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Discovering Japan: Japanese Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony, also called chanoyu  –茶の湯 (hot water for tea) is one of the traditional Japanese arts that best reflects the essence of Asian culture.

A tea ritual of Buddhist origin

It was first introduced by Buddhist monks in the 11th Century approximately, and it is about the preparation of powdered green tea (matcha 抹茶) by means of a ritual of Buddhist-Zen origin focused on pursuing self-knowledge and learning in the spiritual world; in other words, it is a way of purifying the soul through its union with nature.

To do so, it is performed the chadō –茶道 (the way of tea), which is about the study or teaching of the tea ceremony. Japanese culture is unique because they have more different “ways of life”. For example, among the most popular ones, there is the way of flowers, called Ikebana, the way of energy and harmony, called Aikidō, the way of drawing or painting, represented by Kaiga, or the way of the art of calligraphy, represented by Shodō.

As you can see, the tea ceremony in Japan is much more than a mere act of refinement and manners, as everybody use to believe. This is a very complex act of deep convictions.

Key principles of the Japanese tea ceremony

There are four key principles of Zen tradition within the tea ceremony:

  • Harmony. Between people and nature (和 wa).
  • Respect. Likewise, towards people and nature (敬 kei).
  • Mental and sensory purity (清 sei).
  • Tranquillity. It comes from peace of mind and perception of abundance in nature (寂 jaku).

As you can see, the ritual is deeply philosophical and, based on that, it includes a series of personal purposes or objectives that could be summarized as follows:

  • To learn good manners.
  • To encourage respect and good human relationships.
  • To live in harmony with the passage of time.
  • To make daily routine more pleasant.
  • To make people develop a refined taste.
  • To become a quiet, honest and fearless person.

On the other hand, being invited to a real tea ceremony, i. e., not those organized for groups of tourists, is considered a great honour, a priceless gift the host offers to guests, since it involves an intimate ritual of gratitude and affection. It is hospitality, so guests should be grateful as well and appreciate with their same honours for having participated in such a ritual.

Who can perform the tea ceremony?

Not everyone can offer a tea ritual, since to do so it is required to have a certificate or title known as menjo. Holding this title involves passing some tests that enable that person to become the host of the ceremony.

As is the case of other Japanese arts, such as Aikido or karate, if it has not been achieved a certain level, no one can teach. In such cases, the certificate is called natori.

Sometimes it takes several years for someone to get the title of menjo. This is because it requires extensive knowledge, not only in the use of tea, but also in the use of kimono, in calligraphy, floral arrangements, ceramics, or in fire management, among many other things.

However, to perform a tea ceremony, there is no distinction in terms of sex, so it can be performed by both men and women.

Regarding the place, the ceremony can be held either in a quiet Japanese-like room, which is known as washitsu –和室, and that we can find in some old houses, or in a tea house, chashitsu -茶室, a simple wooden construction of traditional style ideally surrounded by a small garden, and which is specially prepared and conditioned for the correct practice and performance of the ritual.

These spaces are decorated with a tokonoma –床の間, a small area where kakemonos, or decorative rolls, are hung, and a floral arrangement, or ikebana, which varies according to the season of the year, as well as the clothes of the hosts.

Stages of the tea ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony is divided into four different stages and usually has a duration of up to four hours. However, it is very common that the ritual is reduced to what is the last step, just over an hour.

This brief way of carrying out the ritual is usually aimed at those who are looking for a first contact with the ceremony, as is the case of cultural tourism or people who feel attracted by the world of Asian culture, and therefore by tea. These are the four stages of the ceremony:

First stage

The host offers a light meal with seasonal products. It is known as Kaiseki.

Second stage

There is a small pause to rest, called Naka-Dachi.

Third stage

This is the most complicated part, in which one truly enjoys the most delicate gestures of the whole ceremony, and it is known as goza-iri.

At this point, the host offers the main guest thick green tea (Koicha) in a bowl. The guest moves on his/her knees to take it, after bowing to others, and he/she always places the bowl on the palm of his/her left hand, while stabilizing it with the right. Afterwards, he/she takes a small sip, praises its taste and takes other two or more sips. Once finished, he/she must clean the edge where he/she drank with a paper serviette (kaishi). Then,  it is passed to the other guests, who must perform the same action until the last one hands over the bowl to the host.

Fourth stage

To finish, in the last stage, it is served the same type of tea, but clearer and in individual cups.

Once the master of ceremonies has used all the utensils, he/she bows in silence, indicating that the ceremony is over.

Utensils to perform the tea ceremony

The utensils for carrying out the tea ceremony can be classified into up to five main categories. These are the following:

  • Temae dōgu. Utensils for preparing and serving tea.
  • Kaiseki dōgu. Utensils for eating.
  • Mizuya dōgu. Objects placed in the preparation room.
  • Machiai dōgu. Objects placed in the waiting room.
  • Sōshoku dōgu. Ornamental objects.

All of them are usually valuable handcrafted objects. The most important and typical ones are:

  • Tea ladle. Chashaku. It is used to pour powdered tea into the bowl. It is usually made of one piece of bamboo, although you can also find it in wood or ivory.
  • Pots. Where water is heated. They are usually made of wrought iron and there are two different kinds: kama and tetsubin. They differ from each other because the latter has a notch to pour the water, and it usually has a handle that crosses at the top.
  • Trays. Depending on its use or shape or on the reasons of the tea ceremony, you can find three types of trays: Hakkebon, Yamamichibon and Yohōbon.
  • Whisk. Chasen. It is the whisk used to prepare green tea or matcha. It is made from one piece of hand-carved bamboo.

Other utensils for the Japanese tea ritual

  • Tea bowls. There are several types, but we are going to talk about two of them: the shallower ones, which allow the tea to cool faster, so they are mostly used in summer; and the deeper bowls, used in winter. Hand-made bowls are better.
  • Cloth. Chakin. It is used by guests to clean the tea cup and it is white.
  • Whisk. Chasen. This is a kind of brush used to mix tea with water. Just as the ladle, it is usually made of one piece of bamboo, so it is changed after some rituals due to its deterioration.
  • Folding fan. Each participant must bring a small folding fan, which is a symbol of respect, gratitude or apology. This fan must not be opened, and let alone in order to fan oneself.