Learning tea at San Francisco State University

PORTABLE TEA ROOM — Abe Kogyo, a former prefabricated building manufacturer that now specializes in doors, donated the tea room to San Francisco State University in 1991. It has been located in the Humanities Building, Room 117, since 1993, and is used by classes in the Japanese Program. photo by Noriko Shiota Slusser

PORTABLE TEA ROOM — Abe Kogyo, a former prefabricated building manufacturer that now specializes in doors, donated the tea room to San Francisco State University in 1991. It has been located in the Humanities Building, Room 117, since 1993, and is used by classes in the Japanese Program. photo by Noriko Shiota Slusser

San Francisco State University offers two unique classes to undergraduate and graduate students of its Japanese Program. The university is officially registered to teach its students the Omotesenke School of Tea, and has been doing so since 2009.

Midori McKeon, professor of Japanese and an Omotesenke lecturer, teaches semester-long classes on Japanese tea ceremony, or chanoyu (literally “hot water for tea”). McKeon said she offers her class every three-and-a-half years to undergraduate students, and also offers a graduate-level class every two-and-a-half years, depending on enrollment.

“Tea culture courses are very popular,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly in an e-mail interview. “Many junior and senior students take the undergraduate tea culture course, regardless of their original cultural background. Some undergraduate students even enrolled in the graduate tea course with my permission because of their strong interest and advanced Japanese language proficiency.”

McKeon said she is considering adding a new class to be taught in English.

The classes teach the basic skills and procedures to serve and enjoy tea during a Japanese tea ceremony, as well as the underlying history of chanoyu. Starting with the tea culture in China, McKeon said she teaches the historical and cultural background of the Japanese tea ceremony in her class.

She added that the graduate-level classes also have additional readings on texts written by tea masters, such as “The Book of Tea” by Kakuzo Okakura. At the end of the semester, the students celebrate with their own chakai (tea party).

The tea classes were made possible because of a portable tea room that was donated to the university. According to Abe Kogyo, a former prefabricated building manufacturer that now specializes in doors, the company donated the tea room to the university in 1991. The company, citing a 1995 statement, said in Japanese that they presented the tea room to the university in an effort to export Japanese culture at a time when sushi bars and Japanese wooden products were beginning to gain popularity.

McKeon, however, said the room was not adequate for regular classes. “The tea room’s format — a small three-mat room with a middle pillar — may have made it difficult to sell since such a tea room would only allow specific usage and specific utensils,” she wrote.

After its donation, the room sat largely unused.

“The tea room was used only three times: twice for the celebration of its donation/re-assembling in the first half of 1990s and the 1996 tea ceremony that I organized in memory of the late Professor Toshiko Kishima, who was the Japanese program coordinator for three decades, including the time of the tea room donation,” she said. “Seeing the beautiful tea room sitting idle, I decided to become its caretaker and use it for Japanese culture studies.”

The tea room has been located in the Humanities Building, Room 117, since 1993, and is used by classes in the Japanese Program.

In 2000, McKeon began studying the Omotesenke School of Tea. Eventually, she attained the rank of lecturer and the tea name, “Souzui.” Being the only Japanese tea ceremony teacher with the doctorate necessary to teach the class at the university, McKeon is the tea classes’ only teacher.

The students, however, differ greatly from normal tea practitioners. For one, McKeon’s students are taking the classes for school units and to gain academic knowledge in a relatively short period of time, whereas private tea classes can continue throughout one’s entire life, McKeon said.

Even if students do not continue studying chanoyu after taking her classes, McKeon thinks it’s important to keep “sowing the seeds” for future generations to appreciate Japanese tea ceremony. “Most students will graduate after finishing the course and will not continue,” she said. “I hope they will take up tea lessons sometime in the future and somewhere in the world, if not with me. One thing I am certain is that they can go to a chakai without fear and enjoy a bowl of usucha (thin matcha tea) with perfect manners. That’s more than an average Japanese person nowadays can do!”

Arisa Hiroi, who took the graduate level class in 2013, said it was an opportunity to practice tea ceremony in a Japanese tea room, an opportunity she did not expect to have in America. She said the class embodies a lot about Japanese culture, which emphasized how a host gives guests a superior experience.

“I thought it was a lot more detail-oriented than what was best for me, but I thought it was a very good reflection of Japanese culture,” Hiroi said. “It was a good way to experience it with a hands-on activity instead of just doing readings.”

McKeon is the founding chair and organizer or the San Francisco International Conference on Chanoyu and Tea Culture, also known as “Ocha Zanmai.” First held in 2012, this May marks the third time the interdisciplinary conference will be held. The event will present the “latest research findings and significant work in the study of chanoyu.” Set to take place Sunday, May 1 at San Francisco State University’s Humanities Building from 9 a.m. to 6:45 p.m., the conference will feature presentations on Western perceptions of tea ceremonies prior to World War II, late 16th century tea rooms, a lecture on appreciating the beauty of a tea kettle, learning chanoyu from Japanese poetry and an introductory demonstration on making bamboo tea scoops.

For more information on the conference, e-mail mmckeon@sfsu.edu or visit http://japancenter.sfsu.edu.

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