The Roji: A Passageway

August 31, 2020
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Roji is the name given to a path of natural stones that leads to the chashitsu, or tea room. Before participating in a tea ceremony, guests walk down the roji that guides them through the different sections of the garden adjoining the chashitsu. Over the centuries, tea masters had developed various roji designs until Sen No Rikyu introduced a spiritual dimension.

Sen No Rikyu viewed the roji as a passageway, the final space to be crossed before entering the tearoom. The roji was therefore a preparatory stage for the tea ceremony, in which the spirit of tea prevails. A meditative experience marked by serenity, the passage through the roji was conceived as the transition between everyday life and the spiritual world. For Okakuro Kakuzo, the writer of the indispensable Book of Tea, “the roji was intended to break the connection with the outside world and to trigger a sensation of freshness conducive to the aesthetic enjoyment of the tearoom itself.”

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, other tea masters, such as Furuta Oribe, brought a new dimension to the roji. In addition to creating optical effects that made the garden look bigger, Oribe divided the roji into two sections: the exterior roji (sotoroji) entrance area, and the interior roji (uchiroji). The door that separates the two sections symbolizes the border between the profane and sacred worlds.

Ideally, the tea garden should evoke the pure and simple beauty of nature. The guest who follows the roji to the chashitsu should have the impression of coming upon a humble cottage. Several elements serve to create this atmosphere.

The roji is paved with stones called tobi-ishi or “flying stones,” which are arranged according to a very precise code. They serve to guide the guest’s steps through the garden. Originally, they also made it possible for visitors to move through the garden without getting dirty. Today, their various forms and sizes naturally steer the guest. Small stones are used to slow down the visitors and focus their attention. Larger stones suggest suitable spots to pause and observe the garden’s features. The layout of these stones thus paces and punctuates the walk to the chashitsu. During hot summer days, water may be poured onto these stones to refresh the garden.

Another essential roji element, the tsukubai is a basin for the ritual cleansing that precedes the tea ceremony. At this point, one cleanses both hands and mouth. Set deliberately at ground level, the tsukubai obliges visitors to bend down. A bamboo ladle is placed on the basin’s edge. Every stone around the tsukubai has a specific significance acc ding to its location.

The tôrô are stone lanterns used for evening ceremonies. They are both practical and aesthetic. Located near the tsukubai and chashitsu, they illuminate the visitor’s way. In Sen No Rikyu’s view, this song holds the secret to building a roji.

I looked beyond:
no flowers
and no colourful leaves.
At the path’s end, a lone cabin stands
in the dying light
of an autumn evening.

The design of a roji encourages visitors to become aware of themselves and their surroundings. In leading them to “look beyond,” the roji makes it possible to forget everyday worries and to attain the serenity required for the tea ceremony.

- Content from our book Thé vert, À la rencontre d'un art millénaire

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