Nicolle Bertozzi: Chanoyu Lessons

In addition to continuing my CIP at the Kubota Birendo sudare shop this semester, I began studying the tea ceremony. Thanks in large part to everything the Kubotas taught me about the tea ceremony last semester, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the ceremony myself. In addition to researching chanoyu as part of an Independent Study research project, taking lessons myself seemed like a natural next step. I was introduced to my tea teacher, Arai-sensei, through a colleague of my IS project advisor at the beginning of this semester, and have been taking weekly lessons ever since.

In the world of chanoyu, which is often seen as very rigid and uptight, Arai-sensei is known for being very relaxed. He makes room for casual conversation during his lessons and is always happy to answer questions from his students. As I have never taken tea lessons with anyone other than Arai-sensei, I cannot compare firsthand how his teaching style differs from those of, say, an Urasenke-certified teacher. I can say, however, that the environment of Arai-sensei’s tearoom is very calm. Generally, there are two stations set up for students to practice their temae, the choreographed motions one goes through when preparing a bowl of matcha for one’s guests. At the center of the tearoom, Arai-sensei sits seiza, keeping a watchful eye on the students’ temae. While acting as the shokyaku—or main guest—of the student’s ceremony, he guides the student through the temae, correcting errors and explaining each step along the way.

One of the first things that caught my attention about Arai-sensei was how carefully he pays attention to each of his students’ temae; even when there are two students practicing at the same time, Arai-sensei always keeps track of exactly when the shokyaku is supposed to bow during the course of each ceremony. Additionally, he can tell immediately when something in the temae is out of order, even when that something is as easy to overlook as a cloth folded along the wrong seam.

As opposed to the teaching style one often finds in America, in which students are divided into classes based on experience level, Arai-sensei’s chanoyu lessons are designed for students of all levels. At the same time that I would be struggling through the beginner’s temae, there might be a student practicing alongside me who had been taking lessons for years, for whom the motions of the temae felt natural. Watching these students during their practice is considered a great learning opportunity for beginner students, so I was often invited to observe their temae seated next to Arai-sensei. What surprised me, however, was that the opposite was true as well: Observing the temae of a less experienced student is considered to be just as valuable. It is a chance to revisit the basics, when each movement of the temae is still executed as a conscious effort. There is a term in Japanese—shoshin, or “beginner’s heart”—that is believed to be an important part of any student’s core practice. No matter how far one advances in their training, it is incredibly important to return occasionally to the beginning.

It wasn’t until I explained my tea lessons to the Kubotas that I came to understand how fundamental this philosophy of the shoshin is in the Japanese traditional arts. A student of tea himself, Shinji Kubota nodded along knowingly as I told him about the other students observing my practice. “It really is a great way to learn,” he said. “You notice so much about how the flow of the temae works when you are watching someone learning it for the first time.”

My study of the tea ceremony this semester has proven to be an incredibly valuable experience. It has provided me with many insights into the world of tea, which has of course been central to my research project. More so than that, however, learning tea has connected me to a new community within Kyoto, a city where the art of chanoyu continues to thrive.


4 thoughts on “Nicolle Bertozzi: Chanoyu Lessons

  1. Hello Nicolle, it’s really nice to read about your tea ceremony classes, and the cycle of giving and receiving encapsulated in the philosophy of the shoshin! Did you and Arai-sensei talk about how the tea ceremony might have changed over time, and the reasons for the presence or absence of change? I was also wondering if you were able to apply this philosophy of shoshin to your other CIP at the sudare shop.

    • Thank you, Regina!

      I definitely asked Arai-sensei all about the history of the tea ceremony. He was very gracious at taking the time to answer all of my rather blunt questions, and in fact has started asking me at the beginning of each lesson if I have any questions for him. Apparently, the establishment of the Sansenke Iemoto system has had a major impact on tea ceremony’s development (or lack thereof) over time, as they essentially codified and standardized the temae into a “proper” form that has been published in official textbooks, etc. There are positives and negatives to this of course, but there are plenty of people today doing tea outside of the standardized textbook chanoyu.

      I don’t know that I ever consciously brought the shoshin philosophy into my sudare CIP, but the Kubotas definitely mentioned to me many times how teaching me about sudare-making made them rethink a lot of the process. I would inadvertently ask questions that, as someone very much coming from an “outsider” perspective, seemed natural enough, and it would turn out that they had never thought about what I was asking before. So we all ended up learning together, which was an amazing part of the experience.

  2. I think it’s incredible that you were still able to continue with the Kubotas while studying chanoyu. I’m really glad this semester has expanded your knowledge and love for the tea ceremony – I’ve only studied it a bit through my workplace, and only through the eyes of a customer, rather than a student. It seems like you’ve experienced some really amazing things this semester!

    I think what I was most struck by in your post, however, was the philosophy of ‘shoshin’ and the concept of constantly improving your own work both by watching those more and less experienced than yourself. It’s funny, because when you mentioned you were taking chanoyu classes before I honestly thought you were either receiving private lessons or in a beginners class – the idea that you would be able to study and learn from more experienced chanoyu students never crossed my mind, but it really does fit with everything we learned last semester about traditional crafts and the community surrounding them. I guess my questions are more out of personal curiosity, as I participated in a tea ceremony club once and was utterly miserable at it, but how hard was it to study chanoyu? Were you able to understand what your professor asked of you, or were there times where it was hard to follow the instructions being given to the class? How much instruction was there? I know I’ve heard from some other people who have taken traditional classes on different arts in Japan that there tends to be less verbal instruction and more copying of what your sensei and those around you are doing. Was that the case for you, or did you have a little more direction from the teacher?

    Best of luck on finishing your independent study. I’m sure with the rich experiences you’ve gained this semester you’ll have a lot to write about in your final paper.

    • I was definitely happy to continue working with the Kubotas alongside this new CIP. In fact, they have probably been my biggest resource in finding out about chanoyu events happening throughout Kyoto!

      As far as the class structure went, there was almost no imitating my sensei. He generally gave verbal instructions, and would only demonstrate the motions when the way of describing them required using words that were very specific to the world of chanoyu. For the most part, the instruction was very one-on-one, which definitely made it easier to connect with what it was I was learning. Arai-sensei also didn’t dictate every single step of the temae, which made the practice feel more natural and less robotic. The woman who introduced me to Arai-sensei told me that this was somewhat of his specialty. Apparently most tea teachers will correct you on your every move, which can interrupt any sense of natural flow you have moving through the temae.