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Vol. 2: Tea Master Souheki Mori, Setsugekka

"The host's feeling when preparing the tea comes through to the guests through the chawan without any word."


Matcha is now enjoyed in every café in New York, but its origin lies in 

chanoyu (chado or sado). Translated as “the way of tea,” chanoyu is the well-established art of serving tea. We visited Tea Master Souheki Mori at her matcha specialty café and tearoom, Setsugekka (a word consisting of the characters for snow, moon, and flowers) to ask about the significance of utsuwa and of chawan (tea bowls) in particular.




Would you tell us how significant chawan are in chanoyu culture?

Chawan are situated at the center of chanoyu, I believe––there are four significant aspect of chawan, but this is the very first one. Chawan also connect the host with the guests. And a chawan allows you to imagine your own universe in it—this means that a chawan is much more than just a tea bowl. And finally, the chawan you are drinking matcha from is the only one of its kind in the world.


Would you elaborate on the four elements of chawan a little more?

Certainly. Chanoyu requires many utensils, such as a kama (iron pot) and jiku (screen), but a chawan is the only object guests can touch and hold to their mouths. Nothing else can actually be touched by them. This is why I think the chawan is the central character in chanoyu. 

When the tea is made by the host and handed to guests, they hold the chawan in their hands and drink. At this moment, the host’s feeling when preparing the tea comes through to the guests through the chawan without any word. 


This has been said and written many times, but people often see the universe in a chawan when drinking matcha in a tea ceremony. Especially in a tiny, dimly lit chashitsu (tea room), you cannot even recognize the shape of a chawan—it's like it just melts into the space and you find yourself in small universe. This is why samurai valued the way of tea, and the culture has been handed down.

Universe in your palms!

Yes. And you can drink it! You can, of course, appreciate sushi and exquisite dashi broth, but seeing another world while drinking is a different level of joy. Matcha is simply a drink made from water and matcha powder [ground green tea leaves] whisked together, but it evokes profound thoughts and even transports you to another space. It is truly a rare art form, I think.


Also, I want to emphasize that no two chawan are the same, even if made by the same artist. There are many conditions that affect the final product—the position in the kiln, season, temperature, humidity, the quantity of ashes, whether it’s a gas- or wood-fired kiln. If you miss the chance to come across a certain chawan, you might not have another opportunity. This is why chawan are very important in chanoyu.


How do you convey the charm of chawan at Setsugekka?

We not only use chawan in tea ceremonies but also serve matcha in them at the counter. We let customers choose their favorite chawan from our collection. And I ask them why they chose the specific chawan, which helps me understand what they value. Some talk about the ocean, some like the shape of the chawan, and others just pick whichever one is closest. Everyone has a different reason. But usually they are surprised that I ask, and then they wonder, “Why did I choose this?”


There is no right answer.

Yes. Some find their favorite ones quickly, while others take a really, really long time and look at everything until they choose one. I think it reflects their lifestyles. So I find it very interesting to observe them choosing a chawan. The time I spend with our customers might be short, but I can remember them and those conversations about chawan. And the customers also remember that moment. It’s strange that we just serve tea but can establish a deeper relationship. I credit chawan for that amazing effect and appreciate that. 


How do you respond to their answers?

I share the story of each chawan—who created it, where it was made, what kind of kiln the potter uses, and so on. This new information makes customers’ attachment to the chawan stronger, and the chawan even becomes something special for them. There are many customers who buy the chawan they selected after drinking matcha from it. 


Do you regularly display chawan as well?

We display about ten chawan bowls regularly and change the display twice a month. Also, we occasionally hold exhibitions, and some people come here not to drink matcha but simply to appreciate and buy chawan. Again, I try to talk with the customers as much as possible, and I tell the potter who created the chawan about the conversation. Potters and customers rarely meet and talk, so I really want to be a bridge between them.


What types of chawan do you like?

That is a very tough question to answer. It depends on the themes of tea ceremonies, the season, the chawan’s character, et cetera. I like to choose something that expresses my feeling on that day. This hira-jawan (flat tea bowl) is only used during the summer in chanoyu. It has a shape that opens up to the top like a morning glory. This type of chawan can only be used in July and August conventionally. So hira-jawan naturally come to mind in summer. When I tell this hira-jawan story to my customers, they often choose it.


Seasonality is important.

Yes. But again, it's the beauty of individuality. There is not a single chawan that is completely like another.   


Are there customers who just want to see and buy chawan but not taste matcha?

Sure. Just yesterday, we had a customer who wanted to buy chawan for enjoying matcha at home.


What is the price range of the chawan you carry?

It depends on the potters. This particular chawan costs $1,200, for example. It is crafted by a potter named Akihiro Nikaido, and he also offers very affordable chawan, around $100. He thinks higher prices may discourage people from using their chawan. But he wants you to use his chawan every day, not just be satisfied with owning it. You can use chawan for serving fruit and drinking cafe au lait. He specifically instructed me not to raise the price of his affordable chawan.


Setsugekka

74 E. 7th St., New York, NY 10003

Upcoming Exhibitions

November 8-18

Ceramic & Kintsugi Exhibition by Tomomi Kamoshita


December (Dates: TBA)

Cha-ire and Shifuku - Tea Container and Silk Pouch” - Exhibition by Sawami Aoki

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