Forging a path for tea ceremony in the United States

The Urasenke tradition of tea ceremony in the San Francisco Bay Area is strongly affiliated with the Kobara family. Meiyo Shihan (Distinguished Master) Soko Kobara and her late husband Seiji Kobara co-founded the Chado Urasenke Tankokai San Francisco Association 55 years ago and have been an instrumental part of the Urasenke tradition of tea in Northern California.

Soko Kobara is one of three meiyo shihan in the United States and a “central figure” in the Northern California tea ceremony world, said Christy Bartlett, founding director of the Urasenke Foundation of San Francisco. Bartlett said the Tankokai was one of the first organizations she met with and supported when she first came to the U.S. in 1981 to establish an office representing the tea school in Kyoto. Bartlett said Soko has helped teach her students to become teachers themselves over the decades.

Soko started spreading chado (the way of tea) as the wife of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco’s head minister. After she moved to San Francisco from Seattle in 1954, five women approached her asking if she did tea. While she could not teach, she agreed to hold informal tea gatherings at her house. “Those students really wanted to learn tea, so we did it every Friday afternoon,” she said.

Soko said as the informal group met, her husband, who knew the grandmaster of Urasenke Tea School from his student days, requested teachers to visit and teach tea in the United States and to form a formal group under the head school’s auspices. In 1960, the Tankokai was formally established as the second Urasenke tea group in America, the first being in Los Angeles.

Since then, the group, starting with only five members, has grown to 270 members. Seiji, who never taught tea, served as president of the organization from 1966 to 1999, received a tea name and was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Silver Ray for his work shortly before his death in 2005. Soko received the title of meiyo shihan in 2008.

An Atypical Life
Soko, born Kazuko Takemura, has led an atypical life compared to many Japanese Americans. Her mother was a Nisei from Auburn, Wash., born to a Buddhist minister. Soko’s mother, Mary “Chise” Natsuhara, married Jiryo Takemura. a teacher, sent to the U.S. Soko and an older sister were born in Auburn. Her father became sick, and when she was 2 years old, the family, save for the eldest daughter who remained in America, and her father who passed away, returned to Japan where they stayed throughout war.

While in Japan, Soko started taking Japanese cultural arts classes. “My mother … really took care (of) us,” Soko, now 83, recalled. “She sent us to take classes on tea, flowers, noh play and classical dance — Fujima-ryu. She sent me to practice until I was 18 years old.”

Without her husband, Soko’s mother relied on land her family had in Shiga Prefecture to subsist, but she lost that too after the war due to a land reform law. Soko said her mother needed to send her younger brother to school, and could not afford a university education for her. Seeking help, she wrote to her grandparents in the United States, and they invited her to attend college in Seattle in 1949.

Once in America, Soko met and married Seiji, and shortly after getting married, moved to San Francisco for his new position as head minister of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco.

“The main difference here (in the United States), is that people actually want to learn,” she said. “Whereas in Japan, parents force their children to go.”

As a young child forced to take Japanese culture classes in Japan, Soko recalled, more often than not, she skipped them and went off to play at a friend’s house instead. She did not have a teaching license and asked her husband to request Japan to send teachers to the U.S.

While teachers came to teach, however, Soko said she was unable to learn herself. She said she was too busy cooking food for the visitors to learn tea.

Her efforts did not go unnoticed. While on a trip to Japan, Soko said the grandmaster told her, “Ms. Kobara, you aren’t learning, all you do is cook.

Why don’t you come to Japan to study?” She did, and eventually received her chamei (tea name) in 1968.

Meanwhile, Seiji, who had left the ministry to work for Japan Airlines, sat on the festival committee of San Francisco’s first Cherry Blossom Festival.

Seiji, who was also an accomplished calligrapher, helped arrange a number of cultural presentations for the festival, but tea was at first not considered.

“In order to do tea demonstrations, we have to have (permission) from the Urasenke tea master,” she said. “In Japan, tea ceremony is never demonstrated. It’s a private thing.”

However, Soko thought back to a meeting with the grandmaster in 1951 Seattle. As a former kamikaze pilot in training, Genshu Soko Hounsai spoke about his hopes to spread the Japanese tea ceremony worldwide to foster mutual understanding and peace after Japan lost the war. Soko asked her husband to request permission to demonstrate tea to introduce Japanese culture to foster this mutual understanding, and the grandmaster approved.

The Tankokai hosted the first tea ceremony presentation at the festival in the Miyako Hotel and following a successful presentation, Soko said she invited the Northern California Chapter of the Omotesenke Domonkai to present on alternating days as well, a tradition that has continued since.

The Family’s Legacy
Today, Soko teaches out of her home in San Francisco. A two-car garage downstairs had been converted into an eight-mat tearoom and students visit almost every day to practice, she said. She has students who commute from as far as New York, who come once every few months to study.

One of Soko’s three children, her daughter Rumi Kobara, has a tea-name. Rumi, however, said being raised in a household so close to tea meant all the Kobara children automatically learned. “My brother … doesn’t do tea, but he knows enough to help set up the room if my mother asks him to … My sister, she doesn’t have a tea name yet, but I’m sure she could get it soon.” Rumi said two of her nieces also practice tea. One, Kelsi Kobara, started at 5 years old and continues to practice at 22.

To Rumi, tea’s value cannot be understated. “It is my life,” she said. While she is not teaching, she said she helps her mother with ceremonies when requested, arranging her work schedule to make it fit.

Rumi, however, said, while she could teach, she does not plan to do so until she retires. “You can’t make a living teaching tea,” she said. Soko agreed, saying most of the teachers in the U.S. today are Japanese wives who started learning tea while their husbands worked.

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