Tea house

A tea house or Cha-shitsu is a particular house specialized for holding a tea ceremony in Japan.

The house is a symbol of ritualistic Japanese culture that loves simplicity, plainness and tranquility. The house shows that although Japanese adopts and adapts knowledge and cultures from outside Japan, the Japanese sophisticates it in the way unique to Japan.

A typical tea house in Japan is a small, wood-made house usually located in remote quiet areas. The tea was introduced by the Zen monks about 12th-century from China as a mean to keep monks awake during meditation (1). However, a habit of drinking tea and tea ceremony had become so popular among samurai and even among ordinary people as new entertainment.

Given its origin, the tea house heavily reflects the philosophy of the Zen buddhism and it makes the style of the house is unique to Japan. The house is extremely carefully designed to be exquisite and tasteful; it has a small Japanese garden with a tasteful water pool. The room is extremely small and the ceilings of the house are so low that a host and few guests barely sit on the floor directly instead of standing up or sitting in a chair. Noticeable is that the house is equipped with a small, square door, which is the only entrance and exit and which suggests the door as a divider that separates the small simple quiet room of the house from the crowded, overwhelming outside world. This idea comes from Zen.

Not does only the house has characteristics implying Zen's values but does it shows an influence from a new style in the time, called Shoin-style (2). The door is a sliding door and each door and window is made of Shoji, a translucent paper which allows daylight from outside to come into the room. The room is floored with a tatami mats, which had become common in this time and the weather in Japan in summer is so humid and windless that the floor is build a few feet above the ground in order to keep the room dry. The room is equipped with a "Tokoma", which is used for displaying goods such as hanging scrolls or flower arrangements. Those features are still common not only in traditional style houses likes inns but also in ordinary residencies.

The tea house is by no means just a place to live or have some drink yet is all about space and positioning of objects; the purpose of the house is nothing but to provide a place to hold a tea ceremony. Each piece in the house is arranged with extreme care and is rearranged as time goes though pieces look arbitrary located; roofs and walls are made of wood to mimic nature surroundings. This is a Zen's value but also an original idea of the Japanese that adores natures. Besides tea tools like bowls, even the house itself can be seen part of tools for the ceremony. Given the purpose, the message of the artists of the building is about simplicity, clarity and silence. The house is a special, even ritualistic place to enjoy arts in tokonoma and bitter taste of tea with friends, free from daily concerns (3). Bowls selected for the ceremony were deliberately simple, plain and even shabby to make it looks close to nature.

The time when tea houses were built is important to consider; the popularity of doing tea ceremonies and building tea houses cannot be explained without consideration of a historical background. The houses was first introduced in the Sengoku period in Japanese. It was a time in which the central government had nearly no practical power, the country was in chaos, wars and uprising were a commonplace; Seeking of reclaiming Japan, samurai were busy acquiring and defending territories promoting trade and overseeing the output of farms, mills and mines as de-facto rulers and many of the poor were eager to seek salvation of the afterlife pronounced by Buddhism.

Up to this time, starting in the Muromachi period, the Zen monks had become predominantly artists, painters, poets, writers. But they are also even advisors for the daimyo and other prominent samurai. For example, one Zen monk advices Oda Nobunaga to rename his new place. It is important to notice about the connection between samurai and Zen monks. The house were build mostly by Zen monks or by daimyo, samurai, and/or merchants who recognized the tea ceremony. They sought simplicity and tranquility, which was skin to the values of Zen, in which samurai found salvage and philosophy for their fate. Understandably the house reflects Zen Buddhists' belief, which largely emphasizes mediation and the recognition of the world in a non-cognitive way. Thus the ceremony in the house endeavors to replicate nature as much as possible. It also implies the Japanese value of admiration for nature and accepts the fact that we all are part of nature.

The acknowledgment of simplicity, plainness, which is a central motivation of the tea house, continued to remain as a distinct Japanese tradition in the later periods. This kind of traditional has become somehow antiquated as Japan has become modernized, more importantly, Westernized; however, the Japanese as whole still has kept a recognition of their traditions and are still eager to show that. Even some of popular goods oversee still mark the root values seen in the tea house.


  1. "Introduction to oriental civilizations: Sources of the Japanese Tradition." Columbia University Press: New York 1958
  2. Verley, Paul. "Japanese Culture." 4th ed. Updated and Expanded. University of Hawaii Press. 2000
  3. Murphey, Rhoads. "East Asian: a new History." 2nd ed. Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers 2001

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