[From March Issue 2010]
Randy CHANNELL Soei, Urasenke Associate Professor
Randy CHANNELL Soei, a Canadian residing in Kyoto since 1993, teaches and trains day and night striving to convey the heart of chado – the culture of Japan’s traditional way of tea. He started studying the art in 1985 and in 1999 he was granted his chamei (tea name) Soei from the 15th Urasenke Grand Tea Master. He achieved his associate professor rank in 2001, and as he continues his daily training, his teaching career is now in its 15th year.
Randy is very passionate about promoting chado in new and unconventional ways. Not only does he teach at the Nashinoki Shrine and his own shop “ran Hotei,” he often lectures at universities like Kyoto and Doshisha. He also supervises commercial photo shoots, and appears in various media including TV, radio, magazines and on the web. “I want to have people who have no idea what tea is to become interested in the art. I want to serve them a bowl, have them take a sip and enjoy the experience,” he says in fluent Japanese.
“Before living here I visited many times so when I finally moved to Japan I didn’t really suffer from any culture shock, though I have had a few interesting experiences! I once bought a pack of what I thought was peanut butter only to open it at home and find out it was miso. Also, when I sometimes use the word ‘hiya’ instead of ‘mizu’ for water, I am misunderstood… I guess the person I’m asking doesn’t realize I’m speaking Japanese so I don’t get my water. Or maybe they don’t know the term!” he says smiling wryly.
Originally coming to Japan to learn budo, Japanese martial arts, he earnestly trained in kyudo (archery), kendo (Japanese fencing style), iaido (sword drawing), naginata (a halberd-like weapon), and nitoryu (two sword kendo). Wanting to devote his life to the concept of “Bunbu ryodo” (the dual path of the martial and cultural ways) he tried to find something cultural to balance his budo training. Trying to find that balance is how he was introduced to the world of chado. “Though I was relatively quick to learn the physical side of the arts, studying the language was more difficult for me. Even now I am not very skilled in using polite Japanese.” He says that chado, which used to just be a hobby, is now the center of his life.
Randy is also motivated to change tea’s traditional image and its rigidly formal ways. He often serves tea at wedding receptions to all the guests while also conducting a special presentation for the bride and groom. “Using a simple preparation with utensils set on a tray, on a table I prepare a bowl of usucha (thin tea) which the couple shares. Then I present them with the tea bowl. They are always delighted with the gift… the bowl is decorated with the kanji “kotobuki” (longevity). I am also honored to be present at the moment of their once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Three years ago, he opened a Japanese style cafe in an old Kyoto machiya, hoping to create a more relaxed atmosphere for people wishing to experience the culture of Japan’s traditional way of tea. The guests having Randy’s “tea experience” range in age from 5 to 80 and come from all over the world. “I recently looked at the guestbook and was surprised to see comments in 14 different languages! I am always impressed with the international interest in this art.”
“I treat bowls crafted by both national living treasures and anonymous artists the same way. I consider price to be insignificant, and it’s the same way I interact with people. Whether you have money or not is incidental. More important is the heart of tea. The Four Principles of tea set forth by SEN no Rikyu are ‘wa-kei-sei-jaku’ (Harmony, Respect, Purity and Tranquility) and putting these into your daily life while serving guests in this mindset brings hearts together in order to enjoy a bowl of tea.”
However, Randy believes that the tea ceremony needs to adapt in order to continue being accepted by the general public. “I often see nervous lecturers on stage at demonstrations who do not convey the pleasures of the art. Of course you cannot be too casual, but to stage an enjoyable performance in a relaxed atmosphere is vital to hold beginners’ interest.”
“I can communicate in both English and Japanese, so I do have some non-Japanese students, but I avoid translating the main tea terms such as names of the utensils used and some of the movements. Similar to other arts like ballet or even judo, wherever they are studied, original terms like ‘pas de deux’ and ‘ippon’ are taught.”
“Chado is a composite art form. A profound appreciation can be had within the combined beauty of the seasonal sweets, the utensils, and the sound of an iron kettle’s boiling water, all held in a rustic atmosphere. Regardless of nationality, tea has a certain appeal for those who are ready to experience it,” he says, referring not only to the students studying the art, but “to planting seeds of interest in others as well.”
Written on the hanging scroll in his room is the zen phrase, “kissako” which stated simply means “Drink tea!” “That’s how I feel at this time. I am not as aggressive now as when I was involved in martial arts. I would like to continue to communicate the charm of tea that helps one find their everyday mind,” he softly adds.
Text: KAWARATANI Tokiko