I had the privilege of attending an Omotesenke chakai this last weekend. Even though I have participated in chakai in Japan, it was very educational to be able to see it again in a much more intimate setting.
I get asked all the time about the differences between Omotesenke and Urasenke. I usually respond that I don’t study Omotesenke, so I cannot really compare and contrast the pros and cons of each. But I’d like to offer a few observances from the perspective of being a guest.
Our host is an experienced tea sensei from Japan. In fact, she is a third generation tea teacher. She prepared the chakai for us, knowing that most if not all the guests were from the Urasenke tradition.
What surprised me, when it really shouldn’t have, was how similar the chakai was to Urasenke style. After all, the history is the same, the aesthetics are the same, it’s connection to Zen is the same. the utensils are the same, and the order of the temae is the same. I felt very comfortable attending the chakai because most of it is the same as a typical Urasenke chakai: The tokonoma display is the same, the sweets are the same, nearly all the utensils are the same, and the order of the temae is the same. In fact, if I were just coming to Chanoyu for the first time, I think I would be unable to distinguish a difference in the two schools.
But because I was observing very closely and paying attention there are a few small differences. One is that the sweets were served in a covered dish. Another difference is that the inspecting and preparing the whisk is not as vigorous and the whisk was made of smoked bamboo, rather than the white bamboo we use. One other thing that tickled me was the beginning of folding the fukusa. It was opened with a snap and then folded in a very similar manner that we use. The final thing I noticed was that the tea was not completely foamy on the top, though it was thoroughly mixed and was really delicious.
Though there have been some misconceptions about the differences in the tea schools, to me, it really doesn’t matter what school of tea you study. Some say that one or the other school likes to show off expensive utensils, or that the way they whisk the tea is because they use inexpensive tea. Some people say that there is a big rivalry between Urasenke and Omotesenke, but I have not had that experience. In Kyoto they invite each other to chakai. The headquarters for the schools are right next door and they are related. In our chakai, we all got along very well with not hints whatsoever about rivalry. It was another experience of sharing a bowl of tea and everyone thinking of each other.
What school of tea should you study? Find a teacher that you can study with for a long time who is willing to teach you and study the school that they teach.