Japanese Culture: The Japanese Tea Ceremony
Available everywhere, from restaurants to vending machines, tea is the ‘most commonly drunk beverage in Japan’. Not just a popular drink, tea is an important part of Japanese culture, featuring in ceremonies and festivals throughout the year. One ceremony where tea takes the limelight is the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
What is the Japanese Tea Ceremony?
The Japanese Tea Ceremony (Chanoyu), otherwise known as the ‘Way of Tea’ (Sado or Ocha) involves the preparation and serving of the powdered Japanese green tea, matcha. Not simply a celebration of tea, this ceremony is a specialised art form which takes years, sometimes decades to master. Typically, this 4-hour ceremony takes place in a modest garden tea room just large enough to accommodate the host and 4 guests.
Early forms of the Japanese Tea Ceremony were orchestrated by the elite and used as an ostentatious way to demonstrate wealth. Centuries later, Zen Buddhist masters revolutionised this ceremony, taking away the bravado and turning it into a spiritually uplifting exercise.
The Japanese Tea Ceremony as we know it today was perfected in the 16th century by the Zen Buddhist, Sen no Rikyu. Similar to his predecessors, Rikyu, primarily focussed on the appreciation of the sacred in everyday life, further stripped the ceremony of its pomp and circumstance. What was left, was a modest tea ritual in which there were no wasted movements and superfluous objects. Rikyu’s form of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, although not regularly performed in the 21st century, is taught to millions of Japanese people each year as a fundamental part of Japanese culture.
How is it Performed?
Each and every move performed in the Japanese Tea Ceremony is predetermined and practised. To master this sequence of moves, Japanese people dedicate years of their life to learning the ‘way of tea’.
Although it would be impossible to describe this intricate ritual in its entirety, the ceremony can be divided into 6 key steps:
Step One: The Host Prepares
Just like you would with any party or event, the Japanese Tea Ceremony cannot begin without due preparation. Generally, the host will prepare for the occasion by sending out formal invitations, cleaning the tea room and choosing the most appropriate utensils.
Step Two: The Guests Prepare
Before the guests can attend the ceremony, there are strict rules to follow; they must wash their hands to symbolically ‘cleanse’ themselves of the outside world, they must wait patiently for their host to receive them into the tea room and they must bow to their host as a sign of respect.
Step Three: Cleaning the Tools
The host, prior to preparing the tea, cleans the utensils in front of the guests. This part of the ceremony is conducted with graceful movements.
Step Four: Preparing the Tea
Usually, the host dedicates 3 scoops of matcha powder for each guest. This powder is poured into a tea bowl and whisked together with hot water until a thin paste forms. More water is then added to the mixture until the tea reaches the desired consistency.
Step Five: Serving the Tea
The bowl of prepared tea is presented to the main guest who takes a sip and wipes the rim of the bowl clean. The bowl is then passed to each guest in turn until everyone has tried the tea.
Step Six: Completing the Ceremony
To complete the ritual, the host cleans the utensils and serving bowl. Having inspected and admired the host’s utensils, the guests bow in respect and thanks and exit the tea room.
- Watch this video to see how a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony is performed.
- Planning a trip to Japan? Check out this guide on where to experience a tea ceremony in Japan.
- If you’re a tea lover, why not have your own Japanese Tea Ceremony? To make the experience truly authentic, serve your piping hot matcha tea in one of our stunning Japanese tea sets.