Among those whose pulse races to surprise and spontaneity in life, the Japanese tea ceremony probably attracts few impassioned devotees. From the moment the guests arrive and await their host in the waiting room to their final admiration of the utilized tea container and scoop at the end of the ceremony, the stylized movements and gestures of this formal performance art follow a precisely determined course. Within this refined process, a defining moment occurs after the guests have entered the simple confines of the teahouse and spend time admiring a displayed scroll hanging on the wall. The scroll typically consists of tastefully brushed lines of classical poetry or a simply executed painting, either of which reflects the seasonally appropriate theme selected by the tea ceremony host for the day’s event. The scroll is hung in an alcove, which will later present a floral display that will likewise be harmonious with the ceremony’s theme. And the alcove is the distinctive feature of traditional Japanese interiors known as the tokonoma.
Though the built-in recessed space of the tokonoma plays a prime role in the tea ceremony, it has for centuries been an essential feature in Japanese interior design. Tokonoma developed with the emergence of the shoin architectural style, which began to spread among the mansions of Japan’s elite during the Muromachi period (1333–1568). It was at this time that the Japanese astutely recognized tatami matting as the finest-possible flooring material for a pair of human feet and started using the mats as the basic element for lining floors. Hitherto, tatami had been employed but just in the form of a single mat, which was used to accommodate the highest-ranking individual in the room and underscore that person’s status. Since tatami are made to standardized dimensions, the interior space in shoin architecture came to be designed around the proportions of the increasingly ubiquitous mat. And as the interiors of aristocratic homes adopted the shoin style, the tokonoma likewise evolved as a standard feature therein, adding an element of decorative grace to the otherwise unadorned room.
The tokonoma developed from the practice of hanging Buddhist picture scrolls in the homes of the aristocracy. In front of the scroll would be placed a low wooden table upon which was set an incense burner, votive candles and a flower vase. With time, the tokonama became a feature of the Japanese house that was used exclusively for displaying art objects and flower arrangements. By way of accentuating its special status, the tokonoma was raised to around a dozen centimeters higher than the floor.
In keeping with its religious origins, the tokonoma is often regarded as the spiritual center of a Japanese household, and as such many Japanese would never dream of stepping onto it. The tokonoma plays a role in determining seating arrangements in that the most important guest enjoys the privilege of being seated closest to it. However, since this involves sitting with the back towards the alcove, that honored guest is simultaneously deprived of being able to feast their eyes on the objects within the tokonoma throughout the meal or conversation.
Though the luxury of possessing a tokonoma was largely forbidden to commoners during the Edo period (1603–1867), the practice gradually spread, and the alcoves came to be a typical feature of domestic interiors. A tokonoma is certainly something one would expect to find today as the focal point in one of the rooms in a traditional Japanese restaurant. However, tokonoma often also feature in modern apartments, which are frequently an amalgam of Western- and tatami-style rooms.
Reflecting the delightfully dominant stature that nature and asymmetry occupy in Japanese aesthetics, the pillar on one side of the tokonoma—the tokobashira—will be of fine wood, though often left deliberately gnarled, bowed and unfinished as testament to the tree’s original state. As to the other objects in the tokonoma, one might find arranged with extreme sparseness similar items to those encountered by the tea ceremony guests: a poem rapidly brushed in a calligraphic hand that expresses the beauty of a season’s evanescence—and by extension that of human life itself—or a calm, understated floral display that elegantly makes the same poignant articulation.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.