Tea was introduced to Japan from China in the ninth century and was popularized by Zen Buddhist monks, who appreciated its caffeine kick during their long meditation sessions. Gradually tea-drinking developed into a formal ritual known as cha-no-yu, or the “way of tea”, whose purpose is to heighten the senses within a contemplative atmosphere. The most important aspect of the tea ceremony is the etiquette with which it is performed. Central to this is the selfless manner in which the host serves the tea and the humble manner in which the guests accept it.
The spirit of wabi, sometimes described as “rustic simplicity”, pervades the Japanese tea ceremony. The traditional teahouse is positioned in a suitably understated garden, and naturalness is emphasized in all aspects of its architecture: in the unpainted wooden surfaces, the thatched roof, tatami-covered floors and the sliding-screen doors (fusuma) which open directly onto the garden. Colour and ostentation are avoided. Instead, the alcove, or tokonoma, becomes the focal point for a single object of adornment, a simple flower arrangement or a seasonal hanging scroll.
The utensils themselves also contribute to the mood of refined ritual. The roughcast tea bowls are admired for the accidental effects produced by the firing of the pottery, while the water containers, tea caddies and bamboo ladles and whisks are prized for their rustic simplicity. The guiding light behind it all was the great tea-master Sen no Rikyū (1521–91), whose “worship of the imperfect” has had an indelible influence on Japanese aesthetics.
Having set the tone with the choice of implements and ornamentation, the host whisks powdered green tea (macha) into a thick, frothy brew and present it to each guest in turn. They take the bowl in both hands, turn it clockwise (so the decoration on the front of the bowl is facing away) and drink it down in three slow sips. It’s then customary to admire the bowl while nibbling on a dainty sweetmeat (wagashi), which counteracts the tea’s bitter taste.