by Kakuzo Okakura
To European architects brought up on the traditions of stone and
brick construction, our Japanese method of building with wood
and bamboo seems scarcely worthy to be ranked as architecture.
It is but quite recently that a competent student of Western
architecture has recognised and paid tribute to the remarkable
perfection of our great temples. Such being the case as regards
our classic architecture, we could hardly expect the outsider to
appreciate the subtle beauty of the tea-room, its principles of
construction and decoration being entirely different from those
of the West.
The tea-room (the Sukiya) does not pretend to be other than a
mere cottage - a straw hut, as we call it. The original ideographs
for Sukiya mean the Abode of Fancy. Latterly the various
tea-masters substituted various Chinese characters according to
their conception of the tea-room, and the term Sukiya may
signify the Abode of Vacancy or the Abode of the Unsymmetrical.
It is an Abode of Fancy inasmuch as it is an ephemeral structure
built to house a poetic impulse. It is an Abode of Vacancy
inasmuch as it is devoid of ornamentation except for what may
be placed in it to satisfy some aesthetic need of the moment.
It is an Abode of the Unsymmetrical inasmuch as it is consecrated
to the worship of the Imperfect, purposely leaving some thing
unfinished for the play of the imagination to complete. The
ideals of Teaism have since the sixteenth century influenced our
architecture to such degree that the ordinary Japanese interior of
the present day, on account of the extreme simplicity and
chasteness of its scheme of decoration, appears to foreigners
The first independent tea-room was the creation of Senno-Soyeki,
commonly known by his later name of Rikyu, the greatest of all
tea-masters, who, in the sixteenth century, under the patronage
of Taiko-Hideyoshi, instituted and brought to a high state of
perfection the formalities of the Tea-ceremony. The proportions
of the tea-room had been previously determined by Jowo - a
famous tea-master of the fifteenth century. The early tea-room
consisted merely of a portion of the ordinary drawing-room
partitioned off by screens for the purpose of the tea-gathering.
The portion partitioned off was called the Kakoi (enclosure), a
name still applied to those tea-rooms which are built into a house
and are not independent constructions. The Sukiya consists of the
tea-room proper, designed to accomodate not more than five
persons, a number suggestive of the saying "more than the Graces
and less than the Muses," an anteroom (midsuya) where the tea
utensils are washed and arranged before being brought in, a
portico (machiai) in which the guests wait until they receive the
summons to enter the tea-room, and a garden path (the roji) which
connects the machiai with the tea-room. The tea-room is
unimpressive in appearance. It is smaller than the smallest
of Japanese houses, while the materials used in its construction
are intended to give the suggestion of refined poverty. Yet we
must remember that all this is the result of profound artistic
forethought, and that the details have been worked out with care
perhaps even greater than that expended on the building of the
richest palaces and temples. A good tea-room is more costly than
an ordinary mansion, for the selection of its materials, as well as its
workmanship, requires immense care and precision. Indeed, the
carpenters employed by the tea-masters form a distinct and
highly honoured class among artisans, their work being no
less delicate than that of the makers of lacquer cabinets.
The tea-room is not only different from any production of
Western architecture, but also contrasts strongly with the
classical architecture of Japan itself. Our ancient noble
edifices, whether secular or ecclesiastical, were not to be
despised even as regards their mere size. The few that have
been spared in the disastrous conflagrations of centuries
are still capable of aweing us by the grandeur and richness
of their decoration. Huge pillars of wood from two to three
feet in diameter and from thirty to forty feet high, supported,
by a complicated network of brackets, the enormous beams
which groaned under the weight of the tile-covered roofs.
The material and mode of construction, though weak against
fire, proved itself strong against earthquakes, and was well
suited to the climatic conditions of the country. In the Golden
Hall of Horiuji and the Pagoda of Yakushiji, we have noteworthy
examples of the durability of our wooden architecture. These
buildings have practically stood intact for nearly twelve
centuries. The interior of the old temples and palaces was
profusely decorated. In the Hoodo temple at Uji, dating from
the tenth century, we can still see the elaborate canopy and
gilded baldachinos, many-coloured and inlaid with mirrors and
mother-of-pearl, as well as remains of the paintings and
sculpture which formerly covered the walls. Later, at Nikko
and in the Nijo castle in Kyoto, we see structural beauty sacrificed
to a wealth of ornamentation which in colour and exquisite detail
equals the utmost gorgeousness of Arabian or Moorish effort.
The simplicity and purism of the tea-room resulted from
emulation of the Zen monastery. A Zen monastery differs from
those of other Buddhist sects inasmuch as it is meant only to be a
dwelling place for the monks. Its chapel is not a place of worship
or pilgrimage, but a college room where the students congregate
for discussion and the practice of meditation. The room is bare
except for a central alcove in which, behind the altar, is a statue
of Bodhi Dharma, the founder of the sect, or of Sakyamuni
attended by Kaphiapa and Ananda, the two earliest Zen patriarchs.
On the altar, flowers and incense are offered up in the memory of
the great contributions which these sages made to Zen. We have
already said that it was the ritual instituted by the Zen monks of
successively drinking tea out of a bowl before the image of
Bodhi Dharma, which laid the foundations of the tea-ceremony.
We might add here that the altar of the Zen chapel was the
prototype of the Tokonoma, - the place of honour in a Japanese
room where paintings and flowers are placed for the edification
of the guests.
All our great tea-masters were students of Zen and attempted
to introduce the spirit of Zennism into the actualities of life.
Thus the room, like the other equipments of the tea-ceremony,
reflects many of the Zen doctrines. The size of the orthodox
tea-room, which is four mats and a half, or ten feet square,
is determined by a passage in the Sutra of Vikramadytia.
In that interesting work, Vikramadytia welcomes the Saint
Manjushiri and eighty-four thousand disciples of Buddha in
a room of this size, - an allegory based on the theory of the
non-existence of space to the truly enlightened. Again the
roji, the garden path which leads from the machiai to the
tea-room, signified the first stage of meditation, - the passage
into self-illumination. The roji was intended to break
connection with the outside world, and produce a fresh
sensation conducive to the full enjoyment of aestheticism in
the tea-room itself. One who has trodden this garden path
cannot fail to remember how his spirit, as he walked in the
twilight of evergreens over the regular irregularities of the
stepping stones, beneath which lay dried pine needles, and passed
beside the moss-covered granite lanterns, became uplifted above
ordinary thoughts. One may be in the midst of a city, and yet feel
as if he were in the forest far away from the dust and din of
civilisation. Great was the ingenuity displayed by the tea-masters
in producing these effects of serenity and purity. The nature of
the sensations to be aroused in passing through the roji differed
with different tea-masters. Some, like Rikyu, aimed at utter
loneliness, and claimed the secret of making a roji was contained
in the ancient ditty:
I look beyond;
Flowers are not,
Nor tinted leaves.
On the sea beach
A solitary cottage stands
In the waning light
Of an autumn eve."
Others, like Kobori-Enshiu, sought for a different effect.
Enshiu said the idea of the garden path was to be found in the
"A cluster of summer trees,A bit of the sea,A pale evening moon."
It is not difficult to gather his meaning. He wished to create the
attitude of a newly awakened soul still lingering amid shadowy
dreams of the past, yet bathing in the sweet unconsciousness of
a mellow spiritual light, and yearning for the freedom that lay
in the expanse beyond.
Thus prepared the guest will silently approach the sanctuary,
and, if a samurai, will leave his sword on the rack beneath
the eaves, the tea-room being preeminently the house of peace.
Then he will bend low and creep into the room through a
small door not more than three feet in height. This proceeding
was incumbent on all guests, - high and low alike, - and was
intended to inculcate humility. The order of precedence
having been mutually agreed upon while resting in the machiai,
the guests one by one will enter noiselessly and take their seats,
first making obeisance to the picture or flower arrangement on
the tokonoma. The host will not enter the room until all the
guests have seated themselves and quiet reigns with nothing
to break the silence save the note of the boiling water in the
iron kettle. The kettle sings well, for pieces of iron are so
arranged in the bottom as to produce a peculiar melody in
which one may hear the echoes of a cataract muffled by clouds,
of a distant sea breaking among the rocks, a rainstorm sweeping
through a bamboo forest, or of the soughing of pines on some
Even in the daytime the light in the room is subdued, for the low
eaves of the slanting roof admit but few of the sun's rays.
Everything is sober in tint from the ceiling to the floor; the guests
themselves have carefully chosen garments of unobtrusive colors.
The mellowness of age is over all, everything suggestive of
recent acquirement being tabooed save only the one note of
contrast furnished by the bamboo dipper and the linen napkin,
both immaculately white and new. However faded the tea-room
and the tea-equipage may seem, everything is absolutely clean.
Not a particle of dust will be found in the darkest corner, for if
any exists the host is not a tea-master. One of the first requisites
of a tea-master is the knowledge of how to sweep, clean, and
wash, for there is an art in cleaning and dusting. A piece of
antique metal work must not be attacked with the unscrupulous
zeal of the Dutch housewife. Dripping water from a flower
vase need not be wiped away, for it may be suggestive of dew
In this connection there is a story of Rikyu which well illustrates
the ideas of cleanliness entertained by the tea-masters. Rikyu was
watching his son Shoan as he swept and watered the garden path.
"Not clean enough," said Rikyu, when Shoan had finished his task,
and bade him try again. After a weary hour the son turned to
Rikyu: "Father, there is nothing more to be done. The steps have
been washed for the third time, the stone lanterns and the trees are
well sprinkled with water, moss and lichens are shining with a fresh
verdure; not a twig, not a leaf have I left on the ground." "Young
fool," chided the tea-master, "that is not the way a garden path
should be swept." Saying this, Rikyu stepped into the garden,
shook a tree and scattered over the garden gold and crimson leaves,
scraps of the brocade of autumn! What Rikyu demanded was not
cleanliness alone, but the beautiful and the natural also.
The name, Abode of Fancy, implies a structure created to meet
some individual artistic requirement. The tea-room is made for
the tea master, not the tea-master for the tea-room. It is not
intended for posterity and is therefore ephemeral. The idea that
everyone should have a house of his own is based on an ancient
custom of the Japanese race, Shinto superstition ordaining that
every dwelling should be evacuated on the death of its chief
occupant. Perhaps there may have been some unrealized sanitary
reason for this practice. Another early custom was that a newly
built house should be provided for each couple that married.
It is on account of such customs that we find the Imperial capitals
so frequently removed from one site to another in ancient days.
The rebuilding, every twenty years, of Ise Temple, the supreme
shrine of the Sun-Goddess, is an example of one of these ancient
rites which still obtain at the present day. The observance of
these customs was only possible with some form of construction
as that furnished by our system of wooden architecture, easily
pulled down, easily built up. A more lasting style, employing
brick and stone, would have rendered migrations impracticable,
as indeed they became when the more stable and massive wooden
construction of China was adopted by us after the Nara period.
With the predominance of Zen individualism in the fifteenth
century, however, the old idea became imbued with a deeper
significance as conceived in connection with the tea-room.
Zennism, with the Buddhist theory of evanescence and its
demands for the mastery of spirit over matter, recognized the
house only as a temporary refuge for the body. The body
itself was but as a hut in the wilderness, a flimsy shelter made
by tying together the grasses that grew around, - when these
ceased to be bound together they again became resolved into
the original waste. In the tea-room fugitiveness is suggested
in the thatched roof, frailty in the slender pillars, lightness in
the bamboo support, apparent carelessness in the use of
commonplace materials. The eternal is to be found only in the
spirit which, embodied in these simple surroundings, beautifies
them with the subtle light of its refinement.
That the tea-room should be built to suit some individual taste
is an enforcement of the principle of vitality in art. Art, to be
fully appreciated, must be true to contemporaneous life. It is
not that we should ignore the claims of posterity, but that we
should seek to enjoy the present more. It is not that we should
disregard the creations of the past, but that we should try to
assimilate them into our consciousness. Slavish conformity to
traditions and formulas fetters the expression of individuality
in architecture. We can but weep over the senseless imitations
of European buildings which one beholds in modern Japan.
We marvel why, among the most progressive Western nations,
architecture should be so devoid of originality, so replete with
repetitions of obsolete styles. Perhaps we are passing through an
age of democratisation in art, while awaiting the rise of some
princely master who shall establish a new dynasty. Would that we
loved the ancients more and copied them less! It has been said that
the Greeks were great because they never drew from the antique.
The term, Abode of Vacancy, besides conveying the Taoist theory
of the all-containing, involves the conception of a continued need
of change in decorative motives. The tea-room is absolutely empty,
except for what may be placed there temporarily to satisfy some
aesthetic mood. Some special art object is brought in for the
occasion, and everything else is selected and arranged to enhance
the beauty of the principal theme. One cannot listen to different
pieces of music at the same time, a real comprehension of the
beautiful being possible only through concentration upon some
central motive. Thus it will be seen that the system of decoration
in our tea-rooms is opposed to that which obtains in the West,
where the interior of a house is often converted into a museum.
To a Japanese, accustomed to simplicity of ornamentation and
frequent change of decorative method, a Western interior
permanently filled with a vast array of pictures, statuary, and
bric-a-brac gives the impression of mere vulgar display of riches.
It calls for a mighty wealth of appreciation to enjoy the constant
sight of even a masterpiece, and limitless indeed must be the
capacity for artistic feeling in those who can exist day after day
in the midst of such confusion of color and form as is to be
often seen in the homes of Europe and America.
The "Abode of the Unsymmetrical" suggests another phase of
our decorative scheme. The absence of symmetry in Japanese
art objects has been often commented on by Western critics.
This, also, is a result of a working out through Zennism of
Taoist ideals. Confucianism, with its deep-seated idea of dualism,
and Northern Buddhism with its worship of a trinity, were in no
way opposed to the expression of symmetry. As a matter of fact,
if we study the ancient bronzes of China or the religious arts of
the Tang dynasty and the Nara period, we shall recognize a
constant striving after symmetry. The decoration of our classical
interiors was decidedly regular in its arrangement. The Taoist and
Zen conception of perfection, however, was different. The dynamic
nature of their philosophy laid more stress upon the process through
which perfection was sought than upon perfection itself. True
beauty could be discovered only by one who mentally completed
the incomplete. The virility of life and art lay in its possibilities
for growth. In the tea-room it is left for each guest in imagination
to complete the total effect in relation to himself. Since Zennism
has become the prevailing mode of thought, the art of the extreme
Orient has purposefully avoided the symmetrical as expressing not
only completion, but repetition. Uniformity of design was considered
fatal to the freshness of imagination. Thus, landscapes, birds, and
flowers became the favorite subjects for depiction rather than the
human figure, the latter being present in the person of the beholder
himself. We are often too much in evidence as it is, and in spite
of our vanity even self-regard is apt to become monotonous.
In the tea-room the fear of repetition is a constant presence.
The various objects for the decoration of a room should be so
selected that no colour or design shall be repeated. If you have
a living flower, a painting of flowers is not allowable. If you
are using a round kettle, the water pitcher should be angular.
A cup with a black glaze should not be associated with a tea-caddy
of black laquer. In placing a vase of an incense burner on the
tokonoma, care should be taken not to put it in the exact centre,
lest it divide the space into equal halves. The pillar of the tokonoma
should be of a different kind of wood from the other pillars, in order
to break any suggestion of monotony in the room.
Here again the Japanese method of interior decoration differs from
that of the Occident, where we see objects arrayed symmetrically
on mantelpieces and elsewhere. In Western houses we are often
confronted with what appears to us useless reiteration. We find
it trying to talk to a man while his full-length portrait stares at us
from behind his back. We wonder which is real, he of the picture
or he who talks, and feel a curious conviction that one of them must
be fraud. Many a time have we sat at a festive board contemplating,
with a secret shock to our digestion, the representation of abundance
on the dining-room walls. Why these pictured victims of chase and
sport, the elaborate carvings of fishes and fruit? Why the display
of family plates, reminding us of those who have dined and are dead?
The simplicity of the tea-room and its freedom from vulgarity
make it truly a sanctuary from the vexations of the outer world.
There and there alone one can consecrate himself to undisturbed
adoration of the beautiful. In the sixteenth century the tea-room
afforded a welcome respite from labour to the fierce warriors and
statesmen engaged in the unification and reconstruction of Japan.
In the seventeenth century, after the strict formalism of the
Tokugawa rule had been developed, it offered the only opportunity
possible for the free communion of artistic spirits. Before a great
work of art there was no distinction between daimyo, samurai, and
commoner. Nowadays industrialism is making true refinement more
and more difficult all the world over. Do we not need the tea-room
more than ever?
by Kakuzo Okakura
The Book of Tea was published in 1906 and is now in the public domain.
- The Cup of Humanity
- The Schools of Tea
- Taoism and Zennism
- The Tea-Room
- Art Appreciation
The text as it appears here was originally taken from http://www.teatime.com/tea/TheBookOfTea/, but this has since disappeared.
The book can also be found at http://hjem.get2net.dk/bnielsen/teatbot.html among other places.
Hardlinks are Oolong's.