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Tea Master Has One Foot in Tradition, One in Tomorrow

Monday, 23 March 2009

Photos courtesy of Japan Society (C) Satoru Ishikawa

Before his recent lecture on Modern Teaism at the in New York City, famed tea master Sen So’Oku took the time to discuss (the “way of tea”) with, contributing editor of World Tea News. As son of the current grand tea master, Sen will be the next grand tea master of the school of tea (one of the three main schools of chanoyu). He is also an avowed Buddhist monk and noted connoisseur of East Asian ceramics. He is currently visiting the United States as a Cultural Emissary for the Japanese Agency of Cultural Affairs, and he will be at the this May.
Yuriko Kuchiki translated the following conversation between Sen and Goodwin:

WTN: How long have you studied tea?
: Ever since I was born. I am 33.

WTN: I understand you are known as a rock star of tea, in part because you are young. What do you think about that?
: No comment! I’m considered a next generation representative of tea culture.

WTN: Has your teaching changed the way chanoyu is perceived in Japan?
: Chanoyu changes according to lifestyle. The older generation has its own lifestyle, which is more traditional, but the younger generation has a busy, contemporary life. They have to have their own ideas about tea. For example, the younger generation has a tea community on the Internet. They exchange the secrets of styles of different schools in chat rooms. That’s very new. But tea is communication where you meet and exchange ideas, so it makes sense. That’s also a contemporary way of my generation.

WTN: Have the reasons for studying tea changed?
: Several generations ago, people learned the way of tea to learn etiquette and how to behave, but today people are interested in learning in order to acquire knowledge about tea and art, in order to enjoy.


WTN: Is there a renaissance of tea culture in Japan?
: There is a lot of interest in tea. Magazines for young people that have nothing to do with traditional art and tea are doing stories about tea ceremonies. You could call it trendy or a mini-boom, but there are many people in creative businesses, like art directors, art curators or artists, who want to get involved in tea.

WTN: Is chanoyu more expressive than it was?

: There was a time when the tea ceremony was very rigid and people’s impression of it was very formal, so young people especially didn’t like it and stayed away from it. That attitude is changing. Now, you can be creative with tea. In order to make a new style or be expressive, you have to have the basic form. I think there will be two directions of tea in the future. One direction is, you keep and protect the tradition of tea. The other is to enjoy the tea in a contemporary setting, to make a special moment in ordinary life.

WTN: Do you feel that some of the core goals of Modern Teaism – such as communion, spiritual connection, artistic impulse, lifestyle and experiential aspects – can be incorporated into new tea traditions in the U.S.?

: If the merchants are interested in the other aspect of tea (not just as a beverage – in chanoyu, tea is an instrument for communication and deepening inner-self), they can incorporate them. But Modern Teaism doesn’t really mean to create a new tea culture. It is an effort to restore the distance between tea and life. Tea used to be right next to our life. But our life style has changed so much, and chanoyu hasn’t changed. It is awkward that we only know chanoyu as something we do on tatami wearing kimono. So chanoyu has to be changed, but I’m not denying the tradition.

WTN: Is there anything you’d like to share with the readers of World Tea News?
: I want tea business owners to understand that tea is not only a beverage.  There’s a whole culture behind it. In chanoyu, we try to make a good bowl of tea, but good means not only delicious in terms of flavor. Good includes the human relations between guest and host, the utensils, etc.


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