Friday, August 15, 2008


One of the highlights of my trip to Japan was a visit to Taian. Taian is the oldest surviving tea house built by Sen no Rikyu, the founder of the lineage for most of the active tea schools in Japan today, including Urasenke.

Rikyu lived over 400 years ago, and his most famous accomplishments happened toward the end of his life, when he served as the tea master for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the military ruler of Japan. One of those accomplishments was Taian – not because it was large or beautiful, but exactly the opposite, because it was the epitome of wabi.

I could write a whole post about wabi, and I probably will at some point, but for the moment I’ll sum up by saying that it’s the fundamental aesthetic underlying tea ceremony. It means seeking beauty in simplicity and bareness, in the natural scars and wear marks of an old pot or basket rather than the gleaming shine of a new one, in the imperfection of a tea bowl that’s cracked or assymetrical rather than perfectly round and identical to countless others. In terms of tearooms, it means using the simple, humble materials of a country hut rather than the exquisite paintings and expensive woods and fabrics of a nobleman’s castle.

Taian is a two-tatami-mat room, which means it’s approximately six feet square, plus a tokonoma (an alcove) that’s a little more than three feet square. There’s a small nijiriguchi (kneeling entrance), so called because the only way to get through it is to slide in on your knees, and covered windows that let in a subdued light. The guests would walk through the garden, take their shoes off, and come in through the nijiriguchi; the host would come in through a separate entrance from an adjoining space that has a single tatami mat (three feet by six) plus a wooden board running the length of the mat, which was used to hold the utensils that were waiting to be carried into the room. Beyond that is the actual preparation area (mizuya). Here’s a link to a site with a description and some photos.

I said that I visited Taian, but actually, I visited two Taians – the original, which at some point in its history was moved to Myokian Temple outside of Kyoto – and a reproduction which was built on the grounds of the Zuiho-in subtemple at Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto. The original is closed to visitors; you can only look in from the outside. The reproduction, however, we were allowed to go inside. That’s crucial, because like so many things in tea, it’s the experience that makes the difference.

Six feet by six feet doesn’t sound like a lot of space, and from the outside it doesn’t look like a lot of space, either, but once you sit inside, it feels almost spacious. There’s room for one or two guest, maybe three if you squeeze. The host makes tea on the other mat, with a small ro (sunken hearth) cut into the corner of the mat, away from the guests. (In a larger room, the sunken hearth would be in the middle of the room, giving host and guest more room to maneuver.)

In a typical tea room, there would be at least a half-mat space between the host and the guest. In a two-mat room like Taian, you’re right next to each other. There’s nowhere to hide – every move the host makes is right there for everyone to see. It’s a much more intimate feeling, and I can image how much more so it would be if there was only one guest.

Rikyu built Taian for Hideyoshi – it was originally located in Hideyoshi’s castle at Yamazaki – but Hideyoshi never had tea there. Other people were invited, and in fact, some elements of the reproduction differ from the original based on notes from tea people of Rikyu’s day who had tea there. Sitting in the reproduction, I could imagine someone coming in through the nijiriguchi, sitting in front of the alcove, sharing the experience of making the tea with the host, neither person needing to say a word.

The whole experience brought me a little bit closer to the world where tea ceremony was born – a little bit of insight to take home and build into my own tea experience.