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.