Japanese Version

Master of Tea: Makoto Iwasaki



Master of Tea: Makoto Iwasaki

by Steve Beimel…………

Photography by Helen Hasenfeld

Gen Iwasaki


Makoto Iwasaki is a tea master in the Omotesenke line that dates back to the great tea master, Sen no Rikyu, in the late 1500’s.  He has spent all of his adult life studying and teaching the Way of Tea.  


The Way of Tea is at once a complex and simple process consisting of scores of proscribed ways of preparing and serving tea to guests.  Each way may be compared to a dance routine that is memorized.  When executed well, the movements appear comfortable, natural and even unplanned like when a dancer transcends painstakingly memorized steps and simply surrenders to the heart and body.  Listening to the steady sound of a water kettle simmering in a quiet tearoom can awaken the awareness of the quiet inside one’s own heart.  Viewing a finely crafted ceramic bowl in a nearly empty and somewhat sensory deprived tearoom can be a highly charged experience in art appreciation.  One can learn the mechanics of tea, but inner processes like these cannot be taught.  They can only be experienced.


tea cake 1_1


Masters of tea are renaissance people.  As experts in Japanese ceramics, they must understand a body of ceramic work which is more varied in style, more technically advanced, more artistically sophisticated than all ceramics in the world, combined.  They must also understand Japanese lacquer ware, textiles and crafted bamboo.  Masters of tea are also adept at calligraphy and flower arrangement.  In a country with a highly structured social system, they excel as consummate hosts who are accomplished in the high art of Japanese hospitality and who perpetuate the traditional celebrations of life found in Japanese culture that appear almost daily throughout the calendar year.


Though family name and legacy are important in Japan and though there is an almost aristocratic aura surrounding the world of tea, it can also be surprisingly egalitarian.  “I was born on a farm in Fukushima,” Makoto Iwasaki tells japanlivingarts.com readers. “It was a town almost completely wiped out by the 2011 tsunami.” He goes on to say that “after graduating from high school I went to work for a company outside of Tokyo and joined a flower arranging class for employees.  Later I joined a tea class as well.  After three or four years, I really wanted to pursue tea more deeply.  Knowing that studying at the headquarters of a tea school in Kyoto would provide me with a more intense experience, I went there unannounced and knocked on the door of the grand master of the Omotesenke.  However, I was unable to gain entry as a naka deshi (highly coveted position of full time, live-in disciple).  I went to Kyoto many times, playing hooky from work, but was unsuccessful each time.


whisking in red cup


“So, I decided to quit my job, move to Tokyo and take night classes at Ikenobo Ochanomizu Gakuin (a college specializing in Japanese traditional arts such as ikebana and tea.)  Just before I left I got a call from the tea master Hisada Sosho, inviting me to come to Kyoto to talk. It seems that my perseverance in going over and over, knocking on doors and making my request known had left a positive impression.  Hisada-san was very kind and invited me to join his tea classes.  Because I hadn’t been to college, he suggested that I go to Ikenobo Junior College in Kyoto.  So at 23 years of age, I enrolled as a freshman.”


During his first year in Kyoto, Iwasaki looked for a Zen temple where he could live and work doing cleaning.  Cleaning is one of the most important spiritual training methods in the traditional world in Japan.  The way people approach cleaning reflects their focus, integrity, perseverance, awareness and attitude.  He recounts that “I eventually found work at Daisen-in Temple at Daitoku-ji, where I was given a room. The following year I began to do some tea-related assisting at another Daitoku-ji temple, Zuiho-in.  One more year later, 1975, I graduated from the two-year college course.”





After graduating Iwasaki was finally invited to become a naka deshi with the 15th generation grandmaster of Omotesenke.  It was a chance-of-a-lifetime opportunity and “what I had originally dreamed of doing.  However, rather than going on to such a wonderful position, I decided to stay with Hisada-sensei and become his full time disciple at his family home at Nijo Takakura Hansho-an. I have been with the Hisada family ever since.”  To me, this is a touching example of traditional Japanese loyalty – to remain with the teacher who gave him his first big chance, provided him with valuable guidance and opportunities and thus nurtured his career. 


The Hisada family lineage stems back to a connection by marriage to the Sen family in the late 1500’s.  “My late teacher was the 12th generation of that line of tea masters.  I met my late wife Michiko at Ikenobo College, where she was a student.  Maeda-osho-san of Zuiho-in was our nakodo (go-between).  A couple years later, I began to teach at the Zabokai tea classes at Zuiho-in, which I still do. And, to this day, I go to the home of Hisada sensei every day to do what I can to support him.”




According to Iwasaki, to work in the tea world and live near Daitoku-ji in Kyoto’s Murasakino district has been his dream fulfilled. He loves having a quiet place to teach tea in this historic area.  I was particularly impressed with entrance to Iwasaki’s house.  He transformed what would normally have been an ordinary alley into a lovely long, narrow delicately landscaped approach lined with a cedar bark fence.   


In the west we are often encouraged to “live in the moment,” and “take time to smell the roses.”  These are easy words to say but difficult to put into practice.  The Way of Tea, on the other hand, teaches a practical methodology to accomplish just that.  Says Iwasaki, “we learn the practice of tea one drop at a time.  And, more important than strictly learning techniques, we develop the ability to enjoy, to hear, to see, to take things into our hearts.  There is a physical limit to the taste of food, of sweets and of tea.  Only so much can be done to improve the taste.  However, as the attentiveness and awareness of the student becomes sharpened through training, the tea they prepare actually becomes more delicious.  As we study tea, and as the small, life enhancing things we learn get incorporated into our daily lives and accumulate there, and as we become able to learn with our bodies rather than our minds, we develop the ability to approach life with an open heart, a heart of gratitude.”  By focusing on what is present here and now, we notice that “now” is not at all static, but constantly evolving.  “We attune to subtle seasonal changes as they unfold before our eyes.  We experience an ongoing exuberance for what is present, with a joyful anticipation as the present moment moves into the next.  I often tell students to observe and feel.”  As Sotan, the early 17th century tea master, said, “Tea is Zen.  Zen is Tea.”


purple napkin


“Nowadays, we can buy any kind of fruit, vegetable or flower that we want, any season of the year.  However, even without that we already have abundance that is naturally occurring in our lives every day.    Motenashi, or the true spirit of hospitality, is to expose our guests to what is right before their eyes.  Motenashi is essential to Tea, and is an ability that needs to be nurtured and developed.  You cannot create that kind of atmosphere for your guests if you are not paying attention yourself.  Kizuku kokoro (a heart that is aware and notices) is something that we all need to continually cultivate.  


“Over the years in the world of tea, people have come to really pay attention to the placement of tea ware.   [In a tea event, there can be up to 300 different implements including ceramics, lacquer ware, metal, bamboo and paper. The selection and artistic combining together of those implements is a creative act, keeping in mind the season, time of day and the personality of the guests.] Through this arrangement of beautiful objects we hope that our guests will be moved and experience the food that they eat, the tea they drink as wonderfully delicious.  As we practice in the tearoom, we learn to experience life with an open heart.” 


I liken the practice of tea to the dancer who has learned choreographed steps with discipline, patience and impeccability.  Like the dancers who then transcend the mind and begin to let their bodies dance, the tea student is eventually able move past the mechanics of tea to a state of mindfulness that is almost palpable.  Then, time stands still for all involved and the moment shared in the tearoom becomes indescribably delicious.