Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ash, Blood, Sweat, and Tears

It’s that time of year again. The time of year all us Japanese tea ceremony folk in the southern hemisphere are arranging the ashes of their brazier for use through the warmer months.

Before you put this blog entry in the ‘too hard basket’ and flick to the next webpage, the uninitiated’ll need some background. Stick with it, because the chance to learn about a precious tradition lies in the megapixels to follow.

Beautiful ash

I will never forget when my sensei told me the most beautiful thing in the tea ceremony room is the ash arranged in the brazier. From my Western brain, this seemed odd considering the beautiful flowers, calligraphy and ceramics to be viewed during a ceremony.

But after entering the room, and viewing the bone white ashes sitting soft, silent, lovingly arranged and cupping a glowing charcoal fire in its bosom, the beauty started to grow on me.

So to create the star player of beauty in the tea ceremony room, us tea folk need a good chunk of time to devote to our art. We do this every year just before we change from using the sunken hearth to using the brazier.

Here’s my September afternoon documented:

1. Start with a clean brazier

Braziers come in different types. This one’s a Chinese copper maekaki. The main shapes you’ll see are maekaki (前欠き), and mayubūro (眉風炉). The materials used to make braziers range from Chinese copper (karakane 唐銅), iron, earthenware, and earthenware coated with lacquer.

2. Bottom-up

Lay thick, high grade Japanese paper (hōsho 奉書), and a bottom tile (sokokawara 底瓦). The paper is laid directly on the bottom of the brazier to absorb heat.

3. Balanced?

In goes the trivet (gotoku 五徳). Place your iron kettle (kama 釜) on the trivet, make sure the height of the lip separating the top design and bottom of the iron kettle is right, and the distance between the iron kettle and brazier is even.
4. The fun bit

In goes the ash. You use the ring of the trivet as a guide where to place the ashes.

Time out for a fun fact

You might notice the ash I’m using is a different colour from what you've seen before. This is because the Ueda Sōko Ryū uses ashes made from oyster shells. Yes, you read right, oyster shells. When fired in a kiln, oyster shells turn into a fine white powder that is very aesthetically pleasing when used as ashes. Other schools of tea commonly use wood ashes coloured with brewed tea.

Oysters are one of Hiroshima’s specialty produce. The Ueda Sōko Ryū is a school of Japanese tea ceremony developed in Hiroshima. So there’s another connection, and a guarantee of ample oyster shells at hand for tea ceremony purposes!

5. Chaos to form

Start shaping the ash to make an inner circle with a sharp ridge. The bed where the charcoal sits needs to be the appropriate distance from the bottom of the iron kettle. I’m using a piece of bamboo the same height as a ‘marugichyō’ piece of charcoal to measure.
It’s important to keep the ash aerated by shaping the ashes with a light hand - just the weight of the shaping tool is enough. If the ashes are compacted, the heat of the fire isn’t absorbed and the brazier gets hot.

When you’ve got your basic shape and height's right, it’s time to place the front tile (maekawarake 前土器) in the ashes. The front tile acts as a barrier to the direct heat of the fire.

6. Form to beauty: the patience bit

Now for the character building work: shaping the ashes into your personal work of art. Here's the product of my September afternoon:

Reflecting on what it is that makes the ashes so profoundly beautiful, there’s the obvious link with cremation. Ashes represent a lasting token of the wisdom gathered during life. All living things undertake a journey, and the ashes left behind, infused with the wisdom of the past, go on to become a part of a new life.

Entering the dim tearoom, viewing the bone white ashes sitting soft, silent, lovingly arranged and cupping a glowing charcoal fire in its bosom. . . . .

This scene of death; pervasive sense of age and wisdom; new life of the fire; and lingering sense of passion and devotion of the tea person that brought it all together; this is a fine example of the aesthetic of sabi. Or you might say it’s just one very impressive ashtray.

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