Making connections

Hi everyone,

Walking outside of a museum in Kyoto.

Walking outside of a museum in Kyoto. Even as I took this picture, the light was already beginning to fade.

The past few weeks have been pretty busy with finals and other activities, but  I only have a week and a half left till break! I ended up going to three tea ceremony art exhibits and finished two papers. I also started up kyudo in earnest last Tuesday. I found all these things strangely related…

I’ve been to kyudo practice twice now. The first time was mainly to get me warmed up to the idea. Sensei kept telling me and the other students that he thought my body had a lot of power, so he ended up lending me a bow with a really heavy draw weight. I think it was 21 kilograms. Whether or not my body does have power, I was pretty sore the next day. Regardless, he was very supportive. Whenever someone would ask me if I spoke Japanese he would always respond [almost yell], “Yes! He’s fluent!” I ended up shooting in the basement at the beginning and then moved up to the ground floor to try out shooting at targets while everyone watched.

The second time I went, this past Wednesday, things were a little different. For one, I arrived a little earlier than last time and no one else was there. Also, there was no shooting upstairs this time. We stayed in the basement and I shot at a small, straw target the whole time. This meant lots of quality time with sensei.

A few weeks ago my hostmom and I called sensei on the phone to set up lessons and he told us that his wife used to practice and teach tea ceremony. That would explain why there’s a tea room upstairs. He also kept using tea analogies when teaching me, which I can say ws immensely helpful.

“Don’t walk that way. Do you walk that way in tea? No; don’t walk like that.”

“Make your arms a little wider, like you’re holding a giant egg. You do that in tea too, don’t you?” We do indeed do that in tea, so I easily understood the feel he was trying to get out of me. But I’d never had it explained as an “egg” before. That’s going to help me a lot in tea ceremony in the future…

By the end of that practice, he told me that I have considerable potential–even if I’m only staying for 4-5 more months. In fact, after 8  more practices, he said he’d take me to a dojo. I’d have to get a uniform then, which is exciting. They look cool 🙂 Hostmom agrees.

I also had the chance to go to a couple of tea ceremony art exhibitions–one of which was at the Urasenke tea school headquarters and the another at the Omotesenke tea school headquarters. These two schools are the two biggest tea schools in Japan, and they both are descended from the ~1500s tea master, Sen-no-Rikyu.

My school is not as directly affiliated with Rikyu since it’s an oddball school created by Rikyu’s classmate, but this also means I always find it interesting to see how big tea schools like Ura and Omotesenke each try to lay claim to Sen-no-Rikyu. Omotesenke, for example, displayed many tea utensils that were used by or related to Rikyu in some way. I looked at the items as best I could, and went to a room where I was served a complimentary bowl of tea. Omotesenke serves tea in a way different from the other branches of tea (I don’t know much about the third, Mushakojisenke, but I assume it’s the same as Urasenke). The froth that I’m used to seeing cover the top of the tea, even with my smaller unaffiliated school, isn’t there. I knew that that was a trademark of Omote, but it still almost felt like a political statement at the time. Who knows what Rikyu did, but Omotesenke certainly made a interesting comment with the start of that tradition.

Urasenke was quite similar. There were many Rikyu utensils and I also got served a bowl of tea, this time with the familiar bubbles on top. The atmospheres were very different though. It’s almost not worth going in to the similarities and differences though, because I’ll surely just reiterate cliches about each one. Instead, I actually ended up having more fun finding what each school decided not to present. Each school decided to leave out pieces created or used by Furuta Oribe, a tea master who was a contemporary of Rikyu’s who arguably has had just as much influence in the tea world. I saw I few more references to him at Urasenke, but he was by far eclipsed by Rikyu. Curiously, Oribe actually came after Rikyu but predates the schools set up by Rikyu’s family. Therefore, in a way, he had to have influenced the creation of Rikyu’s schools in a large part. But he was curiously absent, except for one bowl in particular that I saw presented at Urasenke. Other than that, it was hard to tell. There were others that were absent, but because I was looking for Oribe I noticed his absence the most. Perhaps by eclipsing Oribe with Rikyu references, these bigger schools are trying to close the historical gap (two generations) between Rikyu’s death and their establishment. I’ll see what else comes up in the future.

It’s crazy when this stuff pops out of a book and meets you in real life. History is finally starting to become fun. You can play with it, especially in tea ceremony. A tea gathering is an opportunity to make little statements and inside jokes about history and the place art has in society. And more than any other activity I know of, it’s a chance to interact with art. Drink out of it, inspect it, feel it. And also a place to practice kyudo. At least, if you’re quiet about it, and you take care to remember that you’re carrying an egg.

The Kamogawa! Had to take a picture. It's getting darker more quickly here, but it makes for some great lighting.

The Kamogawa! Had to take a picture. It’s getting darker more quickly here, but it makes for some great lighting.

I have tea practice again tomorrow! The sunken brazier is going pretty well, but mostly because sensei wasn’t there last week and us students got to play around a bit by ourselves. Started to remember a bit… still a very long way to go. I’m hoping that kyudo practice will help me put a bit of snappiness into my movements that I’ve been missing.

Just 8 more days till finals are done. Then the Winter Break Adventure starts.

Till next time,



One thought on “Making connections

  1. Hi Jesse, belated Merry Christmas and early Happy New Year. I think we have been missing some of your postings but enjoyed this one. The pictures are awesome too. We are having pretty cold weather right now but the sun is shinning. Hopefully our cards made it to you. They were in one envelope. We sent your $ to your mom and she put it in your account. Hopefully you will find a very nice something to use it. Well all for now, will keep in touch more often. Love Gma and Gpa

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