Japanese Tea Ceremony: Everything You Need To Know About This Time Honored Tradition

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The Japanese tea ceremony is called 茶道 (pronounced sadō or chadō) which means “the way of tea” Japanese. The ceremony is a way of practicing Zen, a Japanese concept based on maintaining order in the state of one’s mind. Participating in a tea ceremony is one of the most unique experiences you can have when visiting Japan. So, here is everything you need to know before you go.

The History of the Japanese Tea Ceremony 

Tea was introduced in Japan during the 8th century when it was brought over from China. It was mainly considered a medicinal beverage, reserved for the priests and upper-classes. Gradually, drinking and preparing tea became an art, as nobles competed to show off both their knowledge of tea and also their own expensive teaware. This changed when Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) introduced a more austere, spiritual side to the tea ceremony. The major tea ceremony schools present in Japan today are descended from Sen no Rikyu’s philosophy.

The Ten Tools of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

While tea ceremonies vary based on the school and the host, these are the basic tools used in most tea ceremonies:

  1. Tea whisk 
  2. Tea scoop 
  3. Powdered green tea 
  4. Tea bowl
  5. Kettle 
  6. Brazier
  7. Silk cloth, representing the soul of the host
  8. Decorative items, like a scroll or arranged flowers
  9. Napkins to wipe the lip of the bowl
  10. Japanese wagashi sweets
The Japanese tea ceremony is a sacred and time honored tradition. image via shuttstock.com

Each item is carefully chosen. The tea bowls and types of sweets, in particular, are usually chosen based on the traditional Japanese calendar of seasons. The items are placed in specific locations, to maximize enjoyment for the guest. When you participate in a ceremony, pay close attention to every item, as even the smallest of details have been thought through.

With Sakuraco’s monthly selection of artisanal Japanese teas and Japanese confections, you can experience the flavors and serenity of a Japanese tea ceremony from home.

How to Respectfully Participate in a Tea Ceremony 

The tea ceremony is a choreographed ritual, where everything is designed for the sake of the guest. There are several branches of the tea ceremony, so certain elements might vary, but these are the general steps you follow when participating in a ceremony.

  1. Arrive a little before the set time. After you arrive, you will be shown to a waiting room and offered a cup of roasted barley or kombu tea. You can wait there until all the guests arrive.
  2. Wash your hands and mouth in the stone basin (tsukubai) in the garden, before entering the tea house, where the ceremony will be held.
  3. Enter the tea house. The entranceway is low, so that you must lower your head, as a sign of respect when entering. Take off your shoes, then take a seat in seiza (on your knees) on the tatami room floor. After everyone is seated, the host will enter and greet everyone individually.
  4.  Admire the carefully selected decorations of the room. A tea ceremony is usually held in a tatami room. There will usually be an alcove (tokonoma), where a hanging scroll and/or arranged flowers are placed. 
  5. The host cleans the tools they will use in front of the guests.
  6. The host prepares the tea. Usually, three scoops of the matcha powder are added to the bowl, along with a few ladles full of hot water. They are then whisked together into a foamy paste. You can also learn how to make matcha without a whisk If you would like to experience freshly prepared matcha from home.
  7. The traditional Japanese sweets are distributed. You eat the sweet entirely, before drinking the matcha.
  8. The host hands you (or the first guest) a bowl of matcha. The guest rotates the bowl 180 degrees, so the decorative part is facing away from them (if the bowl is symmetrical this is less of a concern).
  9. Drink from the bowl, wipe the lip where you drank from, then give the bowl a quarter turn, and pass it to the person next to you.
  10. You receive your own bowl of thinner tea. At this stage, you can be more casual and speak with the host and the other guests about the ceremony.
  11. The host will collect and wash the tools of the tea ceremony.
  12. Finally, the host will offer the cleaned tools up for inspection. You check the tools as a sign of appreciation for the host.
  13. The host will put away the tools. This is the sign that the ceremony is over.
Traditionally, matcha green tea is prepared with a bamboo whisk to suspend the powdered tea in hot water. image via shutterstock.com

Common Tea Ceremony Tips

If you are invited to, or sign up for, a tea ceremony, here are some tips to help you maximize your enjoyment, and that of the other guests.

  1. Normally, you would wear a kimono to attend a tea ceremony. However, if you do not own one, it is fine to wear western clothing instead. You should wear simple, conservative clothing to not distract from the moment wear simple clothes, which don’t make noise (like clanging jewelry) also avoid wearing jewelry that might damage the valuable bowls
  2. Don’t wear perfumes or cologne that might distract from the smells and senses of the ceremony.
  3. If you have long hair, it should be tied up into a bun. This is a sign of respect to the host, as well as a way to keep your hair out of the tea.
  4. Don’t speak, except about the ceremony, for example, to compliment the host on their choice of teaware, flowers,
  5. Enjoy the moment. A tea ceremony is all about zen.
In Japan, tea is often more than just a refreshment. It’s a way to relax, unwind, and enjoy the moment. image via shutterstock.com

Where to Find a Tea Ceremony in Japan

There are many types of tea ceremonies across Japan, with varying levels of formality. While most tea ceremonies are invitation-only, some organizations hold tea ceremonies open to tourists. You can also sign up for a guided tea ceremony, with hosts or translators who speak English and can show you through the steps. During these more casual ceremonies, you can focus on enjoying the experience, as there is no pressure if you get something wrong.

Would you like to try participating in a tea ceremony? Let us know in the comments!

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