Thursday, January 1, 2015

Top 10 Happy New Year with a look at Shofuso Japanese Tea House and Garden in Fairmount Park

Since 1873, the Japanese New Year has been celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar, on January 1. For the very first time, Shofuso Japanese House and Garden were part of the Fairmount Park Holiday House Tour. The house was decorated with ancient winter symbols of the Japanese New Year to welcome visitors.

1. The shimenawa made of rice straw hangs above the entrance to the Sofuso Japanese House and Garden it indicates you are entering a sacred area. It is believed that no evil can pass beyond the line of the shimenawa.

Once inside the cedar doors with purchased your tickets, you are invited to remove your shoes and step into slippers provided in different sizes, small, medium, and large separated by color. They are warm, comfy and cozy. The practice of removing the shoes not only prevents dust and dirt from entering the home but it represents leaving behind the outside world.What a wonderful practice!

2. I was slightly disappointed when we were led to the kitchen and offered hot tea.  Not that the hospitality wasn't sincere and welcoming but the tea was just regular green tea bags.  I must admit, I was expecting an exotic Japanese tea. My disappointment ended there.  I chose the green tea and it was an excellent hand warmer as we were given a most professional and thorough tour through the house holding our hot cup of tea. The docent had passion for the place which made you love it all the more. Being shown around by The Friends of the Japanese House and Garden was a treat.

3. In the kitchen of a Japanese home within the cooking area you may find a soup in one container and perhaps rice in another. The white paper symbolizes purity in the Shinto religion and here the placement of the white paper under the kagami mochi is a symbol of protection of the house, usually from fire.

Richly decorated Japanese symbols could be found throughout the house. The Japanese rake display in the kitchen is meant for good luck, raking in health, wealth and happiness for the coming year.

4. Kimonos are the traditional dress.  The one pictured above would be a very fancy garment made of the finest silks and worn by a young lady for a coming of age celebration. The one pictured below with the long sleeves would be worn by an unmarried young lady.  Dressing in a kimono is an art form and often with today's generation requires help to dress in the many layers and to get each item placed properly. According to this website, there are many things that matter when choosing a kimono to wear.

Shoes of course complete every outfit unless you are indoors where slippers and socks would be the fashion.

5. There is no heat at the Shofuso House and I found it interesting to find the steam of a tea kettle  producing heat in the hallway and it made a difference but the temperature rose even higher when we went to the back of the house, in what I call the room with the view.  As you stood on the back decking the sun's warmth turned up the temperature at least ten degrees. The view was astounding.

6.  In 2007, the internationally acclaimed artist Hiroshi Senju created and donated an interior installation of twenty waterfall murals, creating an elegant combination of contemporary Japanese painting in traditional architecture with sixty years of patina. Senju chose his favorite motif, waterfall in the “Shofuso color,” which was created by blending the colors extracted from the elements in the house and garden on a mulberry paper that had been specially fabricated by a master paper maker. The waterfalls grace the sliding door partisans between rooms or when opened up create a bigger more spacious room. Originally, the "tokonoma" alcove and "fusuma" sliding doors of the original Shofuso at MoMA were decorated with murals painted in black ink by Kaii Higashiyama. All were destroyed by vandalism in 1974.

7. This was a Japanese inspired decoration I was drawn to, not only for its beauty but also for its simplicity.  It is made from Weeping Cherry Tree vines with rice flour attached as to give it a cherry blossom look, a dash of red food coloring made the pink blossoms. It is so simple yet so elegant. Had I came across rice flour in my local supermarket I may have attempted this.  I did save a branch from the pruning of my cherry blossom tree so I have some of the materials on hand. Ikebana is the art of Japanese flower arrangements.

8. I started this blog out in a very negative way and that was only because of my own ignorance.  The Shofuso was having a "first ever" New Year house tour it was not a Tea Ceremony but we were privileged to learn a thing or two about a tea ceremony and were graciously invited back to attend one throughout the year. I graciously await the experience. Hatsugama is the first tea of the New Year and usually the most festive. Common symbols found at the winter tea ceremony are pine, bamboo and plum seen on the finely detailed bowl in the first picture. They signify steadfastness, perseverance and resilience. The plum tree blooms in winter and the bamboo and pine stay green even in the snow.

Hatsuyume is the first dream of the New Year and it can foretell the luck of the dreamer in the coming year. Dreams of Mt. Fuji, a hawk and eggplant are considered very lucky.  You can see imaginary of Mt. Fuji in gold on the tea container.

9. The richly decorated wooden hagotia paddles are mostly used as decoration now but traditionally children in households often played hanetsuki (similar to badminton without a net) with decorated feathers on New Year's Day. They are fine-looking pieces of art. The beauty is in the details. This game is typically played by females. To play,  the idea is to keep the shuttlecock in the air. Girls who fail to hit the shuttlecock get marked on the face with India Ink.

10. Amaterasu-omikami (center) scroll was painted by the chief of the Ise Jingu in Mie prefecture, Ise Jingu is one of the oldest and famous shrines in  Japan, and it is dedicated to Amaterasu, the sun god. Also visible in this picture is a beautiful floral arrangement with bamboo stalks wrapped in gold and another kagami mochi made of two mirrored rice cakes with a daidai (Japanese bitter orange, similar to a tangerine) on top. Daidai means several generations.

A famous Amaterasu (the sun goddess) myth was the story of how the sun goddess locked herself away in a cave in winter, hiding her light from the world.  She was lured out by a mirror, bringing her light and warmth back to the world once more.  This is why the kagami-mochi (mirror rice cake) is so abundantly used in New Year's decorations.

A more detailed account of the history of the house and how it came to Philadelphia can be found at the They have original pictures.

The house was originally built as a good will gesture from the Japanese people. Its construction began only eight years after the Japanese surrender and the end of World War II. You can read the detailed history of the house at the Shofuso website written by Christeen Taniguchi, a Historian at the Philadelphia Support Office of the National Park Service. It was part of an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. June 17 was the date of the press preview and the official dedication ceremony for the House at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The house opened to the general public June 20, 1954. 

The site in Philadelphia chosen had a Japanese temple gate called Niomon until it burned in 1955 and was very close to where the Japanese Pavilion was during the 1876 Centennial. You can see a photograph of the gate on the Shofuso website.

The house is design in Shoin-Zukuri Architecture explained in detail on Youtube by Site manager at Shofuso, Matt Palmer, via MindTV35.  The house is made of wood bamboo, paper and plaster. The Friends of the Japanese House raised 1.2 million dollars to replace the roof in 1999. As well, FJHG restored the hinoki bark roof, the only one of its kind outside of Japan. again in 2010 and conducted an award-winning historic landscape restoration in 2012. Shofuso named the third-ranked Japanese garden in North America by the Journal of Japanese Gardening in 2013, was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2013, and is a contributing structure to the Fairmount Park National Historic District since 1972. I have always found it to be one of the many hidden gems rich in history and culture found in the Fairmount Park section of Philadelphia.

Shofuso will be open to the public for the season again on March 28. I don't know what will be available to see but the New Year exhibit was great.  Both the house and the gardens had a very serene and peaceful feel to them. Check the Shofuso website for winter activities.
YouTube MindTV35: Shoin-Zukuri Architecture

It would be a complete oversight if I did not mention the gardens. This was my first time inside the gates of the Shofuso so I was so looking forward to walking through the garden. This Japanese garden is not designed to walk through, there is a viewing garden and a tea garden and a courtyard garden complete with a koi pond and a bridge. You did not have to walk through it to appreciate its beauty. After viewing Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water this past summer I could not help but think how much of the Japanese culture of blending with nature had influenced him.

One young lady maintains the gardens and I was lucky enough to spend a few moments with her learning about the elements. I also happened to catch a glimpse of her in my camera lens in her natural environment. Again another passionate about her job that made you appreciate the beauty and the hard work that goes into maintaining the natural elegance. I recommend the blog entry about the red pines. One of the red pines sits just outside the teahouse.

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