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There are only three teahouse-buildings open to the public, which is not a lot considering that Kanazawa has three separate geisha districts: Higashi Chayagai, Nishi Chayagai, and Kazuemachi. But before you take a tour in one of those traditional structures, let’s review some basic points!

Original blueprints courtesy of Teahouse Kaikaro.
Original blueprints courtesy of Teahouse Kaikaro.

(3) Engawa: Loggia

Wooden flooring immediately adjacent to windows and storm shutters inside of a traditional Japanese room. In a private house, it is usually located downstairs.

(5) Ohdo: Main door

Having a main door, called ohdo or ohto, is one of the typical styles in teahouse architecture. It slides open in a wide arc.

(6) Kimusuko: Latticework

Kimusuko, which literally means “wooden insect cage,” functionally protect residents’ privacy from passers-by, prohibiting interior views while maintaining the vantage of the exterior streets. Most kimusuko are painted crimson with red iron oxide called bengala. Iron oxide was imported from the Bengal region of India in those days.

(7) Himuro: Ice Storage

Keeping snow from the previous winter in a basement is practical wisdom for living in ancient times. The basement functions as a fridge.

(8) Kura: Storagehouse

Some traditional Japanese storehouses are earthen kura, called dozo, composed of internal walls covered with layers of clay. Finishing the final layer with plaster was crucial for fireproofing in olden times.

(9) (10) Tsuboniwa: Courtyard Garden

Traditional courtyard gardens create miniature, idealized landscapes. These are also designed to let in light and ventilate the environment. Additionally, they were used to store snow removed from the roof in winter.

(11) (12) Kyakuma: Guest Room

Kyakuma is a guest room. Guests always take a seat in front of the alcove called tokonoma because it’s the kamiza, meaning the place of honor in Japan.

(13) Hikaeno-ma: Performing Room

As soon as the guest sits down in front of the alcove in the guest room, the fusuma sliding doors are opened. It’s time for the performance!

(14) (15) (16) Soushoku: Decorations

You can’t miss the lovely adornments! You’ll likely want to consider these ideas for your own home decorations.

(17) Fukinuke: Stairwell

It’s a typical design to have a stairwell called fukinuke in teahouse architecture. It’s helpful to directly let in light from the skylight above to the downstairs areas below.

Two-Story Traditional Architecture
In old Kanazawa, owning two-story buildings was only allowed in the entertainment districts during the samurai era.

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Under the feudal system during the Edo period (1603-1868), watching plays or geisha performances were two big amusements for townsfolk. Concerning geisha entertainment however, only wealthy merchants or members of the cultured class could visit teahouses to appreciate the music and refined dances. Even samurai were not allowed to seek entertainment in those districts.
In 1820, in the age of the 12th Lord Maeda, all the teahouses dotting the landscape were gathered together to be installed into two districts: Higashi Chayagai and Nishi Chayagai. They were the first official geisha districts in Kanazawa. In that era, sumptuous and extravagant architecture was often the focus of investigations by legal authorities. In addition, two-story buildings were banned because it was considered improper for commoners to look down at samurai from a higher vantage point. Japan was a feudal military dictatorship until the Meiji period began in 1868. Nevertheless, living in two-story buildings was allowed, but only in the entertainment districts. Teahouses definitely needed two floors for dividing guest rooms from other working spaces.

Designed for Letting in Light
Stairwells and latticework were technical design solutions for living in an age before electric power.

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Although it sounds inconvenient to lack certain technologies in olden times, things must have been simpler then. Examining them today, one can see that teahouses are well designed for letting in light during the daytime hours. Yet kimusuko latticework ironically functions not only for improved visibility, but also for protecting residents’ privacy. Even during the night, the lantern light in a room filtered through the lattice must have been pretty charming in the entertainment districts. Stairwells were also a typical way of taking the daylight from the top of a building, and projecting it into the downstairs areas. This technique is often seen installed at the main staircase just over the entrance in any teahouse. It’s said that stairwells have an effect for diffusing loud echoes. Perhaps that feature would help keep noise levels low during performance times.
Courtyard gardens are yet another device that allows light to enter the structure from above. This small, private garden was also used as a temporary space for putting the snow shoveled from roofs in the winter season. The snow was reused as ice storage in the basement. Note that all the ideas for light also worked to improve ventilation after all!

Ideas For Maintaining Hospitality and Protecting Customer Privacy
Two staircases were typically installed in one teahouse so as to protect customer privacy. There should be no awkward encounters in the fairy-tale world!

03_raluca_DSC9047.jpgClose your eyes and imagine you are a guest seated in front of the alcove called tokonoma in a kyakuma guest room of a teahouse! Sliding open the fusuma doors between the guest room and the hikaeno-ma performing room is the signal that the performance is about to start. How exciting! An elegant geisha attired in beautiful kimono will perform just for you! While a teahouse serves you both food and alcohol, they never cook in the building. They order meals from their favored caterer.
03_DSC04067.jpgAlthough a teahouse rarely accepts more than one booking at a time these days, in the past they would likely have two, evidenced by the two guest rooms in their building. They are always very careful about their guests’ privacy. They consider it was awkward if their two guests bump into one another while on the premises. Notice the patterns of circulation for patrons from these two guest rooms!
You might think a strict admittance policy sounds arrogant. However, in all practicality it is just to avoid any trouble. Traditionally, guests at a teahouse would pay on credit. Teahouses would send a bill twice a year. As the unfortunate result of unfamiliar guests welshing on their tabs, the strict policy was installed. A regular would act as guarantor for the new customer. In addition to financial matters, teahouses want to know all of their customers’ tastes as they take pride in the level of hospitality they offer. You would be quite impressed at their ability to meet your every (even finicky) demand. For those who are interested in fees, be warned; the current going rate for hiring two geisha for 90 minutes for two guests is a mere 150,000 yen!

Kanazawa’s Teahouse Buildings Open to The Public

Shima: Teahouse Museum
(Japan’s Important Cultural Property)

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This building was constructed
as a high-class teahouse when the
entertainment district was started
in old Kanazawa in 1820. Now it’s
open to the public as a museum.

Address: 1-13-21, Higashiyama
Phone: 076-252-5675
Fax: 076-252-0777
* Open: 9:00-18:00 (open everyday)
* Admission: adult ¥500;
child (aged 7-15) ¥300
* URL: http://www.ochaya-shima.com/english/

Kaikaro: Active Teahouse
(Kanazawa’s Preservation Architecture)

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Kaikaro, originally build in 1820,
is the largest teahouse in Kanazawa.
You can observe the building in the
daytime, and also can throw a private
geisha party in the evening.

Address: 1-14-8, Higashiyama
Phone: 076-253-0591
Email: info@kaikaro.jp
* Open: 9:00-17:00 (open everyday)
* Admission: adult ¥750;
child (aged 7-18) ¥500
* URL: http://www.kaikaro.jp/eng/

Ochaya Bunka-kan: Museum
(Previously teahouse Nakaya)

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Nakaya teahouse, built in 1820,
is now preserved as a museum to
show you Kanazawa’s geisha culture.


1-13-7, Higashiyama, Kanazawa
076-252-0887
Fax: 076-252-0883
* Open: 9:00-17:00 (closed Thursdays)
* Admission: adult ¥500;
child (aged 7-15) ¥300
* URL: www.ochaya-museum.com/en