People that come to Japan often make the observation that Japanese people are kind of obsessed with “the West” and with other countries (esp America). Fashion, music, food, TV, cosmetics; a lot of things considered “in vogue” are imports from some other land. This is not a recent phenomenon. Ever since westerners first set foot on Japanese land, Japanese society has had an insatiable desire to learn about these people and their customs and a strong sense of curiosity regarding things from “other lands”.

One good example I have discovered in my research diggings, is the existence of “Bird Teahouses” (花鳥茶屋)and “Peacock Teahouses” (孔雀茶屋)in Edo period Japan. These were basically shops that had caged exotic birds on display, including peacocks and cockatoos, where you could sip your green tea and be in awe of weird wonderful creatures. It sounds so poetic written down like that but I bet it would have been noisy and smelly and dirty, even. We are talking late 1790’s in Edo, Osaka and Kyoto.

Some of the first foreign birds to be imported to Japan were Cassowaries and Peacocks, brought by Dutch traders to Japan in the late 1700’s. They were brought as gifts for the people in power, the Shogun, Daimyo retainers etc but were very popular as “mise-mono”, literally, Showing-things. They were curious birds never seen in Japan before so it’s no wonder they attracted attention amongst the public.

Before long, more foreign birds, (smaller and prettier ones) were imported, again mainly by the Dutch and eventually these Bird Teahouses openened to cash in on the public interest. It is said that these teahouses are the forerunners of public zoo’s in Japan.

Scene of a so-called Peacock Teahouse
These people are looking in at some peacocks

Looks like these men are enjoying tea and some food, even. (is this the Edo equivalent of the Husband bench?!)

Toyokuni print of a Bird Teahouse in 1793.

You can see the cages around the edges full of birds.

A typical print of the day depicting foreign birds with their names given in Chinese characters. Here you see a peacock bottom right and a Parrot top second from right

Although its just another example of Japan’s closed-nature and their obsession with anything and everything foreign, I really like the idea of these teahouses.
Wouldn’t it be cool to recreate a “bird teahouse” of sorts, using textiles instead of the real birds themselves? This is something I’m thinking about for the culmination of my research and textiles work here in Kyoto. Stay tuned!!