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Steeped in Tradition

Steeped in Tradition

Set to speak at the Club this month, tea master Randy Channell Soei shares his journey in Japan’s world of urns and whisks.

"Know that chanoyu is simply a matter of boiling water, making tea and drinking it,” wrote Sen no Rikyu, who codified Japan’s tea ceremony into the art form known as chanoyu in the 16th century.

It sounds simple enough. Yet Rikyu’s summary belies the many steps involved in serving matcha tea and sweets properly, not to mention the ritual’s Zen Buddhist-based spiritual dimension.

Next year marks 500 years since the birth of Rikyu, and chanoyu has grown into an international movement over the centuries. One of its more unusual exponents in Japan is tea master Randy Channell Soei.

Bald and bewhiskered, Channell resembles a strongman from a 19th-century circus troupe. It’s perhaps not surprising that what drew him to Asia from his native Canada was a passion for martial arts. After studying kung fu in Hong Kong, he moved to Japan in the early 1980s to train in the country’s budo martial arts in the Nagano city of Matsumoto.

Cultivating the spirit of bunburyodo, the samurai ethos of pursuing military and cultural arts, Channell attended a tea serving hosted by his elderly neighbor, who would later become his mentor. It was a revelatory moment.

“As soon as I watched my sensei doing her movements, I could see the connection to the martial arts,” says Channell, demonstrating how a water container can be held like a sword or bow. “I was immediately quite enthralled with ‘the way of tea’ and thought it could become something more than just a passive hobby.”

Channell moved to Kyoto and studied at Urasenke Gakuen Professional College of Chado in the early ’90s. He received his “tea name,” Soei, in 1999, and reached the rank of kyoju, or professor, in the Urasenke school.

In addition to running his own café, he lectures across Japan on tea and is a professor at Doshisha University. He also penned The Book of Chanoyu: The Master Key of Japanese Culture.

Channell says his foreign students tend to be more interested in the spiritual side of the ceremony than their Japanese classmates, who view it as a form of etiquette. All his students, from children to octogenarians, study the art’s four principles of harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.

“Sometimes I give them tough love,” Channell says with a laugh, using the expression “ai no muchi,” the whip of love.

While Japan’s tea ceremony boomed during the 1980s, its popularity has waned in recent years. But Channell is confident it will evolve with the times. As proof, he points to a table designed in the 19th century for serving tea from a chair instead of a tatami mat.

What about the master’s own journey along the path of tea?

“I’m still learning. I’m at the proverbial tip of the iceberg,” Channell says. “Tea is an all-encompassing art form, and each facet of the way of tea is a lifelong study.”

TAC Talk: Randy Channell Soei
November 17 | 7–8pm

Words: Tim Hornyak
Top image: Randy Channell Soei