Steeped in mastery

Canadian in Kyoto has delved deep into one of Japan’s most respected traditions

Randy Channell Soei was in search of balance when he discovered tea. 

Born in Victoria, British Columbia, Channell took a roundabout route to the traditional Kyoto townhouse just a stone’s throw from Nijo Castle where today he hosts tea events and demonstrations. He is a professor of chado, or the way of tea, in the Urasenke tradition. 

Channell had a conventional Canadian upbringing, he agrees, having moved to Edmonton and attended Concordia College, but never in his formative years did he take classes in any way related to Asia.

Channell delivers a “TAC Talk” at Tokyo American Club in November.


“When I was very young, I did some judo at the YMCA and later started taekwondo, but as I was a big fan of Bruce Lee, I began studying kung fu. So I would say that, originally, I was more interested in China,” he told The Canadian. 

Channell left Canada for Hong Kong in 1977 to study his chosen martial art. While there, he first came to Japan to watch a friend do a kendo grading, a visit that he believes “planted a seed” of interest in living here. He returned several times over the next few years before moving here permanently in the early 1980s. 

After a few months in Tokyo — “I loved the city because it had such a different feel to Hong Kong, which by that time I was having a love-hate relationship with” — he moved to Matsumoto, in Nagano Prefecture, and took a position teaching English that, most importantly, also gave him plenty of time to devote to budo, or martial arts.


And it was here, he said, that the concept of bunburyodo really took hold. Handed down through the centuries, the phrase embodies the belief that a warrior should be just as accom­­plished in the cultural arts as in the skills required to defeat an enemy. It teaches that refinement and education are an important part of the balance. 

“At that point, I really only knew that there was a tea ceremony, not really anything about it,” he said. “As my training was focused on budo, I felt an imbalance. I needed to represent the cultural side to achieve the balance I wanted with my martial skills. To that end, I began studying calligraphy and koto, but I quickly realized I had abso­lutely no talent for either. 

“The woman who lived next door to me [Murakami Sodai] was a tea teacher and one day she invited me for a bowl of matcha with her,” he said. “That was the beginning of my own journey.”

Celebrating with Murakami Sodai on her 99th birthday. She introduced Channell to the way of tea.

Channell immediately sensed the perhaps surprising parallels between martial arts and the refined and elegant “way of tea.” 

“It was the way that she held the bowl and other implements, the way she moved, her posture,” he said. “There were clear similarities, but it went beyond that. It was the respect that was being shown, the precision of the movements. It was graceful, fluid and she made it all look so easy. I was enthralled by it all.” 

Soon, the way of tea became the balance that Channell needed for his martial arts. In time, however, it became the main focus of his studies. 


In 1993, he was given permission from Dr. Sen Genshitsu, the then-Grand Tea Master of the Urasenke tradition, to study at the prestigious Urasenke Gakuen Professional College of Chado in Kyoto. Over the next three years, his studies took in the history behind the tea ceremony, including its connec­tions to Zen and other tradi­tional arts, as well as the practical skills required to become a master. 

These include the actual procedures for serving tea, how to make the sweets used as accompaniments, and how to prepare and serve the traditional cha-kaiseki cuisine. There are two different types of matcha used in the way of tea — thick and thin — and the serving procedures vary accordingly. There are countless other important details that similarly need to be memorized.

Asked the most difficult skill to master, he does not hesitate: being able to sit in seiza, or on one’s knees, for hours on end. 

At the beginners’ level there are 16 “small teachings,” Channell said, as well as a myriad detailed procedures for serving tea in both summer and winter. 

Becoming completely competent in every facet is, he admits, “daunting.” 

Channell completed the course in 1996 and, three years later, was given the honorary “tea name” Soei. In 2011, he received his kyoju, or professorship, from the current Grand Tea Master, Sen Soshitsu XVI, Zabosai. Since becoming a tea master, Channell has given countless lectures and presentations at gatherings, conferences and demonstra­tions — yet he insists that he does not know every­thing about the “way of tea,” and he never will. 

“It is a lifetime of study,” he said. 


His shop, named ran Hotei, is a Kyoto machiya built in 1910 that had been converted into a pet shop with a private residence when Channell ob­tained it. Extensive work revealed the original wooden beams and earthen walls, in addition to a well and an air raid shelter beneath the floor.

“At the very heart of the way of tea are the four principles: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.”

Renovated throughout, it is now a combination of Taisho Roman era design (Taisho-style architecture and design with European elements) with a touch of Art Deco, serving as a café, gallery and art space that brings together East and West. Channell also uses ran Hotei for introductions to the art of tea, his visitors being both Japanese and from overseas. 

In addition, Channell lectures at Doshisha University in Kyoto, instructs at Nashinoki Shrine to the east of the Imperial Palace and was appointed an Ambassador of Hospitality for Kyoto City in 2016. In the same year, he published The Book of Chanoyu: Tea the Master Key to Japanese Culture, which is going into its fourth printing.

Photo: Russel Wong

In 2010, he launched his own line of matcha, with four varieties of both thick and thin tea, all produced from tea plantations in Kyotanabe, just south of Kyoto. 

And Channell insists that the way of tea is just as relevant in the 21st century as when samurai were striving to master its intricacies. 

“At the very heart of the way of tea are the four principles: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. First described about 500 years ago, they were as valid then as they are now and will be 500 years in the future,” he said.  

“They show the timelessness of the ideology of the way of tea. Striving to put the four principles into everyday life is a rewarding challenge, especially in these uncertain times,” he explained. “If we can add some serenity to our shared outlooks on life, that has to be positive.” 


Asked which Canadian he would most like to share a bowl of matcha with and, perhaps, coax into the mysteries of the way of tea, he instantly names actor Ryan Reynolds. 

“Several years ago, I was going through a rough time physically,” Channell said. “At around the same time, I was asked by the grand master to give a lecture just outside Tokyo. As luck would have it, there was a movie theatre complex right next to my hotel and the superhero film Deadpool was being shown. 

“I hadn’t seen a film in years, so I wanted to give myself a break,” he said. “I was crying into my popcorn right from the opening credits, both out of laughter and nostalgia. Very Canadian. So I’d like to repay the mo­mentary escape as well as the joy and healing Ryan Reynolds brought me. 

“I believe he would be interested in the refined nature of the serving. I’m sure he would enjoy the challenge of giving it a go himself and the complexities involved,” Channell said. “I think we would have an interesting conversation.” 

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