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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Canadian martial artist finds the way to tea of tranquility

Randy Channell turns Kyoto shop into stage for interaction, venue for traditional moves


Special to The Japan Times

The intricate stained glass window in the heavy wooden door provides an artistic and unusual welcome. Stoop inside the restored Kyoto machiya (town house) and step into a future melded with the past. Drinking in the Art-Deco/Taisho roman decorations, your eye moves away from the geometric stained glass and antique wooden tables to savor the dessert window, an eclectic collection of Western sweets and Japanese decorative wonders destined to complement traditional Japanese tea.

News photo
Randy Channell serves tea at his traditional Japanese tea and sweet shop, ran Hotei, in Kyoto. COURTESY OF RANDY CHANNELL

Randy Channell himself embodies the values he sells at ran Hotei, his traditional Japanese tea and sweet shop. Channell's strength towers over a discipline usually associated with kimono-clad femininity. The contradictions and chaos of a modern life lived in ancient harmony permeates both the room and Channell himself, a once and future martial artist who became interested in tea as the way to balance "the way."

Like many others back in the 1970s, Channell became fascinated with martial arts through the movies of Bruce Lee.

Raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Channell practiced judo as a child, but admits it "was just something to play with my friends." In his teens, Channell discovered Chinese kung fu and, after university, decided to study martial arts in Hong Kong. His main focus was Hung Gar kung fu with Chiu Chi Ling, a famous actor and kung fu master.

"Originally I came to Asia to study martial arts in the 1970s. My first real study back in Canada was in tae kwon do and "hapkido," following it with Hueng Kuen and Wing Chun," Channell says. "At the beginning, since I was mostly a Chinese martial artist, I had no interest in Japan at all."

Channell instead lived and worked in Hong Kong, devoting himself to various Chinese martial arts. Something, however, was missing for the young enthusiast.

"I didn't feel satisfaction with the way kung fu was progressing in my studies in Hong Kong. I couldn't see the michi or the way. It was probably the way my mind-set was when I was younger. When I was still in Hong Kong I learned the Chinese equivalent of the Japanese phrase, 'bunbu ryodo' - the martial and the cultural way, together — so that was very interesting to me."

His search for the cultural aspect led him to Japan, where a friend was studying kendo and iaido. Settling in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in 1984, Channell focused on the way of Japanese martial arts, but also began his search for a cultural way.

Shodo (Japanese calligraphy) and the koto were his first two ventures into the world of Japanese culture, and "apparently, I had little talent at either," Channell says, laughing.

Coincidentally, his neighbor's wife was a teacher of tea, chanoyu, and Channell impulsively decided to try. "On my first lesson, there were so many similarities between the way of tea and the way of the martial arts I was doing; a lot of the movements, the postures, the Zen philosophy. There were many connecting points that made it instantly interesting to me."

Channell's main focus was still on the physical, but his mental side had finally been fully engaged with the practice of tea. His practice of tea ceremony grew slowly: two or three lessons a month as he focused on his martial arts skills. Channell impressively built up a range of titles: Renshi 6 dan in Nito Ryu, Renshi 5 dan in Tamiya Ryu lai, in addition to 5 dan in kyudo and Yudansha in kendo, iaido and naginata. Put together with his accolades in Hong Kong (his teacher awarded him the honor of teaching permission status, as kung fu does not employ a dan system) and Channell's accomplishments in a spectrum of martial arts is staggering.

He shrugs off praise. "I attend the International Seminar of Budo Culture, sponsored by the education ministry and the Nippon Budokan, every year, and was lucky to experience many modern as well as traditional budo (martial arts) I studied some type of martial arts every day, with Saturdays and Sundays for gradings and tournaments."

One of those tournaments was held in Kyoto, and the peace and culture in Kyoto resonated. "Ten years into my time in Japan, and I felt I had progressed quite a bit in the martial arts. I wanted to go to the other side to progress my cultural arts to the same level as my martial arts."

The next obvious step for Channell was to enroll in the Urasenke Gakuen Professional School of Chado, a tea ceremony school in the Urasenke tradition in Kyoto. He entered the school in 1993, and moved permanently to Kyoto. With the same concentration he employed in martial arts, he now turned toward tea.

Channell graduated in 1996 with a teaching license for the way of tea. In 1998, he was granted an advanced teaching license, and received a tea name, Soei, in 1999. In 2001, he received the title of associate professor, and in April was awarded the professor status.

Teaching since 1996, Channell opened his own tea shop, ran Hotei, in 2007. "The shop gives me the opportunity to serve and introduce tea to the many who would like to experience the way of tea."

Channell readily admits he has much more to study: "Tea is a complete art form. In Japanese they call it a sogo bijutsu or sogo geijutsu. You have everything in tea: flowers, ceramics, woodwork, metalwork, calligraphy, pottery, to name but a few. It is an all-encompassing artwork, and each one of those venues in itself could be a lifelong practice. As a tea master, the complexity is what makes it more intriguing, the Zen side of it, not only the obvious procedure of making tea, but also bringing things together harmoniously.

"We have a saying in tea: 'wa, kei, sei, jaku' — harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. These are the goals we strive for in chanoyu."

Channell recently created his own blend of tea, choosing the leaves from small farms in Kyoto to create his own brand to use in the shop and with the tea ceremony, an innovation well received with the first year's crop already sold out.

He teaches frequently for both English- and Japanese-speaking visitors at Nashinoki Shrine in the city and is often called upon by the Kyoto Municipal Government to teach at local cultural centers, or to participate in lectures or panels, like a recent one for the Tanabata festival, featuring Channell and movie director Naomi Kawase and National Living Treasure Kunihiko Moriguchi.

Channell also teaches an introductory course about chanoyu at Doshisha University's International Institute.

Although his work with tea has made him something of a cultural ambassador, Channell emphasizes he is not so concerned with the small, intricate details of the tea ceremony when lecturing or making presentations. "I just want to plant a seed of interest, so if people get the chance to pursue the study of tea, the interest is already there."

All his cultural work leaves him little time now to actively practice martial arts, but Channell still feels the connection with his practice of tea. "Still, in my heart, I am a martial artist first and a tea person second.

"Tea is the No. 1 representative cultural art of Japan. If any dignitary from overseas comes to Japan, the first thing they are going to do is receive tea," he says. "Tea is about the interaction between host and guest. An interesting comparison is that tea is like an interactive stage. You, the guests or audience, are actually an integral part of the art form. We both have our own lines and movements. In many other traditional arts, you are simply the audience or the observer."

For information about ranhotei, check www.ranhotei.com


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