Yaeko Niijima was born into a warrior family that claimed descent from the great 16th century general Yamamoto Kansuke (who was immortalized in a famous woodblock print).
The daughter of a gunnery instructor, she helped defend Aizu Castle during the Boshin War.
However, Yaeko later learned the Urasenke school of Japanese green tea ceremony, eventually becoming a tea master with her own students. She had first become interested in tea ceremony after working with the mother of Sennosai, the 13th headmaster of the school of tea founded by Sen no Rikyu.
During the Russo-Japanese War and World War I, Yaeko served as a volunteer nurse. In recognition for this service, she was presented with a Silver Cup award by Emperor Hirohito in 1928.
(She later married an equally adventurous man, Joseph Hardy Niijima (also spelled "Neeshima"), who as a young samurai (then known as Niijima Jo) had literally risked his life to visit the United States at a time when leaving the country with the Shogun's permission was punishable by death. Together they founded the Doshisha family of schools, which continue today.)
Was green tea responsible for her transformation from warrior to angel in white? I like to think so.
Yaeko Niijima (middle) late in life.
Yaeko's ancestor, Yamamoto Kansuke.
Inside the Niijima residence — which is preserved as a museum today — you can still see the piano that Yae Niijima played.