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What is The Japanese Tea Ceremony?

While tea parties have been popular in Japan since the 13th century, the formal version of the Japanese tea ceremony was not established until the 17th century.

Today, it is one of the most quintessential Japanese traditions, even recognized by foreigners as a meaningful experience worth traveling for. 

The Japanese tea ceremony is a delicate, traditional celebration of tranquility and harmony. As the ultimate expression of Japanese hospitality, the Japanese tea ceremony incorporates serving tea as a spiritual discipline and path to finding inner peace. 

Understanding the Japanese tea ceremony’s origins and proper etiquette will help you get the most out of the humbling experience.

From ancient traditions to modern interpretations, here is your comprehensive guide to the sacred art of the Japanese tea ceremony.

What Is a Japanese Tea Ceremony?

A Japanese tea ceremony is a ceremonial approach to serving tea in which participants revel in the delicate process of preparing and drinking tea.

The ceremony highlights a respectful exchange between the host and their guests, including frequent bows and humble etiquette.

In Japan, there are two phrases used to refer to the Japanese tea ceremony. Chanoyu translates rather literally, meaning “hot water for tea,” while sadō or chadō takes a more descriptive approach and means “the way of the tea.”

Though the ceremony revolves around tea, it is also an all-encompassing appreciation of many cultural facets, including:

  • Flower arrangement
  • Gardening
  • Painting
  • Ceramics
  • Landscapes
  • Architecture

The occasion’s celebrity, the green tea, is most often paired with traditional Japanese sweets to offset the bitterness. However, there are numerous schools of teaching.

Though formal in nature, Japanese tea ceremonies are actually a lot more flexible than many Westerners believe.

The host of the ceremony is a true master of the art of serving tea. It takes decades for them to hone their craft, learning meticulous proceedings while studying numerous cultural subjects such as philosophy, calligraphy, and art.

The Japanese tea ceremony is a celebration of a precious tradition highly regarded for its pleasantry and promotion of our connection to nature and each other.

The History of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony has a deep and colorful history. Tea was abundant in China for more than a thousand years before reaching and becoming popular in Japan.

The founder of Zen Buddhism, Indian sage Bodhidharma, is thought to have discovered tea drinking. Though mostly drunk for its medicinal properties, Buddhist monasteries sometimes used green tea during religious rituals. 

Tea was first introduced to Japan from China in the 8th century, and the first tea utensils were ancient Chinese ceramics. Such tools were handed down from generation to generation.

Initially, the Japanese also drank tea as a medicinal beverage, gaining traction among priests and the upper class.

Extravagant tea parties became popular amongst the samurai and ruling elite in the 13th century. The samurai felt that the act of serving tea empowered physical and spiritual fulfillment to hosts and guests alike, while aristocrats used the events to display their culture. 

By the Muromachi period (1333-1573) in the 16th century, the enjoyment of tea had spread to all social classes, and tea-drinking parties were popular among affluent members of society.

Tea drinking appealed to the upper class by allowing them to show off their exquisite collections of tea bowls. They also enjoyed displaying their extensive knowledge of tea.

Chinese and Korean porcelain tea bowls were seen as priceless artifacts and given as precious gifts to gain favor.

In time, tea parties became more refined and embraced zen-like properties as well as simplicity. The focus shifted to spirituality rather than extravagance and a display of wealth.

Tea gatherings also provided an opportunity to appreciate Chinese paintings and crafts. And thus, the Japanese tea ceremony was born. 

A Quick Timeline of Tea in Japan

8th centuryTea was first introduced to Japan from China. Appreciated as a medicinal beverage by priests and the upper class.
13th centuryExtravagant tea parties were popular amongst samurai and the ruling elite.
16th centuryTea drinking spread to all social classes, and tea-drinking parties were commonplace. Rulers and warlords used the tea ceremony for political encounters.
17th centuryThe tea ceremony gained a firm foothold as part of the Japanese culture.
Source: History of Tea Ceremony

The Fathers of the Tea Ceremony

Myōan Eisai was a Japanese Buddhist priest who first brought green tea from China to Japan and the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. After becoming certified as a Zen teacher in 1191, Eisai returned to Japan and brought his scriptures and tea seeds with him. 

Eventually, he wrote the book titled Drinking Tea for Health. As indicated by the book title, Eisai focused primarily on the medicinal benefits of drinking tea. He believed that tea was a cure for many ailments and heavily promoted the substance.

While Eisai brought the habit of drinking tea to Japan, a 16th-century tea master and monk, Sen no Rikyu, cataloged the first instance of the Japanese tea ceremony.

He is also credited with having a profound influence on the way of the tea. He encouraged the tea ceremony to scale down and become a more intimate experience. 

Rikyu conceived many of the implementations found in modern tea ceremonies, including:

  • Flower containers
  • Tea scoops 
  • Bamboo lid rests
  • Other simple instruments  

Types of Japanese Tea Ceremonies

Though there are many modern interpretations of the ceremony, traditional versions typically fall under two categories:

  1. The chaki: As an informal gathering, achakai features Japanese sweets with thin tea and a light meal.
  2. The chaji: As a formal gathering, achaji includes a full-course kaiseki meal followed by thick and thin tea, also paired with Japanese sweets.

A typical Japanese tea ceremony includes the host and up to five guests—a relatively small gathering. Every action taken by the host considers the perspective of the guests.

For instance, tea utensils are placed where guests are easily able to admire them.

As an enchanting tourist attraction, most modern tea ceremonies are short events that merely showcase the enjoyment of a single bowl of tea.

The formal, full-length version of a Japanese tea ceremony can last up to four hours and features a dining experience.

The kaiseki meal is a multi-course event, showcasing a series of dishes specially prepared by a master chef. The dishes are prepared using techniques that are common to Japanese cooking. 

A thick bowl of tea follows the delicious meal, and a bowl of thin tea finishes off the event. 

Meaning Behind the Japanese Tea Ceremony

During the Japanese tea ceremony, drinking tea has much more meaning than the simple consumption of a beverage. It showcases the preparation and serving of tea as an art form and spiritual discipline.

The drinking of tea is merely the vehicle for attaining inner peace and deep spiritual satisfaction. 

The intertwining of the popular concepts of “wabi” and “sabi” is the driving force behind the tea ceremony.   

  • Wabi represents our spiritual experience and symbolizes quiet and sober refinement.
  • Sabi represents the material side of life and alleges that understanding emptiness and imperfection is integral to genuine spiritual awakening.

(Source: Truly Experiences)

The ceremony also represents four essential qualities of everyday life in Japan:

  • wa (harmony): A demonstration and desire for reciprocity.
  • kei (respect): Embracing self-awareness and one’s roles and responsibilities.

  • sei (purity): Preserving and appreciating social and spiritual integrity.
  • jaku (elegance and tranquility): Savoring the fleeting moment to gain renewal. 

The ceremony itself expresses purity and harmony. Upon entering the room, you will feel a sense of tranquility as you leave behind the busy and mundane world to find inner peace.

Aesthetics are an essential part of the Japanese tea ceremony, and every object involved is chosen with deep care and significance. 

Important Objects and Tools of the Tea Ceremony

There are numerous significant objects used throughout the tea ceremony. Many serve as functional tools but are also admired as works of art:

  • Furo: A portable brazier used for smaller kettles
  • Kama: A kettle used to boil water, usually made of iron
  • Futaoki: A simple bamboo mat used as a resting place for the kettle lid and water ladle

  • Mizusahi: A wooden, porcelain, or metal jar used for fresh water to cool kettle water or wash vessels and utensils
  • Kensui: A wastewater bowl for dirty water used to clean bowls and utensils

  • Fukusa: A silk cloth taken from the host’s kimono sash, which they use to handle the hot iron pot in which the water is boiled. The fabric represents the host’s spirit and is symbolically inspected, folded, and unfolded
  • Chakin: A small cloth that is used to wipe rinsed bowls and utensils

  • Hishaku: A water ladle
  • Chaki: Otherwise known as a tea caddy, this small, lidded container holds the powdered tea

  • Chashaku: The tea scoop is usually carved from a single piece of bamboo
  • Chasen: The tea whisk is used to carefully mix the powdered tea with hot water, usually made of bamboo

  • Chanwan: Tea bowls come in various shapes and sizes depending on whether they are used for thick or thin tea. Their creators or owners often name them, and their style and decoration may change depending on the season. Some tea bowls are ancient, up to hundreds of years old, and, hence, very valuable.

(Source: Harney)

A special ceremony uses a type of Japanese steamed tea called sencha, which is steeped at a cooler temperature than other green teas.

The ritual utilizes a brewing method called senchado and requires special equipment:

  • Kyusu teapot: A teapot with a round shape to allow teas to expand
  • Kyusu: A tea leaf holder
  • Yuzamashi: A water cooler used to wake the tea leaves

(Source: Harney)

Tea Used in Japanese Tea Ceremonies

Green tea is the most common type of tea found in Japan. (As the standard, non-specified tea is usually green tea.) There are two types of green tea commonly used for Japanese tea ceremonies.

Ryokucha (Green Tea)

There are three grades of green tea designated by the time of their harvesting and the degree of sunlight they receive. 

  1. Gyokuro: As the highest grade of green tea, gyokuro is shaded from the sun and picked during the first round of harvesting.
  2. Sencha: The middle grade is also picked during the first round of harvest, but it is not protected from the sun.
  3. Brancha: As the lowest grade of green tea, brancha tea is harvested late into the harvest.

Matcha (Powdered Green Tea)

Matcha tea consists of only the highest quality of leaves. Once the quality leaves are picked out, they are dried and milled into a fine powder.

Matcha powdered green tea is the most common type of tea used in Japanese tea ceremonies.

Where Is the Tea Ceremony Held?

The Japanese tea ceremony is typically held in a teahouse with a tatami room. The entrance of the room is usually designed to hang low so that entering guests must bend over, expressing humility. 

The room itself is relatively simple and contains few decorative elements. The alcove, called the tokonoma, displays a scroll or seasonal flowers. Interestingly enough, the traditional room is modeled after a humble hermit hut.

Historically, tearooms were rustic buildings that featured bamboo or thatch roofs and earthen walls.

A beautiful garden almost always surrounds the venue. To match the ceremony’s tranquil vibe, the vegetation is kept very simple. Bright colors and powerful scents are avoided or else considered a distraction.

The garden’s design is meant to encourage a calm spirit within its visitors. There are three types of teahouse gardens:

  1. Landscape garden: An immaculately tended garden, containing simple flowers
  2. Zen rock garden: A dry landscape garden featuring raked sand or gravel and some choice stones
  3. Chai-niwa garden: An evergreen garden that uses moss or soft grass to put forth a calming effect before the tea ceremony

The path leading to the teahouse features stones of varying shapes and sizes. At the entrance sits a stone basin, which visitors use to wash their hands, cleansing their spirit.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony Process

On the day of the ceremony, the host wakes up early to begin lengthy preparations. A formal ceremony can be broken up into several distinct stages

The Introduction

Upon arrival, guests make their way through the surrounding garden before reaching the tatami room. At the entrance, each guest washes their hands in a stone basin to symbolically cleanse the impurities of the outside world.

When entering the main room, guests bow before taking their seats. The head guest, known as the Shokyaku, leads the procession and takes the seat closest to a decorative alcove.

The Shokyaku is tasked with communicating with the host and expressing appreciation for the host’s effort.

The other guests are seated in order of prestige and sit on the tatami floor in the seiza position.

To sit in the seiza position, kneel on the floor with your legs folded underneath your thighs. Your buttocks should rest on your heels with your ankles turned outward in a slight “V” shape.

Food and Drink

The multi-course kaiseki meal is accompanied by sake. After eating, guests leave the room for a break while the host quickly cleans up after the meal, sets up a flower arrangement, and prepares for the most essential part of the ceremony, preparing and serving the tea.

Guests are invited to re-enter the room, purifying themselves before examining the humble decorations and plethora of tea items. 

More About Kaiseki

Historically, kaiseki refers to a banquet meal served alongside saki. A modern kaiseki meal features a variety of cuisines. Considered as an art form, kasaki is known for its delicate balance of taste, texture, and color.

The flavor is also an essential element of a kaiseki meal. Typically, master chefs only serve fresh seasonal ingredients, which is part of why the menu is ever-changing. 

The presentation of kaiseki is very purposeful—down to the dishes on which the meal is served. Food is displayed masterfully, and the dishware is often chosen to complement and enhance the meal’s seasonal theme.

Preparing the Tea

After guests return to their seated positions, the host begins to prepare the tea while kneeling on a cushion. The preparation is put on like a show for the guests, with many delicate and graceful movements.

The equipment, which is carefully and strategically selected, includes: 

  • The chasen (tea whisk)
  • A tea container for the powder

  • The chashaku (tea scoop)
  • A tea bowl (or bowls)

  • A sweet box or plate
  • Kettle
  • Brazier

All objects are ritually cleansed as purified water is boiled in an iron kettle. Once the water is hot enough, it is ladled into the tea bowl with powdered green tea, usually matcha. The mixture is carefully whisked before being presented to the guests.

Drinking the Tea

A Japanese sweet is usually served and eaten before the tea. There are two typical methods used to consume the tea.

  1. An individual bowl is placed in front of each guest.
  2. A shared tea bowl is placed in front of one person who will take a sip and then pass it to the next guest.

The former method is simple, in which each guest sips from their own bowl. The latter is a little more formal and complicated as the bowl is passed around to all the guests, one by one.

During their turn, each guest follows a procedure. They pick up the front-facing bowl with their right hand and place it in their left palm. Before taking a sip, the bowl is rotated to avoid drinking from the decorative part.

After sipping the tea, the guest compliments the host, wipes the rim where their lips touched the bowl, and passes the tea bowl to the next guest, bowing graciously.

Ending the Ceremony

Once everyone has had a chance to try the tea, there will be an opportunity to inspect and appreciate the tea bowl. In some ceremonies, the host will ask if anyone would like to partake in another round of tea.

When guests are satisfied, the ceremony is complete, and the host washes the tea utensils and equipment. As guests leave the room, the host will kneel and bow at the door.

Practicing Tea Ceremony Etiquette

Since displaying respect is an integral part of the Japanese tea ceremony, it helps be aware of proper etiquette. Here are some tips for fitting in and abiding by the ceremony’s setting:

  • Always be on time as it is a necessary showing of respect. Allow the host to seat you.
  • Upon taking your seat, avoid stepping in the middle of the tatami and use a closed fist whenever you touch the mats.

  • Refrain from engaging in small talk. While respect and connection are essential parts of the ceremony, all focus should be on the ceremony procedures, namely the preparation and admiration of the tea. Stay quiet and engage with bows and hand gestures.*

  • When it is your turn to try the tea, do not hastily drink it. Instead, use the moment to admire the tea and bowl’s aesthetic and take in its warmth.
  • For ceremonies during which guests share a bowl of tea, make sure you wipe the rim before passing it along to the next guest. 

While practicing proper etiquette is, of course, preferred, tourists are not expected to know every detail.

You should not worry too much about mishandling yourself during the ceremony as long as you are not being disruptive and are receptive to learning about the correct procedures.

*Note: The Japanese tea ceremony is the embodiment of peaceful fragility. During the ceremony, the room is perfectly quiet, aside from the occasional ruffling of a kimono or the sound of water boiling in the kettle. Noises made during the tea’s preparation, such as the gentle whisking, only add to the serenity.

What to Wear at a Japanese Tea Ceremony

Though of lesser importance to foreigners, coming traditionally dressed to the ceremony will provide a more authentic experience. If possible, wear a kimono.

At the very least, dress conservatively and refrain from wearing fashion pieces that might distract from the ceremony and experiencing the tea or damage ceremonial objects. 

Also, remove your shoes at the entrance; a pair of slippers will be provided by the host.

Where Can You Experience a Japanese Tea Ceremony?

Teahouses all over Japan are a common place to participate in Japanese Ceremonies. However, you can experience Japanese Tea Ceremonies of varying degrees of authenticity and formality elsewhere.

Such events are offered by numerous types of organizations such as:

  • Traditional gardens
  • Cultural centers
  • Hotels
  • Temples
  • Sweet Shops 

There are ceremonies held all over the world to celebrate Japanese culture and appeal to tourists. You can even host your own Japanese tea ceremony for your friends and family!

Noteworthy Locations for Tea Ceremonies in Japan

There are many great places to experience the Japanese tea ceremony in Japan. Here are a few examples of sites that offer such an event:

  • Kimono Tea Ceremony Maikoya: Rated by TripAdvisor as the number one tea ceremony venue in Japan, Kyoto Maikoya offers a traditional tea ceremony experience in the historic Gion district. The ceremony only lasts for 45 minutes and costs $22. Kimonos are optional and drive the price up to $48.

  • Kyugetsu: Hosted by master tea masters Tyas Sōsen (宗筅) and Stephen Sōshun (宗駿), this venue offers multiple types of Japanese tea experiences, including an introduction to Japanese tea, a tea ceremony experience, and exclusive tea ceremony, and an incense tea ceremony.

  • En Tea Ceremony Experience: This opportunity takes place in a small, handmade tearoom. Along with a traditional Japanese tea ceremony experience, the venue offers instructional classes and a hands-on matcha sweets art class.

  • Ran Hotei: Canadian tea master Randy Channell Soei takes you through the way of the tea in an old-style Kyoto house renovated into a Japanese teahouse and gallery. Here, you can learn all about the proper etiquette and enjoy a varied menu. 

  • Camellia: This teahouse offers an authentic experience that is friendly to English-speaking tourists. They provide many tea ceremony options, including 40-minute online sessions that you can join with friends and family.

Are You Ready To Experience it Yourself?

The Japanese tea ceremony is a sacred celebration of a traditional and humble art form.

Attending a Japanese tea ceremony is a beautiful opportunity to step back from the commotion of quotidian life and take a moment to revel in life itself.

The ceremony offers participants a chance to relax, cultivate spiritual connection, and find inner peace.  

Though it has a long and precious history going back to ancient times, many modern venues seek to appeal to tourists, adjusting and evolving traditions to give it new life. Even schools that teach traditional procedures may differ in the details.

When attending a Japanese tea ceremony, the most important thing is to embrace the calm mindset and value of inner peace openly.

As a visitor, you will not be expected to know the exact procedures, though practicing respect is of the utmost importance.

If you’re looking to just drink a cup of green tea without all the ceremonial steps, why not try taking your tea in a yunomi, or a type of tea cup used to drink tea daily.

If you love tea as much as I do, pin this to your favorite tea-loving Pinterest board and pass it on for others to enjoy! Pinkies up!