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Teahouse (Chashitsu)

Interview with Matthew Welch

Curator of Korean and Japanese Art

1. What is this space and how does it compare to the museum's other Japanese room—the Audience Hall?

This is a Japanese teahouse. It is modeled on an 18th century original that still exists in the city of Kyoto within a Zen monastery called Daitokuji. The original teahouse is called the Sa-an, or "Hermitage of the Raincoat". That's important because it says a lot about what tea architecture is. That is, in having the structure named, the owner was trying to convey the idea that this is a humble hut that you might chance upon when hiking out in the forest, wearing a raincoat. So you can imagine a forest dripping with rain, and you'd really like to take a break from walking, and suddenly you find this little hut where you can stop for a while. That's the image that the teahouse and the name might create.

What's interesting about this teahouse, and teahouses in general, is that the Japanese evolved this type of architecture at the same time that they were building palatial audience halls like the one in The Minneapolis Institute of Arts' galleries (see the museum's Japanese Audience Hall—or Shoin).

2. How is it that they would simultaneously have such very different forms of architecture?

Well, the same warlords in the 16th and 17th centuries who were interested in collecting rare Chinese treasures, and impressing their guests by receiving them in splendid audience halls where they displayed these rare objects, were also building this kind of teahouse. This is because they were influenced by a group of influential tea masters who were evolving what would become Japanese tea ceremony.

In an early form of tea ceremony it was customary to serve guests within the confines of a formal audience hall. And, in fact, the master and his guests would be seated in that room and an assistant would actually prepare the tea in an adjoining chamber and then carry it in and serve it in that gorgeous setting. Everyone would admire the rare and imported Chinese objects.

But in the hands of three very important Japanese tea masters in the 16th century, a new concept developed known as wabi. Wabi was a term that they adopted from poetry that suggested poverty or wretchedness. But for tea masters, the wabi aesthetic meant that even simple ceramics and other tea utensils made in Japan could have their own humble beauty. Often the tea ceramics that were made in Japan were unglazed, a little rough, maybe a little misshapen, but tea masters appreciated these qualities as representing the wabi aesthetic. Consequently, they began to use both rare Chinese imported object and domestic Japanese objects for serving tea. The other important aspect of the wabi tea aesthetic is that the host began to perform the humble task of preparing and serving the tea himself, without the aid of servants.

3. And this wabi concept applied to architecture as well?

Yes, tea masters advocated that in addition to serving tea in a formal audience hall, it could also be served it in a more rustic teahouse, such as this one. One of the earliest tea masters to use a smaller room was Murata Shuko in the late 16th century, who held tea gatherings in a 4-and-a-half-mat—or roughly 9 by 9 foot—room.

Buddhism might have influenced early tea masters to create small-scale tearooms. There was a tradition among high-ranking men to take Buddhist vows after retiring from their positions at court, and then going to live in small, humble huts in the countryside. Also, according to Buddhist mythology, the Indian sage Vimalakirti once hosted a gathering for 84,000 heavenly beings in his small hut—the idea being that for those who are truly enlightened, time, space and physical barriers are easily transcended—and even a small room contains infinite space.

4. So the idea of impressing people with large formal spaces is almost challenged here.

Detail of Pillar
(1) The pillar holding up the eaves is intentionally rustic.

The idea was certainly a counter-aesthetic to the palatial, refined audience hall. At least in theory, if a tea master is devoted to tea and serves his guests in the true spirit of tea, then the setting doesn't really matter. You could have tea in something as rustic as an abandoned woodcutter's hut. So every effort is made to make these structures appear rustic. Different kinds of wood are chosen, as well as bamboo and straw. Red pine might be used for the main pillar that holds up the tokonoma (alcove), while other types of wood used for other support posts. For the museum's teahouse, the pillar that holds up the eaves leading from the garden, for example, is a piece of pine that was soaked in water with its bark still intact until mold grew between the bark and the core. Afterwards the bark was stripped away, revealing the mottled effect of the mold.(1) The resulting impression is of a very old, wabi, piece of wood. There are also different gauges of bamboo and water-reed and so on, so that it looks like this small hut has been put together with materials that were gathered from the surrounding forest.

Now, of course, as time went on in Japan, nothing is further from the truth. The building of a teahouse became an extremely complicated and specialized effort requiring the skills of many different craftsmen because of all of the different types of materials. But the teahouse owner or the tea master who commissions such a tea house is making every effort to create that kind of rustic, natural atmosphere for his tea guests.

5. Taken together, the teahouse and audience hall say a lot about Japanese architecture.

Part of the reason I was very keen to construct both a teahouse and an audience hall here, at the museum, was because Japanese domestic architecture from the 17th century onward is usually an amalgam of these two distinct types. This new type of architecture, called sukiya, featured many of the architectural elements of the old audience hall style, but their interpretation was up to the personal taste of the owner. It became popular for people to adopt some of the natural elements associated with tea architecture into their formal rooms, thus bringing their own creativity into its creation. So, the bark might be left on a pillar, or the ceiling might be comprised of woven wooden slats, or the base of the tokonoma alcove might be a particularly beautiful piece of wood. A kind of understated elegance characterized all sukiya architecture, but also a freedom and creativity that was lacking in the old formalized shoin style.

6. Tell us about the use and placement of windows in teahouses.

Teahouses have a variety of windows and it might seem that there is no logic or reason to their placement or construction. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, there's a real choreography of lighting that's going on in properly constructed teahouse.

This particular teahouse has a cut-away front wall, so visitors can see inside. There would normally be a wall in place there. It's not an entrance or window.

Detail of Pillar
(2) The small doorway forces guests to humble themselves upon entering.

Typically, when a guest enters from the garden, they slide through this very low doorway (2) that forces guests to humble themselves in the face of this experience. But then, at the start of the ceremony, the door is closed, and most of the translucent paper panels—called shoji—that cover the windows are closed as well. So it really becomes a very confining space that helps you to concentrate on the ceremony that's taking place in front of you and on the works of art the tea master has chosen for display.

So the windows are not used to provide a view of the garden, but rather to modulate light within the teahouse. Almost all teahouses have a very ingenious type of window called a shitaji-mado that contributes to that rustic effect. Essentially, a portion of the underlying lathe is left unplastered, so that light filters through the reed lathe into the tearoom. The shitaji-mado is typically placed near the tea master's area, providing a bit of light where it is most needed.

If there's too much light—if it's a very bright sunny day—in addition to closing the shoji panels, the tea master might hang extra bamboo blinds on the exterior of the windows to further filter the sunlight. So that when you're involved in the tea ceremony the interior is a shadowy and somewhat mysterious place. In this way, the tea master takes light into consideration and the impact it will have on the atmosphere he is attempting to create.

He might, for example, begin a tea ceremony at five in the morning, so that it's dark outside and the ceremony begins by candlelight, but then the guests are rewarded by the rosy light of sunrise at it illuminates the shoji panels. The tea master would have considered this effect and carefully matched such an experience to the proper occasion. An acquaintance beginning a new job, for example, or a celebratory tea for the New Year, would be appropriate symbolic use of the rising sun. The tea master carefully considers such details when planning a tea gathering.

7. Departing from architecture for a moment, can you tell us more about the tea ceremony itself?

To my mind, the Japanese tea ceremony is the only complete aesthetic experience that I know about. That is, it involves all five senses. Guests come to a tea ceremony, make their way through the garden, slide into the tearoom, and participate in a specially prepared aesthetic experience choreographed by the tea master.

Detail of Pillar
(3) Some of the tools of the tea master's trade.

The first thing that a guest does after entering the teahouse is to admire the work of art that's been put on display in the alcove by the tea master-often a hanging scroll. So there is a visual component throughout the experience as the guest admires the artwork on display, the utensils used by the tea master,(3) and even the architecture of the tea house itself.

Prior to the guest's arrival, the tea master typically puts some sandalwood or another aromatic wood chips into the hearth to mask the smell of the burning charcoal, so that there's a slight fragrance to the air within the teahouse. This is why it's considered inappropriate to wear cologne or perfume to a tea ceremony, as doing so thwarts the tea master's efforts to scent the room with subtle incense. So the sense smell is also part of the tea experience.

After all the guests are in their places, the tea master enters the teahouse and greets the guests. He then proceeds to make the tea. Prior to presenting the first guest with a bowl of tea, the guests are served a small sweet. The astringent taste of the tea compliments the taste of the sweet. In any case, partaking of the sweet and the tea involves the guests' sense of taste.

In receiving a bowl of tea, the guests carefully cradle the ceramic bowl in their hands. They may enjoy the warmth of the hot tea through the walls of the bowl, or the texture of the bowl itself. Often, the tea bowl is a prized object from the host's collection, passed down through generations of tea masters who may have written their comments about the aesthetic qualities of the tea bowl on the bowl's wooden box. In this way, the guest partakes in the history of the tea bowl through the sense of touch.

8. What about the sense of hearing?

Typically tea ceremonies are conducted almost totally in silence, with only a few formal exchanges between the host and guests. But there's a certain sound that comes from the iron teakettle. It's a slight pinging or ringing sound as the water boils. And when the kettle reaches a certain pitch, the tea master will pour a bit of cool water into the kettle to bring the temperature back appropriate level for brewing tea, and the sound diminishes or disappears for a time. So it's the very subtle song of the kettle that provides music for the sense of hearing.

9. Are the guests silent the entire time?

No, once everyone has been served a sweet and has had tea, finally then there's a time where guests are able to ask the tea master about the objects that have been used, or about the objects that are on display. It's not an opportunity for free convivial conversation, but rather it's an opportunity to say, "That's a particularly lovely tea caddy. Can you tell us about it?"

And so the focus of the event remains within the immediacy of the aesthetic experience. Conversation addresses the art and artistry of what is happening in front of the guests and doesn't stray into current news or gossip, or other mundane matters. This is the microcosm of the tea ceremony.

10. Why and when are tea ceremonies held?

Tea ceremonies are held for any number of reasons. Basically, most tea aficionados follow a carefully proscribed calendar of tea events. Beyond these, tea gatherings can be celebratory—to commerate the New Year, to honor a special guest, or to mark the promotion of a tea student to a new level of mastery. They can also be memorials for someone who has died. They can be organized to commemorate the beauty of the seasons, the cherry blossoms, the autumn moon, and so on. There are many, many reasons for conducting a tea ceremony, but the subtext is always this aesthetic experience.

11. Even though tea ceremonies are based on tradition, is there room for variation?

Typically, if you are invited to a tea ceremony and then invited back again, the ceremony will be completely different. Of course, the time of day would be different, and the season might be different, but also, tea masters keep records of which objects are used, for which occasion, and with which guests, so that a ceremony would never be replicated. Tea masters have a saying, "ichigo, ichie" or something like, "one time, one meeting." The basic idea is that each tea gathering is unique and will never be repeated in exactly the same way. So, yes, there is a wide range of variation within the basic formulae of the ritual.

It is the tea master's job is to make the experience a unique one. He manages this through his selection of objects that he will use, the art he will display, the type of tea that he will served, the menu for the meal, and so on. Everything is especially choreographed to make a unique experience.

In addition to these decisions made by the tea master, there is typically a series of procedures that should be followed depending on the occasion. The procedures differ according to the particular school of tea. While the differences in procedures can be fairly subtle to the novice, tea masters devote much of their careers to studying and memorizing these procedures so that they are able to correctly perform the appropriate ritual for each occasion.

12. So, through the teahouse we can learn about history, tradition, aesthetics, and architecture. What about spirituality?

The spirituality of tea is a very interesting topic. Tea was originally brought from China to Japan by Zen monks. So it starts with Zen monks drinking tea in monasteries, in a very ritualistic and decorous way, as a means of staying awake through long hours of meditation.

However, tea soon began to be served during at opulent gatherings among Japan's wealthy military and aristocratic elite. These were occasions to show off rare objects imported from China, and tea was simply an exotic beverage.

In the late 16th century, however, several renowned tea masters adopted something of the decorum and formality associated with monastic tea as they began to formulate new procedures for staging tea gatherings. As a result, there is often a meditative, or spiritual, aspect to the tea ceremony even though it is not overtly religious.

13. To museum visitors—or anyone able to see an actual teahouse—the garden is just as visible as the teahouse itself. Can you tell us about the layout of the garden?

If you're invited to a tea in Japan, the first thing that you would do is arrive slightly early from the appointed time. You would know if the tea master is ready for you because the gateway to the garden will be slightly ajar. If it's still closed tightly, you know he's not ready and you should wait a few minutes. But typically it's slightly ajar and you would enter the tea garden.

Now, a Japanese a tea garden is called a roji. "Ro" means dew and "ji" is path. So, together they mean "dewy path." The image that the tea master is trying to create is a dew-soaked path through a quiet forest that leads to a rustic retreat. To achieve this effect, the tea master sprinkles water on the path, stepping-stones and moss leading to the teahouse.

Also, the tea master strives to make the garden seem rather natural and uncultivated. Plantings are usually limited things that might grow naturally on the shady forest floor. Bright, showy flowers are avoided. Also, unlike other forms of Japanese gardening, the plants and bushes in the tea garden are not overly trimmed or shaped. Trees are allowed to grow and create a shady canopy.

You would make your way down the stepping-stones, which are also carefully arranged in an irregular manner. This forces guests to slow their pace, and focus on the path and ground at their feet. Moss is cultivated so that it seems like the small tea garden is an ancient, mysterious place. In a way, the process of slowing walking along the path forces guests to draw inward, rather than looking about for some expansive view or at some gorgeous display of flowers. As the guest penetrates deeper into the garden, they experience an enveloping calm that is designed to help them mentally prepare for the upcoming ceremony.

Ultimately the path leads to a tsukubai, which is a stone washbasin that the tea master would have replenished with fresh water. Guests ladle water over their hands, and rinse their mouths to ritualistically cleanse themselves. In the past, if a guest were a warriormdash;a samurai—he would remove his swords and put them on the sword rack hanging beneath the eaves, because there's no real place for swords within the teahouse. Then guests make their way into the teahouse.

A tea garden might look somewhat haphazard, but the tea master and his gardener take great pains to create this effect—to choose just the right plants, to arrange the rocks in just the right way. Also there might be many paths going through a tea garden. The tea master indicates which path you should use by placing small stones wrapped in black twine on the paths that should not be used. If you are invited to another tea ceremony at the same location, chances are the tea master will use these stones to indicate a different route to the teahouse so that your experience is unlike the first.

14. Do you find teahouses standing on their own—not connected to a house or monastery?

Historically teahouses were often connected to the main house, so that the tea master entered from his residence, while the guests approached the teahouse from the garden. But there are also many examples of totally freestanding teahouses.