With a history that stretches back over a millennium, the Japanese tea ceremony is one of the most iconic rituals in Japanese culture. However, for outsiders, the experience with all its mysterious rules, and ceremonial steps can give off the impression that it’s an enigmatic ritual best left to the experts.
However, in reality, the tea ceremony is far less rigid than you may think. Drawing inspiration for international cultures and as diverse as the masters running it, it’s an accessible traditional experience anyone can enjoy. If you’ve been interested, but don’t know where to begin, here’s a crash course in everything you need to know about the tea ceremony experience.
Far more than just a way to enjoy delicious matcha tea and sweets, the Japanese tea ceremony is a tradition that goes back to the ninth century. The origins of the ceremony have roots in Zen Buddism, a religious practice introduced from China. The first incarnations of ceremonial green tea drinking took place in Zen monasteries. During hours-long meditation sessions, Chinese Chan monks would sip cups of tea as a way to stay awake.
During the ninth century, a time of spiritual exploration for many Japan, aspiring monks made the journey to China to study Zen Buddhism, where they learned about tea drinking. Upon their return, these monks brought back to Japan and an enlightened of knowledge of tea ceremony techniques, as well as new tools and techniques on how to brew it.
By the 13th century, when in Japan the Kamakura Shogunate ruled, tea drinking became both a game and a status symbol among high society. During this time, warrior classes started playing elaborate game-centered parties based around the tea ceremony known as tocha 闘茶. It was a tea-tasting game (and legend has it gambling opportunity) where competitors would win prizes for guessing the ‘quality’ of the tea from its taste.
Throughout the centuries, new ways to brew tea, and different influential figures have come and gone; however, if there was one person who could be labeled the godfather of the Japanese tea practice, it would be Murata Shuko. A former Zen monk, Murata Shuko gave the ceremony the label of ‘wabi-cha,’ it was an offshoot of ‘wabi-sabi’ the philosophy of finding beauty in fleetingness and imperfection. With that in mind, it’s worth noting that today tea ceremonies are enjoyed in a multitude of different ways. From the super traditional to the more experimental, there’s no right or wrong way to enjoy the tea ceremony, but there are a few common rules and steps.
Before you get started on the steps, there are a few essential tools any tea ceremony master needs in their arsenal. Known as chadougu in Japanese, these tools are an embodiment of the Zen philosophy. Beautiful in their unique imperfections, a master’s tools are a reflection of a tea ceremony master, so you can expect a host to use their best equipment for the event.
The main tools used during a ceremony are; the chawan (tea bowl), this is used for preparing and drinking the tea. The suitability of a bowl depends on many different factors, a key one being the season. In winter, deep, thick bowls are used as a way to keep tea warm when it’s cold outside. During the warmer months, shallower bowls are used for the opposite reason.
A natsume (tea caddy) is another tool you’ll see during the ceremony; it’s a small container used for storing the tea before and after use. The ladle you use to scoop the matcha powder is known as cha shaku, while the cha sen is the name for the ceremony master’s tea whisk. Just as integral to the process, but perhaps not as obvious, a ceremony master always keeps a fukusa on hand. A fukusa is a cloth for cleaning the tools, and a cha kin a separate cloth used for wiping down the bowls.
As mentioned before, all tea ceremonies differ; however, there are roughly six necessary steps every ceremony follows; they go like this:
Step one: Preparation
Preparation can begin as early as weeks before the service. What happens is the host or master invites guests to the event. They then start to focus on the upcoming event by selecting the correct tools, preparing the tea ceremony room and if the ceremony involves a meal, cooking the dishes.
Step two: Guest arrival
Before guests to enter the room or garden where the ceremony will be held, they must wait for the notification from the host. Once the host is ready, guests must wash their hands as a symbol of leaving the outside world behind. Then, they enter the room and bow to the host as a sign of respect and appreciation.
Step three: Tool preparation
Before the matcha is prepared, hosts must clean the tools to be used during the ceremony; this is regarded as part of the ceremonial steps. The cleaning is done with thoughtful movements, grace, and concentration.
Step four: Matcha preparation
Once the tools are cleaned and laid out on display, it’s time to prepare the matcha. It varies depending on the ceremony, but typically a host will add two to three scoops of matcha powder into each bowl. Then hot water which has been prepared earlier is added to the bowl. The tea powder and water is whisked vigorously to create a liquid that’s slightly thicker than regular tea, but thinner than a paste, it’s known as usucha (thin tea). The thicker version, known as koicha (thick tea) is reserved for more advanced tea drinkers.
Step five: The serving of the tea
After it’s whisked, the host will present the tea bowl to the ceremony guests with the most beautiful part of the bowl facing the guest. After admiring the decorations on the bowl, the guest with then turn the bowl clockwise, this is to ensure that the most beautiful part of the bowl doesn’t get dirtied when drinking the tea. Once the guest has sipped the tea, they then wipe the bowl and turn it back anti-clockwise so the beautiful part of the bowl is one again facing them. If sweets are served during the ceremony, guests are encouraged to taste the sweet before drinking the tea to balance out the bitterness.
Step six: The end of the ceremony and the cleaning of the tools
When the steps are completed, and each of the guests has sipped from the bowl, it is returned to the host, who then cleans the bowl and the ceremonial tools. Often, as a sign of respect, the guests will inspect the tools used and thank the host for their hospitality.
Why tea ceremonies are held today
These days anyone can enjoy a tea ceremony experience. Given their cultural importance, they’ve become a must try experience for tourists visiting Japan. An immersive exploration of Japanese culture, a spiritual, meditative practice, a social event, or just a bit of fun, one of the beauties of the tea ceremony is that it can these days be whatever the host makes it.
Maybe influenced or inspired by seasons, but in no way dictated by them, the te ceremony can be enjoyed all year round. If you’re interested in diving deeper into the world of matcha tea, Arigato offers a few introductory courses worth checking out.
In Kyoto, there’s the Matcha Kyoto Green Tea Tour, a tour through the Uji in Kyoto, a town known as the heart and culture of Japanese green tea. During the three hour tour, you can wander through the tea shops lined streets of Uji, see just what goes into the production of matcha, stop for lunch and partake in a tea experience.
In Tokyo, the Old Town Tokyo Food Tour, a journey through Yanaka is an excellent way to appreciate the tea ceremony experience. After wandering the streets of one of Tokyo’s most retro neighborhoods, the tour ends with a visit to an antique shop where you’ll join a tea ceremony.