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Chashitsu Tea House Architecture & Design

Text & Images - Copyright © 2009 Kevin Hulsey

The cha-shitsu is a small, wood and bamboo Japanese garden-pavilion or tea-house where the Sado tea ceremony is performed. In the suikiya style construction, the cha-shitsu is typically separated from the main house, with a small entrance from a courtyard garden called a roji, meaning 'dewy path.'

The cha-shitsu 'teahouse,' soan 'tea hut,' or zashiki 'tea room,' was a place to leave all of the world's turmoil behind, and to enter a place of total calm and relaxation. The cha-shitsu could be a small stand-alone structure, or an attached tea-room, with a tatami floor.

Tea houses were built primarily by daimyo (feudal lords), Samurai warriors, wealthy merchants, Zen Buddhist monks. The small guest's entrance-door (below, left) called a 'nijiriguchi' or nijiri agariguchi is a 'wriggle-in' or 'crawl-through' entrance with a standardized measurement of 65cm tall, by 60cm wide.

Nijiriguchi 'crawl-through entrance in Teahouse
Nijiriguchi 'crawl-through entrance' (left), Cover for the ro 'charcoal pit' (right)

The nijiri agariguchi was the invention of tea-master Sen Rikyuu, who is said to have chosen its design based purely on aesthetics. Other theories speculate that the design requires the guest to enter the tea-room in the bowing position, showing humility and respect. Additionally, the design may have made it difficult for samurai to enter a teahouse with their sword attached to the hip.

The Evolution of Tea House Design

The values and aesthetics of Higashiyama Culture throughout the Kinki Region (Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Kobe) had a significant impact on teahouse architecture, courtyard gardening, and the Japanese tea ceremony.

Ginkaku-ji Teahouse and Sado Tea Room
Ginkaku-ji Teahouse (left), Edo-period 'charcoal pit' (right)

Perhaps the first known zashiki was built for the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1449 to 1473), and is now known as the D™jinsai, a yojohan 'four-and-a-half mat' tea room at Ginkaku-ji Temple or the 'Temple of the Siver Pavillion' in Kyoto. It was during this period that Higashiyama Bunka took hold in Japan, rooted in the Zen Buddhist concept of wabi-sabi, or "beauty in simplicity."

The 'Sukiya Style' Tea House

The so-called Sukiya Style of architecture was developed in the 16th century, by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542 to 1616), and Azuchi Momoyama (1574 to 1600), primarily for the construction of the cha-shitsu (tea house). The Sukiya-style was later adapted to the construction of private residences as well.

D™jinsai Teahouse and Koudaiji's Ihou'an tea room
D™jinsai teahouse at Ginkaku-ji (left), Koudaiji's 'Shigure-tei' tea room (right)

The fundamental tenants of the Sukiya movement are to incorporate the structure into the surrounding environment as much as possible, to create harmony with nature. In keeping with the Zen philosophy of simplicity, the minimalist design incorporates the use of timber and clay that are kept in their natural, untreated state.

Cha-shitsu Design Influence of Furuta Oribe

Both teahouse architectural design, and tea-garden landscaping were greatly influenced by the legendary tea-master Furuta Oribe (1544-1615). Furuta Oribe was feudal lord in charge of Kyoto's Fushimi Castle, and a favorite pupil of legendary tea-master Sen no Rikyu, one of the originators of the tea ceremony. It was Oribe who had the greatest influence on the tea ceremony itself.

Fushin-an Tea Room (Zashiki) Design

Sen no Rikyu is also known for his Fushin-an, or 'three-mat' tea room (zashiki) design. So-called 'two-mat,' 'three-mat' or 'five-mat' Cha-shitsu designs referred to the number of standard-sized kyoma tatami, their arrangement within the space, and the corresponding size of the tea-room. The tatami mats are laid several layers thick, directly over the wood plank-flooring (hagi).

The zashiki tea room layout is very minimalist, with a central ro, or 'charcoal pit' for boiling the water, and a 'sukiya style' scroll alcove (Tokonoma) for displaying ikebana flower arrangements and calligraphy scrolls denoting the season.

The traditional Japanese cha-shitsu teahouse is attached to a chaniwa, or 'small garden attached to teahouse,' with a narrow path leading to a tsukubai, or 'stone water basin' where guests would "purify" themselves before entering.

Fushin-an Tea Room Layout

(A) Hira-sanjo three-mat tea room, (B) Fuka-sanjo three-mat tea room with mukou-ita board, (C) Daime three-mat tea room, (D) Ichijo-daime two-mat tea room, (E) Nijo-daime four-mat tea room with sukiya 'scroll alcove,' (F) Yojohan four-and-a-half-mat tea room

The cha-shitsu typically consist of at least two rooms, one for the tea-ceremony which is called a zangetsutei, typically with an attached veranda overlooking the garden, and one for food preparation and supplies called a mizuya or 'water room.'

The host entered through a separate 'sadouguchi,' or "host's entrance" (1, diagram above), and guests would enter through the nijiriguchi, or 'crawl-through entrance'(2, diagram above). The shoin style of tea room would have ranma wood open-work, paper walls with a 'bush clover' pattern-design, and a round 'marumado' window (3, diagram above).

Teahouse at Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum
Edo-period tea house (left), & Mizuya (right) - Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

A 'kyoma tatami' had a standardized measurement of six shaku by three sun by three shaku (1 shaku = 30 cm, 1 sun = 3 cm)

Tokonoma Scroll Alcove

During the 1600s, tea master Kanamori S™wa (1584 to 1656) founded of the 'Sowa style' of tea house and tea-ware design. Sowa style design motifs are seen in the Tokonoma 'scroll alcove' (above, left); with its calligraphy scroll; a pillar or pillars of chamfered chestnut, cypress, or bamboo called nihonbashira, tokobashira (below, right).

Tokonoma Scroll Alcove and Kinkaku-ji's Sekkatei Teahouse
Tokonoma 'scroll alcove' (left), Kinkaku-ji Sekkatei Teahouse (right)

A lintel (hasami shikii kamoi) made of nanten, or nandina domestica wood (aka "heavenly bamboo" of "sacred bamboo") is customary; and storage space is made using chigaidana alternating shelves, or a small built-in cabinet called a mizuyadana.

Books on Japanese Teahouse Architecture & Gardening

The Japanese House: Architecture and Interiors

Shoko-Ken: A Late Medieval Daime Sukiya Style Japanese Tea-House

Art of the Japanese Garden

Landscapes for Small Spaces: Japanese Countryard Gardens

Courtyard Gardens of Kyoto's Merchant Houses

Japanese Fortified Temples and Monasteries AD 710-1602 by Stephen Turnbull

The Japanese Bath

Cha-shitsu Teahouse Architecture & Design Links

Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

JAANUS Dictionary of Japanese Architectural and Art


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