Japanese Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony is a traditional ritual that was first began in the 16th century. Since then, it has become one of the most unique aspects of Japanese culture. Both the practitioner and guests must follow certain prescribed gestures and movements during the tea ceremony.

The Japanese tea ceremony is prepared by a skilled practitioner for a small group, in a tranquil setting. The ceremony is not merely the art of serving tea, but is an art of aesthetic surroundings. Sometimes food will accompany the tea ceremony.

Matcha - a powdered green tea - is served during the ceremony.

The Japanese tea ceremony practitioner

Becoming a Japanese tea ceremony practitioner takes years of practice. The practitioner must learn the intricacies of the ceremony, which includes prescribed gestures and phrases.

As well as the above, the Japanese tea ceremony practitioner must also be familiar with kimono, calligraphy, flower arranging, ceramics, incense and other forms of Japanese art.

Japanese tea ceremony and kimono

Wearing kimono was mandatory, but these rules have been relaxed. However, in most formal tea ceremonies, both the practitioner and the guests will wear kimono. This is primarily born from necessity: it is expensive to maintain more than one or two kimono in good condition.

Some actions of within the Japanese tea ceremony have been designed with the kimono in mind. Female kimono may also be patterned on one side only, and wearers must decide which side will face the guests and dress accordingly.

Japanese tea ceremony, calligraphy and flower arrangement

Calligraphy plays an integral part of the Japanese tea ceremony. It mainly takes the form of hanging scrolls.

Japanese tea ceremony also involves chabana, a simple style of flower arranging. Chabana arrangements typically comprise of a few sparse items, usually of a vase and a single blossom. The vase is usually made of natural items such as bamboo, but may also be made from metal or ceramic. The single blossom will usually lean towards, or directly face the guests.

Japanese tea ceremony equipment

Japanese tea ceremony equipment is called dogu. A full listing of all the necessary equipment (plus variants) may fill hundreds of pages. The equipment is highly prized and some are only handled with gloves. The most essential components are:

Chakin, is a rectangular linen or hemp cloth used for cleansing the tea bowl. It is white in color, and different styles are used for thick or thin tea.

Fukusa, a square silk cloth used for cleaning the tea scoop (natsume or cha-ire) and for handling hot kettle or pot lids. Fukusas are often monochromatic and unpatterned and would be tucked into the belt of the kimono when not in use. The fukusa may also be used by guests when examining tea implements. These fukusa are called kobukusa and are thicker and often more patterned and brightly-colored than normal fukusa.

Hishaku is a long bamboo ladle with a nodule at the center of the handle. It is used for transferring water.

Tana is a generic term for all types of wooden or bamboo furniture used in the preparation of tea.

Chawen, or the tea bowl is amongst the more essential implement of the Japanese tea ceremony. They are available in a variety of sizes. Deep bowls are used in winter, while shallow bowls which allow the tea to cool quicker are used in summer. The best bowls are made by hand and irregularities and imperfections are prized.

Natsume or cha-ire are tea caddies or tea holders. Natsume is short with a flat lid, while the cha-ire is usually tall and thin, with an ivory lid.

Chashaku is the term for tea scoops, carved from a single piece of bamboo with a nodule at its center. It is used to transfer tea from the natsume or cha-ire into the tea bowl.

Chasen is the whisk used for whisking tea. They are also carved from a single piece of bamboo. Old and damaged chasen are taken to local temples at around May each year and burnt ceremoniously.

Styles of Japanese tea ceremonies

Firstly, there are two main schools of Japanese tea ceremony: the Omotesenke and Urasenke. The following is an example of a Japanese tea ceremony:

Omotesenke-styled Japanese tea ceremony

In an Omotensenke-styled Japanese tea ceremony, the guests will typically wait in a garden shelter until summoned by the host. The guests will then ritually purify themselves by washing their hands and mouths from a small stone basin, and proceed through a small garden to the tea house.

Before entering the tea house, guests will remove their shoes, and then enter the tea house through a small door. The door leads to a tokonoma, a small alcove decorated by scrolls and other forms of decoration.

The guests are then seated on the tatami - a traditional straw mat - in a kneeling position (seiza) in order of prestige. The guests may either be offered a small meal called kaiseki followed by a Japanese rice wine called sake. If a meal is offered, the guests may then be asked to return to the garden shelter until summoned again by the host.

If no meal is served, each guest is presented with a small sweet or sweets, served from a special paper known as kaishi.

Each utensil is ritually cleaned in front of the guests, and then is placed in an exact arrangement. The practitioner then places a measured amount of Matcha into a bowl, pour the appropriate amount of water and whisk the tea accordingly using set movements.

During the ceremony, conversation is kept to a minimum.

When the tea is prepared, it is served to the guest of honor. Both the host and the guest of honor will bow to each other as a sign of respect, then the guest bows to the second guest. The tea is rotated so that the guest drinks from the rear.

The guest of honor will utter a prescribed phrase, and then takes two or three more sips before wiping the rim of the bowl and passing it to the second guest. The procedure is repeated by all guests. When all guests have drunk from the same bowl, the bowl is returned to the host.

After all guests have taken tea, the practitioner cleans the utensils. After cleaning is complete, the guest of honor will request permission to examine the utensils, and all guests will take turns in admiring the utensils. The utensils are collected, and the guests leave. The host offers the guests one final bow from the door to signal the ceremony has finished.

A tea ceremony can last from one to five hours, depending on the type of ceremony performed and meals served.

Types of Japanese tea ceremony

There are four types of Japanese tea ceremony:

Chabako demae is when the utensils are removed from a special box known as chabako. At the end of the ceremony, the tea is placed back into the same box.

Ryu-rei is tea prepared at a special table. If there is only one guest, they are seated at the same table. For several guests, they are seated at a separate table. The name refers to guests performing the first and last bows at the entrance of the tea room. In Ryu-rei, the tea practitioner often will have an assistant who arranges the furniture and also serves the tea and sweets to the guests.

Hakobi demae is similar to Ryu-rei, except it is performed in a seiza position. In Hakobi demae, the utensils are carried in and out of the room.

Obon temae is when the tea bowl, whisk, tea scoop, chakin and natsume on a special tray covered by a fukusa. Obon temae is known as the simplest Japanese tea ceremony and is usually the first one learnt.

Read all about the Korean tea ceremony that predates the Japanese tea ceremony by several hundred years!