The Japanese tea garden or roji may appear to be a natural woodland path, but it is actually a designed transition to the tranquil world of Japanese tea ceremony. Tea gardens induce a spirit of openness by bringing the tea ceremony values of harmony, respect, purity and tranquility to nature’s asymmetrical design.
To tend even a very small tea garden is to place oneself into nature’s rhythms. That provides a certain solace even in this summer of unusual heat. I water the moss, and watch it puff up and turn a deeper green. That feels as if I were the one becoming fuller and deeper.
I remember how, after I cleaned and filled the water basin and sprinkled water on the stepping stones as a sign of welcome, the cicadas began their evening song, as if they too, wanted to welcome my guests.
Arlington Heights, Massachusetts, USA where I live, like Boulder Colorado, and a number of other places, has rocks in all sizes. In fact, a major reason I bought the house where I live is because the turtle-shaped top of a large glacier-scraped granite outcrop was visible through the kitchen window.
Once I found the courage to climb to the top of an outcrop in Menotomy Rocks Park, looking down I could see Hills pond through the trees. The contours of this secluded high up spot, with blueberry bushes and natural rock arrangements scattered here and there made it feel quite magical.
Any number of these rock arrangements could be the highlight of a Japanese garden, or for that matter, arranged in a bowl of sand for indoor viewing.
When my Japanese tea ceremony teacher, Giselle Maya, told me that the poetic word for 2022 is “window,” I thought it might be time to revisit “Dream Window” by Peter Grilli. He had metaphorical reasons to choose that title for his poetic film about Japanese gardens. But it is also true that gardens are often viewed through actual windows – Such sight lines are an important consideration in garden design. What do you see through the windows where you live?
Whether another building, a field, undisturbed nature, an empty lot, busy sidewalk or a garden, looking through windows can bring out the poetry of this world. A limited view into space-time somehow makes the ever-changing wholeness of everything “out there” easier to relate to.
In discussing Japanese tea ceremony’a Zen flavor, it is appropriate to first consider its special setting that creates a space apart. Tea room and garden maintenance are ongoing. For each tea gathering, the host selects and arranges the scroll, flowers, and utensils keeping the season, particular occasion, and guests in mind. Thus, meditation in action begins well before guests arrive.
The tea room and garden bring a mountain cottage retreat atmosphere into a town or city setting. For all the care that goes into a tea hut’s construction, they are lightly built and are all the more intimate for that acceptance of impermanence. Soft natural lighting create a tranquil mood. There is little to distract beyond naturally arranged flowers and a scroll.
Tea gardens are designed to evoke the essence of purified nature, and often resemble a mossy path in an idealized wood. This path-garden is called roji (literally dewy ground or path in Japanese). A Buddhist interpretation relates to ‘awara‘ or disclosure, not just disclosing the garden to the eye, but disclosure of everything within and without to the heart/mind/body. Before guests approach the tea hut along the path, the host will clean it and water the stepping stones as a sign of welcome. To do that properly, it is necessary to first cleanse oneself of what disturbs and sullies the mind and heart.
Tea garden design begins with opening to what is here. It is a process of emptying the mind and listening to the site and the context in order to allow the design and its aesthetic qualities to grow from the place rather than being applied to it. The garden and the person who tends it are always getting to know each other through a process of action and response that goes both ways. As the relationship deepens, maintenance is not so much imposed from outside but takes place from within that relationship by attuning to what needs doing.
Students of the way of tea learn by observing and copying their teacher, and by being patiently (although sometimes strictly) coached in what is essentially a form of direct transmission. When I first started taking tea lessons, I learned how to walk on tatami mats. I had to master the many sub-procedures of a relatively simple way of preparing tea. A great many steps must all flow together in a natural and unobtrusive way before a student can claim competence. There are many different ways of preparing tea or temae to learn, and all the utensils require special handling. Tea stories make clear that patient practice and goodwill are more important than achieving perfection.
Thus, tea ceremony provides many opportunities to experience beginner’s mind while learning how to retain a sharp embodied focus on what is going on here and now. The way of tea might appear gentle as compared with working on unsolvable riddles under the stern guidance of a Zen master. But because there is so much to learn with body, mind and spirit, serious students of Japanese tea ceremony may find themselves facing the strong doubt, strong faith and strong determination that are said to be requisites for dedicated Zen practice.
In time, applying firm resolution in a context of openness and mutual support can lead to consummate freedom and ease. That a selfless commitment to discipline is required to achieve that flow is one of the many paradoxes of this art (and of life). Learning the formal procedures with total-hearted commitment provides access to deeper levels of perception and being that in turn influence how one performs the art so one returns to where one started very much alive, in touch, and in the moment simply enjoying sharing a bowl of tea with a few others.
Just seeing a demonstration does not reveal the relational quality of this art. Students are taught to always keep the guests tranquility top of mind when preparing a bowl of tea. The flowing generosity and gratitude becomes one and communal awareness arises as guests actively support the host’s intent for sharing the beauty of the particular occasion and of each unique moment.
Training to become a garden designer in Japan may involve apprenticeship to a master designer and years of traveling to view beautiful natural and manmade landscapes. Few of us desire (or can afford) to spend years doing that, but there are many ways we can train ourselves. For those in the Western world who wish to create their own Japanese gardens, it is possible to design a self-study program using ideas from the Japanese training process. Here are some ideas which helped me train my own eyes in Japanese aesthetics.
Visit places of natural beauty: An early goal might be to simply observe nature in a totally open way. With practice, it becomes possible to understand what it is about a specific scene that produces a particular response. I visit places of natural beauty regularly and particularly value a park within walking distance which teaches me about local conditions. If I have a strong emotional response, I take a picture to assist me in determining why.
Look Inward: Aspects of places which had special meaning to me as a child can be incorporated in a garden design. In my case, I have a special love for mossy woodsy places based on camping trips. The Inward Garden. by Julie Moir Messervy, provides excellent guidance in this process.
Experience Japanese gardens: Viewing Japanese gardens teaches how limited elements can be used to suggest various places, moods and subtle natural relationships like the curve of a river bank. If possible develop a relationship with a Japanese garden within traveling distance and visit it at different times of day, in different weather conditions, and in all seasons. Of course, an actual trip to Japan would be wonderful.
Learn to sketch: I have found it very useful to make sketches of natural settings and of Japanese gardens. Sketching nature requires me to focus on the essential elements in a scene, and it also helps me focus on the most important details.
Study design principles: Many books as well as this Journal* describe principles which apply to Japanese gardens. The academic study of design principles won’t replace the experience of working under a master designer, but it is valuable nonetheless. As to learning from books, I have found it easier to relate to the more intimate and modest courtyard gardens and residential garden designs for practical ideas, but I also value the many spectacular images of larger Japanese gardens for all the various ways they teach me about beauty.
Learn by doing: The garden in your own yard can serve as a laboratory and teacher, and it can be a reflection of your own personal development. In the early stages, rocks and plants moved around a lot until ‘they found their homes.’ Once I had a clear idea of the topography of my garden and the effects I cared about achieving, I found that scale and composition were paramount.
Keep a garden album: An album with photographs, drawings and notes provides me with a record of how the garden has changed over time, and how it looks in different seasons. It is satisfying to see what has changed, and improved as a result of my efforts.
*This article was originally published in the November/December, 1998 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening, which has since been renamed Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.
My garden is a haven more than ever now; a place to get away not only from too much togetherness but from the unsettling news that blasts from the radio and television. When a particular application required that I submit a garden photo with a “portrait” orientation, I found I had vertical shots of trees, leaves and lanterns, but not one that gave a sense for the garden as a place.
So I went out with my camera held up sideways. The first three shots are the result. They surprised me. Compared to the other shots I had taken in this orientation, these three revealed how what I planned and what nature provided worked together; how we had been working together in partnership for some time now.
A tea hut in my backyard was my dream. I had become familiar with variations in layout, window style, and alcove placement from reading about the tea ceremony. One book that was particularly useful was Cha-no-yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony by A. L. Sadler.
I wanted quality in materials and workmanship although I could not afford authentic Japanese tea hut construction, and I did not have the skills to build one myself. Customizing a high-quality garden shed seemed to be a workable solution. Walpole Woodworkers advertised a salt box shed. I liked the idea of this shape with its ties to New England as well as to Japanese tea huts.
A window on the long side next to the door came with the shed. I decided to retain this minus the window box. I also requested two rectangular windows with three panes side by side; one low down behind the tea preparation area and one centered on the opposite wall. Natural lighting is very important in tea huts both for aesthetic and practical reasons.
On a summer morning, leaf shadows fall on the main window due to the angle of the light. During the course of a tea practice, the shadows change continually and the leaves move in the breeze creating a most peaceful effect. The window appears very different depending upon the time and season. It is well worth planning for such effects in a tea hut’s placement and design.
I chose a site for the hut that would allow it to be viewed on edge from my large kitchen window but would provide privacy for the garden. It would also allow the patio under my kitchen window to be used as a waiting area. The small area in front of the shed was well shaded and already had a tendency toward moss.
The hut was small enough to be constructed without a poured foundation. The workmen carefully prepared the sloped site. They had stained the walls and door as requested and raised the door threshold to accommodate tatami mats. It took very little time for them to assemble the flooring, walls and ceiling. The roof was finished with cedar shingles. The unfinished pine interior of the hut, while not authentic, had a nice rustic quality.
A bamboo sleeve fence was added to visually connect the hut to the garden and provide privacy for the area behind. Smaller vertical poles through the larger ones made for a very sturdy fence. I added dried hydrangea twigs to the lower section. There are many possible charming designs for sleeve fences or you can design your own as I did. See The Bamboo Fences of Japan by Osamu Suzuki and Isao Yoshikawa for ideas.
Inside at the narrow end away from the door, I added an oiled maple board to take the place of the more usual tokonoma alcove. It fits perfectly with the three tatami mats at the same height. I found a three panel unfinished pine grid screen to hold the scroll and had a cabinet with many shelves made for storing utensils. Two low benches along the back wall provide seating for those with bad knees. Pegs behind the door hold coats. For a while, an extension cord snaked out the low window behind the tea kettle. Now, the hut has been electrified so I can use it with a small heater in winter.
Since my hut does not have a hearth, I use a kettle set on a furo heater at all times of the year. I often place wood chip incense in the furo (think of the smell of cedar). The “wind in the pines” sound produced when water is heating is central to cha–no–yu. Delicate steam curls up contrasting with the solid iron.
Normally tea utensils would be brought in from another room by the host, but since my small hut has only one room, I designed a corner staging area. A “clam shell” shelf holds the tea bowl and tea container. A square basket on the floor holds the lidded water jar, waste water container with a lid rest, and bamboo scoop as well as a container of tea sweets. The hot water kettle is left in place where it will be used on the host’s mat.
In the garden, I added stepping stones and a low basin. Guests gather on the patio. They follow the stepping stones to the basin before proceeding to the hut door where they leave their shoes on the large stone before entering.
The hut has been in use for thirty years. The roof has been replaced, and the interior and exterior protected from the elements and insect damage. The garden grew and changed around it.
I named my tea hut, Ajisai-an which means Hydrangea Hut in Japanese. The humble building has gathered many wonderful memories. During its naming ceremony, the crickets began their song as we started at dusk. After tea, we brought in metal lanterns from the garden and wrote haiku by flickering candle light. A “flower arranging” tea started with various flowers and containers as options and each guest’s arrangement was displayed in turn during the practice.
Another unusual tea had a small American quilt instead of a scroll, pottery made at Sturbridge Village, and a Native American basket to hold maple sugar tea sweets.
The hut has also seen many gatherings with old and new friends that were simple, quiet, and restoring. These, together with the excitement of bringing the hut and garden into existence, are perhaps the best memories of all.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.
A tea bowl, especially one containing a pool of frothy bright green tea is full of landscapes. This is literally true as well as being true on a more poetic spiritual level. In thinking about this concept, and comparing tea bowls and Japanese gardens, I found I was better able to appreciate both.
My favorite type of tea bowl speaks of the earth. Such bowls are honest about the malleable clay from which they are made. One can see the soft bowl from the potter’s hands in the final product just as one can see evidence of geological processes in a landscape. When bowls are fired, color “blooms” and rough textures may result. Such “kiln events” cannot be planned in advance, but only appreciated when they do occur. Even when dramatic kiln events are not present, the process of firing adds depth to the natural feel of the bowl. In the garden, time, mosses, lichens and weathering do the same thing.
Tea bowl shapes remind me of valleys or deep canyons. The shapes are functional to be sure. The sloping sides of the summer bowl are designed to cool the tea faster, while the more vertical sides of a winter bowl retain warmth. The curves and shapes of individual bowls vary. To raise one while holding it in both hands is to bring a valley pool to one’s lips.
Tea ceremony tea is actually finely ground green tea leaves. Hot water is added and then whisked to form an emulsion. The color is like sunlight through leaves. One guest, upon tasting it for the first time said, “It is like drinking a meadow.” Simple, pure details of nature matter in Tea, as well as in the garden.
During the formal ceremony, there is a pause to think with gratitude about all that went into creating the tea. This includes all contributions including the fertile earth, the sun, and those who planted, plucked, dried and ground the tea. Drinking tea is to drink in the landscape with an expanded awareness of what that means. I also try to hold that attitude of expanded appreciation when walking in a beautiful garden.
It is possible to create a tea bowl using materials readily available from the countryside. Clay deposits are not rare. A primitive kiln may be made by piling up bricks to form a low cylinder with gaps and chinks in its walls. Into this cylinder is layered sawdust or straw and leaves along with the bone dry bowls. The top of the pile is lit, and covered with a lid. Once smoke rises steadily, the kiln is simply left to fire at a low temperature. The resulting gray pieces may have hints of other colors or shadows left by leaves. I attended a class where we made tea bowls in this way. We removed and cleaned the fired bowls before immediately drinking tea from them. Japanese gardens often use locally available materials; in this case transformed to evoke much more than the sum of the individual parts.
Steven Murphy, a professional potter who studies the tea ceremony, explains that tea bowls must be quiet, but interesting. They cannot shout. An untrained person might find a tea bowl boring. Tea bowls are best appreciated by those with an eye for nature.
He reminded me that more than just shape is considered in selecting a tea bowl appropriate to the season. A bowl the color of new leaves in the rain might be used in early spring. A bowl with a deep glowing brown glaze might be chosen to contribute a feeling of warmth on a cold winter morning. Seasonal changes with their many moods are consciously planned for in Japanese garden design.
Like walking in a natural landscape, turning the bowl in one’s hands brings new views and surprises. The light, mood, and evolving taste can teach us to appreciate a familiar bowl in a new way. In some cases, a tea bowl literally changes with use as cracks in the glaze turn brown. A broken tea bowl may be mended with gold. The mended bowl continues to be prized all the more. It is only with use that a tea bowl becomes a real tea bowl. Just as it is only with tending and time that a Japanese garden becomes truly itself.
Tea bowls have faces called shomen which are turned toward the guest. The same word can be used to refer to the side of a tree or rock which is placed toward the the viewer of a garden. The shomen of a tea bowl may be obvious when a new bowl is taken from the kiln, or it may take some time to appreciate which side is the “face” of the bowl.
When making a tea bowl, Steven mixes one type of clay with another so that the color is not exact. He might even mix in something potentially destructive like tiny chunks of stone. The clay is made very wet which allows the clay and potter to work together. I have heard some garden designers talk about the importance of working with a sense of freedom.
After making twenty bowls, Steven waits a day and feels the bowls all over to determine which might become cereal bowls and which might become tea bowls. He smashes any rejects. This is like the gardener who never hesitates to remove a plant that does not fit in the garden.
Making ash glazes involves a number of steps. First wood or leaves are burned to produce ash. This is sifted, feldspar added and the mixture is ground to a fine powder. Lye is leached out, and the glaze is sieved. When Steven dips a bowl in his finished glaze, drips or streaks may happen adding a feeling of spontaneity.
Volcanic ash produces pale green or yellow; oak wood, lichen colors; oak leaves, a transparent spring green. Browns come from mixed leaves of maple, oak, sycamore, poplar, white pine needles and “mystery” leaves thrown in for good measure. Spruce and fir needles produce pewter tones. The reddish-orange heart wood of Balm of Gilead Poplar results in yellow, blue, pink or white, but there is no way to predict which color will result. The remarkable Poplar glaze can also produce gold flecks if the bowl is cooled very slowly so that iron in the glaze crystallizes.
It was a great joy to visit Steven’s studio to view the variety of landscapes in his finished work. There were bowls with sky images, wind images, and the moon viewed through streaked branches. The inside of one bowl had the feeling of looking up under a weeping beech tree. Pieces had very tactile satin and rough finishes in great variety. Some had bits of feldspar creating tiny light bumps on the surface. Colors included gray and blue green, brown, cream and others with gradations and mixtures. Nothing was jarring or artificial. Some bowls had feet with bumps and fissures in the glaze which gave a very ancient feeling.
Both tea bowls and Japanese gardens use human perception and distillation to create highly refined art forms using natural materials. Both accept and joyfully use qualities that are not entirely under human control. Steven Murphy writes, “My teacher, Keiichiroh Satoh of Nagano, Japan once said, ‘You and the clay have to agree on what it will become. Forcing it only makes pottery with no inner beauty.’” In the same way, a deep understanding of the site is required to create a beautiful garden.
If I had to spend some time in an ugly part of a city doing stressful things and could not visit a Japanese garden or beautiful natural landscape, drinking tea from a lovely bowl would be my choice of compensation.
This article first appeared in the March/April 2000 issueof the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.
When walking about in nature, I respond to the visual beauty of shapes and colors, the effects of light, and the motion of trees and water. The fresh scent after a rain or the call of a bird may add a grace note. The slower natural rhythms and quiet provide a soothing contrast to visually jarring aspects of the constructed world, tight schedules, and everyday stress. But on the other hand, when exploring in nature, one can suddenly come across a jutting cliff, or a rushing waterfall which has a sense of pure natural power which is anything but tranquil.
When I visited Japan to view a number of famous gardens, I was expecting to experience integrated compositions of beauty, tranquility and harmony. I found these in abundance. I learned for example, that massed contours of clipped azaleas can make one feel levitated – like floating on clouds – and that some gardens unfold horizontally, as one might view a scroll in a sequence of linked images.
With these gardens, a vision is being shared and yet each person experiences the garden from their own individual perspective. In a way, a living dialogue happens. I observe and respond to the garden moment by moment, and the garden moves and changes as I move my eyes and feet. This provides delight, energy, grounding, peace, comfort and wonder.
Upon reflecting back upon the many experiences of the trip, perhaps the least expected was the depth of my response to specific areas of Shinto shrines. These sites were not gardens but ancient sacred sites. Stone steps set in the earth led up a short way into the woods to a small square space marked off with a simple straw rope. Within this space was a low boulder.
Nearby was an enormous tree that curved up from a rectangular bed of gravel. The tree was circled by a rope from which hung white paper constructions. At yet another site, I saw a sacred spring that was noted with a sign.
For me, as a foreign tourist with no background in Shintoism, these ancient sites, with their trees and boulders, had a basic and primal quality which was very compelling. I responded to their simplicity, clarity of form, and relationship to the natural setting where dappled light through the leaves enhanced their ancient feeling. They had dignity and great power.
It is interesting to speculate whether these ancient sites have had an influence on the design of gardens created primarily for aesthetic purposes. In Japanese gardens, tress and other natural objects are used with great respect for their essential qualities, and boundaries are normally strong and clear.
When I returned to the United States, I went looking for places that had some of the natural power of these ancient sacred sites. I found that energy when viewing large boulders that had been jumbled together and left by the glaciers.
I began to wonder if some of that power could be brought into a designed garden and whether it would prove to be peaceful or unsettling. The additional question arises of whether being unsettled in such a way would be a good or bad thing. The answers may vary from person to person, but it is always good to remember that we have a fundamental relationship with the pure power of nature.
This article first appeared in the May/June 1999 issueof the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.
I did not use preservative on the bamboo sleeve fence, preferring to let it weather naturally. In 2010, it was still holding up, drawing the eye to the glacial scraped granite outcrop at the center of the backyard. In winter, the slats captured snow.
By 2017, the fence had begun to disintegrate while the lace leaf maple behind it was making a more substantial statement of its own. In 2019, I decided to give the fence one more year.
In May 2020, it was time. With the cool weather, the oaks had not fully leafed out and light streamed from behind the tea hut. Perhaps light always filters through like that in the spring. With the fence in place, I might not have noticed. Paying attention to what inspires wonder seems particularly important in these dire times.
I wanted the fence to separate the sunken area behind the hut – to keep it special. Now a magical light radiated from that corner as if the spirit of the place had grown so strong it could no longer be contained.