A Japanese tea garden is an enclosed garden in which stands a small tea house where the Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu or sado) is held. The Japanese tea garden has an important function in preparing the participants of the Japanese tea ceremony.
The Japanese tea garden is not an ornamental garden for displaying flowers or shrubbery. It is intended to present a series of thresholds which represent a passage from the hustle and bustle of the outside world to the calm inner sanctum of the tea house itself. Each threshold of the Japanese tea garden is designed as a successive step which prepares the guests for the tea ceremony.
The Japanese tea ceremony has its roots in Zen Buddhism and a tea gathering is a means of developing the sensibilities of Zen Buddhism. The Japanese tea garden serves as a pathway from the world of the profane to the world of the enlightened.
The Inner World
The outer gate (sotomon) is a roofed gate of wooden doors. After the last guest has passed through the outer gate it is latched shut with a wooden crossbeam. This signifies to the guests that they have left the outside world and are commencing their journey to the sanctified world of the tea ceremony.
The Japanese tea garden is constructed to accentuate this sense of journey. Guests quietly and slowly follow a path marked with stepping stones while observing the simple beauty of nature - the wind in the trees, the moss on the rocks, and the gentle sound of flowing water.
A covered bench (koshikake machiai) allows the guests to sit quietly while communing with nature. They are mentally and physically preparing themselves for the tea ceremony and wait here until they are summoned forward by their host.
Between the outer gate and the tea house there stands a middle gate - the chumon. The chumon separates the Japanese tea garden in half. The outer garden is called the soto roji and the inner garden is called the uchi roji. Passing through the chumon reinforces the sense of passage from outer world to inner world.
Inside the chumon there is a small basin of water (either carved granite or wooden bucket) that the guests use to ritually cleanse their hands and mouths. The water is placed low to the ground, forcing the guests to crouch down towards the earth - a gesture of humility.
Finally the guests enter the tea house through a low doorway. Guests must bow down to pass through this doorway - another gesture of humility and a reminder that all those attending the tea ceremony are equal.
In modern-day Japan few can afford enough land for a Japanese tea garden outside their house, so instead one room of the house may be set aside as a tea room. The tea room is not a universal feature of Japanese homes, but millions of people practice the art of the Japanese tea ceremony.
Tea rooms also stress the sense of passage from outer world to inner world. There is a waiting room where guests can prepare themselves for the tea ceremony, and the tea room must be entered through a small doorway similar to that of the tea house.