Hushed voices, the scratch of a bamboo whisk, then a bow, a nod and a bowl of steaming matcha is handed around. Any delicate sounds in the room are amplified by the formality of the occasion – so quiet you can hear people holding their breath – which heightens the sense that something very important is going on. This is a tea ceremony in full swing: the ultimate in Japanese hospitality.
There’s so much more to it than simply stirring a teapot; it’s Zen Buddhism in a cup. Intrigued? Here’s everything you need to know about “the way of tea”.
What is it all about?
Chadō or sadō ("the way of tea"; sometimes also called chanoyu, "hot water for tea", or ocha, literally just "tea") is the ritual of preparing and serving green tea. It takes place in a room, sparsely decorated with tatami mats and a hanging scroll or flower arrangement, with up to five guests kneeling on cushions. There are countless types; a full-length formal event lasts about 4 hours and includes a meal and two servings of tea.
Rooted in Chinese Zen philosophy, the tea ceremony is a spiritual process, in which the participants remove themselves from the mundane world, seeking harmony and inner peace. It takes decades for the host to master the art of serving tea, through study of philosophy, aesthetics, art and calligraphy, as well as learning the meticulous preparations.
Everything is done for the wellbeing and enjoyment of the guests. All movements and gestures are choreographed to show respect and friendship. Beautiful ceramics with seasonal motifs are hand-picked to match the character of individual guests. Even the utensils are laid out at an angle best admired from the viewpoint of the attendees. It’s important that each tea gathering is a unique experience, so the combination of objects is never used twice.
What are the main steps of a typical tea ceremony?
Step 1: On the day of the tea ceremony, the host rises very early in the morning to start preparations.
Step 2: When guests arrive, they are led through the garden, then wash their hands to cleanse themselves symbolically of the dust of the outside world. They have to step through a small door, which ensures the guests bow in respect. The door is also a barrier to the outside world, helping to create a sense of sanctuary.
Step 3: Kneeling on a cushion, the host cleans his or her tools with graceful movements. Purified water is boiled in an iron kettle on a stove sunk into the floor.
Step 4: A silk cloth (fukusa), representing the host’s spirit, is taken from their kimono sash. It’s symbolically inspected, folded and unfolded, before being used to handle the hot iron pot.
Step 5: Matcha – green tea ground to a fine powder – and several ladles of hot water are added to a bowl and whisked thoroughly.
Step 6: The bowl of matcha is handed to the first guest, who rotates the bowl 180º in two turns before taking a sip, so as to avoid drinking from the decorative front of the bowl. Each guest wipes the bowl before passing it on.
Step 7: Pretty wagashi sweets, sometimes made from azuki bean paste, are served to complement the bitterness of the tea.
Step 8: After the bowl is handed back to the host, the tools are cleaned and the ceremony is brought to a close.
How did it come about?
Tea-plant seeds were brought to Japan from China in around the seventh century and initially consumed as a medicine. A priest called Myōan Eisai is thought to have been the first person to cultivate tea for religious purposes.
By the thirteenth century, Japan’s ruling elite and samurai were enjoying extravagant tea parties, and by the sixteenth century, drinking tea had become popular with all social classes. Influential tea masters, such as Murata Jukō (“the father of the tea ceremony”) and Sen no Rikyū introduced aesthetic and philosophical concepts, helping to develop the tea ceremony as we know it today.
What are the dos and don’ts?
The guest is not a passive participant; everyone has a role and etiquette is an important part of the ceremony. Here are the basic rules:
1. Wear a kimono or, failing that, dress conservatively.
2. Make sure you arrive a little early.
3. Remove your shoes at the entrance and put on a pair of slippers, then wait to be invited in.
4. Avoid stepping in the middle of the tatami and use closed fists when touching the mats.
5. All guests should show their appreciation by complimenting their host on their efforts, admiring the room and the delicious tea and sweets.
6. Don’t make small talk; conversation is expected to focus on the ceremony itself.
7. Finally, if you're one of several guests, don’t forget to make a quarter turn of the bowl before you drink and wipe the lip of the bowl afterwards. This is mainly for hygiene reasons, to avoid drinking from the same place as the other guests."
Where can I experience a tea ceremony?
There are teahouses all over Japan. You can also have a tea ceremony experience at many temples, ryokan hotels, sweet shops, and at events and workshops. Here are our top picks from around Japan:
Kyoto is the centre of the Japanese tea. Okitsu Club is the most upmarket and traditional venue, close to the Imperial Palace. En is a more casual affair in the geisha district of Gion.
At Nadeshiko, a kimono shop in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, you can enjoy a combined kimono and tea ceremony experience. Across town, the reasonably priced Nakajima No Ochaya Tea House has a wonderful setting overlooking a lake in Hama-Rikyū Gardens.
Yame produces Japan’s best matcha and many tea companies there offer tours. In Fukuoka, Shōgonji temple offers tea ceremonies.
Wherever you go in Japan, try to experience this ritual – you’ll never think about the humble cup of tea in the same way again.
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