The Japanese tea ceremony comes from centuries of tea school teachings and traditions. Its practice is a deep spiritual journey that begins with a simple principle - the sharing of tea is best when the heart is humble and pure.
The tea ceremony is a blend of different arts and tea schools over the centuries of Japanese tradition. Its simple focus is to spiritually relish each moment with the knowledge that the moment will never come again.
Tea ceremony in Japanese has different names, the most commonly known name is “sado” or direct translation is “way of tea”. Another name is Chanoyu, which translates to mean, “hot water for tea”. Can it get any simpler than that? But the tea ceremony is an art form of the spirit, embodied in the preparation, service, and partaking of a simple bowl of tea.
A tea ceremony is also known as a “tea gathering”. It describes the process from the preparation to the service of powdered green tea matcha in a beautifully choreographed event. Its process embodies the practical and refined harmony of arts, architecture, etiquette, and landscape.
From the simple sharing of a tea bowl, Japanese tea ceremony participants share a transformation into mutual generosity, self-awareness, and respect for all things of nature.
Tea was introduced into Japan in about the sixth century. Chinese Zen Buddhists introduced tea into Japan. But it wasn’t until the early 12th century that tea became popular in the country.
A Zen priest named Eisai is credited with introducing the Japanese custom of drinking green tea in powder form. He lived between 1141 and 1215 AD and founded the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism during that period.
Eisai had embarked on a pilgrimage to China to study religious writings. When he returned from China years later, he brought powdered tea and tea seeds to the Rinzai temple. Those seeds were planted in the Kyoto hills near the temple where he lived.
Powdered green tea was originally used by the temple priests to stay awake during the customary long periods of meditation. It, therefore, became a temple staple and a Zen ritual of the temple priests.
Over the centuries, what was once reserved only for the Zen priests evolved into a secular tradition. At about the fifteenth century, the tea ceremony became a staple in Japan’s culture. A lineage of tea masters developed the practice of the tea ceremony:
Murata Shuko (1422 to 1502 AD) – Shuko was a Zen priest credited for merging the secular tradition of the Chanoyu tea ceremony with the principles of Zen.
Takeno Jo-o (1503 to 1555 AD) – Jo-o was a tea master credited for refining the steps of the tea ceremony into an art form.
Sen Rikyu (1522 to 1591 AD) – Rikyu is the tea master responsible for developing the Japanese tea ceremony principles that we still practice today.
Tea ceremony principles that we celebrate today were established and ratified by the tea master, Sen Rikyu. Rikyu was the son of a merchant. He gained great favor with the 3rd regent of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who established Rikyu as his esteemed tea master.
Sen Rikyu, under the authority of the regent, established the principles of the tea ceremony called “wabicha”. Wabicha is defined as the style of a simple and humble tea ceremony. The simple character of Rikyu’s tea ceremony continues to be taught and applied wherever a Chanoyu tea ceremony is practiced today.
Wabicha is embodied in the philosophies of Wa, Kei, Sei Jaku. Wabicha does not just guide the art of the tea ceremony but is intended to be integrated into one’s daily life.
There are four principles embodied in the Chanoyu tea ceremony. Those principles, now four hundred years old, were established by Sen Rikyu. His purpose in refining the tea ceremony was to create a ceremonial art of simplicity and humility. Those philosophies are:
When we participate in a tea ceremony, it is shared with the principle of “ichi-go ichi-e” (pronounced eecheego eechee-eh). This principle is the concept of “one time, one meeting” and the mindfulness that that one tea gathering is a solitary moment in life, never to be repeated.
With this concept of ichi-go ichi-e, the participants will share a harmonious moment of reverence and spirituality when they share a bowl of tea.
Two types of green tea matcha can be used in a tea ceremony. There are also two ways the matcha is prepared, depending on the formality of the gathering. There is a thin tea that is called “usucha”, and a thick tea that is called, “koicha”.
During a usucha tea gathering, each guest is given an individual tea bowl. In a koicha tea gathering, each guest shares from a single tea bowl. The sharing of the koicha tea bowl represents a shared unity of hearts and minds between the guests.
There is much symbolism and required steps for a tea ceremony. The tea ceremony is about the sharing of each other and embodies great symbols of respect.
Preparation by the Host
Preparation by the Guests
Cleaning the Tea Ceremony Tools
Serving the Matcha Green Tea
Final Stage of a Chanoyu Tea Ceremony
The tea ceremony is concluded.
a kaishi (papers to place your sweets);
a youji (small knife to cut your sweets);
a kobukusa (cloth to hold your tea bowl); and
a sensu (fan); a fan oftentimes scented with oils to permeate the air
A tea ceremony can happen at any time of the year. Whether it is a celebration of usucha or koicha depends on the seasonal period or time of day it is held. If the intent is to honor a specific occasion, then it can embody a combination of forms for the event. Regardless of the celebration, Chanoyu’s principles guide the tea ceremony.
A tea ceremony encourages the participants to rise above the ordinary and uncover the hidden meaning within objects, art, spirit, fellowship, and nature. It embodies peace and harmony between participants. Don’t you wish our world leaders could aspire to sit down and share the principles of a tea ceremony?
Watch to learn more about tea ceremony with Obāchan and Kei.
O: Kei, I’m going to the store later, let me know if there’s anything that you’d like me to pick up
K: Thanks Obāchan! If it’s not too much trouble, do you think you could pick me up a new box of tea bags? I’m almost all out!
O: Tea bags? You mean like a fresh bag of loose tea leaves?
K: No, I mean like instant tea bags for making tea when I’m in a rush. Sometimes before school in the morning, I’ll just boil a cup of water and drop in a tea bag before heading out.
O: Oh my! How does it taste?
K: To be honest… kind of bitter?
O: I can only imagine! Making tea in the microwave… kids these days...not the proper way at all!
K: What do you mean “the proper way?”
O: Have you ever experienced a Tea Ceremony Kei?
K: A Tea ceremony? What’s that?
O: Tea Ceremony is called “sadō” “Chado” or “chanoyu” in Japanese and is a rich cultural practice that has been passed down for generations in Japan.
Green tea originally arrived from China during the 8th Century and while was popular among noble elites who used these elaborate tea parties to show off their opulent tea sets and extensive knowledge about tea and Chinese customs to guests.
K: So basically the tea ceremony was originally just a big flex for nobles?
O: At first, yes. It wasn’t until the Muromachi period almost 500 years later that people of all social classes were able to freely enjoy tea.
K: Wow! I never would have thought! Going through the whole process of the ceremony is a bit “Tea- dious”
O: …. (Pause for a bit with no expression.)
K:Today you can buy tea at pretty much every coffee shop, convenience store, and vending machine no matter where in the world you are!
O: It’s Tea-dious I’ll say!
K: … (pause)
O:But it has a long and rich history, making it a significant part of Japanese culture.
O: It was around that time when a man named Sen no Rikyu came along and established the tea ceremony as an art form. It is even said that throughout history, Sen no Rikyu is the only person to have ever truly perfected the Tea ceremony and that all other Tea master’s are simply trying to edge closer and closer to what his original team ceremony may have looked like.
K: I’m confused… What do you mean to “perfect” the tea ceremony? How do you even conduct a tea ceremony?
O: Good question. Let me explain a very brief of what typical tea ceremony is like.
Conducting a proper tea ceremony takes many many years to do skillfully and even masters are always looking for ways they can perfect their art.
Before the tea ceremony can begin, the guests must first enter the room. After the guests enter and get seated, the host then enters, makes a formal bow, and the ceremony can begin.
After arranging the various components such as the Mizusashi, a water container, the Chawan, tea bowl and the Natsume, tea container, the host will then purify the utensils with a special cloth called a “fukusa”.
K: What do you mean purify?
O: While the utensils have already been sufficiently cleaned, by purifying with the fukusa, the host is ridding them of any spiritual impurities as well as bringing the souls of the host and guests closer together.
K: Ah, I see.
O: Next, the host will start to heat the water in a special kettle known as a “kama” and then ladle it into the bowl before whisking together with the matcha with a special bamboo whisk called a “chasen”.
K: I’m a bit confused. How is matcha different than the tea leaves that we use just for making regular green tea?
O: Matcha is made from premium green tea leaves that have been milled to create a fine fine powder and don’t need to be seeped.
K: So in a sense it’s instant tea powder, am I right?
O: Well yes and no. While you can technically just add matcha powder to hot water and drink it, by whisking it with a chasen, it adds volume and air to the drink. What you are left with is a delicious, delicately balanced, froth mixture that coats the palette more evenly and allows you to better enjoy the flavor of the tea.
K: So texture is really key here, isn’t it?
O: Now you’re getting it! Here is a video that explain more about the differences between Sencha and Matcha.
O:The host has to be careful as underwhisking the matcha will cause the tea to be flat, while over whisking will make it too foamy and hard to drink.
K: So getting the balance is the hard point, huh?
O: You learn fast. This is why tea ceremony is considered an art. Everything from heating the water, to whisking the tea, to pouring the tea, to collecting the dishes must be done with precision and elegance. There is an order and an exact way to execute each and every element of the tea ceremony, all the way down to how you place the cut on the table!
K: I had no idea!
O: The ceremony ends after the guests finish the tea and the host will collect their cups before cleaning it before the guests. The guests will then often enjoy wagashi sweets if they haven't already with their tea.
K: Wagashi sweets and green tea? It’s kind of like Green Tea Frappuccino!
O: … (Pause)
K: How long does a tea ceremony usually last?
O: It depends on the level of formality and the occasion. Causal Tea ceremonies can last under one hour but longer, more elaborate tea ceremonies can be as long as 4 hours!
K: Four hours??? No way! I love tea but four hours is a bit much even for me…
O: Hahaha, don’t worry, the 4 hour version is only for really special events and so you won’t have to attend them too often.
K: I am interested however, how can I learn how to do the Tea ceremony myself?
O: Today, Tea ceremony is a popular hobby in Japan and throughout the world, and so many local tea shops and even community centers offer classes. In addition, most Japanese schools offer Sado-bu or “tea ceremony club” where you can learn how to do tea ceremony in detail and even go on to compete in national competitions!
K: Wow! That sounds amazing! Thanks for telling me Obāchan! And don’t worry about getting the tea bags, from now on I’m going to get up a bit earlier so I can make my own tea myself!
O: Is that so?
K: Yeah! It may not be a proper 4 hour long tea ceremony, but I’ve got to start somewhere!
O: Well, in that case I wish you all the luck in the world! Who knows, if you practice hard enough, you might just end up as the next great tea master?!
K: We can only hope!
O: Oh Then don’t forget to subscribe to my granddaugter Cha-Cha’s Youtube Channel here, she has a lot of videos teaching about Japanese green Tea.K: Who is ChaCha?
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