Steeped in Tradition

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."

Soon, she is ready for her students--two residents and one volunteer at the home. The ceremony they are about to enact is a shortened version of a ritual that typically lasts four hours.

Matsumoto teaches the Urasenke school of tea, the most popular of three methods, but extremely difficult to master. Every movement, from the folding of a napkin to the precise placement of the tea caddy, is carefully choreographed.

As part of the ceremony, guests are expected to inquire about the names and significance of the utensils and other furnishings in the tearoom. Tea practitioners, who study 10 years to reach the advanced level, must be fluent in a wide range of Japanese arts and art history.

"This is a lifetime of learning," Matsumoto says. "You never stop."

Retirement home resident Akiko Kajita, 86, illustrates the point. A dignified woman in a floral kimono, she sits against her knees, her hands gracefully placed against her lap, and awaits Matsumoto's lesson.

Sitting on the edge of the mat, using a folded fan as an instructor's baton, Matsumoto watches as volunteer Kimiko Shinomiya, 66, prepares to serve tea to Kajita and another woman.

Matsumoto breaks up the ceremony's formality with comments in Japanese that elicit her students' laughter.

But when Shinomiya errs in wiping the ladle, Matsumoto takes the utensil from her and demonstrates the correct motion. Her small hands move with such elegance that her achievement as an artist is instantly revealed. She is a master at making the ritual's deliberate movements appear utterly natural.

When the ceremony is over, the students thank Matsumoto for coming. Kazuko Tate, 75, a grandmother of two who has arthritis in her hands and legs, says Matsumoto's monthly visits help her forget the pain.

"When Matsumoto Sensei comes," she says, using the honorific reserved for teachers, "I am so happy. She is special and kind. She is--how do I say?--ninge kokoho."

The phrase is later translated: "a living national treasure."

*

The accolades still come as a surprise.

"I never thought when I was a girl that I would do this," Matsumoto says.

Born Feb. 21, 1920, as Shizuye Yagi, she was the third of four children to Japanese immigrants living in Hawaii.

Soon after her birth, the family moved back to Japan, to the Shiga prefecture near Kyoto. When she was 5, her mother died while giving birth to a son. Six years later, the family moved to Los Angeles, where her father worked as a lettuce farmer in La Puente and eventually remarried.

Matsumoto does not like to talk much about her childhood and adolescence. Although she has fond memories of her years at the former Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles, she also remembers occasionally being turned away from restaurants that wouldn't serve Japanese. She studied fashion and planned a career in design.

When she was 19, her father died and she moved in with her aunt and uncle. Two years later, in March 1941, and just nine months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Matsumoto went to Japan to live with her sister.

"I never believed there would be war," she recalls.

She was wrong. Her aunt and uncle were sent to a detention camp at Heart Mountain in Wyoming, and Matsumoto was stranded in Japan.

The American-style wardrobe that friends and relatives had so coveted put her at risk of being accused of treason. She threw away all the clothes and donned only traditional kimonos.

At airports, she was subjected to rigorous searches. And it didn't help that she cried every time she heard an American song or saluted whenever she saw an American flag.

"Every time I hear Japanese anthem, I also feel warm heart. That's natural. Feel part of both," Matsumoto reflects. "But I just came back from the U.S. The [Japanese] military think I'm a spy."

*

On the advice of friends, she decided to take up tea. She had the honor of meeting Tantansai, the 14th Grand Tea Master, whose training lineage traced directly to Sen Rikyu, the 16th century tea master who popularized the ceremony.

Tantansai agreed to take Matsumoto on as a student--an unusual honor for a non-native Japanese woman.

"I needed to relax my mind," Matsumoto remembers. "I study Urasenke, the school take responsibility for me. Prove I'm not a spy."

She proved an excellent pupil.

Seven years later, when she decided to return to the United States, Tantansai gave Matsumoto a tea set and told her he wanted her to popularize the ceremony throughout America.

Back in Los Angeles, his dream for her lost its luster. Friends and acquaintances who had recently returned from internment camps told her that no one in America was interested in the ancient ceremony. Some even questioned whether she really had studied under the Grand Tea Master.

"They just came back from camp. Their minds were very small," she says. "They think I am lying."

She married Edward Matsumoto, an electrical engineer, and the next year they had their only child, Karen.

Deed restrictions almost prevented the young family from buying their dream house on Occidental Street in what was then a tony section of Los Angeles, two miles west of downtown. But her husband's profession gave them the cache they needed.

During the next few years, she had little time or energy to pursue her interest in tea. But in 1951, Tantansai's son, Hounsai Iemoto, visited the United States and asked Matsumoto to help him serve tea at the signing of the U.S.-Japan peace treaty in San Francisco.

Over a four-day period, she and Iemoto, who became the 15th Grand Tea Master after his father died several years later, served tea to more than 3,000 American and Japanese officials, including President Truman and Prime Minister Yoshida.

It was a watershed event for Matsumoto. That year, she opened the first tea ceremony classes in the United States and served tea in the 20th Century Fox film "East Is East."

She met Charlie Chaplin and became friends with architect Charles Eames, who found inspiration in Japanese aesthetics for his modern designs.

In 1957, Edward Matsumoto used imported Japanese materials to transform the master bedroom of their home into L.A.'s first traditional Japanese tearoom. She named it Peaceful Pine Room, a play on her name, as "Matsu" means "pine" in Japanese.

Over the next four decades, she made numerous television appearances and filled her schedule with teaching and travel.

Fourteen years ago, Edward Matsumoto died, but the tearoom he built by hand still stands--frequently used, yet perfectly maintained.

*

Set on a wide street in the shadows of several enormous apartment buildings, Matsumoto's two-story home is designed to transport guests to a simpler time.

An unlocked iron gate separates a small garden from the front door. A winding path of pavement gradually transforms into one of stone, forcing visitors to slow their pace before stopping at a simple covered bench overlooking a mossy garden planted with ferns and Japanese anemones.

"This is the decompression zone," says Hori, Matsumoto's student and teaching assistant. "It is a transition from the outside world to the world of tea."

The world unfolds on the other side of the front door, to the left of an entry area where several pairs of shoes are lined up neatly against the wall.

Although Matsumoto lives alone, she is rarely without guests. Friends, students and niece Etsuko Ota, who lives next door, are always around, helping with her shopping or other errands. (Her daughter Karen lives in a Zen monastery in upstate New York.)

Matsumoto is constantly busy. Besides her heavy teaching schedule--five days a week, dozens of students pay about $15 per lesson--she gardens, writes haiku, keeps a diary and practices calligraphy. A big fan of Disney movies, she also studies yoga, singing and dancing.

*

Inside the Peaceful Pine Room, which overlooks a serene Japanese garden, Matsumoto has just completed yet another class. As her students stand and stretch, she adjusts the cushion under her legs and decides to relax with--what else?--a cup of tea.

Sitting flat against her knees, she ladles two small spoonfuls of a powdered tea, which sells for $100 per 80 grams, into a bowl and adds steaming water. She uses a bamboo whisk to whip it into a froth so green it makes your eyes ache.

Cradling the bowl in her hands as if it were a small bird, Matsumoto gently turns it twice and expresses thanks to "the 88 people who contributed to making this bowl of tea." The list credits everyone from the person who planted the tea seeds to the one who glazed and fired the ceramic bowl.

Then, bowing her head with her eyes half closed, she brings the bowl to her lips and drains it with three long, thoughtful sips.

"My dream is always that people would sit in the tearoom and relax," Matsumoto says.

"Everybody, not just in this city, but everywhere . . . is crazy. But tea is very relaxed. In tea ceremony, everybody is friends. Everybody is equal. We respect each other. Everybody is a human being."

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