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Less is more

My neighbor is moving and invited me over to look through boxes of free stuff. That morning, I had just been up in my attic which I access by crawling up a rickety, steep staircase inside a closet. It’s easier to get stuff up there than it is to get it down. There are boxes and boxes of receipts and invoices from over ten years ago, there are window fans, old useless canvas suitcases that don’t have spinning wheels, obsolete computer monitors – even an old Apple Mac, one of the originals.

So, when my neighbor called me over by saying, “You probably don’t need anything,” he was right but I dutifully looked through some books and a large box filled with women’s shoes, size 7. I was intrigued by a pair of silver, high-heeled sandals but I’ve never worn high heels and they were too small anyway.

There was nothing there for me and I didn’t want to tell my partner Ken about it because he collects books. He has a storage unit devoted to books he can’t fit on our bookshelves. But I should talk.  How many kitchen whisks or colanders do I really need? How many saute pans do I use, even though each one has its own particular characteristic? What about all the empty jars waiting for just that right time to fill them with leftovers? How many do I need?

I haven’t read any books by Marie Kondo who launched a huge movement of cleanup. She’s made millions by encouraging readers to fold t-shirts and socks in a certain way to give order to chaos. I am in awe of people who carefully match up their socks and fold them in a ball. My sock drawer is out of control. How many socks do I really need and why do I lose one sock in a pair all the time?


I’m constantly trying to weed away stuff I don’t need but I’m living with a man who loves to have extras of everything. He buys three or four pounds of butter at a time just to make sure we don’t run out. The freezer is overflowing with butter. When he buys a pair of sneakers, he buys two pairs just in case that model gets discontinued. I notice he’s buying duos of books, “Why?” I ask. “For a friend,” he says.

My mother was a pack rat. Strangely for an artist, she never seemed to have any pencils or pens around. I bought her six-packs from the Office Depot but when I visited a couple of days later, they would all be gone. Where to? It was only after she died that I found fifty pencils and pens stashed neatly away at the back of a bottom drawer – never used. She had an old barn in the back and when we cleared it out we found three Weber grills. I think it was easier for her to buy a new one than sort through all the stuff in the barn to find the old ones.

I think back to my days at the Zen monastery. For a week-long retreat we each had a tea cup to use twice a day. The teacup sat upside down on a small white paper napkin. Every time we tipped the cup over to rest on the paper it left a small round stain from the coffee or tea. We didn’t get a new paper every day. Instead, we used the old one and folded it inside and out until it was replaced after four days.


Yesterday I was in a store that specializes in Japanese things: little tiny plates in green glaze called Mei Mei Zara, square cloths for wrapping objects with a pattern of plum blossoms, flower vases, some lacquer objects that were old and chipped, and tea bowls.

One in particular caught my eye. It was a Korean-style bowl with a lovely feel. I could have bought it in a second. It was very wabi with an understated beauty and lack of artifice as though created for eating rice and then found by some tea master and loved for its quiet purity.

But I don’t need any tea bowls. I have a number of them that have been given to me over the years which I store away in their wooden boxes and bring out for special occasions. There’s a blue Mino glazed tea bowl with a white enso circle on the front which was given the name “Toy with Flowers.” I have another bowl I found when I was in Japan at the Toji market. It’s a Hagi bowl with a creamy, faint pink glaze and it reminds me of that wonderful trip.

While the Korean bowl in the Connecticut shop was fantastic, it was also very expensive – and I didn’t need it. What is enough? Until I make tea for friends at least once a week I won’t collect any more utensils. The few bowls I have are perfect.

One of the great aspects of a tea gathering is that it’s a one-time event. It will never be repeated. The guests will not be the same, the seasons and therefore the objects in the room including the scroll which sets the theme, will never be the same. At the end of the gathering, everything is put away in their boxes and stored until the next time. The tea room is empty, waiting to be filled not with more stuff but with particular favored objects that are filled with meaning and beauty.

Perhaps this is the quality of beauty that we’re looking for. A beauty in our lives that is sufficient as it is.

Ranjatai Incense

I searched all over Kyoto to find the same incense that had been given to me years before on my birthday. The delicate fragrance had scents of sandlewood, spices of cinnamon and clove, and camphor.

In the practice of tea, incense is prized and at some tea gatherings the host will bring out various incense for the guests to appreciate. It’s called “Listening to incense.”

The most highly prized and rare incense is called Jin-koh, also called Agarwood, that comes from Southeast Asia. It’s literally worth it’s weight in gold. Agarwood forms when Aquilaria trees become infected with mold and the tree develops a resin to protect itself. This resin forms in the heartwood of the tree and is what is prized as Agarwood or Aloeswood.

The largest piece of Jin-koh in Japan was given to Emperor Shomu (AD 724-748) as a tribute from China. It has been kept in the Imperial treasure repository since that time. It is named Ranjatai and is the most famous chunk of wood on the planet. It weighs 11.6 kilograms and is 1.56 meters long.

For the past millennium, only a few small pieces have been cut from the Ranjatai.

In 1465, one small piece was ordered by Emperor Gotsuchimikado as a gift to Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. In 1574, a small piece was given from Emperor Oogimachi to general Oda Nobunaga for his efforts in unifying Japan, In 1602, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was powerful and influential enough, obtained a piece, and in 1877, Emperor Meiji asked for a piece.  

That’s how coveted this piece of wood is. 

Nobunaga kept his small piece and then gave fragments of it to two guests who came for a tea gathering. This gift demonstrated his cultural superiority and power. The two guests received Ranjatai  fragments presented on open fans. The fans were decorated with cut gold foil. 

Every ten years Ranjatai is brought out of the treasury repository and exhibited. People line up for hours to view it – the most famous piece of incense in the world. 


Sweets for tea

I’m obsessed with Japanese sweets. Particularly obsessed with making pure white sweets, which I have not yet mastered. 

The main ingredient in all the sweets is a bean paste called An. It can be made with red azuki beans or with white lima beans, or any large white bean. When you add sugar to the bean paste, it turns an off-white. Perfect for coloring.

You can make all sorts of shapes with marvelous colors. I write about this more in detail in my cookbook The World in a Bowl of Tea which you can order online here.

But this is the sweet with it’s pure white that I cannot yet master. It involves making a glutinous mochi mixed with the An. So beautiful and illusive!


The aesthetics of beauty in the natural and immediate – Wabi and Sabi

Sixteenth century Japanese Tea masters were connoisseurs of Chinese objects. In their tea gatherings they used highly prized ceramics made with the most sophisticated techniques in all of history; the 11th century Sung Dynasty ceramics were perfect in form and color. The oxblood and apple green glazed bowls and vases were flawless.

Longquan kiln between 1127-1279 (the South song era)

Sen no Rikyu, a Tea master influenced by Zen Buddhism, was the first to define a new aesthetic called Wabi. It was characterized by the crude, rough pottery wares of Japan at the time.

Wabi is the beauty of the simple, of restraint, of imperfection. It’s the beauty found hidden beneath the surface of things.

A spare room with a single vase of flowers can be wabi. The winding path through a garden of moss and shade can be wabi. Tea served in a black hand carved ceramic bowl can be wabi.

Poignant seasonal moments can also be felt as wabi. The first geese flying south in the autumn. The new buds in spring peeping out from the snow.

Another Japanese aesthetic often combined with Wabi is the term Sabi. Many people say that something is very “wabi-sabi,” but the two words mean different things.

Sabi can be defined as antique elegance. It’s found in the patina from a silver spoon worn around the edges or a 13th century cosmetic case burnished with care and now used to hold incense. The visible effects of time is deeply appreciated and there’s an emotional reaction to a piece that has been handled, loved, and used.

Wabi and Sabi are words that are used too often. They are not catch phrases. Instead, they could almost be described as a hidden philosophy about unity and harmony.


Crimson colors

Sei Shonagon sometimes gets irritated with those who wear unsuitable things like “crimson skirted trousers” at the wrong time. And then at times she loves “a white coat worn over a violet waistcoat.”

Fabric has always been important in Japan. Today in Kyoto you can visit the shop of Kitamura Tokusai who will bring out sample after sample of old and ancient fabrics that are now used in the tea ceremony to hold a tea bowl in hand.  They are called Kobukusa and are much admired. Dazzling and splendid.

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