Thursday, July 3, 2008

Tales from the Back of the House

Okay, I know it’s been a while since I updated the blog, but I have a good excuse – I was in Japan for two weeks in June, one of which I spent studying at Urasenke in Kyoto.

Before I get into classes themselves, let’s talk about where Urasenke comes from. Back in the day, by which I mean, of course, the Momoyama Period (1573-1603), the man who was widely acknowledged as the most skilled tea pracitioner in Japan was Sen no Rikyu. Most of the tea ceremony schools in modern Japan trace their lineage back to him in some way, either through the family line or through one of his disciples.

There are three schools that descend through the family line: Omotesenke, Urasenke, and Mushonokojisenke. You’ll notice that they all end in “senke.” “Sen” is the family name, and “ke” can be roughly translated as “residence.” So, Omotesenke means “the front of the Sen residence,” Urasenke is “the back of the Sen residence,” and Mushanokojisenke is “the Sen residence on Mushanokoji Street.”

Intellectually, I knew this before I arrived, but it was still funny to me to realize that the headquarters for Urasenke and Omotesenke – two very large and prestigious tea schools – are right next to each other. You could open a window in Urasenke, throw a rock, and hit someone from Omotesenke, although I’m sure that never happens.

The grounds of Urasenke are a study in contrast. On one side, the property borders Horikawa Street, which is a wide, busy road. The Urasenke offices, which handle the school’s business affairs, is a modern, multistory office building. Right beside it, however, are a series of family temples and shrines that look like they could have been built centuries ago (probably were).

Here’s a picture of the office building:

One of the family shrines:

And the gate that leads from a back street into the grounds:

One of the Urasenke teachers told me that it used to be that if you wanted to get to Urasenke, you had to take that back street through the Omotesenke residence – there was no direct access.

The grand master (Oiemoto) of Urasenke lives on the same grounds, right next to the office building – in fact, there’s a guard on the back street that leads into the offices because it also leads past Oiemoto’s residence. (By Japanese standards, it’s a fairly large house, but coming from the U.S. I was surprised at how modest it looked.)

Also on the Urasenke property is the school building and other related buildings, like the student cafeteria. More on the school coming up in the next post

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