Tonight Erin and I heard some sad and shocking news. Kyoko Kita, a sensei, or teacher, of almost any traditional Japanese art or cultural tradition, died this morning of a massive heart attack while driving her sister and cousin back to Denver International Airport for their return to Japan. When she felt chest pains, Kita Sensei pulled off I-70 and saved her guests’ lives before dying.
It’s a symbolically fitting, though incredibly sad, end to a rich and incredibly influential life.
Erin and I had just seen her a couple of months ago, at an event at the Consul General’s home, where she demonstrated a traditional tea ceremony for invited guests, outside in the Consul General’s backyard. She exuded the same wisdom and steady, peaceful happiness she’d shared for decades with the entire Japanese community — with anyone interested in Japanese culture.
Out of her basement studio, in which tatami mats made for a virtual teahouse, she taught the rigorous rules of the omotesenke style of tea ceremony (of which she was head teacher), but also how to play musical instruments such as the koto or shamisen, and most famously, the intricacies of ikebana, or flower arranging. She founded the Colorado Branch of Sogetsu stule of sculptural ikebana in 1986.
It seemed like she was always a cornerstone of the local community. My mother took cooking classes from her years ago. When my mom gave me a shamisen, I went over to her house for an afternoon of introduction to the instrument, and how to pluck its strings.
She told Erin and I once, after we admired the pussywillow sticks that added quirky curly lines to one of her artistic arrangements, that we should come by her house and take whatever we need from the bushes in her yard. We never did, but always appreciated the offer.
Kita Sensei was fluent in Japanese and English — unusual in a woman of her generation. My mom speaks English with a very strong accent after 45 years of living in the U.S. Mrs. Kita, though, spoke English with nary an accent but would travel to Japan often. She moved easily between both cultures.
She’s been recognized by the Japanese government for her efforts to promote traditional culture in the U.S And last year, she received a Ministry of Foreign Affairs Commendation for her lifetime of work (along with another tireless Denver promoter of Japanese culture, Kimiko Side).
Kita Sensei’s talent and generosity of knowledge has influenced generations of the Japanese Americans with our heritage. We’re honored to have known her. We’ll miss her, and so will many people, here in Colorado and all the way across the Pacific.
Travel in peace, O-Sensei.