Tokyo Journal How I Found Sanctuary Living in a Japanese Teahouse
Above all, the teahouse was a room of my own, the first I’d ever had.
This is Tokyo Journal, a monthly column in which Ann Tashi Slater writes about culture, society, and day-to-day life in Japan.
Since no one in my family had been to Japan or knew anything about it, coming here in my early twenties felt like mapping new terrain. I arrived in Tokyo on a rainy spring morning in 1985 and began teaching English to businessmen in Shinjuku district skyscrapers. Through a notice on a supermarket bulletin board, I found a place to live: a one-room converted teahouse in the northwest part of the city. The family had built it for the grandmother behind the main residence; I never heard why, but thought she must have been a tea ceremony master, teaching the ancient art to women in the neighborhood. After she died, the family began renting out the teahouse for Y35,000 a month ($150 at the time).
The entire house was 4.5 tatami mats, about eighty square feet, the standard size for a Japanese teahouse. Fusuma washi paper doors painted with flowers and pampas grass concealed a deep, two-level closet for storage of kimono and, during the day, futon bedding. The only piece of furniture was a low, rectangular table with folding legs; a big black dial phone sat on the tatami, next to a mini fridge. The “kitchen,” to the left of the entryway, consisted of a dented cold-water metal sink, a pea-green toaster oven, and a two-burner gas stove. Happily, there was a Western-style toilet rather than the traditional squat toilet. But no shower, so every evening, I’d go around the corner to the sento public bath. On one side of the teahouse was a large, shoji-screened window and on the other, a frosted glass door that slid open to a splintery, weather-beaten veranda made from two planks; the veranda looked out on a tiny, verdant garden with bamboo, camellias, and a fragrant plum tree. The surrounding neighborhood was quiet, a refuge of temples and graveyards, alleyways where cats prowled and grannies chatted on their way to the sento for a communal soak.
Because I knew little about Japan, I could have made any kind of connection when I arrived: to high-tech Japan or business Japan or Zen Japan. Living in the teahouse, I fell into rhythm with Zen Japan. Sitting quietly as rain pattered on the old tile roof, as snow blanketed the garden, I reveled in the peace and solitude, the sense of coming into alignment with myself. I read Kawabata and Tanizaki; I fell in love with The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no hosomichi) , a travel diary of prose and haiku by seventeenth-century pilgrim-poet Matsuo Basho. My teahouse, I imagined, was like the hut Basho had lived in three centuries earlier in eastern Tokyo, then known as Edo.
Alone in the teahouse, I felt that for the first time, I could hear myself think. My girlhood had been emotionally chaotic, because of my parents’ divorce and the conflicting messages from my American psychiatrist father ( assert yourself ) and Tibetan mother ( who do you think you are? ). Growing up in ethnic isolation in white 1960s and ’70s American suburbs, made fun of by classmates for how I looked, I’d wished I had blonde hair and blue eyes—or at least that my Asian roots were in China, which people had heard of, instead of Tibet. In Japan, living in the teahouse, I felt I’d arrived at a place of sanctuary.
Alone in the teahouse, for the first time I could hear myself think.
Japanese teahouses are meant to provide a retreat from the world. Usually subdued in design, they’re made—as mine was—using natural materials such as wood and straw. With names like “Morning Moon Arbor” (Zangetsu-tei) and “Introvert Hut” (Mugai-an), they’re spaces where you leave behind the clamor of the external and enter the tranquility of the internal. Their gardens often conceal nearby buildings, making you feel you’re in a bucolic idyll. The tea ceremony, known as sadoo or chadoo, “the way of tea,” is about simplicity, from the subdued clothing that participants wear to the earth-toned colors of the tea bowls. It’s carried out mostly in silence, the guests watching as the host cleans the tea implements, then whisks matcha green tea powder with hot water in an elegant bowl. The ceremony is not so much about drinking tea as it is a ritual practice to still the mind and bring you into harmony with the moment: the sound of water boiling and a cricket chirruping in the garden; the smell of the straw tatami and the bittersweet taste of the tea.
My teahouse had its challenges: Summer brought huge cockroaches, swarms of mosquitoes, and mold. There was no air conditioning, only an electric fan. In winter, I shivered, huddled next to the gas heater. The room sometimes felt claustrophobic because I couldn’t see out unless I slid aside the shoji screen and frosted glass door. I would have liked to see the garden without having to open the window and door (especially in winter), but reading Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows,” an essay about Japanese aesthetic ideals, gave me a different perspective. Tanizaki wrote, “The light from the garden steals in but dimly through paper-paneled doors, and it is precisely this indirect light that makes for us the charm of a room.” The effect of the shoji screen and frosted glass focused my attention inward, just like in the tea ceremony; it gave me a long-sought feeling of centeredness.
Above all, the teahouse was a room of my own, the first I’d ever had. Living there—before the internet, social media, and cell phones; without a radio or TV—I experienced what it meant to have time and space that was only mine, a door I could close. From when I was a small girl, I’d written stories, finding possibility and agency in the creation of imaginary worlds. In Tokyo, I had a new kind of blank page before me: I could finally begin writing my life.
I especially remember the teahouse nights, which were long in the best of ways. I’d lie in my futon gazing at the silhouette of the cat that perched on the old stone wall, listening to the quiet occasionally broken by footsteps in the alley or distant traffic. I’d read Flaubert in college and learned of his love for Egypt; it was a place where, he said, he could dream and feel well. This was how Tokyo felt to me.
From when I was a small girl, I’d written stories. In Tokyo, I had a new kind of blank page before me: I could finally begin writing my life.
My nephew, a college student in the US, recently came to visit. We happened to be near my old neighborhood and, thinking he’d enjoy seeing the teahouse, I suggested we stop by. As we exited the new multi-level train station, I wondered: Had the teahouse been torn down? Things change quickly in Tokyo and indeed, the area looked different, with wide streets and modern buildings. We wandered around for a while until I realized the alley where I’d lived had become a road. Miraculously, my old place was still there, tucked behind the main residence. From a friend acquainted with the family, I’d learned that the husband had died and his widow had moved to a retirement home; that the children now live far away, in western Japan and California. My nephew and I contemplated the tangle of overgrowth in the garden, the tall weeds blocking the gate, the gnarled tree branches extending over the broken tiles on the teahouse roof. Through the small, high window by the entryway, we could see piles of junk. I tried the door, hoping to peer inside, but it was locked.
I described to my nephew what the teahouse had been like. He listened, bemused, then said, “Well, I guess you take what you can get when you’re starting out!” I tried to tell him why I’d loved the teahouse, but on that breezy, sunny day, it was impossible to explain the former charm of what was now an abandoned lot.
About ten years ago, I took my children to see the teahouse on a winter afternoon. Darkness was falling, the first planets and stars appearing in the indigo sky; the aging teahouse and garden lay in shadow. As we walked back to the station, I felt sorry we’d come so late in the day. But then I thought maybe the timing was just right: It had made it easier to revisit—and convey to my children—the beauty of the teahouse I’d lived in.