The Way of Tea: Wellspring of Omotenashi, Part 1

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Sochi Yamamoto

    Main guest

    Sochi Yamamoto is one of the few tea masters from the Urasenke tradition, one of Japan’s leading schools of tea. He teaches the way of tea to Japanese and foreigners alike. At the request of the government and companies, he also gives lectures on heartfelt omotenashi, or Japanese-style hospitality, and how it relates to tea ceremony.

  • Randy Channell Soei

    Guest

    Born in Edmonton, Canada, Randy Channell took up unarmed combat from an early age. Following time spent in Hong Kong in order to learn authentic kung fu, in 1985 he traveled to Japan to study the Japanese martial arts, working as an English teacher in the city of Matsumoto. He eventually decided to complement his martial prowess with deeper aesthetic insights through the traditional Japanese tea ceremony (chado/sado). Drawn deeper into this world, he relocated to the ancient capital city of Kyoto to study with Urasenke, one of Japan’s leading schools of tea. These days, having received the name Soei (in recognition of his devotion to the way of tea) and a tea instructor’s license, he spends his days guiding disciples.

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December 12, 2017

The Way of Tea: Wellspring of Omotenashi, Part 1

*You will leave the NHK website.

Tea ceremony, tea gathering, the way of tea, cha-no-yu, chado, sado...no matter what you call it, this elegant, centuries-old practice is often said to be the key to understanding the Japanese spirit of omotenashi—the mindful hospitality that remains a hallmark of Japanese culture to this day. In this special two-part edition of Japanology Plus, we look at how the tea ceremony is performed, its complex set of rules, and its ties to modern Japanese life, in which it serves as the wellspring of omotenashi.

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Program host Peter Barakan gets a lesson in tea from expert guest Sochi Yamamoto.

A tea ceremony, very simply put, is a gathering in which a host prepares tea for a guest or guests. But with its myriad rules, customs and steps (a full-fledged version can take hours), the overall experience is as important as the tea itself.

Most people in Japan will associate the Way of Tea with tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). While Rikyu did not invent the tea ceremony, he is credited with establishing many of the most important principles of the ceremony that live on to this day, such as an appreciation of silence and aesthetic simplicity.

Near the end of his life, Rikyu served as the personal tea master for Oda Nobunaga and, later, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, two of the three leaders famed for uniting Japan. Rikyu was especially close to Hideyoshi, becoming a close confidant. This did not end well for Rikyu, however; for reasons not entirely clear, he was eventually ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) by the great unifier. The tea master's influence on Japanese aesthetics and hospitality, however, lives on over 400 years after his death.

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The simple, austere aesthetic of tea rooms owes much to Sen no Rikyu's influence.

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Sen no Rikyu favored black bowls like this for serving the thick green tea called koicha.

Two of the Japanese words for tea ceremony are "chado" and "sado"—and that "do" (pronounced like "dough") shows a clear relationship between the tea ceremony and other parts of traditional Japanese culture. The character for "do" literally means "way," and it's the same one used in martial arts like judo, aikido, and kendo. The connection between swordsmanship and tea, for example, might not be immediately obvious, but each of these "ways" involves both pre-determined forms learned through endless repetition and a mindful hospitality between teacher and student, or guest and host.

This mindful hospitality, or omotenashi, perfected in the way of tea, has extended far beyond the ceremony and become an essential part of Japanese culture. As we see in multiple modern-day examples in part two of the program, omotenashi is the foundation of Japanese customer service. Omotenashi-style service is a fixture of industries from travel to lodging to retail—and, much like the tea ceremony, is less a one-way street than a mutual understanding between the customer and service provider.

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According to expert guest Yamamoto, omotenashi requires mindfulness from all parties involved. 

One intriguing consequence of Japan's high-grade hospitality: Japanese consumers have become some of the world's most discerning. According to a 2017 survey, over half of Japanese consumers "take their business elsewhere after one bad service experience"—that's compared to just a third in countries like the U.S., the U.K. and Canada.

The word omotenashi itself was thrust into worldwide consciousness during Tokyo's bid for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, when it was used to successfully convince the International Olympic Committee to choose the city to host the games. Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the games, travel to Japan is on the rise. As of 2016, Japan has had four years of record-setting international visitors, and one 2016 survey revealed over 93% of visitors were either "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with their trip—a result thanks in part, no doubt, to omotenashi. At the same time, the influx represents an interesting challenge: if, indeed, omotenashi requires a mutual give-and-take between host and guest, can it be adapted to include visitors who may not be familiar with Japan's version of hospitality?

Then again, if the ideals of Sen no Rikyu have survived over four centuries, it seems fair to assume they're going to be around for a while yet.

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The way of tea and omotenashi seem posed to last into the 21st century and beyond.

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Orthodox tea utensils withstand the tests of time.

*You will leave the NHK website.