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Japanese Tea Houses and Tea Rooms

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Tea houses can be considered the nightclubs of the Edo Period (1600-1867). Tea and other beverages including sake were offered to guests who frequented these establishments in the pleasure quarters of urban areas such as Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo (then, Edo). Usually male customers were entertained by geishas in tea houses and a geisha house would often have close business relationships with tea houses, cooperating in recruitment and public relations.

Any Japanese who can afford it has a special room set aside for use as a “teahouse”. In the most traditional homes, the teahouse will be a separate one room building located in the garden. Where this is not possible, the teahouse may be in a separate room in the house but this room will almost always have its own entrance, one that is separate from the main entrance to the house or apartment. Following the teachings of the famed tea master Rikyu, these tea-ceremony rooms are constructed according to precise specifications, one of the most important being that they will have asymetric proportions that are encouraged to give full range to the imagination of those participating in the tea ceremony.

One comes to a friend’s teahouse not to enjoy warming cups of “o cha” (honorable tea) and conversation as much to engage in acomplex ritual. In the most traditional homes the ritual begins with the invitation of the guests, usually four, after which each will either come by or telephone to express his “zenrei” or polite thanks. On the following day, guests arrive, wearing properly muted kimonos and carrying personal tea cloths and fans. After gathering in either a special waiting room or in the hall of the host’s home, the group walks to the teahouse, preceded by the host or his gardener who caries a bronze sword-like instrument that he waves about as if to lop off any branches that might obstruct his guests or snag their garments, thus symbolizing the host’s desire to give his guests every possible comfort. Before entering the tea house, everyone stops for a ceremonious washing of the face and hands and to remove their sandals.

Then, following the instructions in Okakura-Kakuzo’s classic 18th century “Book of Tea”, “each guest will silently approach the sanctuary, and, if a samurai, will leave his sword on the rack beneath the eaves, the tearoom being preeminently a place of peace. Each guest will then bend low and enter the room through a small door … this being incumbent on all guests, high and low alike, and is intended to inculcate humility. The order of precedence having been mutually agreed upon, the guests one by one will enter noiselessly and take their seats, first making obeisance to the picture or flower arrangement on the tokonoma, a niche especially designed for their display. The host will not enter the room until all of 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 rest of the ceremony goes on in similar ritual fashion, a sequence of precise movements being prescribed for the elevation of the cup to one’s lips, as well as the practice, if a communal bowl is used, of passing it around the table when emptied to be admired by the guests as a work of art. After each guest has made sucking sounds to signify his pleasure at his last sip, and the host his profound obeisance, the company departs through the same door by which they had entered.

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