Tea Beyond Japan: Chanoyu in the Diaspora

Lauren W. Deutsch

I am not your typical or natural tea student: a left-handed, cross-country skiing, Jewish feminist. Studying chanoyu for the past 24 years has been both challenging and intriguing for all those reasons. I have been fortunate to find a great teacher who can teach me. I have been encouraged by her to make the practice my own within her very formal teaching.

In 1987, after having studied Urasenke chado in Los Angeles for almost three years as one of less than a handful of students of non-Japanese heritage of the Distinguished Tea Master Sosei Matsumoto, sensei, I was invited to apply to the Midorikai program for non-Japanese people at Konnichi-an in Kyoto for the first of three short-courses (i.e. part-time); the others being in 1989 and 1991. Now 24 years into the practice, I’m anxious to write the next “chapter” about American tea practitioners of chado. It will chronicle how tea “beyond” Japan has been manifest in the “diaspora” through the individual and collective efforts of those of us who have embraced the premise and practice of chado. Here is a taste.


While Urasenke has the largest number of non-Japanese tea student ranks, other schools have gaijin and nihonjin (people of Japanese nationalities) students, teachers and practitioners, including Omotesenke and Mushanokojisenke (who with Urasenke, constitute the largest and primary progeny of Sen no Rikyu, the root teacher of tea practice established in the mid-16th century). There are many other formal tea schools, including but not limited to Edosenke, Dainippon Chado Gakki, Enshu, Sohenryu and Yabunouchiryu with branches wherever people of Japanese heritage live. Periodically, their top teachers are sent forth from the headquarters to us in the hinterlands to teach, and expat devotees make pilgrimages to take refresher courses, participate in annual and special events, etc. back in Japan.

American chajin are encouraged to go to Japan to study in advanced courses, but these programs are conducted in Japanese language only. Annually for Urasenke, there is a conference, in Japanese language with translation, that is held in Hawaii. It is attended by many folks who wish direct connection with the grand tea master and other top members of the family.

Urasenke, has a “youth group” system which encourages visits from Japanese counterparts. In Los Angeles, the “youth” group, which includes folks up to 45(!) years of age, hosted a group from Kanazawa. The entourage, headed by the grand master of the Ohi pottery family, participated in a large, beautiful public event at the Huntington Gardens’ Japanese House. They brought wonderful utensils and even water from a famous well. On another occasion, that of the start of the Pan-Pacific Yacht Race, another official Urasenke group was hosted at the famous Marina del Rey with festive public tea demonstrations and a kencha offertory tea ritual held for the sailors’ safety on the high seas.

These unquestionably lovely events have been held on Japanese terms. The question of the integrity and sustainability of a universality of chado practice – one outside Japan – needs to be explored on if it is to be proven truly universal in spirit.

Always a Guest …

When I was a guest student of Midorikai, I was quite lost, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, in my own wonderland of tea. I had no benefit of any life-sustaining proficiency in Japanese language and discovered that use of tea ceremony conversation in “secular” settings was not productive or even appropriate. I can’t read kanji, and in fact, when I reported for the first day’s class, kimono and new tabi socks in a bulging furoshiki carrying cloth, it was to the wrong school’s headquarters! Once set on the right path, it became perfectly clear to me that to get the most out of the experience the best strategy was to err on the side of formality by focusing on acquiring the skills of a good guest. Was it audacious to think that I, a foreigner, could be the host sometimes as well?

It was easy to develop a sense of privilege as a “foreigner” in this environment, both as one who was visiting at the behest of the Grand Tea Master and the other, as one whose place in the full, orthodox chajin hierarchy was most likely always going to be off the radar screen if only Japanese standards were applied.

That sense of being a “foreigner” in tea upon returning to the USA, continued, inappropriately I felt, especially as I was drawn deeper into the study and practice. it seems most appropriate to practice in a vernacular that enables me to access more of the spirit from which a bowl of tea can be made. I found that I wasn’t alone. There are lots of folks who are into tea in and “beyond” Japan. How to find them?

Urasenke’s Resources for Foreigners

The Urasenke International Association Kokusaibu (headquarters in Kyoto) has employed several graduates as teachers editors and administrators of the Midorikai program. They have been, for the most part North American bilingual males, many of whom had begun their tea studies in Japan around the time of the Vietnam War. Despite their excellent proficiencies and loyalties to their teachers / employer, they have never been admitted to the formal ranks of gyotei and mizuya teachers, the official ranks of men whose families historically are patronized to serve at the discretion of the grand masters’ family, I hope they will find a way to share some of their experiences with us by composing their own memoirs when the time is appropriate (1).

The long-lived Midorikai students were then, and it seems remain, a mix of free-spirited and deeply serious 20–30-year-old college graduates from the Americans, Middle East, other parts of Asia, the Soviet Union, Australia / New Zealand, South America and Europe. All were extremely helpful to me when I was visiting.

As then Hounsai Oiemoto, now the retired Grand Master Daishoso Genshitsu Sen, Urasenke XV had hoped, a number of Midorikai graduates became the vanguard of Kyoto-supported Urasenke Foundation branches or who work in liaison offices 21-cities world-wide; others are teaching chanoyu independently throughout the USA and in their homelands (2). But, sadly, the vast majority have not institutionalized their practice with the same vigor. This has been a disappointment to the family enterprise, and, in light of the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble, a realignment of the program took place.

Another critical change has been the cessation in 1999 of publication of the scholarly and useful Chanoyu Quarterly, a journal with translations of other works and new articles in English which was excellently managed by editor Gretchen K. Mittwer through 88 volumes (3). In 2008, now six years into the ascendance of Zabosai Oiemoto, as Sen Soshitsu XVI in 2002, there is a fine English language translation of A Chanoyu Vocabulary: Practical Terms for the Way of Tea. While there is a two-volume beginner “guide” to studying Urasenke Chanoyu, and a few other general publications authored by members of his family, unfortunately, most of the other, more technical books and contemporary periodicals issued by Urasenke’s Tankosha publishing arm are not translated from Japanese.

While one cannot learn tea from a book (or even the Japanese language videos now offered), it leaves those of us who continue to study without language proficiency at a loss. This is all the more reason to find other tea folks with whom to create a critical mass of like-minded community.


In 2000 a group of Midorikai alumni, other Urasenke students and a few active tea practitioners from Omotesenke, some 30 women and men mostly Americans with 10 – 30 years chado experience — decided it was time to get together. The group had no structured or formal “we;” its impetus was a reaction to various urges of dedication: to tea practice, to Urasenke, to each other as long-distance acquaintances. The “reunion” was unofficial, neither sanctioned nor supported by the Kokusaibu. It was decidedly “informal” within an otherwise very formal world. (In a most perfect world, I was to have asked my sensei for permission to attend.) We connected without pretense, purely on our own terms, to assess our collective resources, expressed in our own vernacular, to witness the spirit of tea, as we expressed it, “beyond Japan.”

While it was a bold, perhaps radical undertaking contrasted to the be-true-to-your-school path that is the hallmark of most institutions in Japan, at no time was there any will to discount lineage or to create a new way of tea for 21st Century outside Japan. We sought to strengthen our individual experiences of chanoyu by finding others who were entrusted with other pieces of the “puzzle”.

The first one was held at a retreat center in Santa Fe New Mexico, with four other biannual gatherings at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center (north of San Francisco) and Daibosatsu Zen Center (New York State) since then. Anyone who had a chado practice wanted to come and contribute was and continues to be welcome. Most Japanese-native tea folks have no idea what to make of it. It falls outside their realm of activity. In 2009 another gathering, “Friends of Tea” will be held at Daibosatsu, June 10 – 14.(4)

At the first gathering, after the initial excitement of the social “reunion” of folks who hadn’t seen each other since Kyoto, we decided to figure out what we wanted to accomplish during the few days together. In addition to the residential facilities, there was tea room, utensils and lots of tea. Tea gatherings were held at-will, available 24/7, as long as host found a guest. This included the most informal styles of chabako, a picnic box style of tea procedure, which was employed daily before sunrise on the dock of the small pond on the land.

When we convened as a group, discussions were deeply serious and became an unofficial manifesto on what chado in its most seriously practiced form could mean “beyond” Japan, the role of a chajin tea person in the larger pan-national world and how we viewed our relationships with Japan. We had earnest discussions about how those of us, without formal employment by or other relationship to Urasenke, expressed our commitments to the school; some want to “give back in some way of thanks for the life-changing experience,” others want to declare a certain independence, and still others, isolated by not actively studying with a teacher, feel they have become like ronin, samurai without a lord.

Some live near Japanese “towns” in their communities with access to utensils, tea, sweets and spaces to support the practice. Others, considering themselves “outlaw” practitioners, relied on the internet and mail order to stock up. Many of us developed crafts skills to create our own utensils or had commissioned works by domestic artisans. We discussed what we needed to keep our practice alive outside Japan, including making the charcoal, forging iron kettles and even growing tea!

All in attendance seemed to embrace the concept of Daisosho’s mission in spirit, that there can be found “Peace in a bowl of Tea” wherever it can be shared by like-minded individuals. We have had no desire to create new ritual forms, but to find a way to witness each other’s chado, watching how our processes vary from each other, and to try to find ways that they can work together. Seeking ways to incorporate locally accessible resources, whether wood to build a tea room or foodstuffs for a new recipe for a kaiseki dish, it was tea presented in the spirit of sustainability!

At the final session of the first gathering, a tea ritual, we honored the teachers among us who were actively pursuing their vocation and memorialized those pioneers – our own tea ancestors — who were not with us.

The next gatherings had more structured topical workshops and lectures, and incorporated the now signature elements of impromptu tea-making and, at the conclusion, a temae tea service performed in tandem by Urasenke and Omotesenke hosts, to seal our collective effort in time and space. Topics of discussion included philosophical foundation of chanoyu, poetry, historic writings, kaiseki tea meals preparation, and hand-made tea rooms and gardens. There were practicum sessions on calligraphy, crafting tea utensils and sweets, surviving the physicality of sitting seiza, and talks by resident scholars. We’ve also welcomed craftspeople who make utensils – most notably ceramicists – who want to find new patrons for their handwork. During the gatherings at the zen centers, we were invited by the sangha to join them in meditation and service. In turn, we invited them for tea. The spirit of living with tea 24/7 was energizing.

Very few Japanese nationals have joined in; those who did have told us they are encouraged by our independent spirit of chado, something they are not necessary at liberty to find at home. Most of my Japan-born tea colleagues in Los Angeles just can’t understand what we could possibly do in that setting. My dear teacher finds them “interesting”. Folks from Europe see our model as a useful example to assemble a critical mass of practitioners across national boundaries.

These events have also inspired another pan-school gathering, the autumn Daichakai at Hakone Gardens in Saratoga California. Established by the late Omotesenke teacher Stuart Lenox with support of teachers and students in Northern California from a variety of traditions – Urasenke, Omotesenke, Mushanokojisenke, Yabonouchi, Dai Nippon Chado Gakkai, Edosenke and others — the day-long multiple-venue event is staged throughout locations in the garden that support both formal (thick) and less formal (thin) procedures, with guests (kimono preferred) accommodated on chairs and tatami, inside tea rooms and outside in the garden. For more information on this event, most recently held on October 19, 2008, contact John L. Larissou, larissou[AT]flash.net.

The “virtual” chado community has several forms. “wakeiseijaku” is an English language online group at yohoo.com that is a network of chado practitioners, with input from people of various traditions / lineages and experiences. There are archives, including photos and some recipes, diagrams for making tea related utensils and structures.


1 For another “backstage” look at the Urasenke tea world and the practice of chado, see An Introduction to Japanese Tea Ritual by anthropologist / tea instructor Jennifer L. Anderson, State University of New York, 1991

2 It should be pointed out that all teachers of Urasenke chado are not employed by the school, family or business. Most teachers are “free-lancers” who have been granted licenses to teach from the Kyoto headquarters. Midorikai alumni are among them, as well as some having been hired to run Urasenke Foundation schools. Urasenke International Liaison offices and Foundation Branches can be found Asia: Kyoto (headquarters), Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, Tianjin; Australia: Sidney, Brisbane; Europe: London, Rome, Paris, Dusseldorf, Mevzhaussen, Amstellaan; The Americas: New York, Hawaii, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington DC / McLean, Virginia, Vancouver, Mexico City, Sao Paulo. For more information: http://urasenke.org/contact/offices.php

3 A full index can be downloaded at www.urasenke.or.jp/texte/study/book/image/chanoyu-quarterly.pdf

4 For more information on this event, open to any active chanoyu practitioner, please go to www.friendsoftea.org. The organizers, Bettina Mueller and Gavin Lower are planning to include okashi cooking, chashaku carving and making shifuki, brocade bags for thick tea containers, discussions on the roji, tea garden, a lecture by Edo Shimano Roshi and many opportunities to make tea, practice zazen with the residents.

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Author's Bio

Lauren Deutsch has been a contributing editor to Kyoto Journal since 1991. She has been studying chado for twenty-four years with Sosei Matsumoto-sensei, in Los Angeles. She was granted her teaching certificate and the professional tea instructor name of Sochi by Hounsai, Sen Soshitsu XV, in 1997. She can be contacted at lwdeutsch[AT]earthlink.net