Inside the Tea House | The Meal | The Tea Room | Utensils
The Spiritual World of Tea | Preparing for departure
The Tea House
The dominant impression one has in entering a chashitsu, a tea house, is one of restful and very subdued light. The teahouse stands in contrast to ordinary Japanese household architecture in its lack of openness. In tea houses, window openings are small and carefully placed to put light exactly where it will be most effective.
The size of tearooms can vary from one-and-three-quarter mats (tatami) up to not more than eight. They often have thatched roofs, clay walls, and are constructed of inexpensive materials such as cedar, bamboo, paulownia, and pine. Such teahouses evoke the classic abode of the Buddhist recluse. When tea is taken at a teahouse, the practice is to use two cups: a large one for brewing that will hold about a half-pint, and a thimble cup, smaller than a demi-tasse saucer, which is placed bottom-side-up over it.
The FloorThe floor of the teahouse is covered with a bamboo mat called a tatami mat. The floor is raised only in the alcove and is decorated with celebrated tea articles of ancient origin.
The CeilingThe houses were built with high ceilings, but it was found that the height in a small tea room made guests feel unrestful. Then, the ceilings were reduced to seven feet, then to six. To avoid a cramped feeling, the ceiling had alternating heights. For example, the alcove ceiling was made a little higher than the ceiling in other parts of the room and was covered with a piece of board, while the ceiling above the host's seat as made a little lower than the section above the guests' place in order to show humility. The lightweight materials used for tea room ceilings were shingles, wickerwork, bamboo and reeds.
The WallsPaper walls evolved into mud walls when the builders began to use logs as supporting posts. The use of mud walls made it possible to create rooms with rounded corners and for tea rooms to be built in a circular shape around a central post.
The WindowsThe windows of the tea room were closely related to the construction of the walls. A lintel was laid out from one post to another, and the space between them was made into a window. This structure let little light into the small tea hut and the lintel looked out of place so a window cut into the lower area of the wall could be built in various sizes and allowed more light in. Such low windows provided ventilation and a better view of the garden or natural scenery, since people sat on the floor. Another characteristic of the tea hut window was the bamboo grilles which not only let in more light, but helped to create a mood of serenity.
The Host's EntranceThis is a miniature entrance used by the host, originally lower than it is today, through which the host has to crouch to enter--another device that installed a sense of humility in the host.
The Guests' EntranceThis is a second entrance through which guests have to stoop to enter the tea room. The entrance is made of wood. The guests' crouched entrance signified humility, but also, as the room became smaller it was necessary to stoop at the entrance to look at the hanging scroll inside. It also showed respect to the guests already seated in the house.
Some people say that the entrance is designed in a way as to prevent the entrance of intruders, but this is doubtful because the door is only a quarter of an inch thick and could easily be broken with a push. The door of the tea room is left slightly open so it could be opened with ease. When the guest crouches on the stepping stone and touches the door, he finds it still wet in places, which gives him/her a refreshing feeling.
The moment the door is opened, the alcove and hanging scroll come into view. From this point, she/he can see the interior of the small room. After a quick glimpse, she/he bends over and creeps in, head first. The last guest to enter shuts and latches the door. The door latch gives the guests a feeling of isolation.
Principles - The unique cultural sphere of chanoyu is founded on four principles - wa (harmony), kei (respect), sei (purity), and jaku (tranquility). Each principle is expressed through the formal styles, the gestures, the selected objects, and the holistic tearoom environment prepared for one specific time, place, and occasion of meeting with the guest for tea. Yet, it is a process enacted through time that weaves the four principles together to create this sphere. Culture, in this sense, is not a static framework of reference but a field where the process of cultivation takes place.
Process - The tearoom is a physical representation of this cultural sphere. In its traditional format, it is a vacant space with no ornamentation. The host of the tea gathering, thus, prepares everything in advance to "set the stage." Purification of all elements that enters the world of tea, including the garden with the roji, the tearoom, and the tea utensils, is the most important part of preparation. The manners, rules, and formalism in gesture that are visible in chanoyu can manifest themselves with a ceaseless flow only when profound attention to details has been paid by the host to prepare his/her mind for the occasion. To be prepared is to pay respect to the guest, and when the host meets the guest who as respectfully partakes in the occasion, the harmonious communication between them is generated reciprocally.
However, the stage for a tea gathering is planned, designed, and enjoyed only to be dismantled after its fruition. The end of the occasion brings a bittersweet moment to both the guest and the host. The gathering is over; the guest leaves the tearoom. The host now sits alone in the tearoom, contemplating and appreciating the shared moment that s/he just experienced. While the host starts to clean the room, the empty space is suffused with lingering warmth generated by human interaction and with tranquillity that reflects the passing of time.
Continuity - The sphere of chanoyu, then, is characteristically temporal. It is this temporal nature that maintains a perpetual cycle of beginning, ending, and reviving itself. In each form of its manifestation, chanoyu cultivates creativity reflective of time and space. If using Korean daily utensils held an aesthetic relevance to the sixteenth century tea master Sen Rikyu, designing metal tea utensils in the flavour of the Bauhaus may hold as much relevance to a contemporary artist. The creation here involves cultivating new value by taking something that holds certain significance in one context and placing it in a different frame of time and space. The cultural sphere of chanoyu, thus, remains always open.
Chanoyu may be described as an intellectual game requiring intense creative faculties. It is fine to put it to use as a polestar for human life, and it is also fine to enjoy it as a conceptual art form. This is precisely why chanoyu can constitute a way of life that endures through changing times.
In summer guests come early for tea, before the heat of the day. The garden is sprinkled with water. The stepping stones glisten in the early morning light, moist and cool, like a mountain path through a forest of bamboo and cedar. There is a sense of bridging, crossing over, proceeding deeper into the garden and leaving the dust of the world behind. The leaves rustle in the wind. A covered waiting area appears where the guests sip cool, freshly drawn water from translucent porcelain cups. Water drawn from the same source will be used later for tea.
The tea house is made of the most ordinary materials: thatch, bark, reeds, bamboo, wood, paper, and clay. The entrance is low, a tiny door only two feet square. One by one, the guests approach a stone step, bend low, and scoot into a small room of shadow and light. They are greeted by the gentle sound of simmering water and the delicate aroma of sandalwood. A scroll hangs in the dimly lit alcove with words that speak of wind or water. Moistened reed blinds cover the windows, droplets of water glitter in the sun. The feeling is cool and refreshing. The guests sit quietly, absorbing the tranquil atmosphere.
In fall or winter, guests arrive in the late afternoon or evening. They make their way along a path scattered with red oak leaves. The tea room is warmed by oil lamps and candles, and the fragrance of aloewood and clove fills the tiny space. The kettle simmers on a sunken hearth near the middle of the room. The guests gather close to watch as the host adds charcoal to the fire.
A light meal of hot soup, rice, grilled fish, and pickles is served on black lacquer trays and ceramic dishes. Sake is poured into shallow red cups. A cedar tray with delicacies from the mountain and from the sea is passed. A stacked box filled with truffle like sweets is left with the guests to eat. They adjourn to the waiting area, where they sit for a moment and enjoy the garden.
When the guests return, they find the tea room changed. In the alcove where the scroll had been there is now a simple flower arrangement in a bamboo vase - a maple branch and a white camelia. The kettle has been joined by objects used for making tea: a ceramic water jar and a small ceramic tea container encased in a silk bag. The mood of the gathering has deepened, and now all are silent.
The host enters the room with a single tea bowl. The sound of his feet brushing the tatami mats mingles with the gentle hissing of the kettle. His movements are rhythmic and smooth as he unwraps the tea container from the silk bag, wipes the bowl, scoops in powdered tea, and ladles water from the kettle. Movement to movement, the gestures seamlessly merge as he mixes the tea and water with a small bamboo whisk.
The tea bowl is placed in front of a guest. He picks it up. The rough black ceramic is like a warm stone in his hand, a landscape of emerald green tea inside. All is quiet: the taste of the tea, the company of others, the heart of the host. The words of the scroll still linger in the mind and lead to a deep feeling for things of the moment.
The ceremony takes place in a room designed and designated for tea. It is called the chashitsu. Usually this room is within the tea house, located away from the residence, in the garden.
The guests (four is the preferred number) are shown into the machiai (waiting room). Here, the hanto (assistant to the host) offers them sayu (the hot water which will be used to make tea). While here, the guests choose one of their group to act as the main guest. The hanto then leads the guests, main guest directly behind, to a water sprinkled garden devoid of flowers. It is called roji (dew ground). Here the guests rid themselves of the dust of the world.
They then seat themselves on the koshikake machiai (waiting bench), anticipating the approach of the host who has the official title teishu (house master).
Just before receiving the guests, the teishu fills the tsukubai (stone basin), which is set among low stones with fresh water. Taking a ladle of water the teishu purifies his hands and mouth then proceeds through the chumon (middle gate) to welcome his guests with a bow. No words are spoken. The teishu leads the hanto, the main guest and the others (in that order) through the chumon which symbolizes door between the coarse physical world and the spiritual world of tea.
The guests and hanto purify themselves at the tsukubai and enter the teahouse. The sliding door is only thirty six inches high. Thus all who enter must bow their heads and crouch. This door points to the reality that all are equal in tea, irrespective of status or social position. The last person in latches the door.
The host seats himself and greetings are exchanged, first between the host and principle guest, then the host and other guests. A charcoal fire is then built if it is ro season and after the meal if it is furo season. In ro season kneaded incense is put in the fire and sandalwood incense in the furo season.
Sake is served. The first course is called hashiarai (rinsing the chopsticks). Nimono (foods simmered in broth) in separate covered lacquer dishes. Yakimono (grilled foods) are served in individual portions on ceramic plates. Additional rice and soup is offered each guest. At this course the host may eat, if he chooses. The palate is then cleared with kosuimono, a simple clear broth served in covered lacquer bowls.
The next course derives its name from the Shinto reverence of nature. It is called hassun which is also the name for the simple wooden tray that is used to serve this course. This course consists of uminomono and yamanomono (seafood and mountain food respectively) which signify the abundance of the sea and land. The host eats during this course, and is served sake by each guest. The position of server is considered a higher position and, to insure equality of all in the tea room, each acts as host if only momentarily.
Konomono (fragrant things) are served in small ceramic bowls, and browned rice is served in salted water in a lacquer pitcher, representing the last of the rice. Each guest cleans the utensils they have used with soft paper which they bring. A omogashi (principal sweet) is served to conclude the meal. The host then invites his guests to retire to the garden or waiting room while he prepares for tea.
Once the guests have departed, the host removes the scroll and replaces it with flowers. The room is swept and the utensils for preparing koi cha are arranged. Over thirteen individual items are used. Each is costly and considered an art object.
However, a tearoom does not stand by itself. It is defined by the environment and is inseparable from the myriad of meanings embodied within various elements that surround it. The most important of these elements, the roji (a narrow path leading to a tearoom) invites the guest to rid one's self of worldly concerns. It is also a transitional space where one leaves behind all the stifling conventions that obstruct one's experience of life at its fullest. In the present exhibition, the "path tunnel," a corridor formed by illuminated Japanese paper screens, abstractly recreates the space of the roji in the C.V. Starr Gallery and leads the visitor to the world of tea as reinvented in unconventional and striking terms.
At the Asia Society galleries, a "tearoom," the place where a tea ceremony traditionally takes place, is treated not as an architectural norm to be followed but rather as a subject in which the selected contemporary artists explore their ideas of chanoyu. New York artist Wenda Gu developed an installation in the Arthur Ross Gallery based on his unique interpretation of tea. The Starr Gallery, on the other hand, introduces four tearooms by Japanese designers and architects. While each tearoom on display in the Starr Gallery finds its own kinship with the basic aesthetic principles set forth by Sen Rikyu, the entire gallery space is designed to maintain a constant flow, from the everyday space to the realm of tea, and from one tearoom to another, in both physical and metaphysical senses.
Such an innovative spirit developed out of the Zen-based credo of "living in the present." Inheriting this spirit, Rikyu's disciple Furuta Oribe formed his own way of tea with his utensil designs, their freely-expressed artfulness contrasting with Rikyu's preference for reserved simplicity. Within the span of half a century, chanoyu produced such distinct masters whose contributions to later developments in tea utensils are immeasurable.
Today, four centuries later, individualism remains the pursuit of artists working toward the attainment of their own expressive language. While the materials used are as diverse as clay, glass, acrylic, bamboo and brass, the contemporary artists featured in the present exhibition align themselves with the lineage of the avant-garde.
Collaboration - During the tea gathering, however, individualism expressed through unique designs in utensils corresponds with a certain thematic tone, seasonal or otherwise, to encourage a holistic experience of the moment. The collaborative nature of the utensils assembled for the tea gathering parallels an orchestral composition. In this analogy, the tea utensils are the members of an orchestra rather than soloists. The host, then, is the conductor who leads them to resonate with each other. As if listening to a symphony, the guest follows the main theme while enjoying the distinct functionality and visual appeal that each utensil embodies.
Most of the tea utensils on display have been used in actual tea gatherings where contemporary artists and craftspeople participated in this symphonic form of art, sometimes as hosts, other times as guests. The aim of showcasing the utensils as well as the tearooms in this exhibition is to encourage the viewers to mindfully conduct their own collaborative symphony, that is, chanoyu.
mizusashi. This stoneware jar contains fresh water symbolizing purity, and is touched only by the host. Matcha is kept in a small ceramic container called a chaire which is in turn covered in a shifuku (fine silk pouch) which is set in front of the mizusashi. The occasion will dictate the type of tana (stand) used to display the chosen utensils.
If tea is served during the day a gong is sounded, in evening a bell. Usually struck or rung five to seven times, it summons the guests back to the tea house. They purify hands and mouth once again and re-enter as before. They admire the flowers, kettle (kama) and hearth and seat themselves.
The host enters with the chawan(tea bowl) which holds the chasen (tea whisk), chakin (the tea cloth) which is a bleached white linen cloth used to dry the bowl, and the chashaku (tea scoop), a slender bamboo scoop used to dispense the matcha, which rests across it. These are arranged next to the water jar which represents the sun (symbolic of yang); the bowl is the moon (yin). Retiring to the preparation room, the host returns with the kensui (waste water bowl), the hishaku (bamboo water ladle) and futaoki (a green bamboo rest for the kettle lid). He then closes the door to the preparation room.
Using a fukusa (fine silk cloth), which represents the spirit of the host, the host purifies the tea container and scoop. Deep significance is found in the host's careful inspection, folding and handling of the fukusa, for his level of concentration and state of meditation are being intensified. Hot water is ladled into the tea bowl, the whisk is rinsed, the tea bowl is emptied and wiped with the chakin.
Lifting the tea scoop and tea container, the host places three scoops of tea per guest into the tea bowl. Hot water is ladled from the kettle into the teabowl in a quantity sufficient to create a thin paste with the whisk. Additional water is then added to so the paste can be whisked into a thick liquid consistent with pea soup. Unused water in the ladle is returned to the kettle ( Kama ).
The host passes the tea bowl to the main guest who bows in accepting it. The bowl is raised and rotate in the hand to be admired. The guest then drinks some of the tea, wipes the rim of the bowl, and passes the bowl to the next guest who does the same as the main guest.
When the guests have all tasted the tea the bowl is returned to the host who rinses it. The whisk is rinsed and the tea scoop and the tea container cleaned.
The scoop and tea container are offered to the guests for examination. A discussion of the objects, presentation and other appropriate topics takes place.
The fire is then rebuilt for usa cha (thin tea). This tea will rinse the palate and symbolically prepares the guests for leaving the spiritual world of tea and re-entering the physical world. Smoking articles are offered, but rarely does smoking take place in a tearoom. This is but a sign for relaxation.
Zabuton (cushions) and teaburi (hand warmers) are offered. To compliment usa cha, higashi (dry sweets) are served. Usa cha and koi cha are made in the same manner, except that less tea powder of a lesser quality is used, and it is dispensed from a date-shaped wooden container called a natsume.
The tea bowl is more decorative in style; and guests are individually served a bowl of this forthy brew.
At the conclusion, the guests express their appreciation for the tea and admiration for the art of the host. They leave as the host watches from the door of the teahouse.