BOUND TO PLEASE / Former martial artist replaces samurai sword with tea scoop

The Japan News

By Hiroko Ihara / Japan News Staff WriterFor some, it is a graceful feast for the senses. Others find it complicated, too ceremonial and difficult to approach. Enthusiasts insist it is an art, while older generations remember it as part of the training for homemaking.

Conflicting views surround the tea ceremony, a traditional Japanese art with a 400-year history. It is also called chanoyu, or the way of tea.

Chanoyu is not merely about a bowl of tea and sweets. It is “the epitome of Japanese culture” with “Japanese omotenashi hospitality [having] its birth in it,” states Randy Channell Soei, author of “The Book of Chanoyu: Tea ... The Master Key to Japanese Culture.”

This five-chapter book, written in English and Japanese and full of magnificent color photos, is a marvelous guide for newcomers. It is also indispensable for Japanese who want to teach chanoyu in English.

Channell, a Canadian, first came to Japan in 1985 to learn martial arts. Soon, he began to seek a way to create a personal union of cultural and martial arts. He discovered the way of tea has many similarities to martial arts. So, holding a tea scoop instead of a samurai sword, he moved to Kyoto for a three-year intensive course at the Urasenke headquarters for chanoyu, completing it in 1996. He now teaches while still walking “the path that has no end.”

This book makes it feel as if you are attending a lesson-cum-tea-gathering hosted by the author. Here are some of my takeaways from the encounter:

1. It depends on luck, but meeting a good teacher is very important. (He did.)

2. A vast amount of chanoyu vocabulary, including key words of Japanese culture, is explained.

3. Many utensils and sweets in chanoyu have poetic names based on old poems or Zen thought.

4. “Chanoyu is a living museum of traditional arts and crafts,” Channell writes. It connects us “to many facets of Japanese culture, sometimes with seemingly unrelated matters such as architecture, flower arrangement, landscaping and the kimono.”

5. “Sen [no] Rikyu is the founding father of chanoyu.” He committed suicide as ordered by his master Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a powerful warlord. The reason is one of the mysteries in history. A recently released movie depicts the master as hating Rikyu’s taste for black color. Despite his intention, black tea bowls are fundamental to serving thick tea today.

6. A highlight of chanoyu is “chaji,” a formal gathering for a small group that includes a beautiful kaiseki meal. “Kaiseki has greatly influenced washoku [Japanese cuisine] in such elements as using seasonal plates and adorning rooms with the season’s flowers and scrolls.”

7. “In the sixteenth century, some chaire [tea containers] were known to have been valued as much as a castle!” Some of them are star items in museums today.

Recently, a small ceramic bowl made headlines. Its authenticity was questioned after the bowl, treasured by an old family, was valued at ¥25 million on a popular TV program on the grounds it is the same type as ancient tea bowls designated as national treasures. Tea utensils handed down from generation to generation are deeply valuable and difficult to acquire.

But that is another story. Instead, I would like to direct your attention to a photo at the end of the book that shows Channell silently bowing to his guests as they depart, thus completing his lesson in serene hospitality.

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