Sitting 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;
“By Appointment to the Imperial Household Ebiya Art Gallery Dealers in Tea Ceremony Wares and Antiquities Since 1672”
On 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 these.
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, watching, patiently.
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.” Say’s mum...