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The Way of Tea- A look behind The Japanese Tea Ceremony

The Way of Tea has for centuries been a cornerstone of Japanese culture and aesthetic beauty....

One of the most famous ceremonies in the world, the Japanese tea ceremony, called chanoyu or chado (“The Way of Tea”), is a complex ritual rich with meaning and tradition. Chanoyu can be translated literally as “hot water for tea”, Chado or Sado translates to "the way of tea" as in devoting one's time totally to the study and practice of the Japanese tea ceremony.

It is a choreographic ritual of preparing and serving Japanese green tea- Matcha, called together with traditional Japanese sweets to balance with the bitter taste of the tea. Preparing tea in this ceremony means pouring all one's attention into the predefined movements. The whole process is not about drinking tea, but is about aesthetics, preparing a bowl of tea from one's heart.

A Tradition Steeped in History

The origins of this ceremony in Japan date from the 9th-century CE. The first documented evidence of its celebration is found in a historical text describing how a Buddhist monk named Eichu, served tea to the Emperor Saga, the ruler of Japan at the time.

During the 12th-century CE, a monk named Eisai is believed to have introduced a specific way of preparing tea and also the usage of the main ingredient, the powdered green tea. When he returned from a trip to China, he brought a technique of preparing this drink by placing matcha into a bowl, then adding hot water, and mixing both ingredients together. Tea rituals became common among Buddhist monks.

In the 13th-century CE, a feudal military government ruled Japan. Under their power, tea became a symbol of status among warriors. There would have tea testing contests in which participants had to guess the best-quality tea, and they would win prizes.

By the 16th-century CE, drinking tea had become popular in Japan. Sen no Rikyu was a Japanese expert on tea at that time and he set the foundations of what we know today as Way of Tea and cataloged the Tea Ceremony.

The Objective of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

It is a common misconception that the Japanese tea ceremony is merely about preparing and enjoying tea in a certain ritualistic manner. The tea ceremony is a highly elaborate synthetic art involving different fields such as fine art, arts and crafts, poetry, Japanese paintings and calligraphy, Ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement), tea room architecture, garden design, kaiseki (Japanese full-course meals) and traditional confectionery.

The ideal tea ceremony puts every detail in place: the type of guests to attend the gathering should be considered in choosing the different theme and bearing in mind the different seasons. You should choose the appropriate kind of food or sweets to be served, the correct form of containers, and the right equipment with which to make the tea, all items of which should match both a scroll hanging on the wall and an example of chabana (the flower arranged specially for the ceremony) in the tea room.

The tea ceremony involves further aesthetic aspects – the cleanliness of the tea room and the garden should be impeccable, to the extent that not even a speck of dust is noticed; and the movements carried out by the host, and the dialogue with guests should be highly controlled and aestheticized. Japanese culture in its entirety is represented in the small universe found inside the tea room. Moreover, it is believed that to know and understand the tea ceremony is to be at one with Japanese culture and sensibilities.

The key concepts in the tea ceremony, such as motenashi (hospitality), shitsurai (tasteful room decorations on each occasion), wabi-sabi (a Japanese aesthetic value which appreciates austerity and serenity) and ichigo-ichie (a Japanese proverb that says; every meeting is a once-in-a-lifetime chance), are the principles the Japanese have long treasured in everyday life, and passed down from generation to generation.

In order to join a tea ceremony, you’d first have to acquire the proper manner in which to prepare and serve tea. The procedure may seem complicated and difficult with many rigid formalities, but it has attained perfection and beauty, thanks to imaginative attempts, trials and errors made in its development. Observing proper tea manners is in fact in accord with the general rules of etiquette in Japanese society so try and experience a tea gathering and know better the quintessential inner-workings of Japanese culture.

The Ceremony

There are two categories of tea ceremonies: the Chakai, an informal gathering, and the Chaji, a formal gathering. Chakai includes confections, thin tea and a light meal. A Chaji includes a full-course kaiseki meal followed by confections, thick tea and thin tea. The ceremony can last up to four hours.

Tea ceremonies are traditionally held in a tea room with tatami mats on the floor. The room is simple and rustic, with a minimal flower arrangement and hanging scroll. The entrance is generally kept low so that as guests enter, they must bend over, symbolizing humility. After having washed their hands and faces, guests sit in the seiza, or kneeling, position on the tatami floor, and they bow once again while taking time to admire the decorations. The formal tea ceremony is full of ritual!

The host will then prepare the tea in front of the guests. The equipment includes:

  • Chawan - tea bowl. Different sizes and styles are used for thick and thin tea as well as for different seasons. It is not unusual for bowls to be named by their creators or owners.

  • Chakin - a small cloth used to wipe the tea bowl.

  • Chaki - a tea caddy, a small lidded container used to hold the matcha powder.

  • Chashaku - a tea scoop which is generally carved from a single piece of bamboo.

  • Chasen - tea whisk, used to mix the powdered tea with hot water.

Each piece of equipment is selected with care and has a specific placement. In addition, if the tea selected is sencha, a type of Japanese steamed tea, then a brewing method called senchado is used. Senchado requires a kyusu teapot with a round shape to allow the leaves to expand, a kyusu leaf holder, and a yuzamashi, or water cooler that holds cool water that wakes up the leaves. Sencha is steeped at a slightly cooler temperature than other green teas, and senchado is another special ritual that can be part of a Japanese tea ceremony.

Once the tea is prepared, the host will place the tea bowl on the mat in front of the first guest. Like everything about a formal tea ceremony, the drinking of the tea is a choreographed event:

The tea bowl is picked up with the guest’s right hand and placed in the left palm.

  • The bowl is then turned clockwise by 90 degrees so that the front is facing away.

  • The bowl is raised to the guest’s forehead and then lowered.

  • The guest takes a few sips, bows and compliments the host on the tea.

  • The guest now wipes the rim of the bowl with the cloth and passes it to the next guest, who will repeat the procedure.

Once everyone has had tea, the guests are given the opportunity to admire the bowl, some of which are extremely old – even hundreds of years – and quite valuable. At the completion of the ceremony, the host kneels and bows at the door as the guests leave the tea room.

Role of Ceramics in the Japanese Tea Ceremony

The history of the tea ceremony and that of pottery are closely related. The latter dates back as far as 12,000 years ago when the first earthenware was created in Japan. Since glazing was introduced in the 7th century, the art of pottery had remained an indispensable part of ancient Japanese court culture. However, when Sen no Rikyu established the tea ceremony in the 16th century, pottery established itself as a new distinctive form of art, increasing its cultural significance and the variety of forms available. Even today, chaki (tea caddies used in the tea ceremony) are considered a major component of ceramic art, and Raku (in Kyoto), Hagi, Karatsu, and Mino are all areas famous for manufacturing the chaki. Learning the Japanese tea ceremony and learning about traditional Japanese pottery should be seen as a shared experience, which will arouse curiosity and deepen the mutual understandings.

Tune in next week to read our blog on how Raku (type of low-firing process that was inspired by traditional Japanese raku firing. The original Japanese style of raku is an outgrowth from Buddhist influences in life and especially in the tea ceremony.) became influencial in the Japanese Tea Ceremony!

Shop our lovely Japanese Tea Sets and have your own Tea Party!


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