Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pasadena teahouse sent to Japan for restoration, then returned to America

I like to periodically post Japan related articles that I find especially interesting and this is one from the Los Angeles Times.

The Japanese tea ceremony has a long history and was also popular among some of Japan's greatest samurai warlords such as the powerful Oda Nobunaga and the great unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi of the late 16th century. The great tea practitioner from the late 16th century, Sen no Rikyu, was also an influential political confidant of Hideyoshi. But Rikyu somehow angered the great warlord, most likely some sort of political intrigue, and Hideyoshi ordered Rikyu to commit seppuku, ritual suicide. This is interesting because seppuku was generally performed only by a samurai, which Rikyu was not. This shows the important place in society that Rikyu held.

A Pasadena teahouse, falling on hard times, will be sent to Japan for restoration, then return to grace a new garden at the Huntington Library.

By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times

September 12, 2010

Japan's Grand Master of the Phoenix Cloud visited Los Angeles four decades ago and dedicated an exquisite teahouse to the public in the hopes of popularizing the sublime art of tea ceremony in the West.

Trained as a kamikaze pilot during World War II, the grand master saw tea as a way to promote peace, share Japan's cultural treasures and repair a national image battered by wartime militarism. The 400-year-old art expresses the values of harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity through the highly refined and ritualized making and serving of tea.

But the ceremony failed to catch on much beyond a small circle of Japanese Americans. The teahouse, given to the Pasadena Buddhist Church, declined in use. Termites began attacking the wood and paper structure, and the elderly couple who cared for the teahouse for decades no longer could do so.

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino has stepped in to rescue the teahouse as part of an ambitious $6.7-million project to restore its Japanese garden and develop an authentic tea garden. In collaboration with the grand master's Urasenke School and the Buddhist church, the Huntington hopes to use the teahouse to expose the art to a broader swath of society and develop a premier program for Asian garden arts, including the tea ceremony, flower arranging, bonsai and stone viewing.

James Folsom, the Huntington's botanical gardens director, said the ancient Japanese art is as relevant to Americans today as it was to the Zen monks and warring samurai who practiced it four centuries ago.

"When life is so hectic, when you're rushing around looking at e-mails, how do you remind yourself to stop and be human again?" Folsom said. "The tea ceremony reminds us to step out of that, to appreciate silence and tranquillity in the presence of others and to enjoy the beauty of the moment. We would hope that tea helps lead people to a change in their own lives."

The Urasenke Tankokai Los Angeles Assn. offered a farewell bowl of tea to several guests in the Pasadena teahouse. The house, designed by the grand master's brother, Sen Mitsuhiko, is a light and airy structure featuring woven bamboo ceilings, white papered shoji screens, bamboo tatami mats and the all-important alcove displaying the day's carefully selected Japanese scroll, vase and flower arrangement.

The gathering's hostess, Soen Clarkson, performed the tea ceremony's ritualized acts: First, fold a silk cloth to wipe the tea caddy and tea scoop. Place the powdered green tea in a specially selected bowl. Pour in water heated over a charcoal brazier. Whip the mixture into a froth with a bamboo whisk. Then, offer it to the guests along with Japanese sweets.

As the guests sipped tea, Robert Hori, vice president of Urasenke's Los Angeles chapter and director of advancement at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, explained his choices in selecting the various accoutrements for the occasion. The careful consideration of such items is part of the tea ceremony's spirit of hospitality as the host aims to capture the gathering's treasured and irreplaceable moment.

The boat-shaped vase pointing outward symbolized the teahouse's departure from the Pasadena church, he said. A Rose of Sharon and bush clover, both short-lived blooms, reflect the transiency of life. The scroll of Japanese calligraphy was used when the grand master dedicated the teahouse, named the Arbor of the Pure Breeze, in Pasadena in 1965.

And for the day's tea scoop, Hori selected a utensil named "gratitude."

"We're really grateful for the opportunity to give the teahouse a new life," he said. "It's the end and it's the beginning."

Tea was first taken to Japan from China by a Buddhist monk in the 9th century. But it was not until the 16th century that Sen Rikyu perfected the Way of Tea by incorporating into it Zen elements of simplicity and oneness with nature. By designing a teahouse with an entrance forcing guests to lower their heads and crawl through, the tea master also sought to eliminate social distinctions.

Fourteen generations later, Sen's direct descendent, Tantansai — the Grand Master of Purity and Serenity — served tea to American Occupation forces in Japan. That, in turn, inspired his son Hounsai to move beyond his military training and lingering disdain for Americans and dedicate his life to international harmony through tea. In 1965, he visited the United States to officially dedicate the teahouse his father had bequeathed to the church.

Sosei Matsumoto, a 90-year-old tea master lauded for her accomplishments by President Clinton and the emperor of Japan alike, was the first to teach tea ceremony in the new Pasadena teahouse. The structure, she recalled Sunday, was used for classes every week, with special tea ceremonies for New Year's and the summer Obon festival honoring ancestors.

But the Pasadena tea group failed to expand and dwindled to about seven students, said Yaeko Sakahara, also 90, who took over the classes from Matsumoto more than three decades ago. One of the major obstacles, she and others said, is the traditional requirement to sit on bamboo mats with legs folded under, a position that can turn legs numb after a few minutes. Tea ceremonies can last from 20 minutes to four hours.

Another obstacle to sustaining interest in tea is growing acculturation among younger generations of Japanese Americans, said Irene Takemori, Pasadena temple president.

"The younger generation is more interested in sports and don't have a lot of time for this cultural stuff," Takemori said. "It's really a shame, because it's such a beautiful experience to drink tea and find peace of mind."

When health issues began to preoccupy Sakahara, the teahouse's future hung in the balance.

Enter the Huntington. The renowned cultural institute had been looking for a Japanese teahouse after one of its donors, Mary B. Taylor Hunt, bequeathed a $2.6-million endowment for an authentic Japanese tea garden and related cultural programs. The Huntington's nine-acre Japanese garden, designed by founder Henry Huntington and William Hertrich, reflects a Western interpretation of Japanese aethestics but is not considered authentic, Folsom said.

After months of consideration, the Pasadena Buddhist Church decided earlier this year to donate the teahouse, clearing the way for the transfer.

The Huntington plans to close the current Japanese garden next year for several months of renovation, including restoration of its ponds and a traditional Japanese house. The new two-acre garden will be installed behind the house, along with the Pasadena teahouse. The grand reopening is expected to occur in 2012, in time for the garden's centennial anniversary, Folsom said.

This week, carpenters from Japan are scheduled to fly to Los Angeles and begin dismantling the teahouse. The pieces will be shipped to Kyoto, restored, then sent back to the Huntington.

Folsom said the Huntington, working with the region's tea schools and the Buddhist church, will seek to popularize the Japanese art, possibly using more ceremonial forms that allow practitioners to sit in chairs rather than on folded legs, among other ideas.

For the longtime guardians of the teahouse, Sunday's farewell was bittersweet.

"The teahouse has been an integral part of the temple, so it's a little sad to have it depart," Takemori said. "But it's in the best public interest and for the best use of the teahouse."



  1. A bowl of matcha a day keeps the doctor away. I studied chado for one year at Gifu University (Urasenke). It did recharge my batteries after a long day of work.

  2. Like the article said, I think more Americans would benefit from this activity.

  3. I agree with you. The world could use some tea'

  4. Not just tea, but the aspect of slowing down and taking a moment of peace and quiet and relaxation.

  5. Wow, nice article. And what a good project to restore the tea house. It has historical significance.

    I'm totally with you on the need for slowing down...