MAKE YOURSELF COMFORTABLE ON THE FLOOR

Along with the Wu Family Reception Hall, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts also houses a Japanese Formal Audience Hall.  The two halls couldn’t be more different.  Where the Chinese hall is grand and adorned, the Japanese counterpart is quite small and restrained.  In fact, the “shoin” is so far removed from adornment there is no furniture for there is a Zen belief that less is more.  In fact, there is a saying that goes: “To clear one’s mind one must first remove the ottoman.”

Although there is no furniture, the room is not without flourish. Sitting on a finely woven mat called a “tatami,” visitors could admire the knot-free cedar beams, the coffered ceiling and the intricate designs on the paper sliding doors (fusuma).  Bronze fittings, gilded gold, silk screenings may have been present throughout the room but they were  subtle, much like diamond earrings on a beautifully dressed woman.

As simple as the Japanese Formal Audience Hall is, a simpler room can be found a few exhibits over at the Japanese Tea House (chashitsu).

Whereas the Audience Hall is adorned with the slightest of refinement, the tea house is built with materials of a more earthy value like unmilled timber, reeds, bamboo and straw.  The 9×9 building is a step up from a tent but a good step below a cabin. Even if attached to the main house, the tea house is meant to be a communal part of nature.  There is even a carved sign on the outside that reads:

“This is a hermitage of the meditative heart.  Samurai warriors please check your swords and cell phones at the door.”

The whole purpose of the tea house is to create a contemplative experience.  There are no flat screen televisions.  There are no tiny ping pong tables.  The building is designed around one event: the tea ceremony (wabi).

As guests approached the tea house, they would first make use of the washbasin (tsukubai) to clean their hands and rinse their mouths.  Then they would crawl through a low entrance called a “nijriquchi” to demonstrate their humility and flexibility.  (Needless to say, sumo wrestlers had to order though an open window.)

Once inside guests would be asked to refrain from unnecessary chatter.  It would be inappropriate for them to wear cologne or perfume.  It was also not a good idea to show up reeking of alcohol and smoke after pulling an all-nighter at a sushi bar.  It would be best to be grateful, subdued and to enjoy the aroma of the burning sandalwood chips, watch the warm morning sun illuminate the “shoji” panels, listen to the slow hissing steam of the kettle and admire the tea bowl (chawan) as it was filled with finely brewed tea.

I love the fact that there is an authentic tea house at the MIA.  I love the fact that the Japanese culture prizes their tea ceremony so much they are willing to build a separate building for it.  It does make me wonder if I would be able to eventually go to a museum in Kyoto and see a genuine American coffee house as an exhibit?  Would it be filled with the aroma of freshly roasted coffee? Would songs from Enya and Norah Jones play through the overhead speakers?  Would patrons be able to admire the well-worn leather chairs, the chipped slate tables, the wooden chairs with uneven legs and an animatronic barista shouting out “I got a half-caff-double-fat-free-hazelnut latte for Nelson.”

There definitely would need to be spotty Wi-Fi to fully appreciate the full coffee shop experience.

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