Building Spirit at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center

Last September, I visited Tassajara Zenshinji and hot springs, located in California’s Carmel Valley. After a scenic but bumpy ride — it takes roughly 90 minutes to cover 14 miles — my friend and I arrived at the Center. We spent some time familiarizing ourselves with our surroundings, and it was easy to become seduced by the simple yet elegant designs and choice of building materials.

Tassajara’s main entrance, under construction at the time of my visit, built primarily out of fir.


I love the joinery, and I was particularly interested in the connection between the post ends and the rocks they sit upon. The ends are sculpted to follow the contour of the rocks, but they did not appear to be fastened to the rocks in any way (by means of steel rods and epoxy, for example.) I also could not find any connections between the rocks and possible underground footings, making me wonder about earthquake safety.



If you have knowledge of rough carpentry or structural engineering, you will notice that some of the cut-outs are too deep. Assuming the new roof will be similar to other roofs at Tassajara, I do not foresee any issues. Heavy clay tiles, on the other hand, do require substantial support, especially in areas prone to earthquakes.


Shown below is the entrance to showers, changing rooms, and hot springs. Straw privacy screens
are visible on the left. The facilities have separate entrances for men and women. The springs are co-ed at specified times.


Notice the bottoms and ends of rafter tails. Someone thought it a good idea to seal them, but used white paint instead of a clear sealer. Use of the latter would have preserved the wood’s natural beauty and aesthetic.


 The elevated roof over the door, often seen in Chinese and Japanese designs, allows not only light, space, and airflow, but also lends an ethereal feel to the passage.


Vertical, overlapping siding boards have a rustic look, and so does the straw-covered fence. Actually, the straw has thin horizontal strips of redwood underneath, providing greater privacy and increased strength. At my home there was a prefab straw ‘mat’ (about 6 feet tall) placed to disguise a well pump. Because there was no framing behind it to offer support, it eventually fell apart. I do like the look of it.


A different kind of privacy screen, made with bamboo uprights and thin batten boards.



The potential for fire is high. A dry climate plus the extensive use of kerosene lamps calls for caution. Surely the swimming pool doubles as a useful resource for fighting fires.


Plenty of light and the beauty of wood, without any noticeable hardware, make this newly constructed
bathroom quite appealing.

The coat hooks were made of a tree branch.


It is close to the yoga building, shown below.


The perfect place for a cup of coffee early in the morning.


Here is an outdoor kitchen counter with a sink, coffee machines, and plenty of tea. This is where guests would gather before the dining hall opened for daily meals. Here, too, the simplicity, functionality and general sweetness of design makes it very appealing. I am wondering what this setting looks like (and how it functions) during winter months.

Some shelves on the left side allow for display of china.

The entrance gate to the swimming pool was built as if it was furniture. Exquisitely crafted, the choice
of high quality lumber and hardware made it a joy to use.



The dining hall. Notice how the headers above the ground floor windows are curved at the top, while those
above doors are straight. I always love the mixture of rocks (lower wall) and vertical wooden boards.


The table with red table cloth would collect the guests’ napkins (plus rings labeled with last names) after each meal.  Before the next meal Tassajara’s kitchen staff would rearrange them to appear in alphabetical order.


Another example of joinery.

Copper gutters, downspouts, and a leader head.


Logs sculpted into seating


I hope that these photos and descriptions are inspirational, and that they motivate you to visit Tassajara. The Center is open to guests several months during the summer, and there are work/study programs available. Below is Tassajara’s contact information as well as several external links to more information about its history and design.

Tassajara Zen Mountain Center
39171 Tassajara Road
Carmel Valley, CA 93924
(415) 865-1899

Other links:


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