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Isabella Stewart Gardner and The Book of Tea – Part II

Okakura Kakuzo
Okakura Kakuzo, author of The Book of Tea

Isabella Stewart Gardner thought Okakura Kakuzo’s sad eyes and proud demeanor radiated the mysterious wisdom of the East. He dressed to dramatic effect in traditional Japanese dress when he lectured. To his audience, he became the embodiment of the culture of Japan, a country that had already captured the American imagination. He was the natural “high priest” for Boston, and the guest everyone wanted at their dinner party or seated in their box at the opera.

Gardner and Okakura became inseparable. Their mutual affection was immediate and, as her biographer later wrote, “whenever he was in Boston, he and Mrs. Gardner were much together.”

Although the exact nature of their “much together” relationship will never be known, their friendship stoked the Boston society rumor mill for years. She even allowed him his own apartment at Fenway Court. Gardner described him as “so interesting, so deep, so spiritual, so feminine.” As an exile from his own country, he understood her loneliness like no other. He wrote her love poems, and they teased each other with notes and playful letters throughout their nine-year friendship. It wasn’t long before their conversations turned to the subject of tea.

Gardner had visited tea rooms in Japan and witnessed at least one formal tea ceremony during her 1883 tour with Jack. Taking note of her interest in tea, Okakura asked her to pour tea at an afternoon exhibition of art, hosted by Boston socialite Sara Bull, in honor of the Japanese artists who had accompanied him to America. She was delighted.

Gardner, who took pride in her ability to stage a tea party in grand style, even allowed her Japanese guest to host a formal tea ceremony for five friends, including Bigelow, at Fenway Court. It was a spiritual experience for her.

“I am still full of sentiment and flower of the great Tea Ceremony, the ‘Cha-no-yu,’ which was performed here yesterday at 5PM (candlelight) by Okakura.” She wrote to her friend Bernard Berenson.

Bigelow replied with a note sending “congratulations on the wonderful result you accomplished in bringing not only the bones but the soul of Cha-no-yu to the Fenway. I should never have supposed it possible!”

Like many wealthy Bostonians, Gardner kept a summer home, called Green Hill, in nearby Brook-line. Okakura became a regular visitor there helping instill an “oriental life” as they sketched and arranged flowers. Okakura introduced Gardner to the Japanese art of flower arranging known as ikebana. He had been asked by Century magazine to review an article on flower arranging that was to appear in a future edition. Okakura attacked the American author’s lack of knowledge and unfounded generalizations. Century, the publisher of his upcoming second book, asked him to write his own article. Always up to an artistic challenge, he complied with a lengthy treatise that would one day appear in The Book of Tea.

Okakura’s reputation and charm spread quickly through-out the American art profession. When the director of the Louvre was unable to fulfill his commitment to speak at the opening of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, Okakura was called on to take his place. Dressed in formal kimono and hakama, he spoke in perfect English as he delivered an address titled “Modern Problems in Painting,” which discussed the problems Japan was facing in order to preserve traditional art in modern times. His second book, The Awakening of Japan, was published in November.

As he sorted and cataloged the thousands of items in the Asian collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Okakura entertained a group of women volunteers who gathered to sew protective silk cases for important items in the collection. They too were charmed by his other-world countenance. In exchange for their stitching, Okakura regaled them with talks on history, mythology, religion, poetry, and all things related to the objects they were protecting. He later added lectures on the art of arranging flowers and, according to the Museum Bulletin, “he served tea according to his customs.” An article entitled The Cup of Humanity was spawned from these informal talks and published in the April 1905 edition of International Quarterly.

Okakura traveled to Europe for the museum in early 1905 and continued east to Tokyo to see his family. While there, he visited his seaside hut in Izura where he spent time fishing. Packed alongside his tackle was a small book on the tea ceremony, which he read while waiting for the fish to bite. He was planning to write his own book on the spirit of tea, especially for his American friends.

By the fall of 1905, Okakura was back in Boston—with a third book on his mind.

Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum Tea Master Bruce Richardson is the editor of the 2011 Benjamin Press expanded edition of The Book of Tea by Okakaura Kakuzo.

Bruce Richardson Profile Picture

Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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