Sunday, December 22, 2013

Memories of Japan: The Tea Ceremony: Tokonoma, Hanging Scrolls, and Calligraphy

Today is Sunday, December 22, 2013.

Tokonoma written in kanji and hiragana

The Tokonoma

Like the fireplace mantel in a Western-style living room, the tokonoma is a focal point.  It is a small recessed area in one corner of the room, usually raised a few inches from the main floor of the room.  Its size depends on the dimensions of the room.  In general, it is about the size of a quarter or half of a full-sized tatami mat.  One outer corner may be a decorative pillar called tokobashira, made of some unusual gnarled wood, specially shaped and polished.  The "floor" of the tokonoma is generally covered with tatami, but it can be plain wood, or wood surfaced with black lacquer.  

Tokonoma in a famous teahouse with a decorative
pillar of gnarled wood on the right.  The scroll has only
one "grass style" character.  There are no flowers in
the tokonoma because there is no tea ceremony going on.
In the West, there is usually some large piece of art hanging above the fireplace, and framed photographs, valuable items, or sentimental momentos displayed on the mantel itself.  These decorative items remain in place more or less permanently.  In Japan, however, the idea of seasonal display is very important, so the display contents of the tokonoma are changed with the seasons.  Any flowers displayed there are fresh flowers, so these are changed even more often.  Bonsai can also be displayed there, as well.  Culturally speaking, the "official" seasons are as follows: Summer is May-October and Winter is November-April. They do recognize autumn and spring, but they think of them as "early winter" and "early summer."
This simple tokonoma has a lacquered wood
floor.  The simple ikebana flower arrangement
is suitable for a tea ceremony.

The tokonoma is a feature of the Shoin-zukuri residential architectural style, which originated in the Kamakura Period (1192-1333).  Characteristics of this style were the incorporation of square wooden posts in rooms, and rooms that were completely covered with "permanent" tatami mats. The word shoin originally meant a study or place for lectures at a Buddhist temple, but later it came to mean "drawing room" or "study."  This style was used in the homes of military leaders and Zen abbots' quarters. In Buddhist priests' homes, there was a small, private alter called butsudan, which was a small alcove containing a narrow wooden table, on which was placed an incense burner, votive candles, and flower vases in front of a hanging scroll.

The size of the tokonoma fits the size of the room. This
tearoom is at least 10 mats, maybe more, so the
tokonoma is huge.
This same idea is used today in Japanese homes, except that there is no table.  Instead the floor of the tokonoma is raised a bit.  Items on display might include a calligraphy scroll or one with a poem or Zen phrase on it, some fresh flowers arranged in ikebana style in a vase made of metal, ceramic or bamboo, an incense container, or a writing box or other art object that is important to the host's theme for the tea ceremony.  (My sister-in-law's home, where I lived for about a year, had a tokonoma in the second-floor room that my husband and I lived in.  I never touched anything in it.  She had a scroll and a full-sized koto, a Japanese 13-stringed instrument which is about six feet long, standing upright in the tokonoma.)

I love the bonsai display in this tokonoma.
Since the tokonoma was originally used as a sacred space, that idea has carried over into the modern era, even if it is not actively used in spiritual practice.  Unless you are actually placing a scroll in the tokonoma, it is forbidden to walk into one, or to sit or sleep there.  The room in which a tokonoma is placed is considered the most formal room in the house, and if possible, it is reserved for receiving guests.

Modern tokonoma in someone's home.  Notice that the
tatami mats don't cover the entire floor of the room.
The hanging scroll is a famous ukiyo-e woodblock
print, but the flower arrangement is traditional.
I also love the colors of the shoji doors on the cupboard.
In a tea ceremony, or when a guest visits the home, the most important guest is sitting near the tokonoma, which is always as far away from the door as possible. (The door is the least "honorable" place in the room, and the tokonoma the most "honorable.")  The guest is invited to sit with his back to the tokonoma, so if you are invited to sit there, admire the tokonoma first before sitting down.  The reason that the honored guest sits with his back to the focal point of the room, rather than being seated in a position to admire it, is that the host doesn't want to seem too proud or arrogant, since the items in the tokonoma are likely to be expensive art objects.  Also, I was told that since the tokonoma is the focal point of the room, everyone looks there, so you place the most honored guest in a space that everyone wants to look toward.  That makes sense. 

Many rooms have a space next to the tokonoma for
storage and display like the one shown above.  Other rooms have a closet
with sliding doors, just for storage.


Bokuseki type
scroll with
calligraphy by
Zen priests

Hanging Scrolls

Hanging scrolls are called kakemono or kakejiku.  They are usually mounted on a brocade fabric so that they can be rolled up for storage when not in use.  There are scrolls in Japan whose width is longer than their length, but these are not used for the tea ceremony.  Only the vertical scrolls (tatejiku) are used, and they are always intended to be hung vertically.   Their purpose in a tea ceremony is to set the mood, in a spiritual sense.  The first thing the tea guests do is to examine and remark on the scroll and accompanying flower arrangement in the tokonoma, since they know their host has gone to a lot of trouble to find just the right things to display there.  The scroll will most likely also be the subject of conversation when the tea has been served. 

Kohitsu scroll with
calligraphy by
court nobility
Scrolls may contain calligraphy or paintings.  The calligraphy scrolls may be writings of Chinese Zen priests or priests of the Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto.  They may also be calligraphy written by emperors, court nobles, and women between the tenth and thirteenth centuries (Heian Period), or they may be letters and poems by tea masters.  Some calligraphy is done by famous calligraphers or Buddhist monks. The scrolls may contain one character or famous Buddhist sayings, descriptions of famous places, or words and phrases associated with the tea ceremony.  For example, a scroll may have the characters wa kei sei jaku (和敬清寂), which mean harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.   If the scroll has a single character, it might be the word for wind (風) or kaze in summer, for example.  There is something powerful about hanging a scroll with a particular word, such as "harmony" or "happiness" in our homes.  Each and every time we look at it we reinforce its meaning.  The word defines an intent and helps us to clarify what we desire from the universe. 
Gasan scroll with
calligraphy by
famous tea master

The paintings may be kara-e, which show scenes of nature in China, suiboku, charcoal paintings, or nanga paintings from the period of Japanese history known as the Edo Period (1603-1867).  If paintings are used for the tea ceremony, they must be seasonally appropriate images.  Nature images generally include landscapes, flowers, and birds.


Kara-e scroll with Chinese nature scene

Suiboku are scrolls with scenes painted entirely in charcoal.
Nanga style scrolls look a lot like suiboku. They were done by
artists who considered themseles literati in the late Edo Period (1603-1867).

Another vintage suiboku style hanging done all in charcoal.


The calligrapher is writing the character for love.
The art of calligraphy, known as shodō in Japan means writing Chinese characters with brush and ink, and just like the tea ceremony or ikebana, there are various "schools" of calligraphy, each one doing things just a little bit differently.   Rather than talk about the different schools, I'd like to show you the different styles of calligraphy taught by all the schools. 

There are three styles of calligraphy. One is kaisho, or "correct writing," in which the character is written precisely, with each stroke made separately.  When writing Chinese characters, one "stroke" means the line you make from the time your writing instrument hits the paper until you lift it from the paper.  Strokes have to be made in a particular order, or the character won't look right.  This is the first style that anybody learns, and anybody who can read a particular character in printed style can also read the character in kaisho style. All Japanese school children are taught this style of calligraphy.

Here is the character for yume, or "dream."  On the left is the kaisho style calligraphy, and on the left is the character as it is printed in books.  

Kaisho style of calligraphy.  Correct writing.
 The second style is gyōsho, or "traveling writing," a semi-cursive style.  Just as in our own cursive writing, the strokes of the characters are joined together a bit more.   The majority of educated Japanese can read these.
Gyōsho style of calligraphy.  Traveling writing.

The third style is sōsho, or "grass writing."  In this style, the brush rarely leaves the paper, and the character becomes somewhat simplified.  Form is more important than readability, and generally speaking, only trained calligraphers can read these.  These characters are intended as works of art, rather than as a means of communication.

Sōsho style of calligraphy.  Grass writing.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Thank you for these very interesting posts..I hope to one day build a tea hut for my chanoyu practice...