The History and Magic of the Japanese Teahouse
The tradition of chashitsu began with Rikyū, the ‘Saint of Tea’, 500 years ago. His innovative spirit lives on in the teahouses of today
It’s said that tea was introduced to Japan from China during the Heian period (794-1185). While tea-drinking culture was enjoyed by both nobles and monks, tea was consumed less as a casual beverage and more in the manner of a medicine, due to the stimulating effects of caffeine. After Zen monks brought tea cultivation from China to Japan during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the tradition of tea drinking spread to the samurai, members of the military class, as well.
Beginning in the latter half of the Muromachi period (1336-1573), a tea-tasting contest called tōcha became a popular gambling sport among the samurai, who were known for flamboyant behaviour. Participants would attempt to guess the brand of tea they were served while engaging in other frivolities, such as collaborative poetry (renga) at clubhouses, or kaisho. While the clubhouses weren’t used exclusively for this purpose, they nonetheless were the first Japanese teahouses.
Later, a parlour tea (shoin no cha) tradition began with the development of traditional residential architecture (shoin-zukuri). But starting in the late 15th century, Murata Jukō and Takeno Jōō introduced a new style of tea ceremony known as wabi-cha. This ‘thatched hut’ or ‘rustic’ style of tea sought to create a ‘mountain hut in the city’ that offered a taste of the rural in an urban space.
It was the wabi-cha tradition that Rikyū perfected in the latter half of the 16th century, solidifying the development of this Japanese art. The small buildings and spaces that come to mind when Japanese people hear the word ‘teahouse’ come directly out of the thatched hut tearooms of Rikyū.
The teahouse is a space built specifically to facilitate tea gatherings. However, as Masao Nakamura – the foremost expert on chashitsu – writes: ‘Simple possession of the necessities for a tea ceremony is not enough to make a teahouse. In addition to satisfying the functional requirements for the ceremony, the space must also evoke the proper tea ceremony atmosphere.’ (A Picture History of Japanese Tearooms, Tankosha, 1998). The tea ceremony evolved steeped in Japanese sensibilities concerning nature; consequently, teahouses are spaces that reflect such sentiments.
The basic components of a traditional teahouse
・ Teahouse garden (roji)
In front of the traditional teahouse is a garden referred to as the roji. Guests traverse it on a path of stepping stones, admiring the plants and trees, before washing their hands at a stone basin in preparation for entering the teahouse building.
Passing through this natural area outside the building offers a pleasant means of approaching the otherworldly space that constitutes the tearoom. The host of the tea gathering uses a different entrance, called the sadōguchi.
One of the chief characteristics of the thatched hut teahouse begun by Rikyū is the guest entrance, or nijiriguchi. The square door is so low and small that guests can’t move through it without stooping and curling up as they crawl through. (See the wooden sliding door in the centre of this picture.) The host has a normal-size entrance.
While there are various stories surrounding the origin of the nijiriguchi, it is thought that, as the small entryway would force even a great general to leave his sword at the door to pass through, the space inside becomes detached from reality. Guests move beyond their respective social statuses and interact as equals. It’s also said that entering through such a small door makes the space of the tearoom itself feels larger.
The standard size for a chashitsu is 8.2 sq m (4.5 tatami, or 4.5 jō). (Japanese rooms are typically measured in the number of tatami mats that would cover the floor. The size of tatami differs among regions, and ranges from 1.5 to 1.9 sq m. The tatami traditionally used in the Kyoto region is used for chashitsu throughout Japan. It is 1.82 sq m, or 1.91m x 0.955m.)
Smaller tearooms are called koma, and larger rooms are called hiroma. This room is a nijō-nakaita koma (two mats and a stove hole). Even this small tearoom can hold a tea gathering for three guests and a host.
From November to April, a stove installed in the tearoom floor by cutting a piece of the tatami is used to boil water. From May to October, the stove is covered back up with tatami, and a portable stove, called a fūro, is used instead.
This is a nook or alcove in the tearoom decorated with hanging scrolls and flowers. When guests enter a teahouse, they first proceed to the alcove to admire the decoration. Toko are composed of an alcove post (tokobashira), lower alcove trim (tokogamachi), companion alcove post (aitebashira) and upper alcove trim (otoshigake). It’s not uncommon to spend years collecting pieces with the right history and character to suit these areas.
The wall of the alcove is plaster and sometimes a window (shitajimado) that reveals the lattice framework of the walls may be opened on one of the side walls. The floor of the alcove may be wooden panelling or tatami.
・Washing room (mizuya)
This is where the host cleans utensils and makes preparations for a tea gathering.
Architect Yasushi Iwasaki of Iwasaki Architecture Laboratory, which produces large numbers of residential tearooms, says, ‘The chashitsu is truly the product of all of the traditional Japanese crafts combined. Rather than calling it a work of architecture, it may as well be called the largest of the tea utensils.’ Iwasaki designed the teahouses in the three last pictures above.
In explaining his tearoom designs, Iwasaki says, ‘Many of my clients who appreciate the tea ceremony decided they were interested in holding their own tea gatherings, but there have also been a few individuals who were interested in having their own teahouse because they wanted to learn the tea ceremony.’ Tea gatherings include a traditional meal (kaiseki), thick tea (koicha) and thin tea (usucha).
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In modern Japanese cities, many people don’t live in standalone houses, but in housing complexes. Tearooms are sometimes created in them, too. One example is this Tokyo tearoom designed by Hiroyuki Suzuki of Atelier 137, which has fulfilled the dream of his client’s wife, who has studied the Urasenke school tea ceremony for 30 years.
Installing a tearoom in a housing complex is no simple task. To cut the hole for the stove and meet fire safety regulations, there needs to be a sufficient amount of space beneath the floor. The washing room must have a water supply and drainage, but because apartment buildings have a predetermined pipe shaft system, there’s little flexibility.
To combat these issues in this apartment, the tearoom area was raised about 41cm above the rest of the living area.
The floor of the mizuya is equipped with a bamboo drainboard that allows water to flow freely. In anticipation of splashing, the dark blue wainscotting has been swapped for planking at the edge of the pillar. The tap, dish drainer and shelves are all in keeping with Urasenke school sensibilities.
‘Because the mizuya is where the washing machine used to be, we were able to set up a water supply and drainage system with no issues,’ Suzuki says.
Today’s Teahouses and Tearooms: The Successors to Rikyū’s Innovative Spirit
So far we’ve only covered traditional teahouses and tearooms, but so long as the basic requirements are met – that ‘the necessities for tea ceremony are provided and the atmosphere of tea ceremony is attained’, as Nakamura says, it’s natural that chashitsu can just as easily be contemporary designs.
The Hironaka House, designed by architect Ken Yokogawa, is a building with a novel form, appearing from the road as a polyhedron covered in aluminium panels emerging from behind a wall. Passers-by may not even recognise it as a private residence. However, the site is situated on a slope, and behind the wall – which acts as a retaining wall – is a comfortable and open living space on the ground floor.
The first floor – which constitutes the polyhedron portion of the building – functions as a dedicated studio and tearoom for the owner, a busy lawyer who also devotes himself to painting and the tea ceremony. In other words, the ground floor is an everyday space, and the first floor is an otherworldly space.
Facing the entrance of the polyhedron, the studio is on the left side, while the guest entrance to the tearoom is on the right.
In addition, one of the polyhedron ceiling surfaces can be opened, causing light to fall only in the vicinity of a tea gathering’s host, creating a beautiful contrast between light and shadow.
Ken Yokogawa, who has designed a number of contemporary tearooms, not only in private residences but also in public buildings, says of the modern tearoom. ‘Form is important, but if you get overwhelmed by it, you can’t do anything interesting. Rikyū is the one who established the tea ceremony with its chashitsu and tea gatherings as we know them today, and his success was in being creative and novel for his time. I think the true chashitsu of modern times are those that bring a Rikyū-esque spirit and creativity to the contemporary living space.’
See more of the house
As previously mentioned, the chashitsu is an otherworldly space. Rikyū shut out the world by erecting walls, and created with his tearooms a detached reality – a contained microcosm.
However, traditional Japanese architecture is comprised only of a ceiling, supports and a floor – not walls. Interior designer Uchida Shigeru was interested in the idea that ‘the appearance of walls [due to Rikyū’s chashitsu] was a revolutionary upset in Japanese architectural space’, and set out to directly oppose Rikyū with a series of tearooms with see-through walls made of bamboo and washi (Japanese paper). They are called Ji-An (Retreat of Vedanā), Gyo-An (Retreat of Saṅkhāra), and So-An (Retreat of Saṃjñā).
Since their first exhibition in 1993, the portable tearooms have been purchased by various benefactors of the arts, beginning with The Conran Foundation, and are used for tea gatherings at events.
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Chashitsu Tetsu, the fourth treetop teahouse designed by architect Terunobu Fujimori, was completed in 2009. Fujimori’s personal chashitsu philosophy is as follows:
- Having the individual as its core, chashitsu is the inversion of large entities, such as the time period, society and the world at large.
- Chashitsu explores the ultimately essential, minimal unit of architecture in a closed, small space with fire introduced in it.
- This ultimately basic, minimal unit architecture is a DIY project.
- For the reasons above, the exploration of chashitsu architecture is a universal challenge for humanity.
This teahouse, Ma Ba, is the creation of artist and architect Fumihiko Sano, who was trained in carpentry at Nakamura Sotoji Komuten, a well-known design and construction company specialising in traditional tea ceremony arbours (sukiya).
It was built as an installation for a New York art gallery hosting a prehistoric Japan-themed exhibition highlighting the places in which people gather and the spaces that are created not with matter, but with one’s mind.
A wooden box placed in the middle of the gallery emits a ‘light that defines an incorporeal boundary line’ to create a ‘space’. Four sensors measure the relationship between the individuals inside the space in terms of their numbers, distance from each other and movements, and the light adjusts in order to accommodate the guests.
With fire, people gather: daily life is made possible, and a community emerges. In the Jōmon period, it’s likely that shamanistic rites were performed around fires. The root of human livelihood revolves around a centripetal core of light and fire, and it’s this message that’s communicated in the tea ceremony, as the host bonds with guests while boiling water over a stove and drinking tea.
As previously stated, the chashitsu is an architectural form that’s been cultivated by the appreciation of nature and the artistry of the tea ceremony. A magnificent example of that concept sublimated into a large-scale work of art is the KOU-AN Glass Tea House by designer Tokujin Yoshioka.
Although it’s unusual not to have any hanging scrolls, flowers or tatami mats, Yoshioka says, ‘I thought to look at the true nature of Japanese culture that exists in the realm of the senses. This microcosmic chashitsu space causes an awareness of the present moment in nature, prompting liberation from the physical realm and integration with one’s natural surroundings.’
Have you taken part in a Japanese tea ceremony? Share your experience in the Comments below.