Sunday, June 29, 2008

2008 Nok Ya Won 'Morning Glow' Hadong 70% Oxidized Tea

One awakes early in the morning, earlier than most. One draws the water, and boils it. It's time for tea. This morning one fetches an inexpensive glass container. In it, a crushed mix of mainly dark green-black leaves are accented by pieces if earthy brown and light green. The smell escapes into air as the cheap, warped lid is twisted loose- rich spice, fresh musk, evergreen.

With the help of a simple bamboo scoop the dry leaves are scooped from the container and then carefully guided into the top opening of a pre-warmed Kim Kyoung Soo, grey, moon and cloud ceramic tea pot. These crushed leaves wait for the hot water that descends upon them. The lid covers the leaves. In the warming darkness of the tea pot, tea is made.

The resulting amber liquid is poured out and served. The smell is warming and comforting. As the glow shines softly through the window, it's time to drink the tea that was named so.

Most black teas are 90% oxidized. This tea is only 70% oxidized due to its production method.
This tea is hand picked in the fresh mountain valley of Hadong. It is gathered then dried in the sun for four to eight hours. After which it is violently hand rolled on a fibrous rush mat that causes the leaves to break and tear, exposing their exposed enzymes to the oxygen of the clean mountain air. They are left to oxidize in the shade for forty-eight hours, the leaves take in the mountain air deeply. Next they are spread out on the floor of a hot room with the ondol, traditional Korean floor heating, at 35-40 Degrees Centigrade until they are dry. The leaves are then hand crushed and the dust is sifted out the traditional way using an old traditional sifter before being packaged.

The first sensation one tunes into when drinking this tea is menthol, an evergreen freshness. These flavours share tastebuds with light, sweet, acidic citric orange and a spiciness that can be described as cinnamony or perhaps as medicinal. Astringency can be felt on the tip of ones tongue and a vague dryness deep in the throat. A subtle floral taste is left in the nose. The strength of the menthol evergreen, the citric orange, and the spicy medicinal flavours unmistakably vary between different sessions when brewing vessel, water quality, and amount of dry leaves used is manipulated. A fun tea to play with, full of light mellow qi. A nice way to wake up.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Korean Tea Zen

When visitors bring incense,
I seldom take the time to make a ball.
I just let it burn like ash on the roof tile.
I don't pretend to know the aroma of the incense.
I just let my mind be at peace from the incense.

When visitors bring tea,
I seldom take time to make it into a fine powder.
I just let it brew in a stone kettle with wooden charcoal.
I don't pretend to know the taste of the tea.
I just let my body feel the treasure of tea.

Jingam Zen Master 774-850
English translation found in The Book of Korean Tea by Yang-Seok Yoo

Monday, June 23, 2008

Sel Young Jin's Wild Edo Style

Edo refers to both the style and clay used for this tea bowl. Edo clay, found only in the southern kilns of South Korea, is distinguished by its distinct goldy yellowish-orange colour, the colour of a loquat fruit. The texture of this clay is typically more fine and smooth, than coarse and rough. A traditional edo style bowl is bound to use these characteristics in its final product. This bowl is not your traditional edo style bowl.

Grittier, granular, coarser clay that typifies Sel Young Jin's tea bowls is found in this piece. Thick white glaze coats this bowl. In places where it does not, stones, and sandy loquat clay peer out from the white gloss helplessly enveloping it.

This tea bowl's shape is an exaggerated extension of yang. The addition of bright green matcha helps to balance this bowls energy. The matcha re-energizes the edo clay and pulls it out from the suffocating grip of oozing white blobs.

The feel of this bowl on the lips and fingers is wonderful- smooth, thick gloss, with sporadic gaps of stark pleading roughness. When it is brought to ones lips the heavy weight of this hardy bowl is felt. Tea creeps down the thick walls of this bowl and into the mouth. It seems impossible to coax out the last bit of tea from the deep, low laying, flat shallow of the bowl.

The oversized foot (Kor: joop, Jap: kodai) acts to balance this burly bowl. Its unusually large size and one inch depth appropriately grounds this the bowl.

One dare not call you a sissy when drinking matcha from this colossal bowl!


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Korean Style Tea Table

This table is a Korean original by ceramic artist Kim Kyoung Soo. Its rustic, natural, and earthy feel is what characterizes Korean ceramics. Its colour adds to this feel with one side of the table exhibiting rusty brown under a spackling of black blotches which slowly fades into and intertwines with smaller dark green spots over a lighter green as one's view moves toward the other end of the table. Beautiful.

The perforated center plate is made up of earthy mate reddish clay with the edges exhibiting a burnt-in glossy black finish. The two side holes make it easily removable by just inserting your two index fingers and lifting thereby disclosing the beauty of the inside walls and floor. Underneath this table hides the wonderful calligraphy of the artist.

This table really comes alive when you place a tea pot on it. When one's yixing pot is placed on top, the rusty browns standout, pulling at and complimenting the pot. When one's ceramic grey, white cloud, Kim Kyoung Soo pot is placed in the same position the dark black patterning jumps out (not shown).

Due to the ceramic materials that this table is made of, it can really hold heat for a long time. This can be advantageous when brewing dark teas. Also, it should last a life time so there is no need to replace it every year.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Tea Table Wabi Sabi

This inexpensive tea table is like many others in China. It was likely manufactured piece by piece using the cheapest means, by the cheapest Chinese labourers. Labourers that work in hot unairconditioned workshops and that are probably paid less in a month than some people make in an hour. The factory likely churns out hundreds of these small wood tables everyday. The trademarked emblem that is pressed into the wood suggest the normality of such a table.

Despite these commonalities, this table is like no other. Because it is made up of wood it is always alive. Wood, unlike most materials, was once a living creature. When the wood is stripped away from the tree it continues to live on. In this case, it lives on as a tea table.

It breathes. As the wood is exposed to humidity or lack thereof, it grows, expands, twists, and moves. Over time its outer form changes. Wood tea tables are especially alive. They are under constant exposure to water and the resulting humidity.

This table is alive.

It has been in use almost daily for the last year and over this time it has changed. It has developed unique stains and marks that have given it more a sense of identity than the trademarked emblem ever had. There is natural beauty in each blemish.

Throughout its use it has also cracked. The water and tea have found their way into the wood causing it to expand. After a long period of use with many good tea sessions, it began to rot. Even as it rotted its beauty could be seen.

Now unrepairable cracks have developed, it cannot hold water. Its function is lost in its beauty.

Although a new tea table will replace this one, this one will never be replaced. Perhaps one will use it for a flower pot, in this way it will continue to nurture life. Or, perhaps one will bring it out once in a while, on rainy days, its leaking puddles mirroring nature outside.

Either way it's time for a new tea table...


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sel Young Jin's “Live and Die”

The gritty, earthy, wild look and feel of this erabo style bowl instantaneously grabs one as soon as one feasts eyes upon it. When holding its warped oval form, hands reach together closer to being folded in prayer than most tea bowls ever allow. The energy in the hands is felt from the tea, and in turn the tea from the hands. One is sanctified when bringing this bowl towards ones mouth like pulling sandy earth to ones face only to sip green tea from its hallows.

This bowl feels comforting and soothing in ones hands like beach sand between ones fingers and toes. Tea too feels so comfortable resting in such natural surroundings like the sandy earth beneath ones feet this tea bowl grounds one, grounding the tea.

The tea is truly blessed to be housed in such a natural paradise, even if only for minutes. It's earthy coarse-sand texture, asymmetrically irreplicateable form, and warm brown and green colour act in unison to create such a feeling.

This tea bowl, like all tea bowls, represents the earth it is made from. We too, many lives ago, evolved from the gritty sands of earth. When we die we will inevitably return to such a place. Now, one is there, and as the tea is consumed, the impermanence of life is reflected upon deeply.

And as the last drops of tea depart from this tea bowl they do so reluctantly, like one clinging on to life, tea clings onto this bowls course grit walls, its short lived paradise.

What lessons one can learn from tea!


Monday, June 16, 2008

Sel Young Jin's Tea Bowl and Louis Vuitton's Offer

Tea stories have been a curiosity of teaists since teaist have called themselves teaists. This is especially true in the countries of China, Japan, and Korea where tea has a long history and has managed to infiltrate all aspects of life.

Tea comes and goes it allows us to be unattached to the essence of its being as aftertastes fade into nothingness and the radiance of chaqi is returned back to the world through us. However, because tea cannot be properly made without the proper implements and because these utensils maintain their material form until they are smashed into pieces. The implements have been much sought after for monetary or aesthetic reasons. The stories of how they have been stolen, bought, traded, handed down, destroyed, and desired are plenty in the detailed history of Japan, and to a lesser extent in China and Korea.

Below is a modern account of one such story, a retelling as one first heard it...

One day as the famous fashion designer, Louis Vuitton, was flipping through magazines of fashion and art he came across something that took his breath away. It wasn't a dress cut of the latest, hottest style, nor was it a rare Renaissance painting, it was a tea bowl of artist Sel Young Jin.

Louis Vuitton, in awe of what he saw on the pages of an art magazine called to one of his most trusted assistants and asked him to procure this piece for him. He sent his assistance with a blank check to Korea to insure that the bowl he saw in the magazine was as wondrous in person as it looked on the page, and, of course, to seal the deal.

Vuitton's assistant traveled to the gallery of Sel Young Jin. When Vuitton's assistant finally saw the tea bowl he was quite surprised that it looked even better in person. He immediately, took out Mr. Vuitton's blank check and inquired as to how much he should write the check out to. Then Sel Young Jin explained that this tea bowl is his best and that to him it is priceless. And so he explained that no matter how much is offered he cannot accept it. The assistant understood. Sel Young Jin then thanked the assistant for his understanding and high praise of his art as he left empty handed.

Note: The tea bowl pictured above named “Live and Die” by Sel Young Jin and is not the bowl in the story but is such an amazing example of Sel Young Jin's art. More pictures and a review of this bowl next post.

Until then,


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Four Origin Stories of Tea in Korea: How'd It Get There?!? PART 4: Smuggling Seeds Across the Boarder

One had mentioned in Part 3 that Korea was a country divided into Three Kingdoms during the 4th and 5th centuries. It is important to note that the Small Gaya Confederacy wasn't considered one of the influential three kingdoms of this period. So, what about the last kingdom of the three, the one occupying the southeast? Well, it wasn't until the 5th century that Buddhism became accepted in the Southwestern Kingdom of Shilla, one of the three kingdoms, due to the initial resistance among the royalty in that region. Nevertheless, the commoners of Korea related to the teachings of Buddhism even though the courts resisted. After a major player in the court was martyred in 527, the aristocracy of Shilla soon accepted Buddhism as the state religion.

Although Shilla sent royal envoys to China as early as 377 A.D., it wasn't until Buddhism was accepted and encouraged before thousands of Shilla monks flocked to Tang China to become educated by some of the greatest Buddhist scholars ever. The Shilla monks returned with much needed texts, statues, and other Buddhist articles. It is quite likely that at some point they started to bring back tea, something so entwined with Chinese Tang era Buddhism that it must have made it back to Korea.

The first recorded case of someone bring tea back is recorded occurred in 828 A.D. after the unification of the peninsula by the Shilla. An envoy was sent to Tang China by the King of Shilla. He sent a man, some records say he was a prominent monk, named Kim Daeryoem. Kim Daeryoem, probably realizing the importance of tea in China, devised a plot to smuggle the sacred seeds of Camellia sinensis back to his Shilla King. This was at great risk to not only himself but also the Shilla Kingdom he represented because at that time it was illegal to export tea seeds. So, after secretly acquiring the tea seeds, he unsuspectingly sewed them into the seam of his robes.

When he made it back to Korea safely, he presented his king with the seeds. The King, pleased with this gift, ordered that they be planted in an auspicious place that will encourage the best growth. After carefully searching, Kim Daeryoem decided that the seeds should be planted in a field in front of Ssanggyesa Temple, a Southern mountainside that was frequented by fog and warm, pleasant weather. A place were tea continues to grow to this day.

One is taken a back by the mystery and legend surrounding the origin of tea in Korea. As long as tea is still served in Korea, it is something that will always be lively debated. There is no debate however that wild tea bushes scatter the eerily serene mountain tops of Korea's southern mountains We debate how it got there but there is no denying that it's there.


Monday, June 9, 2008

Four Origin Stories of Tea in Korea: How'd It Get There?!? PART 3: It Came With Dharma From China

For Part 1 link here, Part 2 link here. Part 3 is as follows...

There is a famous and often told Chinese legend of the origin of tea. As it goes, the second emperor of China, Shennong, who ruled over China around 5000 years ago, was the first person to discover tea. Shennong was said to be a popular and effective ruler, a brilliant scientist, and a renowned doctor. He was very a inquisitive person and was keen on testing medicines and ways to bring about a more healthy existence to the pupils under his rule. One of his most famous discoveries was that by boiling the often unclean waters that waded through China's mainland, one could remove many harmful impurities from it. He therefore sent a decree throughout his kingdom that all water must be boiled before consumption.

One summer day in the year 2737 B.C., on a convoy through the distant lands of his kingdom, Shennong and his court stopped to rest. In accordance with his law, his servants prepared a fire to boil the water. The flame from the fire scorched a near by bush and, little did they know, that a single roasted, dried tea leaf had fell from the bush and into the Emperor's cup. Infused with the boiling water, the liquor took on a brownish tone. The emperor, curious about the mysterious liquid, couldn't help but taste it. He reveled in his lucky discovery, declaring the drink to be especially refreshing.

Another Chinese legend that seemed to originate during the Tang dynasty tells a different story as to the origin to tea. It attributes the discovery of tea to the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma. Some Japanese claim that he brought tea with him as he traveled from his homeland of India in 519 A.D. A more popular legend says that Bodhidharma was meditating facing a wall in a cave for 9 uninterrupted years. When he was 7 years into his mediation he apparently drifted off into sleep. He was so angry that when he awoke he tore his eyelids right off and hucked them at the ground. Just as his eyelids hit the floor they sprung up as the first two tea plants. It was from this point on that tea would be used to combat drowsiness that is often caused by long periods of mediation.

Some accounts, even substitute Bodhidharma with Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical founder of Buddhism. Others claim that tea was discovered when tea leaves fell into the hot water of Shakyamuni's cup, a story that seems too similar to the Shennong legend. These Buddhists creation myths about tea reveal the close relationship that tea has had with the practice of Buddhism. Moreover, it mirrors the spread of Buddhism, like the apparent spread of the Camellia sinensis from India to China.

Much more credible but consequently much less fantastic, is the belief that tea traveled from China to Korea via the spread of Buddhism during the forth or fifth centuries. This was during a time of the Three Kingdoms in Korea. The Goguryeo Kingdom, the northernmost of the three was likely first exposed to Buddhism and tea (but that area that it occupied was still to cold to grow tea). A Chinese monk by the name of Sundo brought Chinese Buddhist texts and statues with him to the royal court of Goguryeo in 372 A.D. The royalty there immediately accepted this rudimentary form of Buddhism sensing a certain similarity to the animistic shamanism that was common before the introduction of Buddhism. The Bekjae Kingdom that occupied Korea's Southwest also received Buddhism in a similar manner by a Serindian monk, Marananta in 384. Although, it is recorded that these missionaries carried texts and idols, they mention nothing about tea. It is widely accepted that Buddhism was being practiced in Korea years before these monks came and that simple forms of the religion most likely trickled into Korea before the official Chinese court envoys arrived. It too is rumored that tea also snuck quietly into the back doors of Korea in this manner.

Some Koreans posit that Heo Hwang-ok, the Indian princess and first queen of Gaya Confederacy may have brought more than just gold, silver, and a tea plant on her ship to Korea (see Part 2 for the deets on her story). These Koreans claim that she may have been the first to introduce Buddhism to Korea. Their evidence lies in an unusually uncharacteristic pagoda nearby what is believed to be Heo Hwang-ok's tomb. A historic Korean record, the Samguk Yusa, claims that Heo Hwang-ok erected this pagoda on her ship to calm the god of the ocean and allow for safe passage. Historians claim that since there is no records of Buddhism in Korea for hundreds of years later, and that this story simply seems unlikely. However the chance that tea spread with the spread of Buddhism is an almost certainty.


Sunday, June 8, 2008

2007 Yame Sencha

It's dark. With the sun completely set on this ridiculously humid day, the deep rumbling cackle of thunder in the distance signals time for tea.

A green tea will do quite well to match the sudden coolness felt in the air. A coolness that is more than welcome as the clothes that cling to ones body bag for relief.

This tea, a sencha from Yame (link here for the deets on Yame), was a gift from a friend who recently traveled to Fukuoka, Japan. One has tangled with this tea before, but now the time seems right to embrace it once more.

When opening the sealed container this tea's spirit fills the room as the dense humidity traps the smell of this tea's light shredded thine leaves. It's odor is a pleasant smell of citrus-sweet green tea, enveloped in the typical vegial/grassy scent found in most of this variety. The fragrant flower arrangement on the table and the smell of an inevitable storm only add to the goings on in ones nose, in ones mind.

The early infusions bring sweet smooth floral peachiness and light pear undertones that play lightly under grainy, grassy sweetness. Capturing this timid flavour is a trick in and of itself as previous sessions revealed in my handwritten notes describe a liver, metallic taste in place of the subtle fruitiness experienced in this instant. An instant that accompanies the rain as it buckles down in heavy sheets, lightening lighting up the room.

The fruity highlights of this tea seems to come and go as fast as the flashes of light outside. They only come out of hiding in the first two sessions before materializing into notes on my paper. The profile of the needle-thin leaves of this sencha weren't meant for a long session.

As the rain goes as quickly as it had came, one sips a sweet, grassy, grainy, bright green liquid. Its slippery mouthfeel leaves a sweetness at the back of the throat and a smile on ones face. As the resulting stillness of a departed storm takes hold, one gives thanks for this moment with tea.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Four Origin Stories of Tea in Korea: How'd It Get There?!? PART 2: An Offering of Love and Tea From Afar

This is part 2 of a 4 part series on how tea got to Korea. Part 1 was posted about a month ago see this link to catch up on this controversial debate on tea in Korea. The following is perhaps the most accepted version of how tea first came to Korea.

Like the legend told in Part 1, this legend also revolves around the birth of a kingdom, the Gaya Confederacy, that once occupied a small area of land around the Southern most tip of Korea. This area that was once ruled by the Gaya Confederacy is now fertile ground for the tea plant. I wonder if it had grown wild among the peaceful southern mountains as it does today when the Gaya Confederacy was first formed or did the Gaya bring it to those mountains?

In 42 A.D. in a rare moment of divine influence, six eggs descended from heaven housed in a golden box. The box contained a message that those born of these eggs would be kings. The prophetic message was realized and from the eggs hatched six boys. These boys matured into men in twelve days and each went to neighboring lands to rule over their Gaya Kingdoms.

The ruler of the Geumgwan Gaya Kingdom, King Suro, was the head of the Gaya Confederacy which was composed of five other smaller kingdoms. Although he wielded the most power, he still could not find a fit Queen. He prayed to the god of the mountains that he would find such a worthy woman. In the far off Kingdom of Ayodhya (in current day India) his prayers were herd.

King Suro appeared in a vivid dream to Heo Hwang-ok, a young beautiful woman in the far off land of Ayodhya. She was so moved by it that she told her parents. Her parents agreed to let her find the man in her dream. Some records claim that she might have first traveled to Southeren China, where the Camella sinensis grows abundantly. She was forced to leave China under the growing suspicion foreigners were receiving from the local Chinese. So she continued her journey eastward to the Gaya Kingdom. She arrived by boat barring worldly treasures. She presented King Suro with gold, silver, and a single tea plant. She then ascended the mountains, prayed and submitted to the god of the mountains by removing her trousers and giving thanks. Immediately after, in the year 48 A.D., she quite literally, married the man of her dreams, King Suro.

These first two legends are not first and foremost legends of tea, but are legends of how the nation of Korea was formed. Tea is so ingrained into the psyche of Koreans- it came when the nation was formed and continues to thrive just as the nation does. Tea culture has a kind of patriotism in Korea. Tea 'culture' refers to both the sub culture of tea and its solid historical significance, in this way culture and tea cannot truly be separated. It's earliest historical evidence is documented in the year 661 A.D. where it describes the offering of tea to the ancestral spirit of no other than King Suro. The fact that tea has royal origins assists to its influence as a popular beverage, a symbol of national pride, a symbol of power, and a reminder of it's historical place in Korean culture.


Sunday, June 1, 2008

2008 Nok Ya Won Ujeon Handong Green Tea

Mr. Kim from Nok Ya Won gave one an invitation to the serene Jiri Mountains that surround the quaint city of Handong. In these mountains one picked, heat treated, rolled, and dried the wild tea that cover the scenic mountains. This tea is close to ones heart because it came from one. It is the labour of love.

So the tasting of this tea was shared with family not seen in a long time, outdoors amongst the new green spring growth of a Canadian garden. The following notes come from these sessions.
The newly opened foil packing reveals a wonderful odour that overpowers the ambient fragrance of newly potted perennials and freshly spread potting soil. The scent is rich, sweet, full, with evergreen and grape primed in ones mind. The complex odour of tea makes way for the dry leaves which are carefully coxed out of the foil pack with a polished stainless steel J.A. Hanckles tea spoon. The leaves reveal a deep black-green with light green highlights and a soft white coating- a nice looking dry leaf. These leaves tumble from the spoon into the shallows of the teapot.

The water that was left cooling in the cooling bowl is now slowly and mindfully poured onto the leaves. The sound of water echoing from the tea pot as water carefully fills the pot alerts ones mind to the reaction taking place when making tea, the reaction between tea, humanity, and water. The lukewarm water is left on the leaves for a short time before all of the newly concocted liquor is poured just as mindfully back into the cooling bowl before immediately being courteously poured into awaiting cups.

As cups touch patient lips, tea pours forth, the true nature of tea unfurrows in the mouth, down the throat, and throughout ones body and soul. This tea initially displays a light, sweet, roasted nut taste with undertones of wood, this is a very nutty tea a peanut buttery tea. The first infusion is soft, gentle and watery on the tongue. As the tea fills the mouth it triggers some sweet taste receptors. Then as it makes its way down the throat and into the stomach a slight silky astringency covers ones mouth.

We drink casually and enjoy the morning calm, the puffy cotton ball clouds, and the bright blue sky above. Later infusions allow for stronger elements of the tea to emerge, the mouthfeel is the most pronounced as the silky astringency in the first infusions turn into a fond dry tightness felt on the upper sides of the tongue. Tones of grape and sharp creamery butter are faintly identified in the brew that is overpoweringly nutty. The rough natural character of this wild tea can be felt in the later infusions. Perhaps in this way it mirrors and captures the hard work that went into producing this tea.

With a nutty aftertaste on our breath, we go through pot after pot of this tea enjoying the company of each other and of the robins that sing joyfully chirping and dancing about on the grass, and the pair of doves that coo while nesting in the evergreen in the corner of the yard. This tea holds its own through many infusions. And so we drink into mid morning, discussing the stamina and delicious profile of this tea. Someone mentions that the subtle elements of grape and butter are lost in the last infusions to the sweet nutty taste that characterizes this tea. Someone also mentions that this tea is quite different than last years tea of the same maker (see post), much better.

As everyone slowly begins to leave, one contently cleans the cups with the hot water of the kettle and puts the Kim Jeong Pill buncheong tea set back on the serving tray. One reflects on the calming and alerting chaqi- the perfect green for meditation or just enjoying the stillness of morning just as we did. The energy that went into producing and preparing this tea shows in its final product, smiles on all those who shared in this tea.