The Japanese Tea Ceremony

“When you watch a tea ceremony,

every single movement,

every single gesture is very calculated.

It’s very precise, and it’s all protocol.

It’s all part of the system.

And it’s almost like they’ve sacrificed every single thing

to make that perfect.

~ Apolo Ohno

The Japanese Tea Ceremony is a culmination of history, culture, and self-reflection dating back centuries. When the first tea room was created in Kyoto in the 15th century, drinking tea became a religious experience, where participants worship purity, harmony, and mutual tolerance. In each moment tea is being served, the knowledge of both its physical and spiritual benefits fulfills those who drink it.

The tea ceremony may be either an informal or formal practice which may last for hours. The informal ceremony is known as chakai or achakai, where tea is served with confections like fruit, mochi, or anko, a sweet paste made from red beans. The formal ceremony may take the form of chaji or achaji, in which a meal in multiple courses called kaiseki is served with confections and different tea varieties. 

Four Principles of 茶の湯

Cha-no-yu, or “The Way of Tea”
  1. Wa – Complete harmony between guests, hosts, and surroundings.
  2. Kei – Profound respect for all, regardless of rank or status.
  3. Sei – To cleanse yourself and be of pure heart and mind.
  4. Jaku – Inner peace that can only be discovered after obtaining the first three principles.

The day of the ceremony is focused on ritual in many steps, with early preparation and decoration done by the host.

As guests arrive, they walk through the garden leading to the tea room. Before entering, they must remove their footwear, and wash their hands in a stone basin, as well as rinse out their mouths. This practice symbolizes the participants cleansing themselves of the dust brought in from the outside world.

As the guests walk through the small door, they bow to show humility and respect. The door serves as a barrier to the outside world, lending to the atmosphere of sanctuary inside the tea room.

Guests are brought into the tea room, where they are seated in order of prestige. On the floor are tatami mats, a traditional Japanese floor covering typically made from straw. Once everyone takes their place, they sit in the proper seiza position, with knees on the ground resting their hips onto their heels. This position is another sign of respect for the decoration in the tea room.

If a meal is part of the ceremony, it is typically served with sake and sweets before the tea is drunk. Once the meal is over, the host sweeps the room and sets flower arrangements in preparation for the tea ceremony. Kneeling on a cushion, the host cleans their tools — tea scoop, whisk, bowl — with intentional, graceful motion. Once again, the guests purify themselves in anticipation.

Purified water is placed into an iron kettle over a stove on the floor. As the water heats up, the host prepares a fukusa, a cloth representing the host’s spirit. This silken cloth is taken from the host’s kimono sash and inspected, folded and unfolded, before being used to handle the hot kettle. 

Matcha is combined in a bowl with hot water and whisked into a thorough paste, before several ladles of water are added. 

Before the first taste, bows are exchanged once again. As the first guest is handed the bowl of tea, they rotate the bowl to avoid drinking from its decorative front. In the traditional ceremony, guests drink from the same bowl, wiping the edges before passing it onto the next person. The bowl is passed until everyone in the group has taken part. 

To complement the bitterness of the tea, guests are served wagashi, sweets made from fruit, mochi, or azuki, a red bean paste. 

As the ceremony concludes, the bowl is inspected and its decoration admired. The bowl is then handed back to the host, who offers the guests another round of tea. Once the guests have finished the tea, the host once again cleans their utensils and returns the equipment to its place.  

Cha-no-yu, or The Way of Tea, is now a hobby practiced the world over, with many tea rooms here in the United States. Wherever cha-no-yu is practiced, it remains steeped in Japanese tradition and highly celebrated for its adherence to Japanese culture and ritual.

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