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August, 2007


Two for Tea

The tearoom in the famed Taian teahouse comprises just two tatami mats and a tokonoma alcove, but as Fujimori Terunobu explains, this was ample room in which to enjoy the wabi-cha aesthetic of tea master Sen no Rikyu.

The custom of growing and drinking tea in Japan began in the Zen temples of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), after a monk returning from his studies in China brought some tea home with him. A taste for tea gradually spread beyond the temples among the nobles, samurai, and even among the townsfolk, and was appreciated in various ways as it became rooted in Japanese culture. Some enjoyed drinking tea while bathing; others bet expensive artworks imported from China on contests to name the place where certain tea was grown.

One of the approaches to tea drinking was fostered by a school that received Zen influences and pursued not just enjoyment but also spirituality. Called Senke, the school established what became known as the wabicha aesthetic. ("Wabi" refers to the beauty that is found in simple things; "cha" means tea.) In the Senke school, the discipline of drinking tea was determined by this aesthetic, which in emphasizing the spartan and rustic also informed the design of the tea-making tools, tea ware, and teahouses.

The Senke school centered on one Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), sado counsel for the daimyo Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) and, following his death, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598). After Sen no Rikyu's ritual suicide-committed at the behest of Hideyoshi-the Senke school divided into three, namely the Omotesenke, Urasenke, and Mushakouji Senke schools. The Sansenke (three houses of Sen) continue to this day.

Two things may be said to symbolize Sen no Rikyu's tea aesthetic. The first is the black Raku-yaki chawan tea bowls that he commissioned from a brick tilemaker by the name of Chojiro. Raku ware chawan are hand-shaped from earthenware and after firing are porous in texture and a deep matt black (or red). According to Rikyu's wabi-cha aesthetic, "All colors lead to black."

The second symbol is the extremely small cha-shitsu tearoom that Rikyu favored. In a Rikyu tearoom, the space in which the tea ceremony is performed-the welcoming, tea whisking, drinking, and conversing-measures just one tsubo, the area of two tatami mats (3.3 m2).

To enter the tearoom, the guest crawls through a very low doorway, the nijiri-guchi (crawl-in entrance). At the opposite end of the mat on which he finds himself is a tokonoma alcove showcasing a flower arrangement and a scroll; a hearth is located at the end of the mat to the left. The master sits facing the hearth, while the guest sits on the tokonoma side.

The room may be small, but the tokonoma is quite deep, the ceiling is slanted, and windows take in light from two locations. The space is varied and atmospheric. The guest would appreciate his spatial surroundings before taking in the details-the scroll, the incense burner, and the flower arrangement in the tokonoma, as well as the tools to be used in the tea ceremony such as the chawan, kama (kettle), cha-ire (tea caddy) and cha-sen (bamboo whisk). He would converse with the master on such matters. The master would have prepared the scroll and tools to match the invited guest's preferences and the season.

Prior to Rikyu, tearooms already had established forms, with the smallest types measuring four and a half jyo (tatami mats) (7.3 m2). Rikyu challenged these stereotypes. If all colors ultimately lead to black, where would all tearooms ultimately lead?

Being small is not enough. The room must have a hearth and space to allow the master to smoothly whisk the tea and the guest to drink it, while also possessing beauty as architecture. The end result after a process of trial and error was a room of the sort described above, measuring just one tsubo.

The idea was embodied in the Taian, built in 1582 within Rikyu's mansion in Kyoto. The room was later disassembled and rebuilt at a small temple called Myokian in Kyoto, where it remains to this day. Taian is the only tearoom built by Rikyu still standing, and is the oldest original tearoom in Japan.

FUJIMORI Terunobu is an architectural historian, architect, and professor at the University of Tokyo Institute of Industrial Science.