The Japanese tea ceremony (茶道, sadō or chadō) is a Japanese tradition which played a huge role in the history of Japan. It is a way of preparing and drinking green tea ceremonially in a tearoom with special tatami floor. Matcha tea is usually served with traditional, handmade Japanese sweets which help to balance the bitter taste of the tea.
One of the main objectives of the tea ceremony is for the guests to experience the hospitality of the host in a relaxing atmosphere different from the fast pace of life. Actually, the process is not really about drinking tea, but more about aesthetics and preparing a bowl of tea from the heart. Also, during the tea ceremony, every small detail has its meaning and different message. The host of the ceremony always considers the guests with every movement and gesture. Even the placement of the tea utensils is considered from the guest’s angle, particularly the main guests called the Shokyaku. So let’s learn more about the traditional tea ceremony in Japan.
History of the Japanese tea ceremony
Tea was introduced from China to Japan in the 8th century and firstly was drunk as a medicinal beverage mostly amongst the upper class and priests. Only in the Muromachi Period (1333-1573), the tea gained popularity among all social classes of people. Among the wealthy and influential members of the community, tea-drinking ceremonies became popular in which participants would show off their unique tea bowls and demonstrate their knowledge about tea.
During around the same time, a more pure version of Zen-inspired tea parties developed with simplicity and emphasis on spirituality. The father of the new way of tea was Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) who supported honest simplicity. Nowadays most of the schools of tea ceremony developed from his teachings.
Tea ceremony procedure
Usually, a formal tea ceremony is a several hours event that starts mostly with a kaiseki course meal, which is followed by a thick tea bowl and ends with a thin tea bowl. Although, most of the tea ceremonies now, especially for tourists, are abbreviated only to the enjoyment of a bowl of thin tea and a handmade sweet.
The protocol of a tea ceremony is defined to specific hand movements which vary between the different schools. But don’t worry regularly tourists are not expected to know the detailed rules of the tea ceremony. During my tea ceremony experience, women who prepared the tea explained everything like how to hold the bowl, how to eat the sweet, how to mix the tea. Also, she allowed us to sit how it was comfortable even though there are rules for sitting as well.
Preparing the tea
Typically, the host prepares the tea in front of the guests. The main tea equipment includes:
- the whisk (chasen),
- tea scoop (chashaku),
- powdered green tea container (natsume),
- tea bowl,
- sweets plate,
- brazier (a portable heater consisting of a pan)
Also, each piece of equipment is carefully selected according to circumstance and is specifically placed.
Enjoying the tea and bowl
Firstly, a Japanese sweet is served before tea and you have to eat it before you drink your tea. Secondly, the tea bowl is placed in front of you onto the tatami mat, the front of the bowl is facing you. Thirdly, pick it up with right hand and put it on your left palm. Then, with your right hand, turn it around 90 degrees so that your tea front is not facing you anymore. Next, drink your tea and place it back onto the tatami. Bow while pressing your both palms on a tatami mat and express gratitude after receiving and finishing your tea. Once you finish drinking turn the bowl so that the front faces the host now. The host may ask if you would like another round and if not, the tea ceremony is over when the host washes the tea tools and returns the equipment where they belonged.
Making the tea
If you are making your own tea then you have to put the tea whisk when the matcha powder and water is poured and whisk in repetitive movements. Although you don’t need to whisk it in circles, but back and forth fastly. In this way, you will create a tasty tea foam.
The ceremony is held in a tatami room which usually has the low entrance for guests so that entering guests have to bend over. It symbolizing submission and samurais couldn’t enter the tea room with katana (traditional Japanese sword). Also, in tearooms, there was no hierarchy and here everybody was equal no matter if you are a sensei or a prince. Tearooms don’t have many decorative elements but it includes an alcove (tokonoma) with seasonal flowers.
The traditional tea ceremony place is surrounded by a relaxing garden. The garden is kept tranquil and minimalistic to encourage a calm spirit. Flowers with bright colours or strong scents are avoided as they are a distraction. Stones of different sizes and shapes make up the path that leads to the house. A stone lantern is placed near the entrance where visitors has to wash their hands before entering.
Avoid flashy or vulgar fashion and strong fragrance that distracts from the tea experience. Wear plain clothing, remove jewellery that may damage the tea equipment.
Do I recommend it?
For sure, it’s a thing which you just need to do in Japan, because during these experiences you can really understand the culture. It’s not a crazy and exciting Japanese experience, but it shows the true traditions and not those flashy and popular attractions for tourists. Check tea ceremony in Kyoto and register for a full Japanese experience. Also, check my other tips for travelling in Japan here.
Thank you for the photos: @vy.kav
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