What is Urasenke?

What is a tea master?

In Japan, some establishments offer tea ceremonies conducted by a tea master; people are amazed at how precisely executed each ceremony is. It turns out that it takes a lot of studies to become an effective tea master.

Randy Channell Soei, a Canadian tea master, shares what it takes to become one and defines what Urasenke is and what they do.

Nick: Sensei, you live in Kyoto where you teach the tradition of Urasenke. So let's start with that, you are a chajin, a “tea master." So what does that involve as a profession and what is Urasenke?

Randy: Let's start with your last part, what is Urasenke. I'm sure many of your viewers are familiar with traditional Japanese culture and arts, from the martial arts to different kinds of like musical plays or even dance things.

And each of these traditions will have separate schools or traditions if you want to call them, and so Urasenke is one of the schools that is responsible for carrying on the way of tea.

Urasenke tradition is by far the largest school of tea in Japan, also largest internationally as the previous Grand Tea Master, Dr. Sen Genshitsu has been travelling all over the world for the past 16 years promoting the way of tea and his motto: "From peacefulness through a bowl of tea." 

The blood lineage of the Senke families, there are three families we call the san-Senke, and the blood lineage stems from Sen no Rikyu. So the traditions, of course, stem from the same person, so our ideals and philosophies are very much similar.

It's just kind of what I do with the left hand, you do with the right hand kind of differences, but generally speaking, we cover the same principles of Wa Kei Sei Jakyu, which in English translates to harmony, respect, purity and, tranquility.

So we kind of follow these guidelines as we serve tea to various people that we serve it to. 

Nick: So the other part was, as a tea master as a profession. What does that involve?

Randy: I'll be honest, there are very few professional tea teachers. A lot of people will have the license to do it and do it as a hobby, but people that actually make their living from it are very few.

So what that entails is, of course, a lot of study to be able to get to the degree that you need to achieve to be able to teach somebody.

In my particular case, I came to Japan a very long time ago, and I started just with martial arts, but I came to Kyoto in 1993 to enter a technical college here that teaches the way of tea.

The technical college is of course related to Urasenke, the tradition I follow, so I went to that school for three years course, and then I graduated in 96 and started teaching from that time. 

Of course, there are different ways that you can teach it but as you mentioned in the introduction, I do teach all facets and all of it.

So aside from just the knowledge, just the actual practicality of it, the logistics of it is kind of daunting, you need to acquire a large collection of utensils to be able to show different facets of the way of tea, seasonal, things change and stuff like that.

So it's a never ending process to be perfectly honest, or a cluttering process, if you would. I have a lot of things that I probably shouldn't have.

Nick: But that seems to be the way of many Japanese fine arts, there never seems to be an end to it.

Randy: No, I mean, that's actually a good thing, to be perfectly honest. We say in Japanese, chi ganai: there's no end or Michi ga nagai, Oguka fukai: The road is long, the back is deep -- things like this.

And definitely, a lot of the traditional arts have that kind of unspoken philosophy to it, because it's something that you can do forever, basically, until you pass something you should continue striving to achieve the skill in.