An Interview with my Japanese Tea Ceremony Sensei
Being fourth generation Japanese American on my Dad’s side and second on my Mom’s, I’ve always felt as if my heritage was slipping away from me. Because of my background and affinity for cuisine and design, I knew I wanted to learn more about customs, history, etiquette, cooking, and design in Japanese culture. After expressing this desire to a friend, she invited me to her tea teacher’s home studio. Upon moments of my first meeting with Sochi Sensei, I knew tea ceremony was exactly what I was looking for.
Since then, tea ceremony has become one of the greatest joys of my week. For me, it’s a meditation, a gratitude practice, a poetic perspective on life, and a safe haven when the rest of the world can feel chaotic. The way of tea is a sacred practice, and with each week that passes, I feel that I am not only coming home to my Japanese heritage, but to myself.
Today, I am very honored to share an interview with my tea sensei and spiritual guide, Sochi Takahara. It is extremely rare that cameras and notebooks are allowed into the tea room. This interview took much convincing, and a combined hope that offering a glimpse into the tea room might be helpful in the lives of others. The photos that follow were taken at my recent tea lesson.
Thank you to my trusted food and lifestyle photographer, Nicole Morrison. You beautifully captured the fleeting moments in the tea room. Your photos embody the peacefulness of the space and ceremony, and I’m so grateful for your talents and hard work in documenting this special opportunity.
Sochi Sensei, welcome to the Nourish Co. journal!
On her background and how she came to the US…
I grew up on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan and worked in interior design. While living there, I met the man who is now my husband. When I asked him how long he planned to stay in Japan, I was surprised to learn he hadn’t planned on leaving. That’s when I shared with him that I had dreamed of studying abroad and planned to leave Japan, even if he didn’t. Since he is from San Francisco, it made the most sense for us to come here.
On how she became interested in tea ceremony…
After I left Japan, I began feeling a stronger desire to know more about my background— especially since I was asked about it often. I thought, “Why don’t I know more?” That was the catalyst for a few key conversations, which eventually lead me to tea ceremony and my current tea teachers, Sokyo Tiscornia Sensei and Soko Takechi Sensei.
On the origins of the history of tea and tea culture in Japan…
Tea culture originally came from China— the oldest record of tea is in the 9th century. It was brought to Japan by Zen Buddhist monks who had studied in China. At that time, tea was different from the tea we use today in tea ceremony. It was called dancha and came in compressed bricks, which were then steeped in hot water.
The next oldest record of tea is in the 12th century, when a Japanese Buddhist priest named Eisai Zenji brought green tea seeds from China to Japan. The Japanese then began cultivating tea from those seeds at Toganoo (an area of Kyoto). Eisai Zenji also wrote one of the most prolific books in Japanese history, Kissa Yōjōki, or Drinking Tea for Health, in English. At the time, tea was only drunk by the upper echelons of society. Eisai Zenji is credited with beginning the tea tradition in Japan.
In the 15th century, another Zen priest named Shukō drew parallels between tea and the study of Zen. Up until this time, drinking tea was a hobby of the wealthy. This was reflected in the selection of very ornate and expensive tea utensils, which were imported from artisans in ancient China. Shukō was the first to combine the concept of wabi sabi (the art of finding beauty in the imperfect) with tea.
On the most prolific teacher in the history of tea ceremony in Japan…
Shukō believed that tea ceremony could be great training for a spiritual path. Two generations later, a student of one of his students was a merchant named Sen no Rikyu. Rikyu sama, as we respectfully refer to him, is the historical figure who has had the most profound influence on Japanese tea ceremony as we know it today. He developed and unified the concepts of wabi cha, which emphasized humility and simplicity. Rikyu sama’s vision was for the tea ritual (wabi cha) to be a life-changing impetus for enlightenment.
On the philosophy behind tea…
Zen and tea is the same thing, so learning the Zen philosophy is an important part of studying chado, the way of tea. Cha means tea, do means the way. The Zen philosophy of doing something with 100% focus, in the right frame of mind, to reach enlightenment, was applied to tea. If you’re not fully focused and in the present moment when you are making a bowl of tea, you cannot make good tea.
Chado is called a comprehensive study because in order to be a good tea master, you need such a wide range of education. And not just in Zen. But also in preparing a Japanese meal, preparing confections, pottery, architecture, understanding space and fabric, poetry, history, and of course, preparing a bowl of tea.
On the moments when she knew she would dedicate her life to the way of tea…
There were a few really spiritual moments when I’ve felt an amazing sense of connectedness with tea ceremony, early on in my education. The first time I held the hishaku (bamboo tea ladle) in the correct position, I felt this sense of nostalgia, like I had done it before even though I hadn’t. It is the part of the tea ceremony when the position of the ladle is meant to be like a mirror, reflecting your heart.
Another moment was when I was doing haiken, the part when you purify the utensils for your guests and place them on the tatami (straw) floor mat so they can take a closer look at it. I placed a utensil on the tatami, and Soko Sensei adjusted the position ever so slightly- maybe even a quarter of an inch. The small adjustment made a massive difference, and it just felt absolutely harmonious.
On chabana, or flower arrangement in tea…
When I was in high school, I worked in a flower shop. I assumed I would pick up flower arranging quickly, but I learned that chabana is vastly different. You must listen and pay close attention to the flower so you’re not forcing them into the arrangement. Ideally, you listen to and try to sense the spirit of the flower. The concept is that you place the flower into the vessel with a single breath, ideally not adjusting it again. Sometimes a single flower is sufficient. If the flower is more delicate, you might add something else to give the arrangement balance.
In a chabana class I took, I was creating an arrangement and told the teacher that I thought I needed to add something behind the flower. She disagreed and simply changed the angle of the flower by pulling it out a touch, and it really elevated the arrangement. It was another moment of divine connection for me, and it really touched my heart. Those seemingly small moments are what inspired me to begin studying the way of tea seriously and sincerely.
On her path to becoming a tea sensei…
In 2014 I had been working as an interior designer for a global commercial design company for almost 10 years. I decided that as a gift to myself, I would take a sabbatical and study the way of tea in Kyoto since I had always been interested in living there. There was a full-time Urasenke tea school there that offered a six-month curriculum (like a master’s program for tea), and I was qualified to apply. At the time, I wasn’t really thinking about teaching, even though people were encouraging me to. The school encouraged me to become a tea teacher, and of course all teachers hope their students will become teachers one day.
When I returned to San Francisco, I wasn’t sure if I would go back to my interior design career. I ran into a friend in Japantown and shared about my experience in Kyoto. She told me that she wanted me to teach her tea ceremony. I told her I would introduce her to my teachers as well as some other great tea teachers in San Francisco, but she said, “No, I want to learn from you.” So I said I would do my best.
On the popularity and influence of matcha in the West…
I think it’s wonderful that matcha has become popularized in the West. It’s great for farmers and growers. I don’t think you have to enjoy matcha a particular way. If someone loves matcha lattes with milk and sugar or whatever they want to mix in, that’s great. If someone wants to embark on a spiritual journey by making and drinking matcha, I think that’s great too. Years ago, I knew that matcha would become popular one day, especially here in San Francisco where people are quite health-conscious and appreciate excellent quality in cuisine.
I once had the opportunity to speak with someone who was importing matcha from Japan and creating his own proprietary blends. He was hosting a demonstration at my company, and I asked him what his thoughts were on chado. He told me that he thought it was boring, and that it was simply about following some antiquated and meaningless rules. He felt that it was unnecessary, and that the study of chado was useless, which was quite a strong opinion. I felt so sorry for him because he never had the opportunity to learn about chado. He likely just heard about it from someone who had a bad experience. I felt it was so unfortunate because I believe this culture and the study of it can be so powerful and deep, for those who are interested.
On why she decided to become a teacher…
I decided to become a teacher because the study of tea changed me completely. It was as if I was reborn. All of the important qualities I learned through tea had just been sleeping inside of me and were awaked by this study. I learned how to deal with everyday problems and issues with ease. I used to struggle with many things, but now am able to deal with any situation without panicking or being overcome by negative thoughts.
These concepts were developed in Japan, but they can be applied globally. I realized I could help many people through the study of tea.
On the history of the Urasenke school of tea…
There are many different schools of tea ceremony in Japan, and we are part of one of the main schools, Urasenke. Historically, the Urasenke school has had a pioneering spirit. Hōunsai Daisosho sama (who turned 96 this April and still travels the world), is the father of the current grand tea master, Zabōsai Oiemoto sama. He survived World War II and decided that he would dedicate his life to world peace. He worked really hard to develop an international division of the Urasenke school, and invited many people from overseas and taught them the way of tea. Those people went back to their own countries and started teaching and cultivating chado in their home countries. Little by little, the way of tea has spread all over the world.
The Urasenke school respects and honors tradition. Generation to generation, the school has also invented and developed different styles of tea ceremony such as Ryurei (table-style). This style was developed by Gengensai, the 11th generation grand tea master, to welcome foreign guests at the Kyoto Exposition in 1872. There are several different types of table style today, and it’s a great way to introduce tea ceremony to those who are unaccustomed to or unable to sit on their knees for prolonged periods.
I was also drawn to the Urasenke school’s approach because since I live here in the US, I’m not able to obtain tea objects as easily as I would if I practiced tea in Japan. The Urasenke school affords me the flexibility to be creative and adapt.
On the scroll and its significance…
Wa Kei Sei Jaku are the four important principles taught by Rikyu sama. Wa is harmony, kei means respect, sei means purity, jaku means tranquility. To have true harmony among people or with nature, you need to respect others and respect nature. Purity is very important in tea ceremony, because it’s believed that if the physical space or objects are messy or dirty, then you cannot approach anything with purity of mind. This is why cleanliness is so important and symbolic in tea ceremony— from the guests changing their socks when they enter, to the symbolic cleaning of the tea room, before each ceremony. All of these actions are symbolic to entering a sacred space.
When my students are struggling and feeling stressed, the first thing I recommend is cleaning their space, which in turn purifies the mind. Personally, I also believe that laughing is a good energy source for the heart.
WaKeiSeiJaku and the study of tea has religious influences at their core. The way of tea is influenced by philosophies of Shintoism and Zen Buddhism, but it is not religious. Rather, it took important parts of Shintoism and Zen Buddhism, and created a new way. Tea culture is welcome and open to any person, no matter how they identify in terms of gender, background, or religious belief. The way of tea never tries to change people; it is about accepting people for who they are, where they are. That’s really important to me.
When every single person is born, they have a beautiful and pure mind. Over a lifetime, they develop many layers of dust in their mind. This is where I believe chado can be immensely powerful. The way of tea helps people come home to their true self. When you sit down to receive a bowl of tea, and drink it with full appreciation, respect nature, feel the seasons, the heart of the host, the hearts of the other guests, it creates a beautiful and pure moment. The study of tea simply helps us to remember what’s most important in life.
On seasonality in the tea room…
Bringing the seasons into the tea room is very important and reflected by many elements. The flowers are the only element in the tea room that has life, so we enjoy seasonal flowers with our guests. The seasons are also reflected in the selection of specific tea utensils. For example, you wouldn’t want to select utensils that reflect a cool feeling in the winter time, but you definitely would right now in the height of summer. The scroll in the waiting area that I selected for today has a painting of sweet fish, in season now.
On the traditions of the current season…
There is so much history and nuance beyond the four seasons in Japan. If you go really deep, you’ll find that the year is actually subdivided in as many as 72 sub-seasons (a concept that originated in ancient China)! There are many rituals and traditions to celebrate the different times of the year. Many of them are steeped in Shintoism, Japan’s native, nature-based belief system.
Generally, the month of June is considered mid-summer. One poetic name for June is Minazuki, and there are several different interpretations of the name. One of them is “month of water”, since according to the Gregorian calendar, June is the rainy season in Japan.
To close out the rainy season and the month of June, we celebrate Nagoshi no Harae, which is an ancient summer purification ritual. It’s based on an ancient legend about a poor man, who housed a disguised, wandering god for a night and showed him every luxury he could afford. In return, the god gave him a chinowa wreath woven from reeds and instructed him to wear it for protection. The poor man and his descendants managed to escape every plague and illness. Now, in the middle of each year (June 30th) we go to the Shinto shrine and pass through a sacred wreath a few times, making the symbol for infinity, to ward off any disaster and misfortune accumulated from the beginning half of the year. This is just one of the Minazuki rituals.
On the confections prepared for today’s tea ceremony…
Another common ritual for Minazuki is enjoying a traditional confection, also called minazuki. Since it is not available in shops here, I make it for our tea studio on or around June 30th. Minazuki is made with mochi (sticky rice cake), and it is made to look like a piece of ice. It is topped with sweet adzuki red beans, which are very nutritious. Adzuki beans are also believed to have special powers to ward off evil spirits. Minazuki has a deep history in Japan. Essentially, consuming this confection completes the rituals of the month of Minazuki.
The other sweet I prepared for today’s lesson is a hydrangea confection. Hydrangea is a seasonal flower, symbolic of the rainy season in Japan. In Japan, a typical scene you might witness is many hydrangea with their petals receiving the morning dew or summer rain.
On how to apply a Zen mindset when hosting a dinner party…
There is a zen phrase, hinshugokan. Hin means guest, shu means host, gokan is exchangeable. The host senses the energy of the guest, the guest senses the energy of the host and they act accordingly taking into consideration each other’s feelings. If they can respect each other and appreciate each other in this way, they will have the best time.
The next time, it could be a different season of the year, you might have different guests, or something happening in your life might have shifted your perspective slightly. Each unique moment happens once and only once, don’t miss it.
On the tea room as a sacred space…
It’s a tradition to not take photos or notes in the tea room. The grand tea masters have never allowed this practice. I totally agree, because if you think you can take a photo, you don’t have to work hard to remember and therefore will pay less attention to the details. If you knew you couldn’t take a photo, you’d have to pay attention to each sense that you experience with 100% focus of your mind.
Sen no Rikyu sama, the first grand tea master, designed a rack outside of the tea rooms. This rack was where the samurai warriors left their swords before entering the tea room. At that time, swords were representative of the spirit of samurai warriors— they were their entire life. They had to hang their swords at the door to the tea room, because the tea room is a sacred space. That’s why even enemies had to treat each other like old friends in the tea room. Once they left the tea room, they could do as they pleased, but the tea room is a sacred space.
On her vision for the future…
As long as I am able, I want to help as many people as possible. We have a small tea studio, but I am grateful for the chance to help people who visit.
Like tea teachers, each student is very different and needs different kinds of study. The type of study they need depends on so many aspects, like the phase of their life, their current situation, and personality. So based on who they are, I supplement our lessons to best serve them.
It could be very different from my way, but if it is helpful for them, I know we’re on the right track.
On how to learn more about the way of tea…
We are so fortunate in San Francisco to have access to good tea stores. However, if you don’t live in a major city, that may not be the case. Nowadays, we have access to the Internet. I recommend speaking up and talking to many different people about what you are looking for. Remember that each teacher is very different, even within the same school of tea. We all follow the basic principals, which came from Rikyu sama, but every person’s interpretation is different and that’s a beautiful thing. Finding the right school for you is important, but I believe finding the right teacher is even more important. Trust yourself and believe in the power of fate— it will deliver you to the right person.
Thank you so much, Sochi Sensei, for allowing me to document one of my tea lessons and for sharing your wisdom and knowledge with me. In many ways, the study of tea has been an incredibly healing practice for me, as I reclaim the parts of my Japanese heritage that I felt got lost on their way to me. Now, I know that they have always lived inside of me, dormant and ready to be awakened. Thank you for all your hard work in preparing for today’s lesson, and in every lesson and ceremony.
If you are based in San Francisco or the Bay Area, and are interested in studying Japanese tea ceremony, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.