The Japanese Tea Ceremony is both beautiful and baffling, with every movement loaded with meaning which can be lost on foreign visitors. This guide takes you through the basics of the tea ceremony and where you can experience it.
History of the Tea Ceremony
Tea was first brought to Japan by Buddhist monks traveling from China. Tea did not become popular immediately, and for many years tea was reserved for elites and mainly used in a medicinal context. Some tea plantations were created in Japan, but tea remained a rare and expensive plant.
Around the end of the 12th Century a Japanese monk returned from studying Buddhism in China. Myoan Eisai is widely credited with bringing Zen Buddhism to Japan, and it was his religious use of tea that formed the origins of the tea ceremony. Tea became popular with the samurai classes, who took the tea ceremony with them as they moved around Japan. Tea ceremonies became vast gatherings with hundreds of guests.
As Japanese culture moved away from its Chinese origins, the architecture of a traditional Japanese room was incorporated in to the tea ceremony. Use of the alcove and shelves present in a traditional Japanese room became part of the tea ceremony, and hosts would pride themselves on arranging their tea utensils in a functional yet beautiful manner.
In the 15th Century, another monk named Murata Shukou refined the tea ceremony. He thought it better that tea was served by one host to a small group of guests, and designed a small room (known as kakoi) to ensure tea ceremonies stayed intimate occasions. He encouraged the principles of wabi (inner spirituality, displayed through restrained and natural looking objects) and sabi (the outer nature, characterised by the beauty of imperfection).
Finally, in the 16th century Sen no Rikyū developed the tea ceremony to something very similar to what is practiced today. His teachings highlighted the need for harmony, respect, purity and tranquility as central components of the tea ceremony.
What Happens in a Japanese Tea Ceremony?
A full tea ceremony is incredibly complex; there are scholars in Japan who spend many years studying the preparation and consumption of tea so as an outsider it can be difficult to understand. This is a brief guide to a formal tea ceremony.
The guests arrived just before the appointed time. They are taken to a room to store their coats and bags and change in to fresh tabi socks. Guests may be served hot water or a herbal tea while they wait for the ceremony to start.
The guests are then lead outside to a small shelter, where they wait to be invited in to the tea room. When called in, the guests must wash their hands and mouth before silently bowing to the host and entering the tea room through a small door, often so small guests have to crawl through on their hands and knees; this forces guests to bow and become humble. Guests admire the scroll hanging on the wall and the equipment that has been laid out by the host. The host then enters the tea room through their own full size door. The host welcomes the guests and the most senior guest asks questions about the scroll and the tea equipment.
Guests take their allocated spots on the tatami mat, and the host serves a meal that may consist of several courses. At the end of the meal guests are served a small sweet (wagashi). After this is finished the guests go back out to the shelter, while the host cleans the tea room and replaces the hanging scroll with a flower arrangement.
The guests are summoned inside and follow the same cleansing ritual as before. The host once again enters last and begins by purifying the tea making utensils. The host then makes the tea in a very precise manner, as each movement has deep meaning for scholars of the art of tea. A bowl of thick matcha tea is prepared and shared among all the guests, with each guest taking a couple of sips before wiping the rim of the bowl and passing the bowl on. As well as complimenting the tea, guests also admire the design of the bowl.
The host then leaves and returns with a smoking set and higashi sweets, and prepares each guest a cup of leaf tea. At this stage, the ceremony becomes less formal, and guests may talk normally; previously the topics of conversation had been limited to those concerning the tea ceremony.
Once everyone has received their tea, the host begins to clean the utensils to put away. At this stage the most senior guest asks to examine the utensils. Items are passed around the guests and the design of each object admired. Guests have to be very careful as many of these objects many be priceless heirlooms; some hosts may provide a special protective cloth for guests to handle the utensils with.
This signals the end of the ceremony, and guests leave the room. The host bows from the door in farewell. The ceremony can last up to 4 hours, and the exact details will vary given the location of the tea house, the season, the time of day and the school of training the host attended.
Where to Experience A Japanese Tea Ceremony
There are tea houses throughout Japan that host tea ceremonies aimed at tourists, with many based around Kyoto and Nara (nearby Uji is thought to produce the best tea in Japan). Tokyo also has several hotels and tea houses that offer English guided ceremonies.
Casual tea rooms are also a good option if you want to just try matcha and wagashi without the full ceremony. Kagizen Yoshifusa (situated on Shijo-dori in Kyoto) is a traditional wagashi shop that has a tea room attached. We tried a seasonal wagashi as well as warabi mochi here.
Check out the Japan Tourism website to see the latest updates on tea ceremonies that are open to tourists.