Akira Takemoto, 62, once counted waves off the southern California coast to find the perfect swell for his surfboard. Now, he looks for different waves: not the aquamarine of the ocean but the frothy green swirls of tea in his tea bowl. Takemoto has practiced the Yabunouchi style of tea ceremony since 1976, when he lived in Japan for four years to study Japanese language and Buddhism.
Tea ceremony revolves around the preparation, serving and drinking of matcha green tea, a fine powder made from stone-ground green tea leaves. Hot water is added to the powdered tea and vigorously whisked. The bamboo whisk is carefully removed from the bowl so as not to disturb the thin layer of bubbles that veils the dark, bitter tea below. The bubbles should be small and uniform without the large bubbles that Takemoto calls “frog eyes.”
Takemoto’s mentor and academic advisor, Meiji Yamada, introduced him to the headquarters of the Yabunouchi school in Kyoto, Japan. The Yabunouchi tradition of serving tea began with the first grandmaster, Kenchū Yabunouchi, in the sixteenth century. The practice has passed from father to son for 420 years, making it the oldest school of tea ceremony in Japan. The current and thirteenth grandmaster, Jōchi Yabunouchi, is a descendent of Kenchū Yabunouchi. The tea school is closely connected with the temple where Takemoto was ordained as a Jōdo Shinshū (Pure Land Buddhism) priest. Every year, Takemoto returns to the headquarters to practice tea ceremony. Takemoto is the only Yabunouchi tea teacher in the U.S. who has earned a teaching certificate from the grandmaster.
Takemoto teaches Japanese language, art history, and tea ceremony at Whitman College since moving to Walla Walla 27 years ago.