I already talked about the importance of tea in Japanese culture. The green brew is the go-to drink for many people across the country, but that only scratches the surface when it comes to the significance of tea.
In fact, Japan has celebrated tea for centuries. So much so that it’s become the central figure in one of the most prominent social rituals – the tea ceremony.
Let’s dive into the world of chadō (茶道, “the way of tea”) and learn how it continues to bring inner peace and mindfulness to participants.
Why Have a Ceremony All About Tea?
The idea of a ceremony completely revolving around tea may be a head-scratcher at first. But once you delve into it, you realize the tea ceremony is so much more.
In the past, the ceremony was reserved for Buddhist monks and the elite, but it gained huge popularity when the samurai system was abolished (late 17th century). Over time, many people from all social classes started enjoying the tea ceremony. Both the geisha and regular women started learning how to host them, and tea ceremony schools started popping up across the country as more and more people became interested in the custom.
Brought to Japan by Buddhist monks, the process of preparing, brewing, and serving tea was developed and practiced to perfection. Just like martial arts, the repetition of the ritual is said to bring mindfulness, harmony, and peace.
The tea ceremony is packed with the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. While it physically centers on preparing and serving tea, the ceremony is truly a sort of spiritual choreography.
During the tea ceremony, the guests examine carefully selected scrolls, decorations, and tea utensils, and observe the host carefully prepare and serve tea. It’s a ritual that brings people together, raises awareness of one’s surroundings, and nudges a person to admire simplicity.
Mindfulness in Japanese Traditions and Rituals
In fact, mindfulness and appreciation for the simple beauty that surrounds us is a common thread in Japanese traditions.
In March and April, the streets of Japan are colored soft pink. People come out to have picnics and gatherings under the richly blooming cherry trees. In Japanese, they call it flower watching (花見, hanami). People gather to admire the striking beauty of pink cherry blossoms, but the short-lived nature of the flowers also inspires meditation and mindfulness over the impermanence of life.
Zen gardens serve a similar purpose. The temple gardens are decorated in a way that captures a single moment of nature’s energy. Careful stone arrangements represent volatile water movements as if frozen in time, while diverse plants add a refreshing blast of color. A Zen garden is created to inspire peace and radiate the very essence of nature.
So, a tea ceremony host does gather guests for a ritual centered on tea. But the goal of the ceremony is a spiritual experience that gives participants a new appreciation for principles like harmony, purity, and tranquility.
Everything You Need for a Tea Ceremony
The Tea Room
Tea ceremony participants withdraw from the outside world into the intimate setting of a chashitsu (茶室), a tea room.
You can find a tea room in simple, rustic, tranquil teahouses across the country. The rooms are only big enough to accommodate the host and a few guests. They’re often surrounded by lush gardens paved with stones. In many cases, guests can wash their hands in the garden using a special washbasin with a ladle. Tsukubai (蹲踞), the basin that symbolizes humility and purification, is often made of stone and sits low on the ground.
The interior design of tea rooms is typically minimalistic, bright, and meticulously clean. Preferably, the room is constructed with natural materials like wood, straw, and paper. Each tea ceremony is an occasion that calls for unique decorations (scrolls and flower arrangements) and tea utensils, so the room is prepared with great care.
Even though sencha is the most widely consumed type of green tea and gyokuro is considered the highest quality, tea ceremony doesn’t typically involve these popular types of hot brew (it does in some cases).
Instead, guests on a Chado (also known as sado), the most widespread type of tea ceremony, drink matcha.
Matcha is a powdered tea made of specially cultivated green tea leaves. It’s a flavorful umami tea that gets its frothy texture from whisking, a necessary part of the tea preparation. Long, formal tea ceremonies typically involve a round of thick and a round of thin matcha tea, but these days, most ceremonies are shortened for convenience and only serve a bowl of thin tea.
To make thick matcha, use 3 teaspoons of matcha powder per 1 cup of hot water. Reduce that to 1 tsp matcha per 1 cup of water.
Traditional Japanese sweets are often served during the tea ceremony, even if it’s a short-format one with just thin tea. Wagashi (和菓子), Japanese sweet desserts, are served before the tea to offset the bitterness of matcha. Bean paste wagashi are a popular tea-time treat.
Tea utensils, chadōgu (茶道具), play an important role in the tea ceremony. They serve a dual purpose, being both utilitarian objects and admirable works of art.
Before the host starts making tea, all of the utensils are carefully cleaned with a linen cloth in front of the guests. Then, either thick or thin matcha is made using:
- A brazier and a kettle (風炉, furo, and 茶釜, chagama or 釜, kama) – Used to warm the water.
- Tea bowl (茶碗, chawan) – All guests drink from the same large bowl during a tea ceremony. Different styles of bowls are used depending on the season and the occasion. Handmade and imperfect ceremonial bowls are prized and loved – their irregularities are often accentuated and called “the front” of the bowl.
- Tea caddy (茶入, chaire) – Matcha tea comes in a form of a finely ground powder, so it’s kept in small lidded ceramic containers.
- Tea scoop (茶杓, chashaku) – Scoops for matcha are long and thin pieces of bamboo or wood.
- Tea whisk (茶筅, chasen) – The whisk is used to vigorously beat the tea to reach a soft, frothy texture. A new one is used for each formal ceremony because tea whisks wear down quickly.
Tea ceremonies differ in formality depending on the specific occasion. It may be a spiritual event, a diplomatic meeting, or simply a friendly, less formal gathering.
- Chaji (茶事) are long, carefully-orchestrated social events where participants carefully follow etiquette while they enjoy 2 (or more) rounds of tea and a meal. A Chaji may last up to 4 hours.
- Chakai (茶会) are the less formal tea gatherings that typically last about an hour and include thin tea and confections. The behavior etiquette is less strict on a Chakai.
The Timeline of a Tea Ceremony
Each tea ceremony is a little different – and uses tools and utensils unique for the occasion. However, tea ceremonies usually follow the same pattern, with hosts practicing the art like a choreography. Zen philosophy considers simple, daily rituals (like carving wood, cleaning the home, or preparing tea) a path to awakening. Thus, hosts rigorously repeat the tea preparation ritual until it becomes a natural, effortless set of movements.
- First, the invitations are sent weeks before the event.
- Once the day of the ceremony arrives, the host will meticulously prepare the room and the tools. The tea room is always decorated with a unique set of decorations including flower arrangements and calligraphy scrolls.
- Now it’s time to receive guests. Guests usually enter a tea room from a garden where they can wash their hands in a tsukubai basin. Anybody who attends the tea ceremony should be modestly dressed and avoid jewelry so it doesn’t accidentally scratch the valuable tea utensils. The guests are seated by rank so that the most revered among them gets to take a sip of tea first.
- Formal ceremonies usually start with a multi-course kaiseki meal.
- Once all guests are seated, the host will proceed and clean all the tools for preparing tea. Even though the utensils are washed before the ceremony, it usually starts with the cleaning of tools in front of the guests.
- The host proceeds to make tea. In the case of a formal ceremony, a round of thick tea is served first with a cup of thin tea following it. In informal ceremonies, usually, only thin tea is served. Guests typically stay silent and observe the intricate ritual of tea preparation.
- Guests are offered sweets before the tea is served. All guests sample the matcha tea from the same cup, and they may request for more tea to be made. Tea sampling is often accommodated with verbal exchanges about the passing of the seasons, the beauty of the decorations, or the artistic value of the utensils used for the ceremony.
- Nearing the end of the ceremony, all tools are cleaned again and the guests are invited to admire the craftsmanship of the tools before they’re put away.
The Art of Tea
The Japanese tea ceremony is so much more than it may seem at first. It’s a spiritual experience both for the host and the guests, and a ritual that has much to bring to anybody who attends it.
I hope I managed to convey the spirit of the Japanese tea ceremony, and show you why it was and has stayed such an important part of Japanese culture.
Don’t pass up the opportunity to attend a tea ceremony in Japan one day – it’s truly an enlightening event.