The setting is a crucial aspect of the Japanese tea ceremony. While the tea is important, it’s the chashitsu (茶室), or tea house, that creates the serene atmosphere and sense of ceremony. But what exactly is a Japanese tea house, and what makes the best chashitsu? Let’s find out!
What is Japanese Teahouse?
Chashitsu refers to tea rooms designed for tea ceremony gatherings. The term includes free-standing buildings and specific rooms intended for tea ceremony. It can be a small wooden building in a garden, park, museum, or temple. Tea rooms are where guests are welcomed, and their facilities include the garden path leading to it. In English, we differentiate between a free-standing tea house and a tea ceremony room within a building. Tea rooms may also be found within larger tea houses or private homes not intended for tea ceremony.
The History of Japanese Tea Houses
In ancient times, various terms were used to describe spaces for tea ceremonies, such as chanoyu zashiki (茶湯座敷, a sitting room for chanoyu), sukiya (a place for poetry and aesthetic interests), and kakoi (囲, a divided space).
The practice of tea ceremony began in Kyoto in the 15th and 16th centuries, initially carried out by warriors and monks as a means to promote simplicity and humility. However, Kyoto’s elites indulged in refined gatherings featuring tea competitions, luxurious decorations, and high-quality utensils. These two expressions of tea ceremony remained complementary and were held in traditional rooms of noble residences or small pavilions meant for entertainment.
According to literature, the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490) constructed the first chashitsu at his villa in Kyoto, considered to be the first tea room in chanoyu’s history. The chashitsu comprised 4.5 tatami mats arranged in a svastika layout, which later became the standard for tea rooms.
During the Muromachi period (1336-1573), tea rooms were built in the shoin-zukuri architectural style, still used in modern tea rooms. Originally meaning a lecture or study room within a temple, shoin later became a drawing room, study room, or a space for various cultural activities. Square pillars and tatami floors were the most significant features of shoin-zukuri rooms.
The tea house as a stand-alone building came about through the efforts of two tea masters who promoted modesty and simplicity in tea room architecture. Takeno Joo (1502-1555) used natural bamboo and raw wood, leaving the wattle and daub walls exposed. Sen no Rikyu (1525-1591) transformed the tea room into a small, thatched pavilion, resembling a mountain hut called soan chashitsu. He reduced the size, number of decorative objects, utensils, and floral elements, using simple materials like earth, straw, and undecorated wood. This new tea ceremony style was named wabi-cha, embodying the ideals of wabi-sabi.
During the Sengoku period (1467-1615), tea houses were built by daimyos (feudal lords), merchants, samurai, or zen monks who practiced tea ceremony. During this turbulent period, tea houses represented an ideal of simplicity and tranquility.
How To Build Japanese Teahouse?
If you want to build a traditional Japanese tea house, it should be surrounded by a garden called roji, which includes features essential for the tea ceremony and meditation before entering the tea house. The guests should walk on a stone path leading to the tea house.
Next to the tea house, there should be a stone basin where guests can clean their hands and mouths before entering the tea room. The entrance to the tea room is a small, low square door called a nijiriguchi. It symbolizes the separation between the calm tea space and the bustling outside world. Everyone, regardless of social status, must enter the tea room by crawling through the door on all-fours or sliding on their knees with clenched fists. Even samurai had to leave their swords outside.
In addition to the guests’ entrance, there may be other entrances, such as the sadoguchi, leading to the preparation area called the mizuya. The smallest tea house usually has two rooms: the main room for the host and guests to sit and make tea and the mizuya where the host prepares utensils and sweets. The tea house has a low ceiling, as the host and guests sit in seiza, the traditional way of sitting properly on the floor.
There is no fixed tatami layout in chashitsu, the tea house’s name in Japanese. The smallest tea room can be as small as 1.75 tatami mats with a full tatami mat for guests and a daime, which is 3/4 the length of a full tatami mat, for the host.
Larger tea houses may have several rooms, including a waiting area, a room for guests to remove their shoes, a changing room, bathrooms, and a large mizuya. They may also have a garden or outdoor waiting area and can comprise 10 tatami mats or more. However, the standard for modern tea rooms is 4.5 mats, which is called a koma or a small room. If the tea room is larger than 4.5 mats, it is called a hiroma or a big room. The chanoyu or matcha tea ceremony rooms are usually smaller than shoin-zukuri-style rooms, which can accommodate more guests during senchado tea gatherings.
All materials used in the tea room are simple and rustic. The windows are modest and covered with shoji paper panels, allowing sunlight to enter the room while limiting views of the outside environment to promote concentration.
What are the Key Elements of a Traditional Japanese Tea House?
The tokonoma (床の間, scroll alcove) is a crucial area in the tea room, where a scroll of calligraphy or brush painting is displayed, and a seasonal flower arrangement called chabana (茶花, tea flowers) is often placed. Guests are seated close to the tokonoma, with the first guest being the nearest to the alcove. A kakejiku (掛軸, hanging scroll) is hung in the tokonoma, which always relates to the season or occasion, and its frame is often adorned with antique Japanese brocade.
The tokobashira (床柱, supporting pillar) is the most important pillar in the tokonoma, and is made with great care using high-quality wood or wood that conveys a sense of wabi sabi beauty. Occasionally, Japanese red pine tree (Pinus densiflora) is employed, with its bark often remaining on the pillar. The opposite pillar on the other side of the tokonoma is known as the aitebashira (partner pillar), with the bottom beam being called tokogamachi.
The otoshigake (落としがけ) is made of Japanese red cedar (Cryptomeria japonica), Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora), or paulownia, and supports the short wall in front of the tokonoma, acting as a lintel.
In winter, a sunken hearth named ro (炉) is placed in the tatami next to the host’s tatami, while in summer, it is covered by a tatami. A portable brazier called furo (風炉) is used instead.
Discover Six Famous Tea Houses and Their Locations
Tai-an (待庵), the only surviving chashitsu designed by Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), can be found at Myoki-an temple in Yamazaki, Kyoto. Constructed in 1582, it embodies the wabi-cha concept and is a National Treasure of Japan. Tai-an is a small chashitsu, consisting of only two tatami mats, with a larger entrance said to have been designed to allow feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) to enter wearing his armor.
Jo-an (如庵), built in Kyoto in 1618, is designated a National Treasure and considered one of the three finest chashitsu in Japan (San-meiseki, 三名席, Three Famous Tearooms). Commissioned by Oda Urakusai, the younger brother of the powerful daimyo Oda Nobunaga and a disciple of Sen no Rikyu, Jo-an was relocated to Inuyama, in Aichi prefecture, in 1972.
Sarumen Chaseki (猿面, Monkey Face Tea Place), located at Nagoya Castle, was first built by Furuta Oribe (1544-1615). Its tokobashira (床柱, supporting pillar) is said to have had two wood knots, resembling Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s face, who was nicknamed “little monkey”. Sarumen Chaseki was designated a National Treasure in 1936, destroyed during World War II, and rebuilt in 1949.
Rokuso-an (六窓庵, Six Window Hut), one of the San-meiseki (三名席, Three Famous Tearooms), was originally located at Kōfuku-ji temple in Nara and now stands in Tokyo National Museum’s gardens. The third famous tea room, Yatsu-mado no seki (八窓の席, Eight Windows), also known as Haso-an (八窓庵), is located at Isshin-ji temple in Osaka.
The Glass Tea House – Kou-An (光庵, Light Hut) is a chashitsu designed by Tokujin Yoshioka (1967-). It was first presented at the Venice Biennale in 2011 and is currently traveling within Japan. This tea house does not feature traditional elements of Japanese tea rooms, such as chabana, kakejiku, or tatami. Instead, natural light is refracted by a crystal prism sculpture on the top of the tea house, creating “light flowers”.
In 2017, renowned Japanese designer Kengo Kuma created The Tea House on the rooftop of a business and residential tower in Vancouver. This modern tea house features sliding glass walls and is built on a raised wooden platform, surrounded by a stone garden.