Tea for two

A COUPLE IN TEA — Larry Sokyo Tiscornia and Kimika Soko Takechi. courtesy of Larry Tiscornia

In San Francisco’s Outer Richmond district, Larry Sokyo Tiscornia, 69, and Kimika Soko Takechi, 68, teach tea as members of San Francisco Urasenke Tankokai. The couple met while taking Saturday tea classes with Soko Kobara, founder of the Tankokai, and have since been together, teaching all aspects of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

Prior to becoming steeped in Japanese culture, Tiscornia was a freelance photojournalist working for the San Francisco Chronicle — and he even covered the administration of then-president Richard Nixon for United Press International. He took up making sushi as a hobby while “hanging out” in sushi bars until a space on 24th Street in San Francisco’s Noe Valley opened up in 1974.

“I thought it would be my dream come true to have my own little sushi bar,” he said. His interest in sushi, however, was “for fun.”

He found the work “too overwhelming” and sold the restaurant a year after he opened it. The location is still a Japanese restaurant today, albeit its owners had changed multiple times and now goes by the name of Saru.

While Tiscornia gave up on sushi, he remained interested in Japanese culture, and one day purchased a Japanese tea bowl and whisk from Honami, a Japanese antique store in San Francisco’s Japantown. He made tea on his own for a year for his friends before finding a Urasenke textbook at the store. From there he was introduced to Kobara, where he began studying formally.

Meanwhile, Takechi had been a student of tea 10 years prior to meeting Tiscornia. She was born and raised in Iyo, Japan, in Ehime Prefecture. While she loved tea, she said she knew the chances of training full time in Kyoto were slim. At the same time, she was discontent with her job at a printing company.

“I couldn’t get the same job — I loved that company, but I knew I cannot get the same job that (men do),” she said. “I thought English would open up some kind of future …” Takechi came to San Francisco to study English, attending different colleges while also attending San Francisco State University to obtain a degree in art.

The two married and continued learning tea until, in 1979, Tiscornia was given a one-year scholarship to study tea at the Urasenke headquarters in Kyoto. The couple moved to Kyoto and rented a house where Takechi worked teaching English and learning tea privately, while Tiscornia became a full-time student at Urasenke’s foreign students section known as Midorikai.

The one-year commitment, however, was extended as he graduated from the Midorikai, enrolled in the Japanese section as a second-year student, graduated from that, and then spent a year as an instructor for the Midorikai. In total, they spent six years in Kyoto.

“It was quite intensive,” he said. The Midorikai would spend their mornings cleaning and attending lectures and then practicing tea in the afternoons five days a week. In the Japanese section, he said the students practiced six days a week with three-hour tea room practices in the morning and lectures or an additional practice in the afternoon. Nevertheless, Tiscornia said his time in Kyoto was “fabulous.”

“And then, often, weekends would be taken up with doing tea events because lots was happening, and so when you’re in training and asked to help in a tea event, you have to say yes,” he added.

Despite the rigorous training, Tiscornia said his time in Kyoto felt like he was at home from the very first day. He did, however, eventually move back to San Francisco, first to work at the Urasenke Foundation in 1985 and then transitioned to teaching privately in 1988.

Before they left, Hounsai Daisosho, the 15th head of the Urasenke School of Tea, gave the couple their tea names. While Takechi’s tea name is taken from the traditional practice of using her given name, Tiscornia had no kanji and was instead named “Sokyo,” with the kanji for “bridge.” According to Tiscornia, his tea name is meant to evoke the Golden Gate Bridge and should remind him that he should serve as a “bridge” between Japan and the United States.

“It’s a lifetime pursuit, actually,” Tiscornia said. “I particularly love spreading tea, and I also like doing this because we’re spreading Japanese culture to Japanese people also. There are many people in the United States who have been here for so many years they’ve kind of lost touch with some aspects of their Japanese culture, so tea and the related arts, even if they aren’t studying with us … can really feel like they’re touching Japan again.”

“There are so many teachers, non-Japanese persons teaching … around the world,” Takechi said. She noted foreigners who have embraced Japanese cultural arts makes her happy. Her hope was that the cultivation of Japanese culture in non-Japanese settings would help improve relationships between Japanese and non-Japanese.

“Peacefulness from a bowl of tea,” Tiscornia said, quoting his master.

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