When Sumie Ward arrived in Los Angeles in 1959, she had no idea she would eventually become a meiyo shihan (distinguished master) in the Urasenke tradition of Japanese tea ceremony. She was more concerned about her soon-to-be-born first child and establishing her roots in a country where most people did not speak Japanese.
“The American military doctors told me, ‘Leave for America now with your husband or have the baby here and then move later.’ I thought long and hard. Having a baby in a foreign country was a scary thought, but taking a newborn baby to America by myself (was scarier),” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly in Japanese from her eight-tatami-mat tea room in rural Penryn, a small town of around 830 people some 30 miles northeast of Sacramento.
Ward formally began her tea studies in the 1970s, leaving to learn her craft in Japan after sending her children to college. Upon her return, she began teaching under the tea name Soju Ward as part of the Sacramento Tankokai, which later split into the California Capital chapter and the Waki-Kyokai. At the height of her teaching career, she had some 30 students and taught adult classes at the Sierra College community college in Rocklin, Calif.
Having studied tea at the Urasenke headquarters in Japan on the headquarter’s dime, she felt it was necessary to construct a proper teahouse for her classes to honor the school’s investment in her.
The “Myochoan” (named in honor of Ward’s parents) teahouse sits in the back of Ward’s six-acre property. Boulders excavated from the property sit around the tea garden covered in moss. Her student of 19 years, Nobuko Clark, said the garden at Ward’s teahouse rivals those in Japan.
Ward completed the three-tea room building in 1992, using the inheritance she received from her mother. Ward said the process required multiple architects in both Japan and the U.S., and several contractors to finally “get it right.” Ward assisted the construction efforts, tying bamboo trestles and finding unique materials needed for the teahouse’s construction.
Because of several construction errors, including errors in conversions from the metric to the imperial system, and the lack of some construction materials only found in Japan, Ward said a trained eye may find some aspects of her teahouse, “odd.”
“When Houunsai (the now-previous grandmaster of the Urasenke school) visited, he was looking around very curiously. I think he was thinking ‘some of the construction here is off,’” she said of the inaccurately measured ceiling height and other non-standard elements of the teahouse.
Today, Ward said she is the only teacher still teaching in the Waki-Kyokai tankokai, as most members have passed on or retired. Her four or five students are reluctant to start teaching.
“I tell them, once they get their tea names, they need to teach,” but they are hesitant, said Ward, who turns 90 this September. However, she understands why. “When it comes to teaching, you’ll need a room with tatami, you need all the tea utensils — that’s not easy.”
She noted that it is difficult retaining students in Placer County, which doesn’t have many Japanese residents.
Ward said she believes everything that has happened in life was meant to be. Before the World War II air raids in Tokyo, she said she was a third-year student at a girl’s academy and was learning to dance. With Tokyo burned down, her dreams of dancing professionally also went up in smoke.
She instead married Thomas Ray Ward, a U.S. Marine, after the war ended and converted to Christianity. She said she initially had no intention of even moving to Penryn. Yet, after one serendipitous decision after another, Ward said she found her place.
Her interest in Christianity from when she was a teenager and eventual conversion led to her attendance at the First United Methodist Church of Loomis, which was originally founded by Issei pioneers. Upon her arrival in Penryn, she attended a service with her husband. The pastor, who needed a translator to help serve the few remaining Issei in the congregation, welcomed her, saying, “I was waiting for you.”
Likewise, Ward had a chance encounter with tea, observing a tea demonstration during a PTA meeting. She met the practitioner who turned out to be the reverend’s wife at the Placer Buddhist Church. She, a Nisei, also asked Ward to help her with communicating in Japanese with the Urasenke headquarters in Kyoto.
“There was a secretary at the head office at the time who was particularly strict and would respond to letters with messages like, ‘We don’t use this kind of language in tea,’ so the reverend’s wife had considerable difficulty … so I offered to write letters on their behalf,” she said.
When Ward wrote a letter to the Urasenke headquarters, she included a letter introducing herself. That letter earned her an invitation to study in Kyoto.
As she studied in Japan, Ward finally realized her own father’s gift to her in offering latent lessons on life and on making tea when she was young and sitting by his side as he casually made tea.
“My father taught me how to use the whisk to make tea then. I didn’t realize that was anything special,” she said. She later found out, however, the technique she learned was esoteric, and a senior teacher in Kyoto noted she had received her first tea lessons from an esteemed practitioner.
Ward memorializes her parents in her teahouse. In the larger tea room, she has two ranma (wood panels above the screen doors), which contain her family crest and motifs referencing her parents’ Buddhist names — a flowing river and a moon.
“I think about them every time I look at those panels in this room,” she says.
Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the March 28, 2020 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly, the article entitled “A teahouse meant to be, in the Penryn countryside” erroneously stated in the Japanese translation of the article that Sumie Ward was a classical Japanese dancer. She was a student of modern ballet planning to study under Baku Ishii. The Nichi Bei Weekly regrets the error. To contact the Nichi Bei Weekly about an error, please e-mail email@example.com, write to P.O. Box 15693, San Francisco, CA 94115 or call (415) 673-1009.