a greater sense of ease now that I’ve made them a bowl of tea, and they look upon me in a similar fashion. Any pretension has faded.

After the final dregs of tea have been sipped, we take one last moment to enjoy the sight of the small teabowl. It, too, was lacquered once, though the layers of 漆 urushi it had applied to its surface were burned off in the intense heat of the potter’s kiln. What remains is a rough beauty. A stark contrast to the clean cut lines of the natsume. And, yet, the story it tells is similar in a sense. The journey it has seen is reflected upon its skin. Wrinkled lines collecting on the contours of my cheeks and around the corners of my eyes. A split that runs down the length of my bamboo flower vase grows with time until it, too, will begin to leak water.

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In the Longest Night, Tea by Candlelight

The arrival of the Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere marks the middle of the cold season and a foreshadowing of the year’s close. In the ancient twenty four term lunisolar calendar of East Asia, the Winter Solstice is the twenty second term, 冬至 Dōngzhì (Tōji in Japanese, 동지 Dongji in Korea), literally meaning “Winter’s Extreme”. While this may not represent the coldest moment of Winter (that usually arrives in the middle of January), it does define the extreme point in which the Sun’s rays recede, producing the shortest day and longest of the year.

In celebration of this, my partner and I have decided to hold a small gathering of friends. As the darkness of night begins to roll across the evening sky, we finish our gathering and friend part ways. My partner and I remain and decide to finish the evening with a bowl of 抹茶 matcha which we will share.

Arranging a small setting for tea in our tearoom, we keep things simple: a single 黒瀬戸茶碗 Kuro-Seto chawan, a small 肩衝茶入 katatsuki chaire (“shouldered” tea container) wrapped in a brocaded silk 仕服 shifuku pouch, a 茶杓 chashaku and 茶筅 chasen carved by the Nara-based master craftsperson 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango.

Gathering in our small tearoom, we are accompanied by the light of one burning candle, set between host and guest. The light it casts creates curious shadows across the serpentine grain of my wooden tea table, producing dynamic bands of light and darkness.

In the shadows, the figures of Silk Road travelers rendered in vibrant golds and purples upon the brocaded shifuku are obscured.

So, too, are the thin tines of the chasen as they descend into the dark abyss of the deep chawan.

Warm wooden tones sit side-by-side the slick surfaces of ceramic glaze. The sudden flicker of the candle sends shadows shifting and scattering, settling once again. Inside the tearoom, silence and sound vacillate as I move through the methodical actions for making tea. The low hiss of the old iron kettle coming to a boil. The movement of water from 柄杓 hishaku to teabowl to 建水 kensui. The cleansing of the chawan to prepare a boil of 濃茶 koicha.

I pause and offer my partner a tea sweet made of tart citrus rind wrapped in 餅mochi, atop which ice-like flecks of crystalline sugar glisten in the candle’s light.

Next, I set about preparing a bowl of koicha. I first draw three scoops of powdered tea from the chaire, followed by pouring the remaining contents out into the teabowl.

A small measure of hot water is issued into the teabowl and I slowly begin to knead the tea into a thick paste. More water is added and I continue to mix water and tea until it reaches just the right consistency.

In the low light of the candle-lit tearoom, one can barely make out the deep emerald green of the koicha against the black of the Kuro-Seto teabowl. I pass the bowl to my partner for her to enjoy the first few sips. She then passes the bowl back to me and I finish the remaining tea.

I take a moment to cleanse the bowl once more so we can admire its form, its dark glaze and its carved 高台 kōdai. Peering into its interior, the pebbled and pocked surface of the teabowl catches every stray beam of light, illuminating the center 茶溜まり chadamari where once a small mound of matcha had once been set.

Turned over, the carved name of the artist appears outlined in shadows.

My partner and I pause once more, enjoying the view of the ink-black sky outside our window, before I begin preparing a final 拝見 haiken.

Set beneath the flickering candlelight, we enjoy what may be the last moment of the year these objects will be seen. In the week in which the Winter Solstice comes and goes, we, too, enter a period of darkness. The days feel short yet each day is filled with activity. We cannot wait for moments when we can find ourselves around those we love, whether they be distant or near.

As with every closing of a tea gathering, we bid farewell to the honored teaware. All that remains is the solitary candle, the light of which too dims with morning’s arrival.

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In Memories and Here Today: The Flavor of Aged Korean Ddokcha

As we head closer and closer to the end of the decade, marked by decreasing temperatures and the increasing prevalence of ice and snow, I am reminded of the closing of the previous decade.

In the final years of the millennium’s first decade, I found myself at an impasse. Spending a Winter abroad in South Korea while attempting a PhD at UC Berkeley, I was struggling to find balance between the rigors of an academic life and conducting an earnest practice of tea and meditation. Residing in the urban super-metropolis of Seoul during the biting cold of late December, I was often forced to remain indoors.

Initially timid, I eventually began to explore the city, seeking out tea houses and trying to locate a Buddhist temple where I could refine my meditation practice. Located near a temple district, I soon began to wander the antique markets of Insadong. There I found the small traditional tearoom of 삼화령 Sam Hwa Ryung, where owner and tea person Ms. Kim began to teach me about the qualities and diversity of Korean tea, as well as slowly introduce me to her friends, many of whom were local artists and members of nearby Buddhist temples.

Luckily for both my practice in tea and meditation, Ms. Kim introduced me to Misan Sunim, who is both a practitioner of the Korean Way of tea and abbot of the 조계종 Jogye Order of Korean 선 Seon Buddhism. Soon, I was sharing my time between Ms. Kim’s tearoom and visiting Misan Sumin’s temple, learning the forms of tea he practiced alongside with his temple group.

Today, as cold rain runs down the windows of my tearoom, freezing before it can reach the sill, I sit and meditate on this time in my life. How ten years can come and go so quickly. How a lifetime can seem to arrive and still I have yet to fully awaken to it.

Reminded of the gentle guidance and dear friendships of Ms. Kim and Misan Sunim, I pull out the 분청사기 buncheong-jagi tea set I had acquired a decade ago. Set against the swirling wood grain of my tea table, the pieces of rustic ceramics look as if they were made of unevenly shaped stone. While all seem in harmony together, individually they retain their own distinctive character.

The 숙우 sookwoo, with its round circumference interrupted by the deliberate pinch of the potter to produce a simple spout.

The patches of grey and white that splash up the sides of the three small teacups.

The intricate network of cracks running along the surface of the once pure white side-handle teapot. How age and use have marked each one of these objects. How they, like me, now bear the testaments of time.

As I slowly warm each piece of teaware, I pull from my tea cabinet a small, citrus-sized object wrapped carefully in handcrafted paper made of mulberry fiber. From this emerges a tightly compressed ball of aged 떡차 ddokcha, gifted to me by Ms. Kim ten years ago. In this time, the tea has darkened. Where once vibrant green tea leaves coiled around one another, today they appear almost black.

Lightly plucking-off a small handful of leaves, I begin to carefully place each into the center of the teapot. I then pour hot water that had been momentarily left to cool in the sookwoo into the teapot, allowing for a brief moment to pass, giving me time to view the tea as it begins to steep.

Placing the lid atop the teapot, I let several minutes pass. In this pause, I do not keep track of time. Instead, I simply breathe, finding an easy and natural rhythm and observe the motions of my mind. The storm outside my tearoom rages and the windows shake against the gusting wind. As I breathe, amidst the clamor, I hear the steam rising from my iron kettle.

Another moment passes and I pour the tea out from my teapot, from one cup to the next and back again, making subtle adjustments to ensure evenness in color and flavor. What is revealed is a deep golden liqueur which catches me by surprise.

Admiring the color for a moment more, I am reminded of the first time I had experienced this style of tea, huddled in the warm wooden and plastered interior of Ms. Kim’s tearoom. Then, as with today, a storm raged outside, and yet the focus remained squarely on tea.

I can remember the dried fruits and traditional sweets she would produce from her tiny kitchen, and the collection of cups and teabowls she had stacked around her. The sound of a kettle and the scent of tea. The texture of worn utensils and a lifetime of practice.

I looked down once again at the teacups neatly arranged, each beaming back at me with the exquisite color brought on by age. “So this is what a decade looks like,” I say to myself and take a first sip.

Soft tones of butterscotch followed by notes of toasted yam and a slight licorice finish. Clean and clear yet with an echo that remains. A bit like a memory. Distant yet perceptible. Still with the capacity to teach me something new, something surprising.

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The Silence of Snow

The cold of Winter has arrived and with it the intermittent chance of snow. While November saw the first sprinkling of snowflakes, mid-December now sees snow as a regular feature, with entire days marked by snowfall. The effect of snow is pronounced, blanketing the streets and covering treetops in a soft, clean, bright veil. The effect snow has on the mind is equally poignant. It causes one to pause, to mark the change in scenery, and to follow the slow, protracted decent of snowflakes from sky to snow-covered ground. Rarely do we get this chance to focus on something that is so mundane, yet so beautiful.

In the tearoom, the spirit of a snowy day is everywhere, from the rough and worn textures of the wood surface of my tea table to the soft forms of a round Winter 茶碗 chawan, the shape and color of which is reminiscent of a large dried persimmon. Crisp, uneven lines. Gentle, muted colors. A tenderness produced through the warmth radiating from the hearth. An unspoken invitation to share in a bowl of tea and enjoy a silent 雪見 yuki-mi.

Peering from my tearoom window, I observe snowflakes drifting downward. Their slow, measured cascade is mesmerizing, causing me to pause as I wait for my iron kettle to reach a boil; its gentle hiss in tune with the noiseless fall of snow. The world is silent and still. The light of the sun is indirect, dissipated, and grey. The rolling banks of snow glow brightly.

I turn back to my solitary tea setting. The rotund persimmon-shaped teabowl, an antique 小棗 ko-natsume with 壺 tsubo motif in worn gold and red lacquer.

An old bamboo 茶筅 chasen, a prized 茶杓 chashaku once used by a master of the 表千家 Omotesenke school of tea.

In the pure silence of Winter, there is nothing for the mind to attach to. No fancy flourishes. Nothing to personalize. Things merely seem to stand in their own accord. A chashaku sitting atop a black lacquer natusme. An old tea whisk simply sits beside it.

A teabowl still radiating warmth of the hot water it once carried. The attitude of heart and mind is found in all of these.

Placing three scoops of 抹茶 matcha drawn from the small natsume into the center of the teabowl produces a light, barely perceptible aroma of tea. Pouring a measure of hot water from the iron kettle into the chawan feels nourishing.

Whisking the tea into foam feels akin to imagining a new world. Peaks and gentle undulations of tightly-arranged bubbles resemble the rhythmic drifts of snow outside my window.

I place the chasen down, back beside the lacquered natsume and lift the teabowl to my center.

Holding the small, warm object brings about delight, and my lips cannot help to curl into a smile beaming with anticipation. I bring the teabowl upward and take three hearty sips, audibly finishing the tea and it’s lingering dregs. Placing the bowl back down upon the wooden tea table, silence returns to the tearoom.

I cleanse the teabowl and teaware and inspect each object, one after the other. The round 鉄鉢形茶碗 tetsubachi-nari chawan (iron basin-shapes teabowl), the name of which is rightfully 柿 “Kaki” for its resemblance of a large persimmon, feels soft in the hand.

Turning it over to inspect its 高台 kōdai reveals a clean-cut foot and the lightly-carved signature of the California-based artist who produced the piece.

Next, setting the natsume and chashaku atop a warm-hued wooden 香盆 kōbon, I take the last moments to enjoy their clean shapes and warn textures that only come from age. The bright light that reflects off of the snow and filters through my window causes each object to glow.

Moving my gaze, first from natsume

… then to teascoop and then to the snowy vista outside, I savor the silence of snow and the moment of peace it brings.

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The First Drift of Snow

Morning woke with a flurry of snow. To peer outside my tearoom window to see a world covered in white. Rooflines obscured. The forms of trees reduced to black spindles, looking like calligrapher’s ink on paper against a flat grey sky. Snowflakes spinning roughly in the breeze, tumbling and forming the first snowdrifts of Winter.

Prior to now, the days have been just warm enough to allow for the remaining green grasses of Autumn to stand upright, the last of the leaves of the climbing ivy to look full. Today, each wilt with frost and flatten under the weight of the snow. All that is left are soft, undulating fields of bright white snow.

Brimming with inspiration, I pull forth an item of teaware that I had long awaited to use, waiting for just this moment. I place it, hidden in its unopened 桐箱 kiribako, upon the wooden surface of my tea table, next to an antique peach-colored 萩焼 Hagi-yaki 宝瓶 hōhin.

What does this box contain? What treasure is buried underneath a snowbank? I wait, allowing the water in my iron kettle to begin to steam, before I open the small wooden box.

From it I pull a small irregularly-shaped cup. Pure white, save for the portions of exposed clay left unglazed, the tiny vessel is a piece of 鬼萩 Oni-Hagi (“Demon” Hagi) by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan. Procured during the warm months, I’ve waited until today to use this special teacup.

For a moment I hold it, admiring its form from various angles. Its sides billow like mounds of snow.

Its foot is rough, splayed in a 切十文字高台 kirijumonji-kōdai (“cross-cut foot”) manner.

With steam rising steadily from my iron kettle, I begin the process of warming my assembled ceramic wares, first the hōhin. The heat escaping from the warm and wetted clay interior caused sounds of expanding glaze resembling the almost imperceivable ringing of melting ice.

Next the teacup. It, like the soft drifts of snow outside my window, remains silent.

Alongside the tiny hōhin and teacup I set a small celadon tea container and wooden tea scoop.

Pouring out a measure of Spring-picked 冠茶 kabusecha into the concave surface of the cut bamboo 茶合 sagō, I place tea into the warmed recess of the Hagi-yaki hōhin.

The crazing of the ceramic surface, intermittent with splashes of pinks, purples, and grey. The lacquer-like shine of the deep emerald tea leaves like pine needles heaped together.

I carefully pour hot water over the leaves, making sure not to disturb them, instead, allowing them to gently tumble as I fill the hōhin.

Closing the lid, I pause, letting the inward and outward motion of my breath dictate the time I let the tea steep. Slowly, I wrap the fingers of my right hand around the curve of the hōhin’s warmed walls, lifting and tilting it to calmly decant the steeped tea into the bright white hollow of the Oni-Hagi teacup.

The color of the freshly brewed tea against the pure white glaze is startling. Like a bright jewel beaming an unearthly glow, the tea shines within the unblemished space of the teacup. Next to its more orthodox Hagi counterpart, the Oni-Hagi lives up to its demon-like name, with its wild, uneven glazing.

Alone, it feels as if it were a found object; an organic form pulled from nature.

Like a small, haphazardly-formed ball of snow, I admire the eccentric quality of the cup as I sip from it.

Steeping after steeping, the warmth of the tea finally permeates into the body of the clay until, finally, like the mid-day sun warms the earth, small cracks form in the icy glaze. No longer will this piece remain as it once had. A sign of use, of life pushing up through the snow!

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