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.