Please tell us about the Japanese tea ceremony. Where does it come from?

what is tea ceremony

What is tea ceremony? First what I feel is important to indicate is that the term ‘tea ceremony’ is a mistranslation. The word ‘ceremony’ only partially captures what the practice really is and calls for misunderstandings about the concept. It is a ritual but one that is not only used for ceremonial purposes. It essentially is a rite of hospitality, and that is why we prefer to refer to it as ‘the rite of tea’.

The tea ceremony as it is taught in Japan today was developed in Japan. There are many books devoted to the study of the history of its development. Therefore it won’t be possible to cover the whole story in this article. Instead I will introduce a few historic facts that have led to the formation of this sociable rite.

Brief history of tea ceremony

In the early 13th Century tea in the powdered form – matcha as we call it nowadays – was brought to Japan from China together with Zen Buddhist teachings. Henceforth this beverage was consumed at Zen monasteries as an aid to spiritual practice. But it was also served as refreshment to visitors.

Zen Buddhist philosophy, architecture and related practices largely influenced the culture of the military elite in the 15th and 16th Centuries. This led to the construction of buildings with rooms separated by walls and sliding doors, whereas previously the architecture of the aristocracy had only consisted of open spaces with roofs and pillars. In such spacious buildings separate rooms were created only by hanging down reed screens throughout the space. In such an environment there wasn’t much room for privacy, which is one of the reasons why the military class chose to develop a new style of architecture that was based on the styles used in the Zen monastic tradition.

The creation of set rooms also enforced the tradition of building rooms that were suited for one single purpose. For example most military mansions have grand reception rooms in which the military rulers could receive and entertain their guests. While such chambers were mainly employed for gatherings related to the arts such as poetry or painting competitions, it wasn’t uncommon to be served a bowl of tea during such an occasion. Initially tea was prepared in the kitchens on a designated sideboard and was served to the guests by servants. It is unknown when and how the idea developed for the host himself to prepare tea in front of his guests.

what is tea ceremony

As an antithesis to these grand reception rooms adept tea practitioners gradually began to build small hermitages in the rear gardens of their mansions. Those huts had the sole purpose of holding intimate tea gatherings. In contrast to the displays of wealth and power that were common in the formal areas of the house, the tea pavilion was meant to give breath to the rustic and impoverished ideals of a thatched hermit’s hut in the mountains. Admittedly the aesthetic ideals that developed from the rite of tea too became more simplified and focus was placed on a down-to-earth way of entertaining guests with food and drink. Yet, the implements used to host such an occasion remained preferably objects of pedigreed value.

These aesthetics were codified in the late 16th Century by Sen Rikyu. And henceforth the elementary structure of a tea occasion has largely remained the same until today.

Please describe how the tea ceremony works?

Originally a tea gathering is a 4.5 hour lasting hospitable occasion during which a small number of guests are entertained by their host. The occasion is initiated by a formalized placement of charcoal in the hearth to boil the water for the tea, followed by the 13-course kaiseki meal. Hereafter the guests leave the tea chamber briefly to stretch their legs and use the restrooms. Once they re-enter the host has cleansed the space and may have made some adjustments to the display. This is when the climax of the gathering takes place: the service of real-tea or tea-proper, thick tea. Thick tea can be compared to a thick broth or soup for which a lot of matcha tea powder is skillfully stirred with only a little bit of hot water. The diluted variant of thick tea is the frothy bowl of thin tea, which is now also more commonly known in the West. After the service of thick tea, the guests may move to a larger reception room (if the host has foreseen so) where they are served a final round of individual bowlfuls of thin tea as final refreshment.

Contemporarily such full tea occasions have become less common and the rite of tea is often presented in its abbreviated form, presenting only the final service of thin tea.

Why is it so difficult to learn and perform the tea ceremony properly?

The rite of tea is not a performance in that it is not a show ‘performed’ by the host for his guests. In essence a tea occasion is a sociable gathering during which the guests actively participate and in which they play an essential role. When the rite of tea is seen as a performance, then we must consider everyone present – including the host as well as the guests, the servants, etc. – as active participants in the ritual. A tea occasion is not simply hosted by someone, for someone. Instead, each participant has his own role to play. The host is trained to selflessly serve his guests, while the guests aim to cooperate with the host and respectfully cooperate with each other to bring the whole occasion to a successful conclusion.

The difficulty in learning the tradition is that it is more than just going through the motions of preparing a bowl of tea. In the first place it is a study of the whole of Japanese cultural tradition. Then there are several different settings and services of tea that can be conducted, and ultimately it is a way of self-cultivation. Training in the rite of tea can be seen as a means to calm the mind and realign with our basic human nature. A true master in the rite of tea is able to serve his guests with whole heart without the interruption of ego. Therefore true mastery takes a lifetime to achieve.

Apart from the tea – Matcha – what else do you need for the tea ceremony, what is important?

To informally prepare a bowl of thin tea you will at least need a bamboo tea whisk and a tea bowl. The tea whisk is a dedicated tool that has been developed and perfected over the years for the sole purpose of preparing matcha tea. Without it it’s impossible to properly mix the tea powder with the hot water and obtain that smooth consistency and appealing froth of the beverage.

For the tea ceremony several more implements are required such as a source of heat and an iron cauldron to boil the water, a lid rest, a bamboo ladle to transport the water, a cold water vessel to contain the cold water to replenish the hot water in the kettle, a tea swab to cleanse the tea bowl, a container for the tea and a bamboo tea scoop. Also a silk cloth is required to ritually cleanse the implements before use. The guests need a wad of Japanese paper to receive their sweets onto, a pic to eat it with, and a fan to use as a ceremonial tool when exchanging greetings.

Additionally the setting too should not be neglected. To become fully aware of the full capacity of the rite of tea it is favorable to have access to a rustic tea hermitage in a well-maintained Japanese garden, but a designated chamber with rice straw matting should suffice for basic purposes. What requires attention is that in such a chamber there at least is a display alcove in which a calligraphic scroll can be suspended and that there is room to display a vase containing wild flowers.

Tyas Sōsen

Tea has become a way of life, and a way of viewing the world we live in. I have learned to be more appreciative of the things we have, respectful towards other people, have more reverence for our natural environment, and am more able to be present in the current moment.

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