Museum Hours
Thu: 1 PM–8 PM
Fri–Mon: 10 AM–5 PM
Tue–Wed: Closed
200 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

The Japanese Tearoom

Visit the museum's custom-built traditional Japanese tearoom to view a selection of exquisite utensils designed for making and serving tea at a formal gathering.

Muchu-an tearoom
Designed for the Asian Art Museum by Sato Osamu (Japanese) and constructed by Nakamura Sotoji (Japanese)
Woods, paper, bamboo, and plaster
Gift of Masako Martha Suzuki, T2003.1


The Traditional Way of Tea

Get a glimpse of the Way of Tea (Chado) in the museum’s custom-built Japanese tearoom. The fully functional room was constructed in Japan using traditional materials, methods, and proportions and then reassembled on-site at the museum. It is designed to display objects used in the formal practice of preparing and drinking tea with guests, which has been central to Japanese culture and art since the 16th century. As in a traditional gathering, the various utensils and decorative objects on view in the tearoom — which are changed several times a year — articulate a particular theme.

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The Art of Drinking Tea

Japan adapted the practice of drinking tea from China around the late 1100s as an aid to meditation and to the spiritual training of monks in Zen temples. By the 1400s, tea drinking had spread from the temples to the court and other levels of society. Although tea drinking originally took many forms, in the 1500s various tea masters, the most famous being Sen Rikyu (1522–1591), began establishing more formalized practices.

The Way of Tea (chado; also known as chanoyu, literally “hot water for tea”) is a formal practice of preparing and drinking powdered green tea (matcha) with one or more guests. The gathering often takes place in a small, specially designed structure traditionally located in a garden. The host plans the entire event weeks ahead, choosing the season, the theme, the number and combination of guests, and the utensils, flowers, and hanging scroll that will best express the theme.

This tea tradition continues in Japan and around the world today.

The Tearoom at the Asian Art Museum

The museum’s tearoom is called Muchu-an. Muchu means “in the mist” or “in the fog” (appropriate for San Francisco), but it is also a homonym with the Japanese word that describes the state of being completely absorbed in or engrossed by something. The word an means “hermitage” or “hut.”

The museum’s tearoom was designed by Japanese architect Osamu Sato, who has been declared a “Living National Treasure” in Japan for his traditional tearoom designs. The tearoom was completed in Kyoto at the workshop of Nakamura Sotoji, which is known for its high-quality creations of traditional Japanese buildings. It was then disassembled, shipped to the museum, and reconstructed on-site in September 2002 by Sato and four Japanese artisans.

The tearoom is made with traditional materials, methods, and proportions. The 12-by-6-foot room can seat three to four guests and a host on its tatami-mat-lined floor. It is made from pine, cedar, cypress, bamboo, and camellia woods. In keeping with traditional joinery methods, no nails were used in the tearoom’s construction. Shoji screens cover the bamboo-framed window, which is backed by timed lighting to simulate a day passing: morning, afternoon, and evening.

The museum’s tearoom is fully functional. It includes an alcove for the display of a scroll and flowers, an electric-powered sunken hearth to heat water, and a preparation area (mizuya) with running water and a drain.

Tearoom Alcove (Tokonoma)

The items in the tearoom alcove (tokonoma) set the mood and become a conversation point or theme of the tea gathering. Items might include a calligraphy scroll with a poetic or Zen phrase to begin the dialogue between host and guests; flowers of the season in a vase made of metal, ceramic, or bamboo; an incense container; and a writing box or other special object that is important to the host’s theme.

Upon entering the tearoom, guests go directly to view the items in the tokonoma. They bow to acknowledge the person who wrote the calligraphy scroll; the brushstrokes are thought to express the heart and mind of the calligrapher, and the bow pays respect to the artist, not the object itself. They also observe and acknowledge the flower arrangement. In the colder months, there may be a single camellia; in the warmer months, a bamboo basket might be filled with a variety of wild flowers.

After looking at the other items in the alcove, the guests bow again to the calligrapher and then move to view the fire and any items placed there in preparation for the tea. Finally, the guests take their seats by the tokonoma and wait for the host to enter.

The Tea Gathering

The most formal version of the tea gathering consists of a multicourse meal (kaiseki) followed by two tea servings, one with thick tea (koicha) and the other with thin tea (usucha). During the gathering, the guests express, in a formal manner, their appreciation of the food, tea, utensils, hanging scroll, flower arrangement, and garden.

When the host enters the tearoom, he or she carefully cleanses each utensil — including the tea bowl, whisk, and tea scoop — in the presence of the guests. When the preparation of the utensils is complete, the host prepares thick tea.

To make the tea, the host boils water in the tea kettle. With a special utensil, the host scoops matcha from a tea container into a tea bowl, adds some hot water from the kettle, and then mixes the beverage with a bamboo whisk.

Guests often drink thick tea from one bowl, raising it in a gesture of respect to the host and then rotating it and taking a few sips; the guest wipes clean the rim of the bowl and passes it on to the next guest, who repeats the procedure. After each guest has tasted the tea and admired the bowl, the host cleanses the equipment. The host then proceeds with the preparation of an individual bowl of thin tea to be served to each guest.

After all the guests have taken tea, the host cleans the utensils in preparation for putting them away. During this time, the guests examine the utensils, including the tea caddy and the tea scoop, and express their admiration for each of objects.

A tea gathering can last up to four hours, depending on the type of occasion performed, the number of guests, and the types of meal and tea served.

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