There is a whole world of tea to discover when in Asia, and Japan sure is one of the most appropriate places to enjoy it. The tea ceremony, an important part of Japanese culture, revolves around the appreciation of matcha (green powered tea), and is a way to experience hospitality.
The tea master will be your guide during this formal and beautiful ceremony. Preparing tea means to pour all one’s attention into precise movements – the aesthetics are more important than everything else.
If you are curious about the Japanese tea ceremony, don’t wait any longer and learn more about it from our short article!
- The tea used for the ceremony must be matcha, powered green tea.
- Traditionally, tea ceremonies are held inside chashitsu, typical tea houses.
- The tea ceremony is performed with many utensils, such as tea bowls, a whisk, a pot…
- …and many other essential elements: the flowers, the scroll, and the kimono.
- The best way to enjoy the tea ceremony is in the beautiful surroundings of a Japanese garden.
Japanese tea ceremony
The tea ceremony is a cultural activity where matcha (green tea) is prepared, served, and consumed. The ceremony developed from Zen Buddhism, and it first appeared during the 9th century. The powdered green tea was first used in Buddhist monasteries and, by the 13th century, the ceremony became a status symbol.
The Japanese tea ceremony developed its own aesthetic called wabi-sabi: wabi is the inner experience of the human life; sabi is the material side of life. Wabi is connected to simplicity; sabi to decadence.
In Japanese, the ceremony is called chanoyu (the way of tea), while the way of performing it is called otemae. Ceremonies can be classified into informal (chakai) and formal (chaji). The former is simple, and the tea prepared is thin; the second is more complex and it revolves around the preparation of thick tea.
The ceremonial teahouse
A chashitsu is the traditional house specifically built to host tea ceremonies (of course, any room with the proper equipment would do the job). The first chashitsu were built during the Edo period, and they haven’t changed much since then. They can host around 5 people. They have a low ceiling, an alcove with scrolls, and a built-in hearth in the middle of the floor.
Decorations are rustic and simple, and some typical elements are the shoji windows (made of translucent paper), the sliding door, and the tatami on which everyone involved in the ceremony sits.
The tea used during the ceremony is called matcha, which is ground green tea leaves. The leaves are shade-grown for at least three weeks before harvest, allowing the plant to produce more theine. The ceremony revolves around the preparation of this kind of tea, that can be thick or thin.
The best leaves are used to make thick tea, while the leaves that remain after the thick tea is harvested, are used to make thin tea. The thick tea (koicha in Japanese) is a blend of matcha and hot water, and the quantity of tea used to make this blend is three times the quantity used to make thin tea (usucha). Guests will get their personal bowl of usucha, while a bowl of koicha is usually shared.
When you drink your matcha, use your right hand to hold the bowl and place on the palm of your left hand. Turn it clockwise (about 90°), then raise with both hands and drink the whole bowl with three gulps. Inhale the fragrance as your drink.
The tea utensils
Of course, an authentic tea ceremony cannot be held without the proper utensils. Using and taking care of the tea utensils is the host’s responsibility. The host has to choose the right utensils and clean them after the ceremony is over.
Tea bowl (chawan)
Matcha should be sipped from a bowl. It is important to cup the bowl with both hands and to inhale the fragrance as you drink. Drinking from a bowl allows you to truly feel and smell the tea (it would be impossible with a mug).
The size of the bowl can vary according to the season and style of tea used.
Tea container (chaki)
Inside the chaki you will find the powdered matcha. Chaki used for thin tea are made of lacquerware, and their variety of shape is called natsume. Koicha is usually stored inside ceramic caddies, and they are classified according to where they come from.
Tea scoop (chashaku)
The scoop is used to put the powder inside the tea bowl. Traditionally the spoon is made of a thin piece of bamboo, but it is also possible to find wood or ivory ones. They are about 18cm long. In the past, the tea master used to carve his/her own spoon and to give it a poetic name that used to be inscribed on it.
Tea whisk (chasen)
Using the whisk is the only way to properly blend the matcha powder with the hot water. In Japanese it is called chasen, and the host will use it to blend the tea until it froths.
Water container (mizusashi)
Fresh cold water is kept inside a mizusashi (a lidded container). This water will be used to replenish the water in the kettle at the end of some ceremonies. The containers are usually made of ceramic (but sometimes of wood or glass).
A kama is a Japanese tea pot. It is usually made of iron and it is used to heat the water that will be used to make the tea. There are lots of different styles, and it is not unusual for pots to be handed down from generation to generation.
The way of tea
The tea ceremony is a series of events, most of which are symbolic. There are different schools and thus different procedures, and the time of year and the time of day are to be taken into consideration as well.
The most formal ceremony is the one held at noon, with five guests. The guests arrive and get ready in the waiting room. They greet each other with a silent bow and wash their hands to purify themselves. Once they are done, they wait until the host summons them. They enter the tea room through a sliding door and sit on the tatami in order of prestige.
When everyone is ready, the host enters the room and the ceremony begins. During cold months, a charcoal fire is used to heat the water. Guests receive food and sake, and a small sweet (a wagashi). After the meal, there is a short break; the guests leave the room and the host prepares it for the ceremony.
Everyone is then summoned again, and the host cleans the utensils and places them following a string arrangement. When thick tea is ready, the guests share the bowl and exchange bows. Every guest takes the bowl, rotates it, drinks the tea, and then compliments the host. When the tea is finished, all the guests have the opportunity to admire the bowl.
The last part of the ceremony is more informal; guests will smoke, casually chat and drink thin tea. When the tea is over, the host cleans everything and lets the guests have a look at the utensils.
This kind of ceremony can last up to four hours.
The tea room, scrolls, flowers, meal, and clothing
Besides the many utensils mentioned above, there are other essential elements that every tea ceremony must have.
The tea room
The tea room (chashitsu, the same term as for tea house) is divided into portions, each one assigned to a different purpose: two for the guests, one for the host. Tatami are used to lessen the noise. The mats are placed in a circular pattern around a central mat where the hearth is. The central mat is also used to place utensils on.
Scrolls are also important. They are often written by famous calligraphers and selected according to the occasion (the season and the theme of the gathering). It might be a poem or a famous saying. Usually, they are hung in their own alcove (tokonoma).
The style of flower arrangement used during the ceremonies is called chabana (tea flower). The materials used are always natural, never out of season, and the arrangement is simple, with just a few items.
The meal, usually served before the tea, is made with fresh and seasonal ingredients, prepared so as to fully bring out their flavor. The food is presented in an elegant way, using tableware that enhances its appearance, and the dishes are heavily garnished. For some people, seeing the food is even more important thantasting it.
The traditional clothing for the ceremony is the kimono. Many movements of the ceremony are designed for wearing a kimono, for example, having the long sleeves in mind.
Kimono are always used for formal occasions, and the attire should be conservative and not distracting. Men usually wear the kimono and the hakama (a long skirt). Women have many different styles to choose from, but they don’t wear additional clothes.
Tea ceremony experience in Japanese gardens
Gardens are be the perfect setting to enjoy a tea ceremony. They are specifically designed to be quiet and to allow visitors to meditate and focus on themselves and their surroundings. The tour will start with a guided visit of the garden. You will have the chance to appreciate the carefully designed garden, where every item has its purpose.
After walking around the garden, you will join a tea ceremony that will be held specially for you. The tea master will guide you through this beautiful process, and you will have the chance to see his/her graceful movements in what it truly is a unique setting.
Usually, you can take this tour every day, morning or afternoon, and it lasts four hours. It is strongly suggested to book the tour in advance. One of the best places to take this tour is in Happo-en, one of the most beautiful gardens near Tokyo.
Learn about Japanese tea culture with Asia Highlights
You might have had tea dozens of times, but joining a tea ceremony is a unique experience that you will never forget. It will make you want to buy all the utensils and master the movements… Don’t wait any longer and start planning your next trip with the help of our professional staff!
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