In Japan, an ochaya, while literally meaning “tea house,” is not actually a place to go for drinking tea. An ochaya was actually a place for customers to be entertained by geisha, with a history dating back to the Kaga clan era.
A geisha is a woman highly trained in the arts of music, dance, and entertaining, and geisha is in fact Japanese for “person of art.” Entertainment typically provided by geisha includes traditional dances in exquisite kimono, games, and conversation. It takes many years of study and practice to train as a geisha. The gei in geisha means “technique.”
An ochaya is different from a chashitsu (literally, “tea room”), which are rooms where tea ceremonies are performed. Ochaya are typically very exclusive, invitation-only establishments and in the days of the Samurai would have been exclusively patronized by upper class merchants. The history of the modern ochaya can be traced as far back as 1712, when the Tokugawa Shogunate grated licenses to the ochaya of Gion to provide geisha entertainment.
The highlight of the evening is the geisha’s performance of a seasonal dance. Geisha performances might also include some or all of the many Japanese fine arts – the koto (Japanese harp), shamisen (a three-stringed, Japanese musical instrument), dancing, Noh songs, tanka (31-syllable Japanese poems), and haiku (17-syllable verses).
Kanazawa’s Higashi Chaya district is a historic area of teahouses and was once a playground for Samurai and other male members of the elite classes. A well-known former ochaya in the Higashi Chaya district is Ochaya Shima. This traditional ochaya has been opened to the public as a museum and tourists are able to see inside, including the tatami rooms used to entertain guests and collections of geisha accessories and musical instruments. Another, Kaikaro, operates a strict, referral-based admission policy but does provide special events (seasonal parties) for guests to experience dinner, drinks, and a geisha performance.
Ochaya are predominantly traditional, wooden structures, designed to protect the privacy of guests. Their windows feature beautiful lattices (kimusuku) on the ground floor and reed screens (sudare) on the first floor, which contains a series of Japanese-style guestrooms. Inside, ochaya contain waiting rooms with tatami guest rooms attached. Customers sit in the guest room and the waiting room would serve as the “stage” for the geisha, who appears wearing a traditional kimono to perform and entertain the waiting guests. Geisha are known around the world for their distinctive make-up and attire, elegant dance, and demure conversation.
Participants at a geisha dinner eat and drink while entertainment is provided by geisha. Their task is to entertain guests with song, dance, games, conversation, and poetry whilst also offering food and making sure everyone’s glasses are filled. Sake is the drink most commonly served in ochaya, although tea would be available as a beverage of choice!
Photo credit: Kanazawa City