MUSHAKOJI SENKE: The Third Way of Tea

A LESS FORMAL TEA SCHOOL — Mushakoji instructor Richard Mellott at Shogetsu-an, Hakone Gardens, Saratoga, in October of 2009. photo courtesy of Richard Mellott

A LESS FORMAL TEA SCHOOL — Mushakoji instructor Richard Mellott at Shogetsu-an, Hakone Gardens, Saratoga, in October of 2009.
photo courtesy of Richard Mellott

Following the creation of the Japanese tea ceremony by Rikyu Sen in the 16th century, the school eventually split into three. The most well-known of the three are the Omotesenke and Urasenke schools, both with branches in San Francisco. The third and smallest school, practiced only by a handful of people on the West Coast, is the Mushakoji Senke.

The first non-Japanese teacher
Richard Mellott, who teaches Mushakoji in the Bay Area, traveled to Kyoto, Japan in the 1970s to work on his Ph.D. in Japanese archeology and ceramics.

“I was going to collectors’ homes and quickly found out that I didn’t know how to handle ceramics properly in the Japanese context,” he said. His friends suggested he take up learning tea and introduced him to the Mushakoji school.

“I chose Mushakoji because I didn’t want to go where other foreigners were learning,” he said. He knew of other foreigners studying at the Urasenke and Omotesenke and instead chose to go where no other non-Japanese person had gone before.

“I was the first foreigner to study at this school,” he said. As a student he studied under the then-junior grandmaster, Futetsusai Sen Soshu from 1973 to 1984.

Mellott said there are thousands of teachers in Japan, but only a handful practice Mushakoji abroad.

“There are a few in Europe, there’s a small group in New York and myself here,” he said.

The school has largely kept to itself in Japan and has not actively pursued teaching in other countries until recently. According to Mellott, the current grandmaster and his son have traveled abroad to teach and introduce their school and are working with the group in New York to establish a branch office.

While he has been licensed to teach tea, Mellott said he does not teach regular classes and only practices with a small group of people in the Bay Area.

“The small group of friends that I do tea with were students of a woman called Peg Anderson,” said Mellott. Anderson learned from a visiting professor of Japanese literature at Stanford University and loved tea so much she unofficially taught the craft after she retired, according to Mellott. “She loved tea, she learned how to do it and she wanted to pass it on.”

Mellott learned about her after he started working at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in 1984 as its curator of education. He recalled when the grandmaster of the school visited the United States in the mid-1980s, Mellott invited him to go and visit Anderson.

“It was very heart warming, she made tea for him and he made tea for her,” said Mellott.

Following Anderson’s death about a decade ago, Mellott took over the classes for the five or six students learning under her. However, the classes are not held regularly and Mellott is not soliciting new students at this time.

“Most students … want weekly lessons and a curriculum,” he said. “I really don’t have the facilities and I’m 70; I don’t have the energy to do it.”

The grandmaster asked Mellott to teach in the United States, but he declined then too. “I decided to go my own way and do art history and do a curatorship … and save tea for a hobby rather than a profession,” he said. His group currently only holds public ceremonies at the annual tea gathering at the Hakone Estate and Gardens in Saratoga, Calif. and occasionally at the Asian Art Museum.

Philosophy of Mushakoji
According to the Mushakoji Website, the school of tea was one of three created when the fourth generation of the Sen family split the school into three. Ichio Soshu Sen founded the Mushakoji school, which was named after the street where the school was located.

Like the other schools of tea, Mushakoji emphasizes the same principles of being a perfect host.

“The host’s main job is to try to make the experience for his guest as special, comfortable and memorable as one can by controlling all the possible factors that go into making the event,” Mellott said.

Mellott takes into consideration the hanging scroll in the tokonoma, the seasonal flower and its container, the choice of tea sweets, the tea itself and the temperature of the room.

Mellott said the tea ceremony is an intersection of many Japanese cultural arts including not only ceramics, but flowers, calligraphy, architecture, gardening and incense.

“It is all about enjoying the moment to the fullest,” he said. “You can get as philosophical as you like, but it’s basically a quiet moment where you’re with a host enjoying tea.”

The style differs from the other schools in small but meaningful ways. Mellott said each school has its respective methods for cleaning utensils, folding napkins and opening doors.

“I would say Mushakoji is more informal than the other schools,” he said. “That is reflected in how we fold (the napkin).”

Mellott also said Mushakoji emphasizes watching and learning.

“I was frustrated in learning in Kyoto,” said Mellott, whose instructor drilled him to do the same movements over and over again by observing his teacher rather than using instructional materials. “You have to internalize it to be able to make tea well. You have to be able to do the procedure without thinking about it.

“As a typical Westerner, I wanted to know why you do this and why you do that. And when I ask him those questions, he said, ‘Don’t ask me why, just do it,’” Mellott said.

Through years of practice, Mellott has internalized the art and come to appreciate the once mysterious and repetitive motions. He continues to enjoy them today as a hobby.

He invites those interested to observe when they can at the Asian Art Museum or the tea gathering in Saratoga.

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