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Steeped in Tradition

As Sosei Matsumoto Teaches It, the Ancient Art of the Tea Ceremony Is the Picture of Artistry and Serenity

September 29, 1996|KIM KOWSKY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The has the eye of a painter, the grace of a ballerina and the sensibility of a poet.

She is Sosei Shizuye Matsumoto, America's most revered teacher of a ritual that, while obscure in the United States, has almost liturgical significance in Japanese culture: the tea ceremony.

The 76-year-old cultural icon, who performed the intricate ceremony for Congress in 1994, lives in a modest, though ornately decorated home in Los Angeles. There, in a wood and paper tearoom that her late husband hand-built for her, Matsumoto has taught Chado, "The Way of Tea," to more than 1,000 students.

For her, tea has been far more than a drink. For this Japanese American woman with a divided cultural identity, tea has been a refuge.

Everything about Matsumoto's life--from the flowers in her garden to the hundreds of ceramic and porcelain bowls that fill her cabinets--revolves around tea.

"She is a living encyclopedia," says Robert Hori, gallery director of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center and one of her students. "She is the link . . . to a tradition of tea which goes back 400 years."

Her graceful performance of the four-hour ceremony embraces flower arranging, calligraphy, ceramic arts, cuisine, poetry and fabric design. It has earned her accolades from President Clinton and the honor of meeting Emperor Akihito.

Matsumoto, who became a National Endowment of the Arts National Heritage Fellow in 1994, accepts her role as a cultural ambassador between Japan and the United States.

She endures without complaint a rigorous teaching load both at her home and UCLA. She hosts countless teas for Japanese and American dignitaries, and frequently travels around the country, overseeing the creation of new tearooms and advising on etiquette.

It is therefore surprising to learn that a woman who has devoted herself to being the world's perfect hostess has felt like an outsider much of her life.

Although born in Hawaii, Matsumoto spent her early childhood in Japan and then bounced between there and the United States three more times over the next 15 years.

As a Japanese American, she and her family suffered discrimination in the United States. But Japan was hardly more welcoming to a woman who had moved there just months before World War II broke out, and whose eyes welled with tears at the sound of the U.S. national anthem.

Matsumoto took up tea merely to convince her neighbors in Japan that she was "really Japanese." But when she came back to the United States in 1947, Japanese Americans who had recently returned from detention camps also regarded her with suspicion.

Tea became a bridge between her two cultural identities, a place where she could feel a sense of purpose and belonging.

Today, Matsumoto harbors not an ounce of bitterness for the indignities suffered as an outsider.

"My dream," she says simply, "is always to make people feel relaxed and happy."

*

It's Thursday, about 9:30 a.m., and this woman renowned for her impeccable manners is running late.

Today is the one each month that Matsumoto gives a free tea lesson to residents of the Japanese Retirement Home in Boyle Heights. Usually, she and her entourage arrive well in advance of the class to give her time to set up. But traffic delays have pushed her behind schedule.

Several residents are sitting on benches when Matsumoto and her student helpers pull up in a Mercedes-Benz and begin filling up a table cart with two large bins of supplies. As Matsumoto walks to the front door, the top of her kimono covered in a glittery wrap, several residents rise, greet her with a bow and clear a respectful path for her entrance.

A few minutes later, Matsumoto and her assistants are transforming a small conference room overlooking a grim view of the Los Angeles River into a proper Japanese tearoom.

Standing just 4 feet, 10 inches and teetering slightly in traditional Japanese sandals, Matsumoto at first glance appears fragile. But she is an ongoing student of both yoga and Noh, a slow-moving Japanese dance, and when she bends down to lay tatami mats on the floor, her body proves lithe and strong.

As her helpers bustle to set up the teakettle and ceramic-ware display, Matsumoto is clearly unhappy with the delay, frequently checking her watch.

No one else seems to mind, however, and her tension quickly evaporates when she kneels in front of a silk screen and contemplates a bucket of flowers from her garden.

She cuts the end off a sprig of bush clover and puts it in a basket. She places an aster next to it and then, moments later, shifts its position. Then, she confidently lays a perfectly formed Japanese anemone slightly to the right of the aster.

The arrangement complete, Matsumoto hangs a scroll bearing a meditation that translates into "The sound of the flute is like the whistle of the pine."

"It reminds you of the insects you hear in the garden at this time of year," she says. "The sound is like a flute. The scroll gives you an autumn feeling."

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