The most talked-about period drama of the last few years has to be the British series Downton Abbey, co-produced by Carnival Films and Masterpiece. However, lavish historical productions are certainly not novel elsewhere. In China, lore and legends of almost every reign, even from the most obscure such as the Southern and Northern Dynasties and the Sui Dynasty, have been dramatized. In Japan, NHK’s annual Taiga Drama, with its 50 episodes, seems more character-driven when it assumes the protagonist’s name as its title. In 2013’s undertaking, Yae no Sakura fictionalizes the life of Yamamoto Yaeko (1845-1932), later known as Niijima Yae, a female warrior born in the Edo Period (1603-1868) who lived well beyond Meiji Restoration (1868-1912). What may pique T Ching readers’ interest is her having a chamei (茶名) or tea name – Niijima Sōchiku being a tea master of the Urasenke (裏千家) School.

Sen no Rikyū (千利休), who was ordered by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to commit seppuku in 1591, had two legitimate sons: Sen Dōan and the adopted Sen Shōan (1546-1614). Shōan became Rikyū’s son-in-law when he married Rikyū’s youngest daughter Okame, and the couple gave birth to Sen Sōtan (1578–1658). It was the fourth generation blood-descendants of Rikyū; that is, Sōtan’s children who, under Sōtan’s guidance, founded the San-Senke (三千家): Not in Sakai, but in Kyoto. Sansenke literally means “Three Houses of Sen.”

Table and chair with traditional Japanese tea accoutrements upon it

Sōshitsu (1622-1697), Sōtan’s fourth son, inherited the one and three-quarter tatami tearoom Konnichian and established the Urasenke (裏千家) School. Through the centuries, other tearooms were constructed for various purposes, greatly enriching the estate. None, however, seem to be open to the public on a regular basis, thus one can only appreciate their exquisiteness and antiquity via website photos.

Peak of Japanese building just visible behind winter trees

Does the Japanese dictionary specify ura in Urasenke as an antonym of omote as in Omotesenke? Ura means back or inside, and omote means surface or outside. Kōshin Sōsa (1613–1672), Sōtan’s third son and successor, inherited the one and half tatami tearoom Fushin’an; which, being the front property, led to the school name: Omotesenke (表千家).

For his own retirement, Sōtan built Konnichian in the backyard and later bequeathed it to Sōshitsu. Now we know that Sansenke, or Three Houses of Sen, was not aimlessly named.

So what happened to Sōtan’s first and second sons born to his first wife? Sōtan’s first son, like Rikyū’s first son Dōan, seemed to have drifted into oblivion. Sōtan’s second son, Sōshu (1605-1676), established the third House of Sen Mushakōjisenke (武者小路千家), on Mushakōji Street. Kankyū-an is this school’s most famous tearoom.

Slightly reminiscent of the Rothchilds, the founding of the Three Houses of Sen incited no discord or sibling rivalry. There was a common mission statement though – Preservation and Remembrance. The passing of the centuries has transformed the three schools into independent entities. Discussion on the three schools’ differences, such as their tea ceremony practices, would warrant another post.

When Black Ships appeared and Captain Perry was mentioned in one of Yae no Sakura’s very first episodes, I thought, “Not again.  Not another drama about that conflict…” The previous Taiga production, Taira no Kiyomori (1118 -1181), was refreshing because it recounted an era when samurais were deemed base, second-class citizens. It unfortunately received low ratings in Japan.

This article has been reformatted and updated from the original May 2013 publication.

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