A Beginner’s Guide to the Japanese Tea Garden

Japanese gardens are often divided into three main styles: chisen-teien (pond garden), karesansui (rock garden, also known as Zen garden) and roji (simple, rustic garden for a teahouse). This story is about roji.

The Japanese aesthetic that animates roji gives these gardens a tranquillity that seeps deep into the soul. In the late 16th century, tea master Sen no Rikyu perfected the style of tea ceremony that we know today as wabi-cha. Based on the spirit of wabi, a kind of simple, rustic beauty, wabi-cha needs a setting with a mountain ambience, a place where the commotion of the city is left behind. Such a “mountain abode in the city” is the central concept behind a roji and teahouse (chashitsu). Making such a place in a modern living environment is not easy, of course, but with some ingenuity and the right spot, bringing the pleasures of a teahouse garden to an urban dwelling is not at all a far-fetched idea. Here, we’ll present several of the elements that make up a roji as well as some ideas that can be incorporated into an ordinary home garden.

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What Is a Roji?

A roji is a garden in front of a teahouse. It is also called a chatei/chaniwa (literally, teahouse garden). The teahouse is where chaji, a complete tea ceremony, is performed. All the elements of a tea ceremony, from kaiseki (simple seasonal dishes in small portions) to tea, are arranged in order, and sincere hospitality is expressed through the tea ceremony.

In fact, the tea ceremony begins before entering the teahouse. Each step the guests make across the roji takes them another step away from the mundane and another step closer to the extraordinary world of tea ceremony. For Japanese, a roji is a place for leaving the mundane world behind.

When the guests go to the teahouse, they must observe certain rules and perform certain actions. The implements corresponding to these various actions are arranged in the roji in the proper order.

So, the roji’s origins go back to the beginnings of the tea ceremony, and today — even for people not especially knowledgeable about tea ceremony — it is the style most likely to come to mind when imagining a Japanese garden.



With that in mind, let’s look at some of the more distinctive elements of a roji.

Tsukubai

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The tsukubai is one of the most important and essential elements in a roji. Here, guests wash their hands and rinse their mouths to purify their body and spirit before entering the teahouse.

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The tsukubai consists of a wash basin (chozubachi) enclosed by an arrangement of stones called yakuishi. These stones are more than decorative: They are arranged around the wash basin according to the roles they play. The stones enclosing the wash basin are placed there to keep water from splashing out. These stones are called umi (sea) and have edges smoothed by water. There are also stones placed to drain water after it has been used for the purifying ritual. These are called suimon. The stone in front of the wash basin is called a maeishi and is for the guest to step on when drawing water from the basin. The stone to the right of the wash basin, called a yuokeishi, is for placing a wooden pail for hot water during the cold season, and the stone to the left, called a teshokuishi, is for placing a lantern when the tea ceremony is at night.



Even in a roji, the tsukubai has a special presence and can be considered the focal point of the garden.

A wash basin with a contrivance that pours water into it adds the soothing sound of flowing water, but even a wash basin that simply holds water will add depth to the presentation.



Selecting a wet place for the wash basin and using plants and objects that convey a sense of wetness can create a scene that brings to mind the lush nature of a mountain village, even in a small plot. And while the tsukubai was originally intended to include stones, there is no need to be dogmatic on this point.

It’s also nice to place the tsukubai where it can be enjoyed from indoors. When you are entertaining guests, you can add atmosphere by floating flowers on the water or by introducing the sound of water. You can also set up lighting for presenting the garden at night.

Chumon



The chumon (middle gate) divides the roji into a double tea garden (niju roji) consisting of an outer tea garden (soto roji) and an inner tea garden (uchi roji). Guests await their host in a waiting area (koshikake machiai) in the outer tea garden that is like a way station on the path to a mountain village. After the host greets them, guests and host pass through the chumon and into the inner tea garden, with its mountain scenery. Today, the double tea garden divided by a chumon is the most common type of roji.



Most chumon are simple constructions of bamboo lattice (yotsumegaki, pictured) or bent-branch lattice (shiorido), for there is no need for them to completely conceal one side from the other like a typical gate. A bent-branch lattice gate has a rectangular bamboo frame with bamboo slats woven within the frame in a diamond-shaped pattern; its simple and rustic appearance makes it a popular choice.

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A chumon is also useful if you want to mark the boundary between a special garden — a garden for tea ceremony or one with a traditional landscape, for example — and a more practical garden with a clothesline and other day-to-day things.

Tobiishi and Nobedan

Since the roji was first conceived as a path to the teahouse, it is the tobiishi (steppingstones) and nobedan (paving stones) that play the most practical role in fulfilling the garden’s intended purpose. But since focusing on practicality alone will necessarily come at the expense of beauty, it is important to find the right balance. Sen no Rikyu recommends laying stones so that their role in the garden is 60 percent function and 40 percent beauty.

Paving stones (which are also sometimes called tatami-ishi) provide more stability than steppingstones, but a path composed solely of the former makes a stiff impression, so it is better to mix in some steppingstones. The balance between paving stones of natural and cut stone, the finish of the seams between stones, and so on can greatly change the impression, significantly expanding the range of design possibilities that will complement the garden’s concept.

Before people step into the garden from indoors, they remove their zori (Japanese sandals) on the shoe-removing stone (kutsunugi-ishi). It is important to set this stone higher than the steppingstones to make it easier to enter the garden. And since this stone is the step leading to the tobiishi, it is also a good idea to select a stone that complements the garden’s steppingstone design.

For a terrace or deck garden as well, these stones can be a Japanese garden element serving as steps.

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If you prefer a less solemn presentation than tobiishi, you might try an ararekoboshi (literally, scattered hailstones) approach using casually arranged small stones. Using small stones also presents a DIY opportunity. Of course, working out the arrangement of hundreds of stones while keeping everything in balance requires a great deal of persistence. But if you have confidence in your stamina and judgment, it is a challenge well worth taking on.

Chiriana

Chiriana are holes made for temporarily disposing of any garden debris collected right before guests arrive. They are fashioned as holes in the ground partially obscured by a piece of natural stone. But often people use chiriana as a place to casually display roji flowers and branches when visitors come to the garden. Chiriana truly symbolize the passion of Japanese for detail.

For your own garden, you might think about making a place like a chiriana for displaying seasonal flowers and plants. And rather than a florid display, choose a tasteful presentation so understated that it might even go unnoticed.

Trees and Plants

Trees and plants are essential to giving a teahouse garden a mountain ambience. While the plants in a roji can be of any variety, a roji with real atmosphere will avoid a presentation that obviously appears man-made rather than natural. With that in mind, make an effort to use plants in their natural state rather than plants that have been trimmed and pruned, and also try to use plants well-suited to the local climate.

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Moss is recommended for ground cover. That alone will go a long way toward creating a teahouse garden atmosphere. Hypnum moss (Hypnum plumaeforme) is recommended because it is easy to grow in places that get half-shade to full sun. Moss dislikes dryness, so pay plenty of attention to watering.



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For homes in the city, neighboring homes, buildings and apartments may still intrude on the view no matter how well the design makes use of walls, plants and the like. Yukimi-shoji, a kind of shoji screen consisting of glass and paper that can slide up and down, is recommended as a way to conceal such unwanted scenery. But since this also concentrates the view on natural elements and spots close to the ground, careful tending of garden undergrowth is needed.

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