New Years Tea of 2017

If a student of The Way of Tea can only host an event once a year, then their best bet is to present Tea for the New Year. It is a great way to start everything off on the right foot. Guests usually understand the importance of the occasion and come with a spirit of celebration and good tidings. Many symbols and visual cues are seen to bolster the feelings of happiness and good luck for all who are present. With this in mind, my next en devour was to host a gathering to usher in the ‘Year of the Rooster’. Hand written invitations were sent and the date was to occur on the 14th at 3:30 p.m. Snow and wind had conspired against me so once again I had to rake the lawn after it had melted to make sure that the leaves were picked up, the side walk was clean, and the steps were salted. At this time- in Japan- great displays of the ‘Three friends of the New Year’ (Pine, Plum and Bamboo) are set for all to see so that anyone who views it will be blessed with longevity, flexibility, and purity. I made this arrangement and hung it on the wall of my waiting room. With the water basin, scroll, candles, and writing desk, there was a lot going on to keep the guests occupied as they waited to enjoy the occasion.

Because special foods are presented called ‘O-sechi Ryori’, I figured that it might be nice for those who wished to bring a dish to share in the celebration. ‘O sechi-
Ryori’ cuisine is complicated and takes a lot of preparation; and my finances are very limited. I did my best to cater the event in ways that we would all enjoy. There were going to be certain changes that I had thought of from the last Tea gathering in order to make things a little easier for me host. I will discuss these changes as I relate the gathering that took place.

The guests were four in number (a surprise that I had to adapt to) when they showed up at the appointed time. The waiting room greeted them with a scroll painting of ‘Nanten’ and Suzume’ (Sparrows nestled among Heavenly Bamboo capped with snow by the artist Watanabe). The Sho-Chiku-Bai (Pine, Bamboo, and Plum) arrangement hung on the opposite wall, candles were lit, and the water basin was filled for their use. When I was ready- I ushered them into the Tea room. I provided one of the guests with a table and chair for the comfort of her knees. The each was greeted warmly. The main scroll was written by Suga Gendo Roshi of Daitoku-ji Zen Temple in Kyoto which read “Fuku-Jyu Kai Muryo” (Oceans of good fortune and blessings). Arching over the wall behind the area for making Tea was a tube containing switches of Willow cascading down to the floor with a few circled round to corral the others. This Willow is presented for the guests to view since it is thought that Willow is a very ‘Yang’ tree. ‘Yang’ is the opposite of ‘Yin’ and is very vigorous and vital. Under the ground- covered with ‘Yin’ snow- wet-cold- and dark, is found ‘Yang’ energy. The roots are growing and plants are getting ready to burst forth into the coming Spring. It is hoped that when viewing Willow that we may share in this aspect of ‘Yang’.
Two fresh white candles sitting on raised green holders lit the back of the ‘Temae-za’. Opposite this, in the corner between two of the guests was a low table draped in hot red felt. On its top was presented the ‘Horai-kazari”. The ‘Horai-Kazari’ is a display of things that bring good fortunes and luck to all who view it. It also brings the same happiness to the host who presents it. Usually there are foods that are also placed on the display for the guests to eat when the host fetches them to share. Such tings as Mochi rice cakes, Tangerines, Seaweed, Black beans, sweets, a Lobster carapace, Ferns, and other things are found placed on a fresh wooden Shinto raised offering tray decked out with ‘shimenawa’ twine laced with white prayer papers cascading from its chords. For Tea people, we are thankful for Charcoal to boil water with so three large pieces are used instead of rice cakes. For my guests, I featured home made sweets that were sent by my good friend Jenelle Rogers. ‘Horai’ is the Japanese term for ‘Penglai’ which is the name of the fabled ‘Isle of the Immortals”. Legend has it that there exists five islands whose shores were so steep, rough, and rocky that no mortal ship could dock, nor any swimmer could find landing. It was a paradise circled with opaque mists and fog and they floated on the back of a giant Sea Turtle. Only those who were blessed by the Gods, or who concocted the ‘Elixir of everlasting life’ (Taoist mythology and the drinking of the first Sake’or
Champagne of the New Year!) could land on its craggy mountain tops carried there by Cranes or magical beasts…symbolized by the guests’ sojourn through the Tea garden as worldly cares drop away. Two of the Islands were captured and taken north never to be seen again. To eat food found growing from the orchards of fantastic trees would grant life everlasting…Tangerine, and sweets, black beans, etc. To find ones’ self housed in the glittering mansions found in those misty valleys would bring happiness with no end…symbolized by the fresh clean Tea room itself. The first Emperor of China sent virginal envoys of 70 youths and maidens to find this island. They never returned; but legend has it that they landed on the Isles of Japan. To even catch a glimpse of these glamorous keys would bring good luck to the viewer.

After relating this legend, I brought out five wine glasses and a bottle of Champagne. I retrieved Jenelle’s sweets from the “Horai Kazari” to share with the guests and we all ate and toasted to the New Year. In this way the guests symbolically ate food from the ‘Isle of the Immortals’ and would enjoy happiness, long life, and good luck!

Then came ‘Hatsu-Shozumi’ (first laying of the charcoal). It went well for the most part because I could actually see what I was doing. There are three things that one hopes to dream of during new years Night- Hawks, Eggplants, and Mt. Fuji. I featured an incense box in the form of Mt. Fuji made of wood and Red Negoro lacquer. The feather ‘Hane’ used to dust off the Furo came from a Hawk. Two down- one to go. We caught a slight whiff of incense as the meal was presented. I had learned a lesson by making the miso soup ‘weak’ to my taste (the last guests had to endure my attempts at serving a salt lick with miso on the side). I served a single helping of rice per person since there was a lot of food still to come. I stuck with a smoked Salmon Mukozuke dish since my butcher looked at me strangely when I asked for ‘Tai’ and/or Red Snapper fish. One would have thought that I had asked him for motor oil by the way that he looked at me. The Nimono dish was a chicken croquette with Bamboo, Carrot Crane, Shroom, grilled Eggplant, and greens with a Lemon twist soaked in Yuzu juice. Then came the guest’s offerings of Inari sushi, shrimp Wan Tans, and delicious home made crackers snacks! After this came sweet Sake’ with Hassun of ‘Drunken Goat’ cheese and Turkish Apricots. Pickled Plums were also used along side Takuan pickles and a smoky green pickle with hot water. Inside the black lacquer were the crusty nibbly bits of rice that had scorched on the side of the pot. This is a traditional favorite that I had forgotten in previous gatherings. This time I remembered! I coached them through the use of this- I was previously not going to do this but I figured that it would make my clean up easier. I cleared all of the dishes and then came the sweet. One of my guests had given lessons in Yaki-mochi sweet making and my attempt was in her honor. It looked like a chicken.

The brake with the guests housed in the waiting room was a flurry of activity. The charcoals had burned a bit but then went out- again! I stoked the Furo with a big pile of fresh embers, took out the scroll, replaced by a Camellia with Baby’s Breathe for ‘snow’, swept the room, brought the ‘chakin toshi’ (wiping cloth bucket for guests), and more incense. I lit all the candles, left the hanging lamp on, and made ready for thick Tea- Koi-cha.

I was going to serve ‘kazu-cha’ (thin Tea made in the back area) but it seemed like a bit much for the guests. I took the Gold bowl for the ‘Shima-Dai’ set used for New Years and did “O-Mizusashi” Kiocha temae. Ferns had been placed under the white Mizusashi water jar made by William Ward. There is a type of fern in Japan, used at this time, that has a whitish underside. It is a symbol in hopes that you will greet the new year with purity and ‘be white on the back side’ (be pure and fresh and clean all the way through). The Tea scoop was called ‘Fuku jyu” by Ei-rin So Atsu. The Chaire was ‘Takatori Yaki’ ware (pun intended) with a shifuku bag of ‘Shi-zan kinran’ fabric. The Koicha Tea was called “Ryo Kumo no Mukashi” favored by Zabosai. The Flower container was an old Bamboo with gold repairs. The Ewer was Kyo yaki ware.

All in all the gathering went a bit smoother then the last one. The guests felt blessed and said so. One presented me with the glass plate that her inari sushi had been placed and also gave a beautiful Origami lotus with a light in it. This was an unexpected surprise!! I plan on using it in future gatherings and deeply appreciated all of my guests for coming and celebrating with me. Happy New Year!

Apologies– some of the photos won’t be added vertically due to the limitations of the site.

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Chakai for November 2016

On November 20th 2016 I held a Tea gathering at my home. Many preparations had been made through out the year to make ready for this- and future events. My Tea room had been repainted, wainscoting of white paper for the host’s side and Black for the guests side had been applied. I had wanted a deep forest green but could not find such paper; so I had to make due with black construction paper. The ceiling had been painted a darker shade of brown to lower it visually. After digging around in my storage, I found Goza matting and refinished my Tatami mats. I even added some extra with the use of foam insulation board,another type of grass matting and paper for the sides. My Tea room has expanded wall to wall and seems more comfortable and roomy for the guests.

The occasion was set for November and proved to be the first time that I had presented Tea during this month. Guests were sent hand written invitations early on. It contained the customary poem, times, address, date, and other information. I would receive five guests in all. A five course meal would be served with Usucha (thin Tea) during the second half of the gathering. At this time it is considered to be the ‘New Year’ of the Tea world and many who have such things open up the Tea Jar that has been stored away. This is done in front of the guests; and as the meal is being served, one can hear the mill quietly grinding away as fresh leaves are added to the mill and ground into a fine powder be whipped and drunk later on. This is the ‘first cutting of the paper seal that has kept the Tea preserved unharmed in the Jar’ ceremony; and it is considered a great high point in the world of Tea. This whole event is quite difficult to pull off and only the most experienced practitioners of the way attempt such a gathering. To be invited to such an event is considered so special that many students of the Way dream of being invited. Usually a legion of silent and quiet helpers have been slaving away in the kitchen and garden to make everything run smoothly. After the gathering has finished the guests slowly go home fully knowing that they have attended a very special Tea indeed.

Since I do not have a Tea Jar, minions in the back, a stone mill, or decades of experience in the temae (procedures) involved in such things, I thought that it might be best to simply allude to a ‘Kuchi-kiri’. For the waiting room scroll (machiai), I used a recently acquired painting of five Geese among Autumn reeds. For the main scroll I presented a ‘shikishi’ (poem card) with the phrase “Tsubo Chu Hi Tsuki Nagai” (Spending all month inside a Tea Jar) written and gifted by Austin Soei Babcock. The Furo was the bronze one given by the late Dr. Lennox Tierney with a ‘Motsu ji’ kettle. The O- Mizusashi (very large fresh water jar) was my nod to the Tea Jar. It was made by William Ward and is a high fired shino glaze with four ‘ears’. It is round with a lacquer lid. The Kekkai (barrier railing) was made of Roan wood. This is what greeted the guests after they washed their hands at a basin located in the waiting room. I would have put it outside but I don’t trust my neighborhood. I had done my best to rake the grass lawn and trim any vines and plants to make the front area presentable.

After the guests entered, they found their spots because I had provided black cushions for each to use. I greeted them individually and talked about the scrolls. After this I served the meal starting with the tray of rice, miso soup with roasted mochi and Salmon roe, and a Mukozuke dish of smoked Salmon, Wakame sea weed, and lettuce. Then came the ‘Nimono’ dish was sausage balls, shiitake mushroom, Shallot slices, carrot,Water chestnut, and lemon twist in broth. After this came seconds on rice and soup. I was going to serve a Pumpkin casserole but the guests seemed to be getting full. I proceeded with Hassun which was white wine, a tray of glass tumblers, cheese, and Turkish Apricots. Pickles and hot water came next. I had to coach them a little on how this was done. I might not do this for later gatherings. After gathering their trays and the rest of the dishes I steeled myself for ‘Shozumi’.

Usually after the meal during the summer season when the Furo (portable brazier) is used, the embers are placed and arranged (Shozumi). Since I don’t have a sunken hearth, it seems that laying the ceremonial charcoal to the embers after the meal was the traditional thing to do. Even with candles for the guests and one candle for me- the evening had progressed and the area where Tea is made was rather dark. I had placed embers in the Furo before the guests had entered and they had died during the meal. So I did ‘Shozumi’ in the dark- not good. (Note to self- do Shozumi [first laying of charcoal] before the meal! This is what is usually done during the Winter season). The guests were polite as we all sat there; while I put charcoal into an dark cold Furo…God help me. I had used a carved lacquer Kogo (incense box) in the shape of cosmetic box used by ancient Chinese Court Ladies…it was black lacquer- in a ‘ Fukube Sumi-tori’ ( Gourd charcoal basket) lined with black paper- sitting next to black charcoal pieces waiting to be put into a dark Furo- with a candle sitting inside a paper lantern as my only light to do all of this with. Screw the traditional romance of it all! I would have done better by simply closing my eyes and laying the charcoal by feeling my way around. The guests retired to the waiting room for the brake while I made preparations for serving Tea; sweeping, Flowers, no scroll, incense, and stoking that fire with big pile of new glowing orange embers…and turning on the electric lamp suspended above the Tea preparation area (Temae-za)!

After that mishap, the making of Tea seemed to go better. The Chabana- flower arrangement was a Cornucopia basket with a large ornamental Kale in white called a ‘Ha-Botan’ (Leaf Peony) with an Autumn Leaf branch. The Natsume (Tea container) was a lacquer piece with silver snow flakes on it. The Tea scoop was carved by Randy Channel Sensei with the name ‘Ii Tomo” (Good Friend). The Omogashi Sweet was Bean paste -“An” in the shape of a pine cone with snow on top. The Tea bowls were a Hagi ware piece by Seiho Kodaka and an Oribe ware piece. The fresh water ewer was a kyo yaki ware standard, and the Kensui slop jar was a bent wood and brown lacquer item with a special lid rest. It was a gift from Tamae Sauki Sensei that was make of wood carved into six foxes held together with old twine.

The guests finally finished their Tea and we ended with smiles and goodbyes. I learned a lot and took many notes for future gatherings. One of the biggest lessons that I learned is that if you don’t do it- you loose it. So my goal is to practice a lot and to do Tea gatherings about every one to two months during the year. I will refine the process in hopes of making it a special occasion for all who come; and making it easier for me to do by myself…and more studies of Kaiseki, and how to build a fire that can actually boil water!

Here are the pictures—

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The Three Great Obligations of Japanese Culture and Cha no Yu

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I have written about these ‘Three Obligations’ in a previous post that delved into the meaning of ‘Moshi-Iwake-gozaimasen’. After a number of personal events were endured, felt that it was necessary to revisit this subject in a more personal manner.

There are three ‘obligations’ in Japanese traditional culture that are deeply embedded in their society. Most Westerners are unaware of these Confucian cornerstones that are foundations of this ancient and venerable people. They will be discussed and this Author will give his opinions and on how they affect our modern notions of these important concepts. These three obligations permeate the culture of Cha no Yu, and shall be brought to bare using My own experiences as examples as to their influence in my own life. You, the reader, may take what you wish from this; but rest assured that when observing how Japanese society works- these three principle obligations should not be overlooked.

I will examine the axis point of these three ‘Ons’; That axis point being that even though one should strive endlessly to repay the debt owed to these three entities, one could never balance the scales fully. It is understood that the sacrifice, dedication, knowledge, compassion, support, and suffering given by the upper to the lower was always greater than the lower could ever repay. But the lower should always commit to try to balance this lopsided gift; even if it meant sacrificing ones’ life to do so.

1. The Obligation to the Nation and Emperor.

This First ‘On’ (pronounced ‘own’) is the responsibility of the citizen to the state/nation. One strives to be a model participant in the political structure by deferring and paying deep respect to the head of the nation; in this case- the Emperor. In Confucian terms, he is the spear head who leads his people to prosperity and peace. In traditional China, this was called the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ bestowed upon the Emperor whose job it was to carry out the admonitions of ‘Heaven’ to bring the people to more harmonious lives with little crime and abundant wealth. If the Chinese Emperor fell short of this mandate, or the subjected people suffered, economies fell, or political strife led to war, then a new ‘chosen one’ was picked by “Heaven’ to lead the nation back on track. Thus it was part of the obligations of the people to follow the Emperor as a son or daughter would follow the directions of the Father in a large family.

In Japan, Confucian ideals were adopted by the ruling elite and even though the Emperor held no political power or military advantage since the Heian period (794 AD to 1185 AD), the Shogun still paid respect and obligation to him by being seen to be taking care of such matters on his behalf. That way this ex-halted ‘Grandson of Heaven’ would not be worried or bothered by such trivial matters such as state craft, or political intrigue. The responsibility of the citizen to the state was a one way power gifting; with younger respecting and learning from the older, Son deferring to Father, employee obeying employer, and citizen doing ones best- including giving one’s life in order to preserve the ‘State’. The Forty Seven Samurai is a breath-taking example of this commitment in trying to repay ones’ debt to ones’ superior. Volumes, Kabuki plays, and films ex-halt the ultimate sacrifice for this ‘On’ in beautiful imagery. Shrines have been built in order to remember this heroic act.

But in this day and age, we find ourselves in very different circumstances. Nixon, G.W. Bush, and countless other politicians in America as well as Japan find themselves being caught in the harsh spotlight of scrutiny as they wield power on behalf of the rich 1%. The history of America is littered with such horrible examples. The history of Japan most likely reveals the same; even though I am not current on that subject. I will not go into the examples that are disappointingly fresh in all of our minds concerning the ineptitude of these representatives of the State. This first Confucian ideal falls short and seems unrealistic in today’s world. But we do hold deep affection for and reverence to the Kings, Queens, and Imperial families of this modern era. Royal watchers both in Japan, and England have created an industry as the public scrambles for titbits on the comings and goings of the Royals. In Japan, the current Grand Tea Master of Urasenke has married into the Imperial family; and is just as influential in the promotion of Peace and international understanding. This first ‘On’ has found a place to reside in our psyche; just not in the way that might be as traditional as it was before.

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2. The Obligation to Ones’ Teachers

As I grew up, my Mother taught spacial education to kids with learning disabilities. Later she taught grade school. Countless times she dragged herself through our door; exhausted, worn, and needing to decompress. A few times she came in late due to the fact that she had been stabbed with a pencil by a student whose disability occasionally expressed itself in violent behavior. Her lateness was due to a hospital visit. The next day she tried her best to teach that same student- with no sharp objects in the room this time. She sacrificed much of her health and well-being for her students. Her commitment was undaunted; her dedication was heroic.
The teachers who made a lasting impact on my life can never be repaid except for me being the best that I can be in upholding their standards, knowledge, and ethics that they instilled in me. The best teachers are the ones who want their students to surpass them. They strive and work toward the goal of one of their students doing so well, learning so much, and working so hard, that they excel past the talents and abilities of the teacher. There is no ego involved; in fact they are proud of what their former student has accomplished. Teachers can take any form, have endless patience, inject humour and acknowledgement for a job well done, encourage with a smile, and try to bring out the best in you.

I have been extremely lucky to have met a few of these rare and wonderful beings. The debt that I owe them is immeasurable. Some of them have been teachers of Cha no Yu. I could write page after page of their glowing talents and the techniques that they used to ignite that spark inside me. We all hopefully have encountered such super beings and if we are lucky, our lives have been made better.

I have also had the misfortune of meeting some of the worst ‘teachers’ ever to walk the earth…and some of them have been Tea teachers as well. Remember that just because a person has a ‘Cha-mie’ (Tea ‘name’ awarded by the school to those who have advanced enough to earn the teaching position), does not necessitate them as being a good teacher of the Way. Infact it has been known that such certification can be bought for a hefty price. I met one such person while in Kyoto who possessed a ‘chamei’ and had never hosted a chaji, practised temae, or knew much about Tea in general. Sadly, he was ordered to participate in a demonstration viewed by the Grand Tea Master himself. He failed so miserably that his license was revoked, and he was sent packing back to Osaka.

Bad teachers take many forms. One who comes to mind uses ‘The Way of Tea’ as a front for scalping their unsuspecting student’s hard earned money. This teacher even stole money from me for goods as yet to be delivered. It has been a long time, and I doubt I will ever see that package in the mailbox. I was accused of being too boisterous, enthusiastic, and too generous. I was instructed to practice ‘Enryo’ (reserve, reticence). “The High Nail get the Hammer” was to be my motto. Yet this teacher said and did two different things. It was more of a “Do as I say- not as I do” mentality. I knew that there was no harmony to be accorded , no respect to be exchanged, no purity of heart to be shared, and no tranquillity to be found in the mind of this troubled soul. Their life was a cautionary tale; a glaring example of how not to practice the Way of Tea, or live your life.

There are those who will scam you, lie to you, tell you what you want to hear, and rip you off… all in the name of ‘Tea’. I know of one teacher who has a pernicious habit of abusing their students to the point of tears on a regular basis. There aren’t many students who stay; and those that do seem to enjoy abuse on a level inappropriate for mention in this article.
This is not unique to the world of Cha no Yu and such devious examples can be found in any field of study. Here the ‘On’ has no existence to inter-prate since the only lesson to learn is to run the other way. If a teacher is abusive, insulting, belittling, passive-aggressive, lies, or whose actions are different than their words, then they must be avoided at all costs. Modern teaching techniques, ethics, and standards have yet to filter into the traditional world of Tea. There is a staunch traditional attitude in Japanese culture that if a teacher is tough on you- then they are interested in you. The more that they abuse you- the more promise you are showing. Thus the most strict, unbending, abusive teachers have been traditionally seen to be ‘the best’. This philosophy comes from Zen anecdotes of the disfunctional relationships between student and master that have been mythologised through folklore. If you doubt this; simply google “Problems with Zen Buddhism’ and start reading any of the entries. I had the grave misfortune of becoming a junior monk of the Soto Sect under one of these so called ‘Masters of Zen’. Our entire congregation suffered and finally dissolved due to his abuses, lies, and actions not matching his words- ‘crazy wisdom’ be damned! If the ‘teacher’ finds no promise in you, they simply ignore your very existence. No talking-no notice, no acknowledgement of your being on this earth by him- shows that ‘you need to work harder’ to gain his eye. The problems with this method should be quite obvious.

Hopefully, when learning The Way of Tea, we can find one who can nurture us and help us along our way; one who can remember that ‘Peace through a bowl of Tea’ has uncountable levels of meaning, and who can practice the four principles through their personal example.

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3. The Obligation to Ones’ Parents

This is one of the hardest ‘Ons’ to try to repay. As stated before, there is no way to balance the scale. In the Confucian world the spheres of obligation spread out like ripples in a pond; always fanning out in one direction. His protocols for relationship are based of a standard traditional family model. In our modern age, this is rather uncommon. Families can be defined in many different ways. Each country has a different traditional model that sometimes does not fit the Confucian ideal. How do we observe and honor the obligation of parents and family?

I look toward my own family as an example of the problems with Confucius’ model. My father was a two timing drunk. He deserted my mother and I was two. He remarried after that and I have two half brothers and one half sister. He was abusive to them as well. He divorced them after 13 years of hellish abuse. When I turned 18, he was no longer obligated to pay child support. He never did to begin with but now there was no legal right since I was of age. He called to try to foster some sort of ‘relationship’ with out my mother’s notice. After some strong words of ridicule from me, he stopped calling. A few years later he tried again. I reminded him of delinquent child support payments. He hung up. There was no obligation toward him. Only hatred and deep contempt. He died a few years ago. No tears were shed- only relief.
My main obligation is to my Mother. She sacrificed much on my behalf, worked very hard, made sure that I had what I needed, kept me safe, and helped me get a good education. It is to her that I owe the most. She was not perfect- no one is. but still- that balance will never be equalled.

There are many definitions of family. Some take a village, some have none at all. there are countless books written on the ‘Family’ and how it has changed over time. The Confucian ideal; does it have a place in Japanese society today? The western influences have come with technology, modern economy, and global communication. Japanese people travel and settle in different places to put down roots. There are vestiges of the Confucian family here and there. But in my opinion, it is an ideal that has no basis in modern culture. Yet this obligation can bee seen in family units that we make for ourselves. A family of two dads is just as nurturing as a traditional family unit. A parental unit of one or two is the bare necessity for human survival. This is the most difficult obligation to define and write about since all of us are unique in our relationships with our parents. I leave it to the reader to figure this one out. Who deserves recognition as a parent and thus the obligation of respect and appreciation, care and compassion? I can share my own views, but they fall very short of what truly takes place between parent and child.

These three Obligations that I have written about are simply being stated so that we who practice Tea can more fully understand who we are dealing with, who we are beholding to and why. I expect that your stories are far more interesting using the subject matter as your inspiration. I do think that Confucius has a point though. Something that we can all look at and think about concerning our own lives and the lives of those whome we owe so much- whome ever they may be.

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Tea Bowl Series — Ninsei and Kyo-yaki

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The word ‘Kyo-yaki’ means pottery made in the city of Kyoto; it also denotes a great flowering of the decorative arts that found its way into the Tea room by the single handed efforts of one man- Nonomura Ninsei. As the Edo period ushered in an era of peace in Japan, the arts began to flourish in spectacular ways. Ninsei was born in Tamba which was a pottery making center, and eventually made his way to the Old Capital. “Ninsei is a combination of his given name ‘Seiemon’, and the name of the Buddhist Temple Ninna ji where his kiln was located in the city of Kyoto. Before moving to Kyoto around 1647, He studied ceramics and glazing techniques in Seto. After settling near the Temple, he established the Omuro kiln at a respectful distance from the front gate. He fostered a close relationship with the great Tea Master Kawamori Sowa (1585-1656). From this he developed a style of ceramics known as ‘Kirei-sabi’ (elegant and worn; the beauty of the ageing object of formal tastes). Ninsei borrowed from and adapted existing styles to create works of color and refinement that Kawamori promoted. He used white stone ware and enamel over-glazes to conjure works that still have a major influence to the present day. His attention to fine detail and brilliant use of design made war lords, merchants, and aristocrats pay handsome sums for his pieces.

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Another first for Ninsei is the signing of his pieces. It is said that he was the first to do so. The way that he carved the feet of his tea bowls and other wares was also a hallmark of his ‘signature’ style. His hand was talented and exacting; making the style of his footed pieces another type of identification mark.

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Even his son could not meet the challenge of keeping up with his father’s genius. The Daimyo Maeda Sadachika ordered 13 incense burners from Ninsei II only to send them back because they were too rough and of inferior quality. Ninsei was even coaxed into becoming a lay priest because his works showed such heavenly genius.

Today, when you walk into a store that sells Tea utensils, you will find that almost half of the wares on display are influenced by Ninsei in some form. His use of metallic gold, his seasonal designs, his vivid colors all speak to a courtly ageing elegance that is a part of every collection gathered by tea people. He inspired artists like Ogata Korin, Ogata Kenzan, Koetsu, Sotatsu, and others. He enriched the tea room in ways that we still see, touch, and use in this present era.

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Tea Bowl Series — Karatsu ware

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The third greatest ceramic that Japan ranks above all others is Karatsu ware. It has brevity, is very simple, the essence of folk art, and was treasured by tea Masters for hundreds of years. It is a style of pottery that was first found around the common home; common and average being key here. It’s design has no pretense at all. Sometimes it has a few sweeps of a brush filled with iron pigment to capture a pine tree or a flower. It is the opposite of anything fancy or formal. It is much beloved by everyday Japanese for its feelings of home and hearth. Even if its picture of birds covers the whole of the surface of a plate- it is quiet and introspective in nature.

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Karatsu has been a port for trade and international commerce since antiquity. It is located in Saga prefecture and has been influenced by goods which came by ship from foreign lands. This area started manufacturing pottery during the Momoyama period with the use of climbing kilns that house many chambers to create high fired wares. A piece can be decorated or not and still retain that unique ‘Wabi’ quality. Originally pieces were made for the average home out of an iron rich clay body, then decorated with an iron based under-glaze giving it an earthy quality. Then they were dipped in a semi-transparent grey over-glzaze that allowed the designs (if any) to show through. There are many different types and styles of ‘Karatsu’; even one known to have been created by the captured Korean potters from the attempted invasion by Hideyoshi. A short list is as follows:

Brush decorated Karatsu
Korean Karatsu
Nisai–
Snakeskin–
Combed and/or brushed slip–
Carved–
Yellow–
Green–
Seto–
Okugorai–
White slip–
Mishima–
Mottled Karatsu

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Karatsu is most commonly known as E-karatsu’ or pictured ware. It is one among many styles but in Tea culture it seems to be the one most recognized. It was so valued by Tea Masters that even ‘wasters’ (flaws in the piece brought on by firing, or the piece had imperfect glazing), were treasured. Usually grasses, birds, pine trees, and simple flowers adorn the sides and surfaces. Crackle can also betray the age of a piece as can be seen in the examples below. I own a few bowls of this kind and find myself studying them. the slap-dash of the brush, the occasional bleeding of pigment as the glaze ran down the side. Items for home use; nothing special- that is how this treasure is hidden. That is one reason why Karatsu is the soul of quiet profundity.

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Tea Bowl Series — Hagi Ware

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There is a certain ‘something’ that is hard to put into words when it comes to Hagi wares. They are highly prized and it is found ranked with the best ceramics that Japan has to offer. “Ichi Raku” (1st Raku ware), “Ni Hagi” (2nd Hagi ware), “San Karatsu” (3rd Karatsu ware). is a well known statement in Tea. As we shall discover, these bowls and pottery pieces find themselves in the company of ‘Princesses’ and ‘Demons’; a fitting description during ‘Setsubun’ This is the festival when beans are thrown into rooms to cast out the ‘bad-luck Demons’ that might have been hanging around in your house during the last lunar year.

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In the year 1593, the War lord Shogun Hideyoshi attempted an ill fated invasion to try and conquer the Korean peninsula. Even though he did not succeed, he captured human treasures that were later to become ‘birds in a gilded cage’. He brought back potters that were skilled in making ‘Ido’ ware rice and tea bowls. They were housed them in the Yamaguchi prefecture in a place called ‘Hagi’. Other captured potters were sent to other areas of the Empire, but none were to see their homeland again. All were given the best of everything in order for them to produce the pottery that was so coveted. Many Daimyo war-lords of the Momoyama, and Edo periods not only had to be proficient in military practices, but also had to be skilled in the arts of the ‘Tea hut’. Hagi wares became very valuable prizes, and were classified by colors, and styles. If the clay that was used to make the bowl was gritty and rough, or if the glaze ‘crawled’, it was called an ‘Oni-Hagi-jawan’ (Demon Hagi tea bowl). If the clay was smooth and the bowl was creamy with a translucent glaze covering it, then it was called ‘Hime-Hagi-Jawan’ (Princess Hagi tea bowl). Another type of Hagi possessed whitish spots which were called ‘Gohon’. The subtle colors ranged from a bluish grey- through shades of white into hues of dark mustard/peach. It has been said that one can always find room in the collection of tea utensils for one more Hagi bowl.

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There are seven stages that a good Hagi bowl goes through during its life time. 1- a change of color, 2- a change of smell, 3- a change glaze surfaces, 4- a change of texture, 5- weight changes, 6 crackle changes, 7- leak changes (if any). If you own a Hagi bowl, you can soak it in a towel lined clean stock pot full of hot water and let it sit for a few hours. This will help it achieve wonderful color and weight changes. It also helps to passively clean the bowl. This also assists in keeping the bowl warm just before using it for ‘Temae’ (procedure for making tea). A Hagi bowl is a real treat to own and use. The spirit of Wabi runs deep under its glaze.

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Tea Bowl Series — Raku ware

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There is a famous saying in the world of Tea that says: “Ichi- Raku” (1st Raku ware), “Ni-Hagi” (2nd Hagi ware), San- Karatsu” (3rd Karatsu ware). This ranking states the immeasurable importance of this type of pottery in the history of Japan, and the ceramic culture of the globe.

“Raku” means ‘comfort’, ‘ease’, and ‘enjoyment’. It was taken from the palace named “Jurakudai’ ordered to be built by the great shogun War-lord Hideyoshi, and administered in its construction by Sen no Rikyu. A roof tile maker that was on site named Chojiro was commissioned by Rikyu to make tea bowls out of the clay used for the tiles. These bowls were not thrown on the wheel, they were sculpted by hand. They were to be the first tea bowls to be stamped with the seal of the maker. Hideyoshi presented the seal to Choijro’s son and for ever linked the family named Raku to the great palace. Before the presentation of that seal, Chojiro’s bowls and others like it were called “Ima-yaki” (contemporary wares) or “Juraku-yaki” (wares of the palace). Thus began the family lineage that has extended for 15 generations to the present day. ‘Raku’ is the Sir name of the family.

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The clay that is used is a low fired type that is mined from the river bed, sifted and wedged into huge piles that reach the roof of a vast chamber in a family owned cave. There are three such caverns, each filled from floor to ceiling with clay. When A son comes of age, and starts taking on responsibilities, he fills one of the great chambers with clay for his future grandson. He will use clay made and stored for him by his grandfather. Meanwhile the clay sits in this mouldy dark space being worked over by bacteria to make it rich and ‘fat’; ( ‘fat’ clay has more moisture and is easier to work with). The clay spends decades being enriched by this slow process. Since each bowl is made by hand, it ‘fits’ the palm and fingers perfectly. Red Raku bowls were the first to be made, but Sen no Rikyu favoured dark black ones. When the bowl in the kiln has reached its best temperature, it is taken out and left to cool in the air. Some bowls are shoved into large vessels with tight fitting lids that are filled with saw dust or straw so that the bowl’s glaze will trap the carbon created by the heat. As the art form developed, caramel glazes and white glazes enrobed the pieces.

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Of all of the different ceramics that the Japanese have created, Raku holds court over all. It bares the distinction of being the quintessential type of pottery known throughout the world as the hallmark of Tea culture, and of Japanese taste and quiet refinement. To have tea made in this bowl is very special. When one drinks from it, they are holding in their hands the spirit and beauty of an entire people and their history.

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Tea Bowl Series — Shino

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At this cold time of year, the hands long for a warm bowl to cradle; a bowl that cups in the palm which fits the fingers somehow with comfort. The eyes yearn for the colors of tans creams, browns and reds. There are volumes written about the beauty of Shino glazes and tea bowls. There are generally three types of glaze; white (shiro), red (beni- or aka), and mouse fur (nezumi). When one peers at a Beni-Shino Tea Bowl there is mystery in the play of shadows and hues. The whipped- frosted, Gingerbread delight of the glaze makes the Tea seem richer to the taste. The brown molten sugar drips that cascade down to the foot add interest to the eye. the soft rounded touch of the lip is tactile bliss. The pin holed,crawling, creamy white glaze feels like the surface of a heated orange. The sculpted irregularity of the vessel created by the potter’s work conforms to the shape of your palm.The potter leaves of bit of themselves forever marked on the bowl with glazed ‘finger prints’. Now you hold their care and efforts. When you drink from it, you are sipping from a work of art. The foot is soft but sturdy. It is as if the kiln Gods have smiled on the makers of Shino bowls. Modern techniques have even produce ‘purple Shino’! For my friends who worry and labor what to get me for Christmas?…now you know…hint hint. This is the best bowl for Autumn and Winter in my opinion.

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Tea Bowl Series — Setoguro, Hiki-dashi-guro

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Sombre, Serious, straight sided, classic, usually matt-finished, strong, and black as pitch tar; Setoguro Tea Bowls are among the Tea world’s most revered expressions of ‘Wabi’. Sen no Rikyu favoured them. He took them out of the waste products of the kiln firing process and brought them into the tea room. When a great kiln (O-gama) was being fired with wares like Shino, Seto, Kiseto, and other wares, a quickly thrown cylinder with finger prints, stone grout, and fissures was positioned near the blast holes in order to gage the temperature of the blaze inside. (Thermometers were not invented yet). After days of firing, a potter would quickly open the kiln, extract the piece with a pair of very long metal tongs which would leave a mark on its side, close the door very quickly, and douse it in water turning the glaze a dark jet black. This piece was called “hiki-dashi-guro” (pull out black). The piece was never considered worth keeping and was merely meant for determining whether the glazed pieces inside the inferno had reached the desired degree of heat. It fell upon the eyes of Rikyu to see the beauty in this imperfect object. A famous example is called “Oharagi” (O-hara wood). The Sengen kiln in Tajimi town- in Gifu prefecture produced some fine pieces, but were made only for a brief time during the Tensho and Bunraku periods. Few were salvaged at this time, and those that survive are hallmarks that plumb the fathoms of the ‘Wabi’ spirit. Recently (1920’s and onward), more modern pieces of Setoguro have been made which show the craft of the potter. Any weakness, hesitation, or flourish, will show up in the bowl; either through the throwing and/or the firing. Not all potters can make hiki-dashi guro tea bowls. They are perfect for these cold months with their straight sides holding in the heat of the tea while being cradled in the hands of a lucky guest.

Here are some photo examples of some famous pieces and some modern ones that show the style of Seto-guro Tea Bowls.

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Tea Bowl Series — Kohiki ‘Kobiki’

Orig PM Kohiki ‘Kobiki’ is a style of tea bowl that can sometimes be over looked because of its simplicity. It takes a trained eye and a bit of history to spot one of these hidden treasures in plain sight. If one looks deep into the making of it, one can see melting snow drifts, the sky on a cloudy day, the ageing plaster on an ancient garden wall, the frothy shore of a lonely deserted beach, and the gossamer veiled interiors of the imagination. It is a bowl made of iron rich clay with a porcelain slip applied to the surface. It is fired with a clear glaze, or just the slip covering only. It is the essence of ‘slap-dash’. The style came from Korean Yi Dynasty Pun-ch’ng wares (1300’s to 1910). It found great favour with the tea people of the 15oo’s and onward. The bowl looks as if it has been white washed, but the way that the slip and glaze fall make each bowl unique. Most were made by potters churning out hundreds at a time to make their quota to sell to the public. They were thrown fast- glazed fast and stuffed into a bulging kiln that produced the most pieces for the firing. That is how one such bowl was made; but it became famous from the sharp eye of a chajin. It is called ‘Matsudaira’. It can be seen as the first picture above the article post. It is housed in the collection of the Hatakeyama Museum in Tokyo, Japan. Copies of this bowl are made to pay homage to it. It’s half- hazard application of slip, which gave it a blade of bare pottery that reminds one of a tea leaf, is its ‘shomen’ (a distinguishing mark that represents the front of the bowl). Its age is hundreds of years old with a provenance to prove it. It is considered an ‘O-Meibutsu’; a National and cultural treasure. Its depth of the spirit of ‘Wabi’ is rivalled only by the great ‘Kizaemon’. Here are examples of Kobiki.

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