Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sawanaka Sensei

She is Sawanaka Sousui sensei. 澤中宗水先生。
先生 means teacher. 先 means ahead, and 生 means live.

The sensei is a master of chanoyu. We call chanoyu, simply ocha. She is my current ocha teacher. I asked her how she began her study of ocha.

“My first teacher was very strict,” Sawanaka sensei says. “She was an old female teacher in my neighborhood. After our marriage, we moved, and the owner of the house in front of our new home happened to be an ocha teacher. So, I jumped right in. The teacher was a man.”

Sawanaka sensei’s story is similar to my mother’s. They both practiced ocha even during WWII. Can you imagine that ocha artists were serving bowls of tea under B29 bombers flying over the sky? Well, maybe those artists carried their ocha utensils with them and retreated to a foxhole during a raid, but as soon as quietness returned, they came out of the hole with their pottery bowls pressed against their chests. That’s a scene I’d like to write.

“During the war,” Sawanaka sensei says, “when we could no longer buy or make sweets, we made our sweets out of yarns.”

“Out of yarns?” I say.

“Yes, sugar wasn't available,” she says, “We untied a used knitted sock and made our sweets.”

I just love listening to this kind of stories. I cannot express how much
I appreciate to be struck by the passion of an artist. So, I asked her if I could write about her and show her photos on my blog. She replied yes.

May is close to June, so Sawanaka sensei is wearing a single layer weaved kimono and a light green Nagoya obi. I look at her obi closely and touch her sleeve. The coolness of the kimono texture warms my senses. I imagine how I feel if I were wearing her kimono.

The obi and the band are darker green than they appear in the photo. Her coat is also very light greenish silk, and it is a classic design called yagasuri. Ya means arrow. Ocha performers depict the way to handle an arrow as in the Japanese archery when we pick a bamboo ladle or put it down.

Maybe, you haven’t worn a kimono in your life, so I will describe how I feel about it. When I’m wrapped in a gorgeous silk with a few proper undergarments and snuggly tied around in a long obi, I feel peace and beauty. For sure, my life becomes slower because I don’t want to soil my expensive kimono.

A good kimono has a therapeutic value. Either to wear one or just to look at it, it is enjoyable. I often stop and compliment the people who wear a gorgeous kimono. They are treasures, and if we wear one, we become treasures.

By the way, eight is the lucky number in our culture. This year is the luckiest year for Sawanaka sensei. She is 88 years young. It’s my lucky year, too, to meet her. She accepted me to her class even though I cannot sit down with my leg folded underneath. I have bad knees. Because of her kindness, I hope to learn as much as I can and as long as I can, and spread all her grace and sense of humor to the rest of the world.


Vincent said...

Fascinating but leaves me with lots of questions. "My current ocha teacher"? "My first teacher"? How many teachers, how many sessions, before one knows how to make tea? Or is it to achieve a kind of Zen enlightenment? Or to establish a nice relationship, like the Western habit of seeing a therapist?

Luciana said...

Rituals are therapeutic, they give us some certainty in a life full of uncertainties, and that can bring inner peace. When you are performing a ritualistic activity, at least in that moment, you know what is going to happen (unless you drop dead, but death is also a certainty, anyway ;-) )
More than teaching how to make tea, I think she´s teaching about life. Keeping a ceremony even during a war is a way of saying :maybe you can take everything, but you won´t take my soul. Admirable woman, Keiko. Her red lipstick at 88 is great!

jiturajgor said...

Happy to see picture of 'Sawanaka' and learning more about your mother and lastly seeing 'Vincent',as perfect as I had imagined.

keiko amano said...


First, I’m not an ocha expert, far from it.

Second, ocha offers many forms depending on occasion, season, month, and time of day. I’ll show you one of ocha games in my next blog.

Third, it isn’t easy to perform a basic procedure like a poem or music. Practitioners need to practice regularly to achieve and maintain the rhythm and contrasts. The ocha serving procedure is not only visual but also music. One of the sounds comes from water from a bamboo ladle, for instance. A performer controls the sound by moving the ladle filled with some water evenly and slowly, and in a swish, she or he drops the ladle at a close range to the opening of the iron kettle to rest. It makes a small comforting sound. I love the rustle of silk. And the steam and bubbling noises of hot water in coldest winter are my favorite.

Fourth, chanoyu is also called the way of tea (茶道). Any Tao or Dao (道) has no end. It only continues, and anyone could be a teacher. So, my mother used to get together with other ocha teachers and continued her learning. There are a lot to learn like any other arts. But out of all the arts I’ve ever known, probably ocha covers more arts than any arts. The sky is a limit, so to speak. You just have to try it and experience it when you can and as long as you can.

keiko amano said...


I like your phrase: “you can take everything, but you won’t take my soul.”

For many people even Japanese, ocha probably looks like a ritual. So I can understand your analysis of that element. But in my view, ocha itself isn’t a ritual. I wouldn’t have vote for the definition or translation into “ceremony or ritual” if I were invited at the time of making the first entry into a dictionary. I oppose it, and I’m not alone. I read that one master voiced the same opinion as mine many years ago, but his son only mentioned it in his book. The majority of people who use the word do not practice ocha, so, they don’t think deeply about meaning of the word.

Ocha is a way of life. Yes, it is totally different world, but it is a world. And ocha has been the center of all the traditional Japanese arts such as potteries, lacquer ware, all phases of kimono making, gardens, architecture, foods and presentation, calligraphy, poems, and of course, tea. It’s endless because everything we used to use and do belongs to Japanese arts even candles, charcoal, and papers. And we use candles, charcoal, papers, and just about everything depending on a theme which is created by an ocha practitioner-host.

No ocha meeting is alike. And performing to serve a bowl of tea is only a small part of the art. I think an effective ocha teacher must be a good project leader, book keeper, marketer, consultant for everything, and above all, a good model to followers. But, of course, she or he is an artist first. To realize their arts, they do everything including endless cleaning and study of literature and history and others. So, the art comes first. Therapy is a by-product.

keiko amano said...


I’m glad you stopped by and mentioned about Vincent. I’ll make a comment on it shortly.

I learned recently that the word order of the Hindu language is similar to the Japanese language. I was very surprised. Since Hindu use the same writing system, (deva nagari?) as Sanskrit, I used to think Hindu was similar to the Sanskrit grammar.

Anyway, ocha practitioners value words by Sanskrit.

keiko amano said...
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keiko amano said...
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Vincent said...

This is most interesting, Keiko, and of course I knew that the Japanese tea ceremony is not to be compared with any English ceremony of making tea for special visitors. I’m glad to learn a little more about it.

“But in my view, ocha itself isn’t a ritual . . .” There is a difficulty with your statement, Keiko, which it’s my duty to point out. In order to say it is not a ritual or ceremony it would be necessary to understand enough of those things which English-speakers call rituals and ceremonies, some of which are probably equally infinite and profound. And also to have a profound knowledge of the English language, before implying that a given English translation is inadequate!

You are fun to argue with, Keiko. Didn’t we have a similar argument about syllables? I can’t seem to find it now.

Rebb said...


First, I want to say how beautiful Sawanaka Sousui sensei is. I see her vibrancy and youth.

I enjoyed learning about ocha through your experiences and responses. Your descriptions are vivid and put me right there. Lovely! I feel as though I'm reading a memoir, Keiko. I can see a book of your experiences-- snapshots--about your culture, about language, living in both worlds.

"They are treasures, and if we wear one, we become treasures." I would love to experience that feeling.

I feel that in this blog, I have entered a sacred place, peaceful, calm. Thank you for sharing.

p.s. I think I know what you mean about way of life vs. ritual. Even though I don’t know the Japanese language, from my little bit of reading of Zen Buddhism in the past, reading your language blogs, and of my experiences, I feel the distinction, but cannot put words to it. It seems to come along with the worlds that are inherent in a language and not being able to adequately translate the “meaning” across cultures. Fascinating! And I was raised Catholic and watched my grandmother perform her morning rituals. For her it was a way of life too, but it was not an art per se. It was strictly a devotion and relationship with God via the Catholic religion expressed through ritual.

Luciana said...

This is fascinating! Keiko, you have to be patient with my western mind. Everything is fragmented into sections and we tend to see the world that way and search for analogies from what we have. Institutionalized religion, that should offer us some self-knowledge and, consequently, a way of life, is as distant from that as I am from Iceland ;-)
Your description of ocha only makes it even more valuable and now I understand perfectly why the ladies kept it during the war.

Vincent said...

Keiko, you've got me going on this topic. I have been looking up "tea ceremonies" in particular the British vs. the Japanese.

I discovered that a British anthropologist has a theory that tea made the Industrial revolution possible, for early nineteenth-century Britain was able to build huge cities in which waterborne diseases didn't kill off the population. 14th-century Japan also had huge cities. Boiling the water but in particular the antiseptic qualities of tea may have purified the water for drinking purposes. Follow this link.

keiko amano said...


Yes, Sawanaka sensei is vivrant and youthful. She is feminine and also humorous. She looks best in lavender. Last weekend, she wore a formal light lavender kimono and conducted an ocha party.

About feeling like a treasure, I saw a television program long ago about a therapy for autism patients. The scientists put a patient into a solid case like a sleeping bag. The patient seemed snuggle tight in it. The device helps patients calm down. It made sense to me because that was probably the similar feeling as the authentic way to wear a kimono and obi.

That also reminds me about some American Indian paintings. In those paintings, Indian women carry their babies tied by criss-crossing a rope. The first time I saw that painting probably in 70s, I felt sorry for the baby. But I put myself in the baby’s shoes, and I understood why Indian women wrapped babies in ropes. Those babies are content. They probably do not cry as much. There is something about freedom vs. restriction.

About your grandmother, I can imagine how others saw the way she worshipped her faith. It was her way of life. I see it’s the way to respect, love, and treasure.

keiko amano said...


No worry. Not many people are as patient and open as you. I appreciate it. On this subject, I would say that most Japanese people are unaware of the detail I write here. Even myself, I studied about it after my mother died.

By the way, ocha is not a religion though. I just wanted to make sure because someone asked me once.

keiko amano said...


In Japanese dictionary, we do have those words, ritual(儀式) and ceremony(礼式), But in the Japanese definition of chanoyu or chado, the above words do not appear, not even as a reference. So, I agree with the Japanese definition.

I thought your comment about English tea ceremony interesting. So, I typed “tea ceremony.” But I only saw a definition including “Japanese ritual.” I don’t know much about your culture. Do you have English tea ceremony? In Oxford dictionary, I don’t see chanoyu or chado. I’m a bit surprised about that because usually I find some Japanese words that I don’t expect them to be in English dictionary.

Thank you for the link. The significance of tea is interesting. I’m sure tea has been doing good things for our health for centuries. I love English tea. I drink it every day as well as green tea and coffee.

Vincent said...

Try tea ceremony in Wikipedia.

Just because the Japanese don't define it as a ritual or ceremony (using their translation of the English words) doesn't mean that it is not a ritual or ceremony to English speakers! We have a need to classify it as something.

I have come across the same reluctance to classify in religious cults. "Oh, we are not a religion, we are not a cult," they say.

The absence of chanoyu or chado in the OED merely means that they have not been adopted in the English language, unlike kimono, for example.

The English equivalent tea ceremony is not as formal, but I recognise very well the description in Wikipedia.

What particularly interests me about the Japanese tea ritual is its close observance of tradition and conformity.

The nearest thing in my experience is the church services known as Matins and Evensong, within the Church of England. These are performed preferably in an ancient church, let's say one built at least 800 years ago, with foundations possibly 1200 years ago. They are based on the Book of Common Prayer first issued in 1549, last amended in 1662. They can be performed anywhere, if needed. But in its most elaborate form, perhaps in a cathedral or richly-endowed Oxford or Cambridge chapel, choral Evensong would be accompanied by music (Organ Scholar plus organ), a large, well-trained choir, and settings (musical scores) written by English composers from Henry Purcell (1659-1695) to Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).

Are Matins and Evensong rituals or ceremonies? Someone involved in them would say "No, they are acts of worship". But anyone not involved would have to say "Yes, they are rituals, ceremonies. Their elaborations and differences are of intense interest to those who love them".

Different from the chanoyu and chado but interesting to compare.

keiko amano said...
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Vincent said...

Thanks for this Keiko. Now I am baffled all over again. I understand a little more what it is but not at all why.

I could understand why I might with a few friends or work colleagues hire a geisha for an evening. She is the one who has to undergo the training, not I.

But this! It reminds me of what someone said (it may have been Arthur Koestler) that Japanese Zen Buddhism was a way to escape the stifling conformity of Japanese culture, and allow a person to be truly spontaneous. (It was many years ago, and I may be misrepresenting the point he was making.) But even Zen practice, as I have deduced from books (e.g. those of DT Suzuki, about the Rinzai sect) can become fossilized into something that becomes the opposite of what it is supposed to be.

The articles you have linked to seem American and competitive to me; hinting that no matter how you serve tea in the special way, there is the risk of its not being good enough, missing the ultimate point, which is to have "the feeling of a one time/one meeting".

Well, if the geisha can give me this feeling, then she is worth the money. But perhaps I can get the feeling with a few beers in the right company, or with a lonely trek in the hills. At least with these, I have freedom! (Just as in this comment, I claim the freedom to tell you what I really think, rather than just express polite or sincere admiration of this highly sophisticated art.)

keiko amano said...

Vincent, Lu, Rebb, and Jitu,

I looked around for better English sites and found the following site written in the most appropriate way.

keiko amano said...


Like you, probably most people are puzzled to why ocha practitioners do what they do. I was one of them not too long ago and almost all of my life. I’ve never been a mountain climber, but growing up, I could relate to Mallory’s words, but not my mother’s. Now I know that her words were in essence the same thing. I respect the art, but I would never be a consistent practitioner like my mother or Sawanaka sensei.

Because of it, I had a great conflict with my mother, and that was why I stayed in the U.S. for 35 years, and that is also the reason why I started to write and keep on writing. This is a blog not out of my regret, but joy of my discoveries and appreciation after many years of the opposites.

Vincent said...

Bless you, Keiko, and please forgive me for pursuing you so relentlessly on this matter.

Now I understand everything, that is, I can visualise myself following in your footsteps and doing the same things, exactly!

keiko amano said...


Luciana is right. I see Falstaff in you. I can visualize that you are wearing a kimono and sit down with your legs folded underneath and try to serve a bowl of tea.

Actually, that's not a bad image.

Vincent said...

Wow. I have no recall of what I meant by saying "Now I understand everything, that is, I can visualise myself following in your footsteps and doing the same things, exactly!"

I think I must have referred to the consequences of your conflict with your mother.

Anyhow, now that you tell me that even Falstaff (wearing drag) can be invited to an ocha party, my opposition to it (inspired by fear of clumsiness) has vanished.

I like your latest post on the topic too!

keiko amano said...


Oh, I see. But still it’s the same thing. I’m taking an ocha class as the consequence of my conflict with my mother.

I believe ocha will be good for you because it’s totally different from what you used to do.

My mother had a student who was the head nurse of a large hospital here. My mother said ocha was helping the nurse’s busy life balance. The nurse came to our house for forty years. She used to live near us. After my mother died, she told me that in the beginning, my mother used to go see her at her home on weekend and wake her up, and persuaded her to join an ocha practice. The former nurse said she was sleepy, but she couldn’t say no to my mother, so she dressed, walked over to my home, and practiced ocha.

So, I want you to know that you are lucky you don’t live near my mother! Heehee.