In the Japanese garden world, the term “tea garden” is used for three kinds of gardens. Although drinking tea takes place in all three, the gardens themselves have very different styles and functions. All are sanctioned by history.
1. Commercial Tea Gardens
Historic postcards reveal that many early Japanese gardens in North America were called “tea gardens.” Best known are the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park run by G.T. Marsh then the Hagiwara family, the Marsh Japanese Tea Garden in Pasadena transferred to the Huntington estate, and the Jingu family’s Japanese Tea Garden in San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park (fig. 1). There were dozens more in all sizes and styles, linked only by Japanese identity and food service. At one extreme was Kushibiki and Arai Co.’s Japanese Tea Garden, a large pond-style garden in Atlantic City. More typical are small gardens with plants and lanterns (stone, wood or bronze) around a single building (fig. 2). At the other extreme were gardens in name only, like the Japanese Tea Garden at Coney Island. Essentially these were restaurants decorated with paper lanterns or potted plants. At a time when Japan was referred to as the “flowery kingdom,” for most tea gardens the word “garden” was used loosely— a catch-all for a Japanese-y environment where nature was more likely present in a floral pattern on a kimono or ceramic plate than in artfully arranged plants or stones.
These tea gardens were off-shoots of world’s fairs with their popular Japanese pavilions with adjunct tea gardens as well commercial Japanese villages with bazaars and restaurants. Because tea was a major Japanese export, the Japan Central Tea Association created “tea gardens” at American expositions starting at least with Chicago’s World’s Columbian Fair in 1893 (fig. 3). In addition, Japan’s official gardens at the 1905 St. Louis and 1915 San Francisco expositions included a Formosan Tea House. These informal landscapes around casual restaurants relate to the common but little studied tea house (chaya 茶屋and kissaten 喫茶店 in Japanese at the time) gardens at shrines, temples and other tourist venues that offered visitors rest and refreshment. They are much pictured in Meiji era tourist painting by artists like Theodore Wores and photography by Felice Beato and others. The supplement edition of Josiah Conder’s Landscape Gardening in Japan includes photos of “common city teahouse gardens of the poorest class” and also Tokyo’s famous, large “Teahouse Garden at Oji.”
2. Chaniwa and Roji Style Gardens
Conder’s influential book has a section on “tea gardens” (cha-niwa 茶庭) of other kinds. One is the “passage garden” for “ceremonial tea.” In chanoyu or wabi-style tea, the tea hut (chashitsu 茶室) is typically accessed through a small and apparently simple walled and landscaped space. It was originally termed rōji, meaning something like “dewy path” or “open ground” depending on the characters used. The term, which appears in the 17th c. text Nampōroku, is attributed tea master Sen Rikyū to denote a transitional space.
Antithetical to most gardens with their impressive stones and flowering plants, it offers neither these usual symbols nor sensory pleasures. Instead, some broadleaf evergreens, ferns and moss surround stepping stones that lead from an entry gate to the teahouse. The critical feature is the hand-washing basin, chōzubachi, which signals the garden’s function as a preamble of ritual purification. Rōji encourage guests to slow down and focus on the things at hand, and underfoot. From their creation in late 16th century, rōji, evolved with the tastes of tea masters and tea lineages. Many are divided into outer and inner (soto and uchi) sections by a fence or even a gate, with the outer area containing a waiting bench and even a toilet while the more naturalistic inner area has only the stone basin and is meant to suggest deep nature. Often lanterns are present to provide light nocturnal gatherings.
Rōji have been much described in Western literature on Japan from the writing of Portuguese Jesuit priest João Rodrigues in the early 1600s to a dozen on-line studies. Marc Keane’s book, The Japanese Tea Garden, provides a detailed study. Rōji appear frequently in North American public Japanese gardens around the tea houses created by Urasenke or other tea schools.
3. Sencha Style Tea Gardens
Far less discussed but equally important for gardens in Japan from the Edo period is a kind of open garden with running water. The antithesis of the small closed rōji, this type of “jewel-stream garden” (called “Tamagawa Tea Garden” by Conder) (fig. 4). was meant to be enjoyed from the veranda of a structure by people enjoying the steeped tea known as sencha. Sencha and its related arts are discussed by Patricia Graham in Tea of the Sages: The Art of Sencha. Gardens made for sencha parties are the subject of Seiko Goto’s article “The Sencha Style Tea Garden at Shōfukuji” in NAJGA’s Journal No.8 (2021) and the third chapter of Wybe Kuitert’s book, Japanese Gardens and Landscapes, 1650-1950. Arguably the sencha-style garden’s “open landscape” that connects the garden with surrounding nature had the greater impact on garden design in the late Edo and Meiji periods. Some garden historians argue that Ueji’s (Ogawa Jihei VII) modern-style gardens, exemplified at Murin’an, were inspired by sencha garden ideas.
Epilogue: A New Tea Garden for America
Finally, given this variety of tea gardens, it should come as no surprise that, in the 1930s, immigrant garden maker Shogo Myaida published a pamphlet titled, “The Japanese Tea Ceremony in America and Europe.” In it, Myaida proposed to create a new tea ceremony synthesizing wabicha with the American tea party through sixteen “courses”. It would take place in a “small woodland temple” and garden that he would create for American hostesses. Although Myaida built noted gardens for Marjorie Post, Mary Burke and other patrons in the 1950s, his hybrid tea party and tea garden were never realized. The very idea, however, demonstrates the richness and flexibility of tea gardens in their various and evolving forms.
This blog was contributed by our guest author, Kendall Brown. He is a Professor of Asian Art History in the School of Art at California State University Long Beach and author of the book “Quiet Beauty: The Japanese Gardens of North America“. He was also a co-founder and past president of the North American Japanese Garden Association, and a leading figure in the design, political implications and cultural history of American Japanese gardens.
Figure 1. Japanese Tea Garden and Sunken Garden, Breckenridge Park, San Antonio, TX. Ca. 1910.
Figure 2. Japanese Tea Garden, Ocean View Park, VA. ca. 1907.
Figure 3. Japanese Tea Garden, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. From Official Views of the World’s Columbian Exposition.
Figure 4. Josiah Conder, Landscape Gardening in Japan, 1893; Plate XXXI. Tea Garden.
Figure 5. Akisato Ritō, Tsukiyama teizōden, gohen, 1829; Tamagawa style garden. The drawing, as updated by Honda Kinkichirō, is published in Conder, Plate XXXIII.