Enthralled by the ritualistic nature and experience of the Japanese tea ceremony, as a student of architectural design, I became fascinated as to how this experience could be adapted to a contemporary Australian context. Having seen the traditional typology of the tea house influence modern Japanese architecture, as well as having seen modern iterations of the tea house in Japan and elsewhere, I wondered what form these ideas could take in the context of Perth city and its culture.
While I had some knowledge of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, its purpose of celebrating a new season and the four principles which influence the design of the tea house, as I began thinking about generating conceptual approaches to a potential tea house design, I was still unsure as to its origins.
The art of tea drinking began in China, making its way to Japan in the early 16th century. Tea drinking in China prior to this time was a spiritual practice of monks; a way of achieving Zen, a Buddhist concept that focuses on meditation and mindfulness. Tea master Sen no Rikyū is credited with introducing tea drinking to Japan, and curating the ritualistic Japanese tea ceremony like the one I experienced. Rikyū integrated into the ceremony ‘Wabi’; a Buddhist concept meaning to transform material insufficiency into spiritual freedom unbounded by material things. Wabi explains the minimalist interior of tea houses. As I previously noted from my own personal tea ceremony experience, the interior was “dimly light and void of any decoration”.
Wabi was also largely responsible for driving the design of the monastic gardens in China, which in turn influenced the simple and serene gardens of Japanese tea houses. The gardens were typically filled with mostly green foliage which grows naturally within the area. Rare or unusual flowers and plants were seen as not in keeping with the meaning and philosophy of wabi. This way of thinking inspired the gardens of the Japanese tea ceremony and their symbolization of harmony, one of Rikyū’s four principles. They also inspired the seasonal celebration of the ceremony, as naturally growing plants change seasonally in the area they are locally found.
At the entrance of these Chinese gardens were moon gates. Large circular openings often with ornate details in the stonework. An architectural symbol of the moon, the form was thought to bring good fortune to those who passed through them. Whilst there was no circular opening at the entrance of the garden at the tea house I visited in Kyoto, I did notice this form expressed in the circular opening within the wall of the tea house, used to highlight views of the garden from the interior.
As I reflected on these findings and concepts with a Perth context in mind, it seemed appropriate that an Australian tea house, garden and ceremony should incorporate native Australian plants, which change with our seasons and can be blended with the architecture of the tea house to signify these changes and the concept of wabi to visitors.
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Rob Harle. “The Art of Setting Stones and Other Writings from the Japanese Garden.” Leonardo (Oxford) 39, no. 3 (2006): 264–65. https://doi.org/10.1162/leon.2006.39.3.264.
Rika, Richard. 2016. “CHANOYU, THE JAPANESE TEA CEREMONY”. Japan Experience, Febuary 15, 2016. https://www.japan-experience.com/to-know/understanding-japan/chanoyu-the-japanese-tea-ceremony