MY CUP OF TEA
Daifuku, dish by
(Whisk) and an Hishaku (laddle)
with Macha prepared ready for drinking.
Bridge, Edo Period. Hiroshige.
Wooden bridge on the
road from Edo to Kyoto. This crossing point and terminus grew
in to the Nihombashi district during the Edo Period. 1600's
Ebiya Gallery,with exhibition of work by Euan. The Tea Room
can be seen to the rear of the gallery.
IN the tea room at the back of the gallery, I listen to the whisper
of the water as it simmers in its iron kettle on the charcoal brazier.
Its lid is slightly askew, leaving a gap at the edge which stops the
water from boiling over. The mid morning light filters through the
paper of the shoji screens to softly illuminate the tatami floor.
In the Tokonoma alcove is a bottle shaped vase with a single blossom.
"Hidasuki" straw marks circle its neck and drape down the
side where the wood flame has hit the porcelain surface. Beside it
on the wall is a "kakejiku" scroll. It is a painting from
the Edo period of the view of Nihombashi from the street outside.
The merchants bustle about between what has now become the Mitsukoshi
department store on the left and the Mitsui bank on the right, with
the road between them leading up to Edo Castle, now the imperial palace,
and Mount Fuji in the background. Usually the kakejiku would be calligraphy,
a poem or phrase in Kanji characters, but Miyake san has chosen this
painting because it is of where we are, an echo of the past which
lives on in the tradition of the tea ceremony. Among the characters
bustling in the street scape is a merchant carrying a large chest
wrapped in a furoshiki cloth on his back. I joke with Miyake san that
this is his great grandfather moving to Nihombashi from Kyoto with
the Meiji emperor in 1868.
The writing was on the wall. It said;
Appointment to the Imperial Household
Ebiya Art Gallery
Dealers in Tea Ceremony Wares and Antiquities
the mat in front of me, on one of my small square plates, is an exquisite
"Mame Daifuku", a cake of sweet bean encased in rice paste.
These are from the same shop in Ueno where I first tasted them, and
though I have had them from other makers since, none compare with
Miyake san enters the room with a tray, his soft white footware brushing
gently across the tatami. On the tray are arranged tea bowl (Machawan),
tea caddy (Natsume), whisk (Chasen) and bamboo spoon (Chashaku). He
bows deeply and then carries them to the space in front of the brazier.
In the back of my mind I can hear my mothers voice, "Take
the pot to the kettle, dear, not the kettle to the pot."
The tea room at Ebiya is unusual in that the brazier is in the back
left corner, meaning that many of the actions must be done in mirror
image of a normal tea ceremony. "Ki An" is the title of
the tea room. It is difficult to translate, as the "Ki"
means to return home, and the "An" means tea house. This
is especially significant for me. When I came to Japan I had to choose
kanji characters for my own name, as stamps, not signatures, were
necessary for all legal documents. It meant giving new meaning to
my self. The kanji I chose were "Yu" which is glaze, and
"An", the same kanji as the tea room, to which I have returned
every year since 1993. This tea room, at the back of the gallery in
the centre of Tokyo, is where I sleep during the exhibition, and I
prepare my breakfast over the brazier and welcome guests into my home
here. This tea room is a home to which I can return.
Removing a cloth from the "Obi" sash of his kimono, unfolding
and refolding it, he begins to meticulously clean the tools on the
tray. First the natsume, then the chashaku are wiped and replaced
on the tray, each movement economical and elegant. The chasen and
"chakin" (tea cloth) are removed from the bowl, and he begins
to wash it. Setting the lid straight on the kettle he lifts it and
pours some hot water into the bowl. After replacing the kettle he
lifts the Chasen, examines it, whisks the water, turns the chasen
to examine it again, and replaces it on the tray. He then empties
the water from the tea bowl into a "Kensui" bowl that he
had prepared behind him. The Kensui is taller and wider than a chawan,
flared at the top to accept the discarded water. Using the chakin
he wipes the bowl dry, four strokes which cover the base of the bowl
and spell the word "Iri", to "put care" into an
action. "Always warm the pot with hot water first, dear, before
you make the tea," says mums melodious voice.
As he lifts the Chashaku, he turns to me with a smile. "Okashi
o douzo," he says, please enjoy your cake. I lift the plate from
the floor, cut a piece of the "Daifuku" with my cake blade
and place it in my mouth. These are one of my favourite cakes, the
soft sweetness of the coarsely ground bean inside playing against
the slight springy resistance of the rice paste casing, with just
a hint of salt. Mum used to serve the best scones with lemon curd
and cream for morning tea, the savoury flavour of the fresh baked
scone, the tartness of the lemon, the saltiness of the butter, the
smoothness of the cream
As I eat, Miyake san removes the lid from the natsume and spoons out
some bright green powdered tea into the bowl with the chashaku, striking
it gently but sharply against the edge of the bowl to shake off any
clinging powder. Each year he has a special delivery of macha made
from the first leaves of the new crop, the "Shincha". The
colour is more vivid than most tea, the fragrance lighter, the flavour
sweeter. There was one brand of tea that Mum insisted on. "All
the others taste like the sweepings from the teahouse floor!"
she'd say, "Now, one spoon for each person and one for the pot
Pouring the water once more into the bowl and replacing the kettle
on the brazier, he lifts the chasen and begins to whisk the tea. Making
a bridge from rim to rim with the thumb and middle finger of his left
hand he vigorously whisks the tea into a foam, finally slowing to
a stop and gently lifting the chasen from the bowl. After putting
the chasen back on the tray he lifts the bowl with his right hand
onto the palm of his left, turns it twice, perhaps a quarter turn
each time, until the front of the tea bowl faces me. He reaches out
and places it wordlessly on the tatami in front of me. "Always
turn the pot three times in a clockwise direction," says mum
"Chodai itashimasu," (I gratefully receive this) I say as
I reach out with my right hand and slide my fingers under the hip
of the bowl till I touch the foot, place my thumb on the lip and lift
it to the palm of my left hand. The foot fits comfortably between
the first and third joints of my fingers, smooth against my skin.
I also turn it twice, till the face of the bowl is now towards him
and then move the fingers of my right hand to the side of the bowl.
After a slight bow, I lift it to my lips. The colour of the green
tea against the orange flashing on the wood fired surface lift each
other, and the warm fragrant fumes waft across my face. The lingering
sweetness in my mouth from the daifuku mingles with the spicy flavour
of the tea. There is no other flavour to which it can be likened.
It is macha.
I finish the tea and smile in satisfaction as I lower the bowl. The
last skerrick of tea runs down into the throwing rings in the centre
of the bowl, making a green spiral against the flashed porcelain,
like the ying and yang. I wipe the lip and turn the bowl once more
so that I can see the face, where the "hidasuki" marks of
the tatami straw mingle with the wood ash where the flame has licked
the surface and begun to form runnels. I invert the bowl to examine
the foot, the turned surface distinct from the thrown, with shell
marks on the foot ring from where it was set in the kiln. I turn the
bowl once more and pass it back to Miyake san, who has been waiting,
He takes the bowl once more, washes it as before and says to me, "Moh
ippuku ikaga desu ka?" (Would you care for another cup?) I waver
for a moment, then reply, "Iie, oshimai kudasai." (No, please
feel free to finish.)
He bows. "Oshimai itashimasu." (I will draw to a close.)
He pours hot water in the bowl once more, this time to wash the chasen,
which he examines carefully to make sure it is clean and undamaged.
After disposing of the water in the kensui once more he wipes the
bowl and places it on the tray. He wipes and replaces the chashaku
and natsume into their correct position on the tray, refolds his cloth
and tucks it back into his obi. Rising to a crouch, he lifts the tray,
stands, and shuffles quietly from the room, kneeling to bow deeply
at the door.
I wait quietly for his return, savouring the calm, alone for a moment
once more with the kettles song. It is easy to forget that the bustle
of central Tokyo is only metres away. Just on the other side of the
shoji screens, beyond the display windows, crowds throng and traffic
oozes along the "Chuo Doori"(central road) to and fro across
Nihombashi, the bridge of Japan. The river which runs below it is
named after the bridge. The centre of the bridge marks the geographical
centre of Japan, and the imperial palace is just a short stroll away.
He returns with the bowl and places it in front me.
"Doh?" (How was it?) I ask.
He smiles. "Hijouni tsukaiyasui!" (Very comfortable to use!)
he says enthusiastically. "The shape and surface make it very
easy to foam the tea, and the size fits the hand exactly. Did you
see how the colours worked together?" I smile and nod. We sit
and examine the bowl again, dissecting it, holding it and turning
it. Discussing how it fits in the hand, how stable it was to whisk
the tea, how beautifully it enhanced the tea. We have done this every
year, and I have learned about tea. It isn't just the bowl. It's the
entirety of the ceremony that is art, art in process. I would never
pretend to be a tea master, for to become a tea master is a life long
dedication. No, I am just a potter who is a student of tea at best.
The tea ceremony isn't an arcane mystery, it is an exploration of
the beauty of simplicity. It touches all your senses, gently, with
no embellishment. How simply, beautifully and most of all deliciously
can you make a cup of tea? For that is the essence of a tea bowl,
not a rigid structure of size or form or colour, not a regurgitation
of how other tea bowls are, but a foray into the pleasure of a nice
cup of tea.
It is the morning of my fourteenth annual exhibition here at Ebiya
Gallery, and the doors will soon be open for business. But for this
little time Miyake san and I have it to ourselves. We step from the
tea room into the main gallery space, with my pots displayed on its
antique furnishings. Later I will wrap the teabowls in saffron cloth
and sign boxes for them, sealing them with my Japanese stamp. And
hopefully they will come to life in someone elses hands and give them
joy in using them, just as I have taken joy in their making.
And somewhere in the
back of my mind, "There's nothing like a nice hot cup of tea."