The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Back to the Roots

Kitayama Sugi Report by Karl-martin Frederiksen

A Japanese tea ceremony starts 30 years before you pour the hot water: with the planting of the Japanese Cedar Trees. This is the story of my trip to the Kitayama Mountains.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Back to the Roots - Karl-martin Frederiksen Kitayama Sugi Report
Heaven for an architect
To understand the purpose of my trip, a short introduction is needed. I am a student of architecture in Denmark. In the spring of 2012, I went to Japan with the purpose of examining and better understanding the Japanese tea ceremony and the Sukiya architecture. Why is it created like it is, what does it tell us about time, space and function in relation to architecture, and how does it correspond with our modern way of life?

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The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Back to the Roots - Karl-martin Frederiksen Kitayama Sugi Report

The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Back to the Roots - Karl-martin Frederiksen Kitayama Sugi Report
The roots of the Japanese tea ceremony

I first learnt about the Kityama region and the Shugi Foundation through a japanese architect in Kyoto. He told me that if I really wanted to understand the depth of the Japanese tea ceremony, I had to go back to the very roots – literally.

Through the Shugi Foundation’s website, I contacted the webmaster, Mr. Baxter-san. He asked me what I wanted to see in Kityama – so he could make the arrangements with the locals and employees of the Shugi Foundation. Mr. Baxter-san was extraordinarily polite and pleasant to me, and I appreciated his help greatly.

The trip to Kityama begins
My visit to Kityama began at 10 o clock on 26. june 2012. I took the train from Osaka to Demachiyanagi Station in Kyoto to meet Mr. Baxter-san.

Mr. Baxter-san had arranged that Mr. Murayama-san from the Shugi Foundation would drive us around the mountains. Mr. Murayama-san had reserved the whole day to give me a guided tour – I was overwhelmed by the kindness everyone showed me.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Back to the Roots - Karl-martin Frederiksen Kitayama Sugi Report
The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Back to the Roots - Karl-martin Frederiksen Kitayama Sugi Report
We go North

It was a beautiful morning when we started off against the mountains. The first thing that struck med was how cultivated these mountains were. The trees had no branches on their trunks, because of the effect this gives the wood when it is used to build the actual tea house.

The first place we went to visit was a village in the mountains, where the Shugi Foundation have their office. At the office we had a cup of iced tea, and I was introduced to Shugi’s ideas and work – with the help of Mr. Baxter-san, who translated everything for me.

Traditional values
Afterwards, the chief of the Management Planning Office, Mr. Yonejima-san, brought us to his sawmill. He showed us examples of the preparation of wood and examples of the many amazing and almost unbeliveable pieces of wood that him and his staff had prepared.

In Mr. Yonejima-sans sawmill they still only use the traditional ways of preparing the wood. E.g. the bark is stripped from the tree trunks by hand, and they keep it in one piece to use for facades – it smells amazing, like a forest, and gives a fourth dimension to a building.

He explained me the techniques of preparing the wood, and which pieces were meant for different places in the tea house.

The care and effort put into each piece of wood made me think of the element of time that I set out to examine – have modern architecture lost the link with time because of mass production and standardized elements?

The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Back to the Roots - Karl-martin Frederiksen Kitayama Sugi Report

The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Back to the Roots - Karl-martin Frederiksen Kitayama Sugi Report
The selling of wood
We said goodbye to Mr. Yonejima-san and drove towards an auction house further up in the montains. This is where the wood is sold – the Japanese bid for the best and most exclusive pieces of wood, which was something unknown for me as a European.

Here we saw more about the principles of the Sukiya-architecture and how the Japanese still use these principles in many different buildings other than tea houses. Kyoto is still filled with Sukiya-pieces, but in other parts of Japan the tradition has faded. Modern life in Japan does not always leave room for traditional values, it seems.

We saw another example of this in the auction house, where the wood had been used for other things – e.g. furniture – in a more modern way.

A perfect day comes to an end
It was now late afternoon, and we began our last trip towards a saw mill in a nearby valley. This mill is owned by Mr. Ueno-san, who specialices in making gigantic logs used for building and restorating temples.

Mr. Ueno-san showed us how to bleach the wood, which makes it light and reveals the underlying structure. He showed us examples of amazing centrepieces, Tokobashi, which play a centrale role in the teahouse.

On our way home, we stopped at a plantation with Daishugi-trees, which are grown specifically for use underneath the roof of the tea house. It was an interesting and weird thing to see six trees growing on one tree – a perfect way to end one of my best and most interesting days on my trip to Japan.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Back to the Roots - Karl-martin Frederiksen Kitayama Sugi Report

Food for thought
My experiences in Kityama and my conversations with the employees of Shugi became the basis for my final project at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts – Arcitecture. My days in Kityama were food for both thought and contemplation – something I have benefited greatly from in my studies and my life.

I would like to thank everyone who helped make this a very special day for me – a very special thank you to the Shugi Foundation, who made my visit possible.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Back to the Roots - Karl-martin Frederiksen Kitayama Sugi Report