While we are on the topic of yohen tenmoku, it is worth taking a closer look at this work (photos 1, 2, and 3) by Kamada Koji, a ceramic artist who has devoted his life to the research and production of this most enigmatic pottery. At first glance, one might be led to think that they are two sides of the same coin.
Like in Girel’s bowl (photos 4, 5, and 6), the yohen effect in Kamada’s cup manifests itself in hues of purple and blue, which the artist calls 燿変紫光 or yohen shiko — a glaze effect he first released to the world in 2007 after almost a decade of experimentation. Again, it must be reiterated that this yohen effect is achieved naturally through firing. (Kamada’s tenmoku glazes are different renditions of a basic tenmoku recipe, relying on natural raw materials such as iron oxides and wood ash as the main colourants).
There is however one stark difference between the works of Girel and Kamada — Girel’s tenmoku has a glossy sheen whereas Kamada’s tenmoku is considerably more muted. In this regard, one may validly argue that Girel’s yohen is more like the historic bowls, which possess a glossy or glass-like sheen and an iridescence that changes with the angle of light. In other words, Girel’s tenmoku is more “historically authentic” if we are to use Song Dynasty yohen bowls as conventional standards for measuring “historical authenticity”. But personally I think this point is moot because we should not always be assessing and evaluating modern yohen works against historic ones. Both Girel and Kamada (and other tenmoku ceramic artists like Chang Kuei Wei 張桂維) represent the dawn of a new age of tenmoku pottery, and it is they who set a new benchmark by which modern yohen/“yohen” works may be appraised.
There are only so many potters in the world capable of producing yohen tenmoku, and it’s very much a stroke of serendipity that both yohen pieces here share a similar effect expressed in colours that evoke nebulae and the deep stillness of the cosmos.
The video shows a visually arresting phenomenon observed when using Jean Girel’s yohen tenmoku: The rising of steam from the surface of the tea interferes with how light plays off the glaze, resulting in a display of varying colours.
In the first and second photos: Close-up of one of the yohen characteristics.
Third and fourth photos: A magnet adheres both to the glaze and the body of the tea bowl.
It is worth emphasising that iridescence in and of itself is not conclusive evidence of yohen 曜變, because seemingly similar iridescence can be achieved by including certain chemicals or metals in the glaze recipe (such as manganese).
Also, it is magnetic because of the tea bowl’s epsilon-phase Fe2O3. Not all Song Dynasty Jian tea bowls are magnetic (mine happens to be), and not all modern tenmoku/jianzhan are either. Magnetism is not a criterion of the “authenticity” of tenmoku tea bowls.
I first came across Jean Girel’s tea bowls at an exhibition in Chiayi in 2015, where I found myself wholly taken by the stillness and profundity of his works.
In the world of tenmoku/jianzhan 天目/建盞, Girel’s tea bowls are singularly compelling, not least because they bear a striking resemblance to the historical Jian wares of China’s Song era. I find this immensely intriguing, given that he creates his works in a quiet studio near Cluny in Burgundy.
But it should come as no surprise that Girel is one of the most illustrious tenmoku ceramic artists in the world. He is the sole living Maître d'Art in the field of pottery, a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, and is regarded as a living national treasure.
Beyond peerless technical mastery, Girel’s very method of production harks back to the way the Song potters made their wares — instead of procuring from suppliers, he sources his raw materials of rocks, clays, and minerals from his vicinity. He blends his own clays and glazes, and fires his works in a kiln he built for his own use.
In my opinion, the most fascinating part of Girel’s work lies in his understanding and creation of the iridescence in tenmoku. In this aspect, he employs a studied approach that alludes to bird feathers, especially those of the peacock, to better understand light and its relationship to the structure of matter. This iridescence, achieved through natural materials and his personal firing techniques (not the artificial type produced using potentially hazardous metals and chemicals) can also be seen on some jianzhan of the Song dynasty, and especially those historic yohen 曜變 pieces that are now in the collections of the Miho museum, Seikado Bunko museum, and the Freer Gallery of Art, etc. As a consequence, whether one is observing from afar or up close, Girel’s bowls exude an aura and atmosphere — a 神韻 — that is unmistakably historical and authentic.
Three years have passed since the day I placed my order for one of his bowls. I have only just received it, and it is as magnificent as I had dreamed.
Concerning the use and care of Yixing teapots, LQER Taiwanese historian, poet, and writer Lian Heng 連橫 was unambiguous in affirming that they should be kept very clean and spotless.
Thus he wrote in《雅堂⽂集》：”壺經久⽤，滌拭⽇加，⾃發幽光，入⼿可鑒。若膩滓爛斑，油光的爍，最為賤相。是猶西⼦⽽蒙不潔，寧不⼤損其美也？”
Through prolonged use and daily cleaning, the pot naturally emits a soft appreciable glow. Should it be covered in dirty blotches and uneven stains, and shines like grease, it is most unsightly. For if Xizi (referring to Xishi 西施) were but unwashed and filthy, would it not hugely defile her beauty?
What can one do but nod and smile politely when told by “great tea masters” that the term “茶道/chadao” originated in Japan?
What can one do but nod and smile politely when told that certain lofty interpretations of 茶道 are truer than others?
What can one do but nod and smile politely when these very people conveniently ignore texts like《飲茶歌誚崔石使君》and《封演聞見記》because these don’t fit their pontifications?
Because with these people, the veracity of any narrative is determined by a person’s age and years of experience, not facts.
Wrapped up a session for a couple of folks on the topic of gongfucha, where we covered various aspects of its development and practice, including:
．Etymology — is it 工夫茶 or 功夫茶? Should it be “工夫茶/功夫茶” or “工夫-茶/功夫-茶”?
．Origin, tracing its development to the Wanli Emperor of the Ming.
．Referencing a corpus of approximately 6,500 words spanning the Ming, Qing, and Republic eras.
．Archaeological artefacts and evidence.
．The establishment of precepts concerning method(s), procedures, and specific teaware used e.g. should one crush a portion of the tealeaves during 納茶？Where should the 茶膽 be located?
．Addressing the conventional rule of using three teacups.
．Historically informed practice, using some wares from the 1800s — the zenith of gongfucha — and contemporary interpretive imagination.
．Gongfucha in the modern context for today’s tea practitioners.
While it’s true that in the Song practice of 點茶 diancha whisked tea was prized for its whiteness, it’s problematic — perhaps even erroneous — to assert that white was the only colour. -
Photo credit: @yingq_photography
It’s a pretty powerful moment when strength meets intensity in the quiet pursuit of stillness.
Thanks for the gorgeous photo @panroll !
Lately I’ve been trying to better grasp the Omotesenke style of whisking. Very broadly speaking, it seems relatively easier to carry out the Urasenke style, as with the matcha in the raku chawan.
The Omotesenke approach, and by extension the Mushakojisenke technique, poses greater difficulty for me. Here is another attempt at achieving a fine-textured moderate amount of foam surrounding the crescent pool.
I haven’t come across enough Kamairi to be able to pinpoint what region, style, and varieties I‘m particularly fond of, but I like to think this offering is taking me in a very favourable direction.
The first infusion presented chestnuts, yellow fruits, and bright grassy savouriness framed by very refined tannins. In the second infusion, the initial restrained umami character gave way to peas, satsuma-imo, and steamed glutinous rice. A subsequent steeping yielded similar characters, and when allowed to cool, the liquor also hinted at green grapes and wet stone.
In a strange sort of way, it somewhat reminded me of Anjibaicha, but with a pronounced minerality and a more voluminous body and texture. That it doesn’t have an overarching umami profile probably allows one to pick up on subtler characters, which I think adds to the overall complexity and depth of the tea.
When it comes to defining our aesthetic applied in the practice of tea, a concept that we are fond of exploring is the quietude of objects. It’s often manifested in modest wares that eschew unnecessary decorations, sometimes emphasised by the entropy of natural materials as represented by the crazing in a tea bowl or the rusting of metal.
A quiet object does not seek the validation of the masses — its beauty lies in that which is not readily apparent — and it prompts us to disregard the hierarchy of things. To that end, it also embodies an anti-aesthetic — one that, in a world where we prize convenience over consequence, symbolised aptly by single-use plastics, prompts us to reconsider broader questions of materiality and ethical consumption.
Brought this kuro raku chawan out of its long dormancy in its tomobako to prime it for a session. An utsushi of one of the works of 長次郎 Chōjirō, the tea bowl is named 勾当 by its maker 佐々木昭楽 Sasaki Shouraku, third-generation scion of his Kyoto-based family of raku artisans.
Recently I’ve been trying to acquaint myself with the Kankyu-an chasen in an attempt to obtain less froth on my tea. I think I prefer the flavour and texture of less frothy matcha — it seems like the bitter savoury sweetness comes through a little clearer.
“Don’t deliberate over it. The hand naturally knows. Listen to the hand and act on it.”
This line left a particularly deep impression. In the course of one’s tea practice, one comes across a host of techniques, routines, and mystical methods. I occasionally stop to ask myself: Have I heard what the tea itself is saying?
If one could give one’s intuition a chance, perhaps one might discover something he or she hadn’t noticed before.
Where should one start?
The hand naturally knows.
Photo credit: @forthx
To complement the atypical nature of the session tomorrow, we’ll be offering two 蒔茶 shicha that are diametrical opposites of each other. In terms of technique and flavour, they couldn’t be more different, but I like to think there’s an interdependence between the two. Playing on the theme of duality, they share the same root in that they are both 蒔茶, but one tea represents light and the other dark; one soft and the other tough; and one active and the other receptive.
One more sesh before we break for the New Year’s on the traditional calendar, with plans to resume regular programming by the third week of February.
Given the warm winter, it might be an opportune time to explore dongcha 冬茶 vs. “dongcha 冬茶”. In fact, we’ve been feeling pretty chuffed by a 杉林溪 winter tea that recently fell into our hands, and we’re hoping for a chance to introduce it properly at a comparative tasting. If all goes well, it should be possible to hold it in the latter half of next month. Fingers crossed!
Photo credit: @yingq_photography