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A ceremonial departure

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.

September 12, 2010|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times

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.

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