For students of tea, art and spirituality, there was one small story that escaped international attention during the massive devastation that took place along Japan’s northwest coastline on March 11, 2011.
Okakura Kakuzo’s tiny seaside retreat Rokkakudo was washed out to sea during the tsunami that scoured much of the Pacific coast of Ibaraki Prefecture.
But, there is good news. Less than 18 months after the tsunami had taken the pavilion away, it has been fully rebuilt, thanks to an outpouring of donations from Okakura scholars worldwide.
The author of The Book of Tea constructed Rokkakudo in 1905. Located on a flat patch of land on the very tip of a rocky headland, the tiled- roof wooden hut stood only 15 feet above the low-tide mark. Okakura used this as a place for viewing the ocean and thinking. In fact, he named it Kanrantei, meaning “wave-viewing house.” Rokkakudo, which means “hexagonal hall,” is how it came to be known later.
Following his departure as president of the Tokyo University of Arts, Okakura left Tokyo for the picturesque Izura coast of northern Ibaraki in 1903. A train line had recently been built to service coal mines in the vicinity, and the 180 km from Tokyo could be traversed in half a day. Okakura invited young artists he had nurtured at the university to join him and, together, they tried to create an arts community that would rival Barbizon in France.
The following spring found him in Boston where he was appointed curator of the Asian Arts collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, and he started a long friendship with Isabella Stewart Gardner. He traveled to the St. Louis World’s Fair in the summer of 1904 to be a guest lecturer on art, filling in at the last moment for the curator of The Louvre who had taken ill.
“If you sit inside, it is really like you are floating above the water,” explained Isoji Miwa, a retired Ibaraki University professor who, in April 2011, was charged with overseeing the reconstruction. “Okakura enjoyed the idea of communing with nature.”
Even still, Okakura probably didn’t envision communion with nature to the extent afforded by last year’s tsunami.
The wave at Izura reached a height of 10 meters, wiping out local fishing ports, severing the Joban train line that ran along the coast nearby and entirely engulfing the 106-year-old pavilion. A university staff member on duty that day managed to take a photograph of it as it was carried out to sea. He then ran for his life.
Having decided to rebuild the pavilion, the university first resolved to recreate it as close to its original state as possible. “We knew that several parts of it had been rebuilt over the years,” Miwa said. “But we wanted to see it as Okakura had seen it.”
Still, no original plans existed, so the university staff had to make do with old photographs and the memories of elderly locals.
“We got a lot of help from local temple carpenters,” Miwa said, explaining that they were able to read the clues provided by the wooden exterior as it appeared in photographs.
Perhaps Miwa and the university’s most significant decision was to recreate a second, little-known structure that had fallen victim to the sea long before 2011. In early photographs of Rokkakudo, a stone lantern is visible rising from a rocky outcrop about 10 meters off the shore from the pavilion. “The lantern no longer exists in photographs taken after about 1912,” Miwa said.
The lantern is important, Miwa reasoned, because “Okakura also practiced the tea ceremony in the pavilion, and in many traditional teahouses there is often a view out over a pond that contains a stone lantern.”We think it should be able to survive a little longer than the original,” Miwa said.
Such talk, of course, brought to mind another, slightly awkward, question: What will happen to Rokkakudo if another tsunami comes?
Miwa laughed knowingly. “Of course, we could have relocated the pavilion to higher ground, but it is so deeply connected to its location that if moved anywhere else it would cease to be Rokkakudo,” he said. “If another tsunami washes it away, we will have to just rebuild it again.”