Japanese Tea Ceremony

Introduction

Who doesn’t like a good cup of freshly brewed tea? The Japanese definitely do! They love it so much that they have their very own ritual, dating back to the 14th century! You’ll be surprised at how serious they take their tea. There are even schools in Kyoto dedicated to educating the proper ways of performing the Japanese tea ceremony. 

This classical Japanese art of refinement is more than just the act of drinking tea. Deeply ingrained in the culture, the Japanese tea ceremony encompasses everything from refined presentation to serene aesthetics. Discover this delicate art of the Japanese tea ceremony in this article — everything you need to know including the tea etiquette and tools is just a scroll away!

What Is A Japanese Tea Ceremony?

The Japanese tea ceremony has a few ways to call it: chanoyu (茶の湯), chado (茶道), and even “The Way of Tea”. This tea-drinking ritual focuses on receiving guests and serving matcha green tea with traditional sweets alongside — all the while using prescribed special tools and detailed actions.

It’s not any kind of tea ritual. The Japanese tea ceremony has a specific procedure to go about it that’s only unique to Japan. The Japanese have been drinking tea for the longest time. It was only in the 16th century that the tea-drinking ceremony became a ritualized practice. Till this very day, it has been preserved and considered part of the Japanese culture. 

The Japanese tea ceremony has an aesthetic of simplicity and understated, known as the wabi-sabi (わびさび). This style has influenced a huge part of Japanese art and culture as well as cuisine. What you see today in Japanese culture had some roots in the Japanese tea ceremony in some way or the other.

History of The Japanese Tea Ceremony

China has been practicing ritual drinking for as long as anyone can remember. It was only introduced to Japan in the 9th century. This came about when a Buddhist monk brought back from his travel to China a tea plant. He then served the emperor of the time the tea. Since then, tea plantations have never been the same — the emperor gave an imperial decree to cultivate a widespread tea plantation in the country. 

For three centuries, ritual tea drinking wasn’t consistently practiced. Only in the 12th century did it become a regular thing. Initially, the Zen monks drank tea to stay awake when they were having long meditation sessions. It naturally became an active part of Zen ritual now. The 13th century was when the tea-drinking scene became a symbol of nobility and status. Only the luxury could afford tea then. There were tea-tasting parties among the samurais and warriors where they had to guess the right variety of tea. 

It wasn’t long after, in the 15th and 16th centuries when two of the most influential figures in Japanese tea history popped up. Murata Juko set the core values of Japanese tea ceremony that are still practiced and respected till today: reverence, purity in blood and spirit, calmness and freedom from desire, and respect. These values were the exact opposite of what the tea ritual was about at the beginning in Japan. However, ever since Juko, the Japanese society gradually picked up the tea ceremony on their own.

The other influencer, Sen Rikyu, brought to the table a style of Japanese tea ceremony that is now known as the wabi-cha (侘び茶), which means simplicity. This Japanese tea ceremony style is one of the most popular ones in the present day as it puts emphasis on four key principles: respect, purity, tranquility, and harmony. Rikyu strongly believed in the unique encounter between people and no meeting can ever be reproduced the same way again. This belief is strongly present in this style of the Japanese tea ceremony. The wabi-cha has also inspired the style of teaware aesthetics of a similar concept — simple yet seemingly rustic.

Cost & Duration of A Japanese Tea Ceremony

You might think a centuries-old traditional experience would be charged at an exceptionally high price. Think again! It’s actually not that sky-high cost! The average cost of a tea ceremony experience depends on the location and the number of people that participate in the ceremony. A group Japanese tea ceremony experience can go as low as ¥2,000. A private booking ranges from ¥4,000 to ¥12,000.

When it comes to the duration of a standard Japanese tea ceremony, it’s best to put aside at least two hours and at best three. The duration of one can vary depending on the location as well, so it’s best to check beforehand before booking so you can plan your day accordingly!

The Basic Etiquette of Japanese Tea Ceremony

You’d expect a highly-regarded cultural ritual to come with a set of etiquette to abide by — you’re spot on. There are more than a few rules that it’s hard to say if the Japanese themselves know them all. Here are the top three ones to keep in mind:

Sit in a seiza position

The traditional Japanese way to sit in Japan is the seiza (正座) position. It is known as the proper way of sitting by the people. This way of seating involves placing your knees on the floor and resting your bum at the top of your feet. The top parts of your feet are expected to be flat on the ground. Don’t forget to sit up straight, now! 

It might get a little bit of getting used to, but it’s all part of the experience, am I right?

Appreciate everything

The Japanese tea ceremony is all about appreciation. Look around the tea room and take in every tiny detail. Every item, from the utensils to the wall art, is picked out and prepared specially for the tea ceremony. Don’t be afraid to ask any questions about the ceremony or even the tea room. The Japanese are more than happy to answer them! It’s even considered polite.

Appreciation also comes in another form, and that is not leaving any drink or food behind. Consume everything served to you. Don’t worry, you won’t be full by the end — it’s not a full course meal.

No touching with open palms

Quite a handful of people aren’t aware of this but try not to touch things with open palms during the Japanese tea ceremony. Instead, use a closed fist as a default hand position throughout the entire ritual. You might even impress the host for knowing such an etiquette!

What To Wear During A Japanese Tea Ceremony

As a foreigner, we’re sometimes lucky enough to get the foreigner pass. But let’s not take advantage of that, especially if we’re in the country to experience the truest cultural experience it can provide. The proper Japanese tea ceremony attire involves traditional Japanese wear like the kimono. Most tea houses offer kimono rental services so customers can fully immerse themselves in the experience.

Alternatively, dressing modestly without showing off unnecessary skin does the job. Tight-fitting clothes might get uncomfortable since you’ll be sitting on the tatami mat floors for a few hours. Also, since guests are required to take off their shoes, wearing white, clean socks as a substitute for the traditional tabi is like paying respect to the Japanese culture.

How To Drink Tea During A Japanese Tea Ceremony

When the tea is served to you, bow (or nod) once and then bow again before drinking it. Pick the tea bowl with your right hand and place it on your left. Turn the bowl in a clockwise direction so the front design is not facing you anymore. Then drink the tea in two or three sips — and don’t forget the slurping noises (the Japanese take that as a sign of appreciation). Be sure to not touch the design or pattern on the bowl as it goes against the mannerisms. After finishing your tea, take some time to admire and appreciate the tea bowl. Once you’re done, turn the bowl so the front faces the host, and then bow to express your gratitude.

Tools Used During Japanese Tea Ceremony

When you’re at your tea ceremony experience, you’ll notice quite a few tools that are quite foreign to you. During a Japanese tea ceremony, there are very specific tools used for specific steps. While it’s great to ask questions, save the questions for other curiosity you might have rather than the tool names. Here are some basic ones that are required to carry out a proper tea-drinking ritual. 

Matcha (抹茶)

The Japanese matcha is a special type of Japanese green tea where the tea leaves are grounded into fine powder form. Unlike the standard green tea where you can get loose tea leaves, the matcha only comes in powder form. The flavours are so much richer because it encompasses all the initial nutrients, preserved in every grain.

Fukusa (福砂) 

The fukusa is a silk cloth used for cleaning other utensils as well as to serve the tea. The color varies for women and men. Women are often associated with the color red or orange while men use the purple colored one.

Usuki () 

The usuki is a tea caddy. This is a type of container that holds the matcha powder.

Kama (かま)

The kama is a Japanese tea pot usually made of iron and is used to heat the water for the tea. 

Cha Shaku (茶杓)

The cha shaku is a ladle used to scoop the matcha powder out of the tea caddy, or “usuke”, and it’s considered one of the most important tools in the ceremony. The size of the scoop can be up to 8 ounces per scoop.

Cha Wan (茶碗

Instead of a teacup where tea is usually served, matcha tea is served in a tea bowl known as the cha wan during a matcha tea ceremony. This is a ceramic pot, and the size and shape can vary depending on the type of tea as well as season.

Cha Sen (茶筌)

Who would’ve thought tea has their own type of whisk. In Japan, the cha sen is a bamboo whisk specially for whisking the matcha tea until the green powdered tea is perfectly frothed. 

Steps To A Japanese Tea Ceremony

Come prepared for your tea ceremony experience by educating yourself beforehand about the exact procedure and how it all goes down. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of it all, from preparation to the aftermath:

Step 1: Invitation

The host would send out formal invitations to the guests a couple of weeks prior to the actual tea ceremony date. There’s no one type of invite — it comes in all shapes and sizes. They’re mostly chosen to suit the aesthetics of their tea room and experience.

Step 2: Tea Room Preparation

The tea room that will hold the ceremony will be prepared accordingly based on the season. Depending on how the host likes it, the tatami mats can be changed, tools used for the ceremony can be switched out and decorations can be swapped. Sometimes, a preparation can just be a clean sweep of the area as well as a supply check.

Step 3: Receiving The Guests 

The host of the tea ceremony would then formally invite the guests into the tea room. The guests are required to wash their hands as acts of purity and take their seats according to rank. Occasionally, the host will offer traditional sweets. 

Step 4: Initial Cleaning of the Tools

At the start of the Japanese tea ceremony, the host will ritually purify the tools of the tea ceremony set by cleansing them individually.

Step 5: Preparing the Matcha 

After that, the host will go on to prepare the thick matcha. Following that, there will be another round of cleansing of the tools. The thin matcha is then prepared after the cleansing. Look forward to the confections that are being served during this time.

Step 6: Cleaning the Tools

After the formal tea ceremony, the host would once again clean the tools. After each tool is cleaned, it will be passed down so that the guest of honor can examine and appreciate the craftsmanship of the tools.

Step 7: The Departure of Guests

At the end of the tea ceremony experience, the host will show the way out for the guests. As the guests depart, the host would bow to each of them individually.

Conclusion

The Japanese tea ceremony is so full of history and culture that it is just too big for some of us to comprehend! If you think the theory of tea ceremony is intriguing just by reading and hearing about them, wait till you experience one for yourself! Nothing beats a first-hand encounter, especially with something as unique and mesmerizing as the Japanese tea ceremony!

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