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Cultural Partner Spotlight: Tea Ceremony Expert Jan Waldmann

Two women sit in kimonos on tatami while doing a presentation of Japanese tea ceremony.
Jan Waldmann conducting a presentation of Tea Ceremony in recent years. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

Longtime Garden Friend Has Helped Thousands Learn About The Way of Tea

Portland Japanese Garden is honored to have the dedicated support of local artists, musicians, and practitioners who share their expertise and talents with our guests at cultural demonstrations and performances. They help us pursue our mission of Inspiring Harmony and Peace by shining light on Japanese culture as a form of cultural diplomacy. One such individual is Jan Waldmann, who sat down with The Garden Path to talk about her nearly 50 years of collaboration with the Garden.

The Tea Garden. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

When one heads north from the Zig-Zag Bridge in the Strolling Pond Garden to the Tea Garden, they take a pathway assembled of stones so neatly laid into the earth it almost feels like a city sidewalk. It curves back onto the path that takes people near the Moon Bridge, but before so, a glimpse of the inner portions of the Tea Garden appears. Inside, the smooth path gives way to stones spread out between steps. Here, lest one hurry themselves into a spill across the moss, the pace must slow down, every foot forward given due time before the next. Tea gardens, settings inextricably linked to the slower rhythms of Chado (a Japanese term that can be taken to mean both “Tea Ceremony” and “The Way of Tea”), extoll patience and considered movement. Perhaps that’s why some people find comfort here. Perhaps for some, who have ping ponged from location to location, there is pleasure in the opportunity to set their course on the steady path ahead.

Perhaps that’s why Chado appealed to Jan Waldmann, whose childhood saw continuous movement in every direction. Waldmann is one of Portland Japanese Garden’s beloved cultural partners and an expert and teacher in Chado and can often be found leading tea presentations in the Cathy Rudd Cultural Corner in the Jordan Schnitzer Japanese Arts Learning Center. Her collaboration with the Garden is something cherished by the organization.

“There are very few people, even in Japan, that I would consider a true connoisseur of tea as an art form—many become entrenched in the formalities and stylized etiquette,” Portland Japanese Garden’s Arlene Schnitzer Curator of Culture, Art, and Education, Aki Nakanishi shares. “Jan, though, possesses a unique quality of being able to internalize the refined beauty of Tea Ceremony, communicate the essence of being one with the art itself, embodying its tranquility and grace, and opening windows of self-reflection for others to feel. We’re fortunate to have Jan as a partner. She has remarkable dedication and passion for tea, Portland Japanese Garden, and everything that exists in between.” 

A Visit Leads to a Lifetime of Study

A tea bowl. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

Growing up, her father was an engineer for a company with international concerns, leading the Waldmanns on an odyssey across the globe: the American coasts and breadbasket, Canada and Japan. Speaking to her in her Portland home, the notion of Waldmann moving to and fro seems unlikely. The front steps leading up from the street meander through a pleasant and humble garden of flowers. Crossing the threshold, large windows allow daylight to wash the interior with a natural brightness. The first and most obvious sight inside is a living room transformed into a tearoom; an impressive wooden platform holding four-and-a-half tatami mats alternating in light and dark brown and a sunken hearth complete with a kettle. Aside the platform is a tokonoma (alcove) with a scroll with calligraphy brushed upon it and a vase of flowers in front. It is comfortable and situated, a million miles away from the rush of the city surrounding it.

Waldmann’s deep interest in Japan crystallized in the most likely place: Japan. “Growing up, anything Japanese intrigued me and I had an aunt who shared my interests, so we’d talk about it,” Waldmann recounts. “[Japanese culture] was always in the back of my head, but it wasn’t until 1970 that I really got invested. I was living away from home when my father was transferred to Tokyo in 1968. I finally went over to visit, and it was great.”

The visit would be a seminal moment for the young Waldmann. “My mother took me to my first Tea Ceremony,” she recalls. “There was no English translation. [My mother and I] just sort of sat there. The utensils and the way they walked intrigued me. I just had to know more—little did I think it would end up in a lifetime of study.”

But what is Chado? “It’s the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony that is a particular manner of preparing and drinking a bowl of tea,” Waldmann shares. “More than just making and serving tea, this tradition is based in formality. In many ways, it is a microcosm of the Japanese sense of omotenashi, which translates as wholehearted hospitality.”

WATCH: Jan Waldmann Discusses Tea

“It was good for me,” Waldmann says now looking at why her younger self gravitated to Chado. “I was living in Manhattan, going to art school, and was always on the go, go, go. Tea helped me calm down, though, truthfully, it was more about the surface details at first than its philosophy that got me interested. That came later.”

After Waldmann came back from Tokyo, she looked to continue her education on the subject. “There was a tea school in New York, but there was a long waiting list,” she remembers. “One of the teachers, though, invited me to join her so we could make tea for each other. For maybe a year, I would go to her place, and she taught me a little bit about the philosophical aspect of tea. But then I started to feel the need to leave New York for new horizons. I set off across the country in a little Volkswagen. It was so bizarre, but it seemed like everywhere I stopped to hang out for a while, I found Tea Ceremony.”

Cha-niwa, or tea gardens, have a decidedly rustic quality. The earliest tea masters and the gardeners they worked with designed cha-niwa, sometimes referred to as roji, to conjure the same feeling of retreating to the mountains. It makes sense then that another stop for Waldmann would be in Boulder, Colorado—a city that cozies up to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Here she would spend some time at the Naropa Institute (now named Naropa University), a Buddhist-inspired school. “It was a spiritual supermarket,” Waldmann recalls. “I hung out there for a while and studied tea.”

Finally, she traveled to the city she would call home: Portland. “I had friends here,” Waldmann continues. “I stayed here about a month. I liked Portland, but I just wanted to finish some traveling. And then I found a notice that read ‘Tea Ceremony classes beginning the next day.’ So, I thought I’ll stay one more day. And here I am.”

From Portland Japanese Garden to Kyoto

A black and white image of Jan Waldmann in 1976 when she first started working with Portland Japanese Garden.
Jan Waldmann in 1976 in Portland Japanese Garden helping with a presentation of Tea. © The Oregonian. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

The person who taught the classes Waldmann saw on this notice would become who she felt was her true teacher, Soju Moriyasu. Moriyasu and her daughter-in-law June were founders of Chado Urasenke Tankokai Portland Wakai Association. The nonprofit educates on the ways of Tea Ceremony and is certified by the Urasenke Foundation of Kyoto, an organization that traces its teachings and methodologies nearly 500 years back to Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), one of the greatest masters of Japanese Tea Ceremony.

Waldmann’s nearly 50 years of association with Portland Japanese Garden began around this time in the mid-to-late 1970s. “It was so different then,” she laughs. “I mean, obviously, buildings-wise, but also it was just a handful of people, a handful of gardeners. I just loved it; I was in another world. It was an oasis outside the day-to-day.”

At this point, when Portland Japanese Garden was still in its formative era, many years away from attracting the hundreds of thousands of visitors it welcomes to walk its grounds or participate in the more than 150 programs it offers annually. Waldmann would become involved at an opportune time when the Garden had begun offering the public tea-based events. She gives credit to her longtime friend and classmate at Wakai, Yumiko Miyaki, that guests today can enjoy demonstrations in Tea Ceremony.

The outer portion of the Tea Garden as seen in 1975. Photo by William “Robbie” Robinson.

“Yumiko became a volunteer here after meeting Robbie,” Waldmann says, referring to Portland Parks and Recreation Head Gardener William “Robbie” Robinson, an instrumental figure in Portland Japanese Garden’s history who helped construct the landscape. “She would drive the Garden crazy about letting us use the Tea House—it was through her relentless begging that they said, ‘Oh, ok.’”

At this time, Waldmann was working for the State Commission for the Blind while occasionally volunteering for the Garden when it held events. She says Portland Japanese Garden fed into her passion for the nation’s culture as she devoted more and more time to learning Tea. Eventually, she reached a point where Moriyasu felt she needed to go to Kyoto to expand her knowledge.

“At the time, the program in Kyoto was a three-year program,” Waldmann recalls. “I did it in six-month increments. Most people who went to this school got scholarships, but I didn’t know they were available, so I paid and had to work. I didn’t teach English so much as I taught conversation. It was through a school of English in Japan. People who were moving to the U.S. would come to me and learn how to speak to people in a more relaxed way. There was this one man, he spoke perfect English, but he was worried about how to live in America. He’d ask me questions like, ‘How do you do laundry there?’ Laundromats never came up in the dictionaries, so we would talk about things like that.”

Happily, the cultural knowledge Waldmann offered was reciprocated—she never found resistance as she pursued her Tea studies. “[The instructors] were sort of curious why I wanted to do this, not having language skills, either,” she recalls back to her first courses in Tokyo. “But they were totally wonderful. They were all little old ladies, like I am now, and they just enjoyed it. They would take my hands and form them around the implements.” When she went to Kyoto, “a friend of mine would, with permission, sort of mumble what was going on.”

The Student Becomes the Teacher

Jan Waldmann (third from left) and her fellow Wakai Tea Association teacher to her right, Barbara Walker, with artists from the 2018 Garden exhibition, Shokunin. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

Though Waldmann has studied Tea for decades, teaches it privately and at Lewis & Clark College, and works with an association that gets its bonafides from Kyoto, she has no confusion about her own background. But perhaps it’s because Tea, or at least the Tea that Sen no Rikyu put forward, has a decidedly egalitarian and welcoming approach where rank and division are less important than human connection, that she was so welcomed. “I am not Japanese,” Waldmann notes. “I will never be Japanese. I don’t speak Japanese, I don’t look Japanese. There’s nothing Japanese about me. I keep saying Tea Ceremony is still in existence today because it goes beyond just Japan. The philosophy is universal.”

When Waldmann finished the program (her studies continue to this day), she got a certificate signifying such, but not one that legitimized her as an instructor—that came later through the help of Moriyasu.  “I started to teach a little bit,” Waldmann notes. “But it was just after work—I worked for a few different bookstores.”

William “Robbie” Robinson, a longtime Garden leader and former Head Gardener for Portland Parks and Recreation (left), taking part in Tea Ceremony with Jan Waldmann (right) in the 1990s. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

It wasn’t until much further into her journey with Tea that Waldmann decided to take the plunge and earn a living in Chado: 2017, around the same time Portland Japanese Garden expanded and started hosting regular demonstrations of Tea Ceremony in the Cultural Village. “About two months after I left my job, I was wondering, ‘What have I done?’ But I make ends meet. I teach weekdays and I love it, I adore it. I have got some amazing people that come for classes. Portland has a lot of tea teachers, and that’s what it makes it wonderful—I’m only one of many different styles.”

In addition to her presence in the Garden’s Cathy Rudd Cultural Corner, Waldmann has served as faculty for the International Japanese Garden Training Center, a programmatic center under Japan Institute that blends Japanese and Western approaches in the teaching of traditional skills and techniques for creating and fostering Japanese gardens. Learners who have participated in the Training Center’s flagship program, a seminar named Waza to Kokoro, begin their day with Jan and tea.

Jan Waldmann prepares tea as part of a morning ritual that learners take part in while attending the International Japanese Garden Training Center’s Waza to Kokoro seminar. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

“Every student really enjoys the morning tea with Jan,” shares Portland Japanese Garden Curator Emeritus Sadafumi Uchiyama. Uchiyama, who previously served in the roles of Garden Curator and Chief Curator for the organization, was also the individual who championed and ushered in the creation of the Training Center. “We have often held these morning tea sessions in a warehouse at Smith Rock [a retailer that sells natural stones and also provides stone cutting services]. This is obviously not a tea house. The fact that she can adjust her movements without losing the heart and spirit of Chado speaks to the depth of her understanding. Those without her knowledge would be afraid to deviate. Her experience, love of Japanese culture, and personality make her unique. I value our partnership very much.”

A Living Treasure of Portland Japanese Garden

Jan Waldmann chats with Garden guests during a cultural demonstration. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

Along the lines of adapting Chado to the space she is in, Waldmann enjoys being able to provide Tea Ceremony demonstrations at the Garden. “I love it,” Waldmann glows. “It gives people the opportunity, in a few minutes, to watch something and be able to ask questions. I don’t mind if people get up and walk out, that’s absolutely fine—at least one person is staying. I think everything [including performances of koto music, ikebana demonstrations, and more] at the Cultural Corner gives people an opportunity to look into something they might want to follow up with.” If you’ve attended a Tea Ceremony demonstration and were hesitant about asking questions: don’t be. Waldmann encourages them. “Yes, yes, definitely,” she quickly affirmed when asked herself if people should approach to learn more after the demonstration ends.

Waldmann’s warmth and generous spirit have not gone unnoticed by her colleagues at the Garden. “In Japan, the government designates individuals with intangible artistic skills that benefit the nation as Living National Treasures,” Cultural Programs Manager Kelsey Cleveland shares. “I consider Jan Waldmann, who has been steeped in the traditions of tea for more than 50 years, the equivalent for Portland Japanese Garden and for the tea community in Oregon. Jan introduces garden visitors to the rich cultural heritage of Japan by giving them an opportunity to witness a host serve tea to a guest. She respects the history and legacy of the Chado while also introducing it to guests in a relatable warm and friendly manner.”

Jan Waldmann. Photo by Aaron Lee.

“There are those who study and practice the tea ceremony, but very few who live the spirit of the Way of Tea every day of their lives,” offers Diane Durston, Curator Emerita of Portland Japanese Garden and a close friend of Waldmann. “Jan Waldmann is one of the few. Unpretentiously with humility and graciousness, Jan has been sharing her knowledge of Chanoyu with a compassionate and open heart as a guiding light at the Garden for decades. She deserves our gratitude and respect for shedding light on the true meaning of wabi and sabi through her teaching of the Way of Tea in our community for more than forty years. I personally owe her so much for all she did and all she continues to do to keep that spirit alive at the Portland Japanese Garden.”

“Jan is a wonderful person and a great teacher,” Uchiyama concurs. “The practice of Tea Ceremony is native to Japan, but her understanding is international. She has a practical approach that I appreciate—she can adjust to the setting and audience without compromising the principles of Tea. Not many can do that. We have to appreciate that she is a great representative for Portland Japanese Garden—people get to see who we are through her respectful and genuine personality.”

Some may think of the centuries-old Tea Ceremony today as static, but the truth is that it evolves and changes, responding to the times as it gets molded by the hands that carry it forward. Waldmann sees how the same could be true for Portland Japanese Garden. The Garden Waldmann first knew was in its teenage years when it didn’t even have its Pavilion. Now she offers demonstrations in a state-of-the-art building designed by an internationally acclaimed architecture firm, Kengo Kuma & Associates. But more than the landscape or its structures, if she is hopeful about the future, it’s because of the people.

“I think that it’s all of us who create the Garden,” she reflects. “It’s us, meaning the people who put in hours and hours and hours every day, the people who formulate and look to the future, and every guest that comes in. We’re all part of the Garden and it’s only by working together, sharing the vision, that it works. And I think it’s been successful.”

Written by Will Lerner, Communications Manager for Portland Japanese Garden & Japan Institute.