On the grounds of its headquarters in Kyoto, Urasenke has built a school where students can come and study tea full-time. Japanese-speakers have the option of taking a three-year course, which, upon graduation, confers “tea god” status. (Okay, not really. But it’s still a pretty impressive accomplishment.) For foreigners, there’s an English-language program called Midorikai, where you can study for up to one year. When I was there, I spent a week sitting in with the Midorikai students.
First, a bit about the building itself. The first floor has a kitchen (a Western-style kitchen, that is, and it’s huge, like something you’d find in a cooking school) and a series of four or five tearooms. Each room is an eight-mat room – that’s eight tatami mats, which is about twelve feet by twelve feet square – and its own separate mizuya, or preparation/utensil storage area. The fusuma (sliding doors) between the rooms can be removed to make a huge space when they need one. The tearooms open toward the kitchen on one side, and on the other, sliding doors lead to a long, narrow moss garden.
The second floor is all Western-style classrooms – not all that different from a typical college here in the U.S. Well, okay, except for the bathrooms. The second floor also features a library of tea materials, and you’ll often find students in there studying in between classes.
The third floor is all open space covered with tatami mats. This is the “overflow” class space; you might have two, three, or even four classes operating side by side, sharing one large mizuya space.
Students wear kimonos every day, even to lectures – they have to, because once they get started, there’s no time to change. Midorikai students start the day with two hours of classes, followed by about half an hour for lunch. Afternoons are three straight hours of tea lessons. Immediately after lunch, the students go to their classroom (they rotate through the available classrooms so that they’re not always in the same spot) and start getting set up.
Setup duties are broken up among different students – one student hangs the scroll, one arranges the flowers, one makes sure there’s tea in all the containers and that sweets have been brought from the kitchen, one arranges the lit charcoal in the brazier (the night before, another student prepares the ash bed for the fire – in the summertime, it’s an exacting process that can take an hour or more). By the time the teacher arrives, everything has to be ready, and all the students are sitting in the tearoom and waiting.
The students greet the teachers simultaneously, and then immediately, whoever is making tea first asks the teacher for a lesson and then goes outside the room to finish setting up. One of the other students slides forward to act as the guest for the lesson, and the rest of the students observe. The student who’s acting as the host pauses at the door to greet the teacher and the guest, and then proceeds to go through whichever tea ceremony he or she is doing that day. There are many, many variations on tea ceremony; in Midorikai, the students all do the same temae, or tea procedure, on the same day, so they can all watch each other. The student acting as the guest eats a sweet and drinks the tea, and then they switch off, so that everybody has a chance to do tea and drink tea before the afternoon is over.
Students have class Monday through Friday, and sometimes events on weekends, too. They’re pretty much living and breathing tea ceremony for an entire year. What kind of person does this? Well, most of them had some prior experience with tea in their home country – in fact, unless you qualify for one of Urasenke’s special scholarship programs, you have to be recommended by a licensed teacher in order to go to Midorikai. Urasenke doesn’t charge them tuition – the goal of Midorikai is that the graduates go back to their home country and promote tea ceremony there by doing demonstrations and telling others about tea. Some of the students who were there when I went had been studying tea for many years, although there were also some beginners. At the end of a year of study, though, everyone leaves an expert. A year at Midorikai is the equivalent of 7-10 years of private lessons.
Next up: Some of the tea places I visited while in Kyoto…