Tea on the Road: A Japanese Teahouse and Garden

There’s something extraordinarily peaceful about meandering through a Japanese tea garden.garden view 2-webThomas Heyd (2002) aptly captures this feeling:

In the tea garden, the express intent is to induce reflection and thoughtfulness on the way to the teahouse and its ceremony. . . . [the] ideas behind the history of Japanese gardens crystallize in the notion that nature is not to be subordinated by human beings. Rather, it is supposed that, insofar as we are part of nature, or perhaps in some sense even ‘identical’ to it . . . , we can gain insight into the proper place of human beings by reflection on autonomous nature as presented in the garden.

At New York’s State Historic Park, Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion, the path to its teahouse encourages reflection and appreciation for nature.stone lantern-webThis idyllic landscape isn’t original to the site, however. As Heyd (2002) acknowledges, “Japanese gardens may require considerable earth moving, water basin creation, rock transport, planting, and continuous upkeep,” which was certainly the case here.

In the late 1800s, Citibank founder, Frederick Ferris, and his wife, Mary Clark Thompson developed Sonnenberg as a summer home. After Frederick’s death in 1899, Mary began establishing gardens on the estate.

In 1906, she had K. Wadamori, a landscape designer, transform an existing apple orchard into a Japanese tea garden—which meant creating outcrops of rock and ledges, digging a pond, and building waterfalls, all with the goal of the landscape appearing to have been this way for centuries.

I imagine that this garden was quite a sensation at the time, being North America’s first privately owned Japanese garden.

In fact, few Americans had experienced such a garden! The first public Japanese gardens in the U.S. were just being established (e.g., San Francisco, for the 1894 World’s Fair; Philadelphia, for the 1876 Centennial Exposition).

In 1908, Wadamori oversaw the construction of a Sukiya-style teahouse with Irimoya-style roof, modeled after a teahouse in Kyoto.tea house-webNever meant for traditional tea ceremonies, the teahouse was used to entertain guests and as a playhouse for children.

Despite its arguably adulterated purposes, it surely accomplished the fundamental goal of any teahouse: to share food and drink with guests.

Further, a Japanese tea garden is called roji, or “dewy ground.” Sen Sōshitsu XV (1998:166) points out that the tea garden is to function as an “escape from the consuming passions of the world.”

And Heyd (2002) believes that:

Japanese gardens are like fingers pointing to what nature has to offer to us. By making, for example, a space for asymmetries and for what seem to be imperfections from a practical point of view they also put human lives into the context of nature, suggesting ways in which the skewedness and imperfections in our lives may be acceptable.

Although visitors are no longer allowed into the teahouse, you can see from my photos taken through it that the view from inside would have afforded intimate views of the garden.

Clearly an escape from everyday life and a renewed outlook on its stresses.

House and dewy ground.
Guest and host both joined as one,
Share a cup of tea.
In tranquil meditation,
No margin divides their hearts.

(poem attributed to Rikyū [Sen Sōshitsu XV 1998:168])

montage thru bldg-webIndeed, simply strolling outside the teahouse and sans tea refreshes and restores.

The roji is a way
Apart from this bustling world
And its many cares.
How will that path sweep away
The dust from within out [sic] hearts?

(poem attributed to Rikyū [Sen Sōshitsu XV 1998:168])

An excellent question indeed.
The Japanese Way of Tea, by Sen Sōshitsu XV, trans. by V. D. Morris, Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 1998.
–”Nature restoration without dissimulation: Learning from Japanese gardens and earthworks,” by Thomas Heyd, Essays in Philosophy 3(1): Article 12, 2002.

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