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."