It is customary when greeting guests to first serve tea in typical Japanese custom. This longtime tradition of Japanese etiquette and culture is, at its core, an artform that concentrates on fulfilling the role of being an excellent host, says John Larissou, tea instructor for the Omotesenke school of tea.
“The term ‘tea ceremony’ is a really misleading way of looking at it,” he said. “In Omotesenke, tea ceremony is translated from chanoyu, which literally translates to ‘hot water for tea.’ That’s not very helpful in describing it either, though.”
Larissou said there are many more aspects to tea than what some people assume, but many of the aspects, to him, are hard to verbalize. While the Zen aspects are not to be ignored, Larissou said, to him, the relationship between the sensei and student are what’s important, “the procedure of the art.”
Larissou, who has been teaching tea since 1995, said there are many ways for students to master the way of the tea. Omotesenke prescribes an internalization of methods and philosophies through close contact between student and teacher.
Compared to Omotesenke, however, Larissou said Urasenke, the other dominant tea group, relies on rote learning.
“With Omotesenke, you feel it’s much slower, but when you think you know, you really do,” he said. “That’s why when you look at young students from Omotesenke, they seem more sloppy, whereas younger Urasenke students seem more mechanical.”
Larissou, though, does not think either school is innately superior to the other, and says it depends on personal preference. “There are minor differences, but the same goals. As they say, there are different paths up the mountain,” he said.
While Omotesenke and Urasenke are two of the largest and most dominant tea schools in Japan, Omotesenke is smaller abroad. Outside of Japan, the Omotesenke Japanese tea ceremony has only four branch offices in the world: Hawai‘i
the oldest branch, the Southern California branch, the Northern California branch and, the latest branch, the East Coast, based in Florida, which opened in 2010.
Larissou explained that the two schools have had an implicit agreement that Urasenke would spearhead the spread of tea to the rest of the United States. “This is perhaps because Westerners are more open to instructional teaching,” he said.
The Omotesenke Domonkai Northern California Region’s history dates back to 1959 from a casual gathering of tea practitioners in San Francisco’s Nichiren Buddhist Church of America. “The wife of the priest at the Nichiren Buddhist Church asked anyone practicing Omotesenke tea to come and practice with her in the Japanese American newspapers. From there, 10 or so people got together,” Soei Mouri, an Omotesenke tea teacher, said in Japanese.
Following the initial meeting, an affiliate of Omotesenke from Kyoto came to the United States to study abroad. According to Mouri, the visiting student was also affiliated with the Nichiren church and stayed at the church. Following his stay, he told the Omotesenke headquarters in Kyoto about the tea practitioners in America and the Omotesenke Domonkai Beikoku Seibu Shibu (America Western Region Branch) in Los Angeles was formally established in 1969. According to Mouri, the San Francisco branch was then called the “Beikoku Seibu Shibu Hokka Chiku (America Western Region Branch, Northern California District)” and later became an independent branch in 1971 as the Omotesenke Domonkai Beikoku Hokka Shibu (America Northern California Region Branch). “Though we normally just call it the ‘Beikoku Hokka Shibu,’” she added.
Since its official establishment in 1971, Mouri said the organization holds three annual gatherings, including the hatsugama (new year’s), Rikyuki (commemoration for Sen no Rikyu, founder of the tea ceremony) and Tennenki (comme
moration for the seventh head of Omotesenke, Joshinsai). A high-ranking tea instructor also visits once a year to hold lectures and demonstrations, something branches in Japan do not experience.
“The headquarters pays for the whole thing,” she said. “Normally the branch must pay for the lodging and airfare, but they take care of it for us. They don’t even charge us membership dues, they tell us to use whatever fees we collect amongst ourselves.” While the headquarters in Kyoto collects fees from branches in Japan, Mouri said they do not collect from the overseas branches as not to add any unnecessary financial burdens.
“When they visit we offer them a gift of thanks, but it’s a paltry sum by any comparison,” she said.
While the branch office is located in San Francisco’s Japantown, Mouri said the instructors independently teach from their homes. In the past, prospective students would call the branch office and a secretary would refer prospective students to an instructor close to them.
The Northern Californian branch currently has about 210 members, according to Mouri, with about a dozen active instructors. Those who are practicing tea, however, normally come to practice once a week. “Most people do weekly classes, some twice a week or once a month,” Mouri said. “Any less and you really can’t get any better at it.”
Larissou also emphasized that Omotesenke’s teaching maintains a strong connection between the teacher and student. He said he prefers to teach three or four students at a time, rather than through exhibitions.
“It’s not something you can experience by just observing,” he said. He recalled demonstrating the tea ceremony in 1984 to 40 people at the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival. “All these people are watching, and there’s poetry in the motions but I think you lose the essence of the relationship. You must put yourself on the tatami with your host.”
For prospective students, beginners can be taught at a table and need not practice in kimono or on tatami mats. “All you need is tea and a cup,” said Mouri. Though, as students gain experience, a more authentic experience is needed to improve. “There are so many things to take into account. There are cups for winter, cups for summer. There are rules on how to move on tatami, which are harder to adhere to if you’re not wearing a kimono.”
In studying under a teacher, Larissou said mastery takes repetition and a student’s trust in the teacher. “It’s much like a martial art,” he said. “Many of my students also study karate and aikido.” He added that students should learn more about the Japanese language and culture through their study of Omotesenke. “You do need to study the language as you need to study so many other aspects of Japanese and Asian culture,” he said.
“For my non-Japanese speaking students I insist that they learn the formal phrases in Japanese, and English, and similarly the names of all the utensils.”