Kanazawa City: the architecture of tea


Special To The Japan Times

One of the first things you see as you exit Kanazawa Station is a giant brass sculpture of a teapot sunken drunkenly into a mound of grass or, depending on your interpretation, tilting to fill a cup of the refreshing green brew the city is noted for. That a municipal piece of art should be dedicated to tea culture (made by artist Kazumasa Saegusa) says something about the drink’s place in the history and contemporary life of Kanazawa, the capital city of Ishikawa Prefecture.

The influence of tea — in particular the tea ceremony and tea devotion — on the architecture of an older Kanazawa is evident in two gardens of particular distinction: Kenroku-en and Gyokusen-en. It’s not clear who decides such things, but Kenroku-en, based on a classic circuit design, is ranked as one of Japan’s three finest gardens. The judging system may be flawed, but it is a fine garden — a master design that embodies the six components from which its name is composed: solemnity, vastness, matchless planning, venerability, beauty of form and the coolness that comes from running water.

Implanted in the garden’s deftly laid-out structure are several teahouses, among them Yugao-tei, a small thatched hut that faithfully follows traditional edicts of space. Typically, such structures attempt to reproduce, on a more modest scale, the vernacular folk architecture of minka, the grand, thatched farmhouses of rural Japan. In their diminished form they try to suggest the isolation of a hermit’s forest hut. The exposed timber frames, thatched or shingled roofs and walls finished in rough, textured mud plaster, may seem rustic, but these structures are highly refined and, in the contemporary age, extremely costly to construct. Kenroku-en’s popular Shigure-tei is a larger affair, with a broad view from the main chamber onto an expansive garden within a garden, replete with its own winding brook.

Where Kenroku-en is grand, a touch showy and patronized by multitudes of tour groups, Gyokusen-en — a short walk away — is discreet, little known and tastefully understated. It’s an expression of that exquisite Japanese garden aesthetic of yugen, which is difficult to translate, but easy to sense; it’s used to refer to profound depth and complex beauty.

Powdered green tea, known as matcha, is served nearby at the Saisetsu-tei teahouse in an abridged tea ceremony overseen by Junko Nishida, the fifth generation custodian of the garden and teahouse. Plantings in this small, esoteric kaiyushiki-teien (stroll garden) are not overly maintained, creating the impression of a naturalistic landscape or, perhaps, an underfunded one. Whatever the case, it’s a welcome change from the important but fussily supervised Kenroku-en.

Kanazawa is often described as “Little Kyoto,” a redundant nickname for a city that — with a long history, outstanding achievements in the arts and crafts, venerable traditions and fine cuisine — hardly needs to compare itself to the old capital. Many of its traditional practices — ceramic ware, gold-leaf creation and Yuzen silk textiles — are among the finest examples of their kind. Some of the most aesthetically pleasing, not to mention tasty, tea ceremony confectionery is made here.

JR Kanazawa even has a confectionery shop whose range of sweets is truly overwhelming, which is fitting as many train stations have become spaces to showcase local culture in Japan. The strong affiliation with confectionery struck home while walking to the old teahouse district of Nishi Chaya, passing en route the tellingly named Kanazawa Museum of Wooden Japanese Sweet Molds. It’s difficult to imagine any other town having such an institution.

Nishi Chaya is one of Kanazawa’s three main geisha districts. Tea drinking in the pleasure quarters of Japan has always been associated with the higher realms, and this tiny area is no exception. Perhaps the best known of its handful of teahouses here is Hana-no-Yado, an establishment whose plain, seasoned-wood exterior and fine interior details set it apart.

The architecture of Higashi Chaya, another much larger tea district, includes a number of private homes, merchant residences and small shops; all fine examples of traditional Japanese design. In his classic “Book of Tea,” the Meiji Era (1868-1912) art critic Okakura Kakuzo wrote, “Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence.” In the Japanese urban setting of today, this rings especially true.

The few short steps from street level to the bowls of green, powdery tea that await you in the teahouses of Higashi Chaya are transformative — just as they are intended to be.

The Japanese were not only able to turn the consumption of tea into a sophisticated practice, but to create a rarefied environment in which the teahouse stood for a particular social ecology. In these refined environs, it was possible to cultivate a level of etiquette and aesthetic appreciation that would turn patrons into truly urbane figures.

While connoisseurship — the fine-tuning of taste — is still valued, today’s visitor to the teahouses of Kanazawa can relax in a more informal milieu, but one with enough traditional touches to constitute an authentic experience of tea culture.

After climbing the steep, 200-year-old stairs of Kureha, a teahouse along the main pedestrian concourse of Higashi Chaya, I was led into a discreetly lit private, six-tatami room, then served powdered green tea and a sample of the dry tea ceremony sweets known as higashi. I was then left alone to savor the quietude that the elegantly somber wooden architecture and polished interiors instill.

Kaikaro is an altogether different affair, though it is still a teahouse. The establishment is 180 years old and listed as an important historical structure, which would suggest formality, but the interior hints at a more contemporary playfulness — replete with a bright vermillion-lacquered staircase, a golden tea room, a tatami chamber hung with bright Kaga Yuzen kimonos and a curious stone courtyard garden, in which rocks have been replaced with green-colored glass stones. This is corroborated by the assistants of the teahouses: young women who may be wearing traditional kimonos but whose manner is friendly — even a touch flirtatious — and their commentary on the building and its history is lively, sprinkled with humor.

If these districts are synonymous with the architecture of tea, then Nagamachi, located at the foot of the ruins of Kanazawa Castle, is strongly associated with the samurai class of the feudal era — an example of their residences and culture. People continue to live in this preservation zone, its lively streets, local shops and residents are saving it from becoming an open-air architectural museum.

Water flows along the stone culverts at the side of the main roads, cooling the district — even in the dog days of summer. Beige-colored walls topped with black tiles are a feature of the quarter and the trees and shrubbery of small, well-maintained Japanese gardens are just visible beyond their clay peripheries. Wood, stone, reed matting and ceramic tile are everywhere: the predominance of these natural materials establishes the area as a pre-industrial zone, reminding us of what we have lost in both architecture and lifestyle over the past century.

One of the garden and design highlights of the quarter is the Edo Period (1603-1868) Numura Samurai House. Sections of the garden are visible from the five principal rooms of the home, and the deep engawa balcony that runs between the drawing room and a carp-filled pond. Its a skillful fusion of the intermediate space between the rooms themselves and the replications of nature in the garden itself.

Overlooked by grander sights such as Kenroku-en and the city’s extensive castle grounds, the Nomura residence is the ideal place to refresh the senses and, if you should choose, sip from a bowl of jade-green tea.

Getting there: To reach Kanazawa from Tokyo, first take the JR Joetsu Shinkansen from to Echigo-Yuzawa Station then change to the JR Special Express Hakutaka, which travels directly to Kanazawa City. The direct service Hokuriku Shinkansen will open in March 2015. Buses from Tokyo take seven to eight hours. Flights for Kanazawa leave Tokyo and Osaka daily.