Japanese Tea Ceremony: A Pillar of Culture, Tradition and History

One of the many admirable traits that the Japanese people possess is their sense of loyalty to their culture, tradition, and history. In fact, they are perhaps one of the most nationalistic nations in the world. It may be the twenty-first century, but snippets of the older days remain in the hearts of the Japanese and are still considered to be somewhat sacred. Despite being one of the most advanced nations in terms of technology, the days of Imperial Japan still live on.

There are many aspects of ancient Japan that have been preserved to this day. One of the most defining elements of Japanese culture and history are perhaps the Japanese tea ceremony as it merges culture, tradition, and history in a single ceremonial event. 

A Quick History of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

At present, tea ceremonies are associated most with Japanese culture. However, an interesting fact is that it actually originates from another neighboring nation - China. The presence of tea in China, in fact, dates back to thousand and thousands of years. Drinking tea became popular due to its medicinal properties. However, it became more and more popular later on as a leisurely drink. Much of ancient Japan’s fundamental beliefs regarding the tea ceremony dates back to Lu Yu, a Chinese author who was a staunch supporter of Zen Buddhism. At the time, he wrote a guideline which established the standards for tea cultivation and preparation.

Looking at records made by Japanese historians, the tea ceremony is believed to have been first practiced during the year 800’s. The ceremony itself did not originate from Japan but was rather practiced by a Buddhist monk who has learned about it from his travels to neighboring China. History records claim that the year 815, said Buddhist monk prepared Japanese green tea called “Sencha” to Emperor Saga, while he was visiting Shiga Prefecture - then called Kawasaki. 

In time, many of the aristocracies began practicing the Japanese tea ceremony. It became really popular in Japan, that the imperial court even issued an order to increase in tea plantations so that more tea may be cultivated and made available for the tea ceremony. It was a good moment for the tea ceremony. However, the popularity of tea at the time soon enough died down.

It was around the 12th century when another Buddhist monk who has returned from an excursion in China brought with him what was considered to be the best tea seeds in the world. These seeds produced what is now called “matcha”, which is considered to be a finer level of green tea. In China, matcha was already being used in the tea preparation style called “tencha”. This involved the matcha green tea in powdered form to be dissolved in hot water before the two components are stirred together.

The tea seeds that were brought to Japan were cultivated in Kyoto to yield the best quality green tea called matcha. Originally, the matcha was used exclusively by Buddhist monks during their tea ceremonies. However, drinking tea soon enough became popular again among the aristocratic class. The high-quality matcha was regarded as a symbol of luxury that was representative of the warrior class. There are even festivals held among the elite to celebrate matcha. The popularity of matcha continued to rise between the 1500’s and the 1300’s, alongside the budding cultural development in Japan. Much of the Japanese culture that is now known to the outside would have stemmed from this period. During this period, the tea ceremony evolved from a practice that was primarily ceremonial, into something that was cultural. 

Fun Facts: Understanding the Meaning Behind the Japanese Tea Ceremony

The concept of “Wabi Sabi” rose to popularity in Japan during the Muromachi Period. It is a philosophical concept that dwells with the experiences of human spirituality. At around this time, the “Way of Tea” has also been developed throughout Japan as a spiritual practice. It is through several philosophers such as Sen no Rikyu and Takeno Joo wherein the practice of tea ceremonies became more and more popular during the 16th century.

There are four core principles that are representative of the tea ceremony. These are harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility. The entirety of the tea ceremony revolves around these four values that it represents.

The Tools Behind the Japanese Tea Ceremony: Ceremonial Set and Utensils

The Japan’s high regard for tea ceremonies are very much evident with the way they treat ceremonial utensils. For them, the utensils are not just material objects, but rather they are sacred instruments that deserve their own proper names. The preparation and post-ceremonial stages also show how much the equipment is respected in their culture - handled with only the utmost care. Some of the equipment may only be touched by someone using protective gloves.

The official equipment used during a Japanese tea ceremony is called the “chadogu”. However, this is a collective term which refers to the set as a whole. Each element or component has it’s own unique and individual name. One of the most important tools used in the ceremony is the “Chigusa”, which is the jar or container used for storing the ceremonial grade tea.

The tea bowls, one the other hand, are called the “chawan”. They resemble normal cups used by the Japanese for drinking, however, they are treated carefully and wiped only with a “chakin”. A “chakin” is a linen cloth used specifically for wiping the “chawan”. An interesting fact about tea bowls used for tea ceremonies is that they vary so much in shape, size, and design.

 Designs usually vary depending on the artistic styles used by the creator of the bowl. Individual details, such as imperfections and flaws, make a tea bowl singularly unique and prized. On the other hand, the bowls vary in shape and size. Larger bowls, which are wider, are employed during hot summer days, in order to aid the tea to cool faster. In contrast, the ceremonial tea bowls for winter are much more narrow, allowing the tea to preserve its hotness during cold winter days.

From the “Chigusa”, it was considered to be inappropriate to transfer directly the matcha powder into the tea bowl. Instead, there is another equipment that serves as a bridge between the two - a tea caddy. The matcha powder to be used in the tea ceremony is transferred first into a tea caddy, and from there it is transferred again to the tea bowl using a “chashaku”. A “chakashu” is a scoop of some sort, made using varying materials, whether it be bamboo, wood, or ivory. Unlike in modern-day culture, when it is acceptable to stir any drink using the same scoop, the tea preparation ceremony required a separate stirrer to be used. The tea whisk or the “chasen” is a small rod made from bamboo that is primarily used for stirring. Since the bamboo tends to get worn out fast, the “chasen” is replaced quite often. 

There are also other objects that are required to be present during a tea ceremony, though they are not in any way used during the ceremony. The “chabana” is a floral arrangement that is used during tea ceremonies. It is meticulously prepared to use only in season materials, but the end results are always simple.

Taking its roots from Buddhist practices, it is customary to have a hanging scroll while performing the tea ceremony. These scrolls contain seasonal sayings, poems, and descriptions of places. It is selected based on the occasion, and the taste of the one holding the tea ceremony. The most usual scrolls used for tea ceremonies contain the words “harmony”, “purity”, “tranquility” and “respect” in kanji letters. 

A Step By Step Overview of The Japanese Tea Ceremony

The essence of a Japanese tea ceremony is basically preparing tea. However, the step by step process is scrutinized meticulously depending on the various conditions, such as season, occasion or event, wherein it is being held. Even the number of guests vary depending on the situation which the tea ceremony called for. For example, a noontime tea ceremony, called a “chaji”, which is held formally in a dedicated tea house allows only five guests to accompany the host or hostess. Taking a formal noon-time “chaji” as an example, this section will go through an overview of how the tea ceremony is performed.

The formalities begin once the guests arrive in the location. The Japanese are very polite people, which means it is important for them to arrive earlier than the set time. They are received in a formal waiting room, wherein guests unload the belongings which they would not need during the formal ceremonies. The guests are required to wait inside the waiting room until everyone has arrived and prepared for the formal ceremony. During this time, they are served either barley tea, kombu tea, or other sorts of light tea to consume while killing time.

Once all attendees have arrived and prepared, they are brought into another portion of the tea house where they will wait until the host or hostess summons them officially. Once they are summoned, it is highly important that the guests rinse their mouths and hands in a stone basin within the tea house. This is another indicator of just how much the Japanese respects the tea ceremony, as they feel the need to purify themselves prior to the actual ceremony.

 The actual ceremony is held within a special room inside the tea house. Back in ancient Japan, the rooms were all in tatami style, and the guests were seated based on their order of prominence in society. Once everyone is seated, the door is shut rather loudly. This is not considered as a rude gesture, but rather to make a noise alerting the host that it is time for him to go inside the room.

Before the actual tea preparations, the guests are first served meals. Since it is a lunch time affair, the guests are expected to be hungry. The meal is accompanied by sake and ended by dessert in the form of wagashi. It is customary that the paper, from which the wagashi is eaten, be kept by the guests either inside their wallet or kimono breast pocket. There is a break time after the meal, wherein the guests are instructed to go back to the waiting area until they are called back in. This time is used to clean the ceremonial tea room. 

Before going back into the room, the guests once again wash their hands on the stone basin for purification. The equipment is laid down on the table for everyone to see. It is customary for the host to wipe every single item in front of the guests. Even the order by which the utensils are wiped has a specific order, depending on the temae procedure.

Upon receiving the tea, the host and the guest both bow to each other as a mutual sign of respect. Then, the guest bows to the second guest before drinking tea. Providing compliments to the host for his tea is customary at this point. After a few sips, the guest wipes the rim of the bowl clean before passing it into the next guest. This goes on until all the guests have been able to drink from the tea bowl. The host proceeds to the hearth, where the fireplace is located and adds more charcoal to the burning fire.

Once the host has added more charcoal, it is time for a more casual setting. The tea used for this time is much thinner, and there are accompanying sweets and smoking sets for the guests to enjoy. This part is much more social, as conversations between the host and the guests are less moderated by the formalities of the ceremony. The ceremony ends with the host cleaning the utensils, while the guests are given the chance to admire the utensils. However, they are only allowed to scrutinize the items only with utmost care. These items, after all, are highly regarded as important pieces of history and art, made by hand by only Japan’s most skilled artisans. 

Experience the Japanese Tea Ceremony in Tokyo

Tourists traveling to Japan may want to consider experiencing a formal tea ceremony in order to experience authentic Japanese culture. The best way would be to enroll in a tea ceremony class. These aren’t the traditional tea ceremony schools with tea masters and students who are formally training to learn the art of tea ceremonies. Instead, there are events held by tea ceremony schools that aim to provide a more educational approach towards outsiders who have an inkling towards the art of green tea preparation.

Usually, the attendees act as “students” who are taught by a tea master on the historical significance, background, and basic principles of tea ceremonies. Unlike formal tea ceremonies, these are much more casual. The rules are lenient regarding conversation, as the tea master himself wants the participants to enjoy the moment rather than being too caught up in ceremonial etiquette. 

There are several events held in Tokyo wherein a person may join a tea ceremony class, and the best part about it is that these are usually inexpensive at only 500 yen approximately. However, there are fancier tea ceremony classes which provide more than the basic experience. For one, attending a tea ceremony donning a full kimono in Asakusa, Tokyo would cost around 4,000 yen. Another popular tea ceremony that tourists may partake in is an hour-long tea ceremony in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. This particular class provides thorough explanations on the background of the tea ceremony and allows participants to try their hand at making their own tea.