The Japanese tea ceremony (茶道, chadō) has a long history, both within its home country, as well as abroad. Literally translating to “the way of the tea” (茶の湯, chanoyu), this Japanese tea ceremony is more than just a way of enjoying a well-prepared beverage. It is an art form, cherished and refined across countless generations.
However, to the unitiated Japanese tea enthusiast, it can be a little difficult to get your head around. So here, we look at the history of the Japanese tea ceremony, and its symbolism in modern Japanese culture. We’ll also explore places where tourists can attend modern-day Japanese tea ceremonies, and what you should know before heading in.
This article is a part of our extensive series on Learning about Japanese Culture through Online Japanese Lessons at Japan Switch.
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What is the Japanese “way of the tea”?
The famous Japanese tea ceremony consists of a special method of preparing, serving, and drinking green matcha tea. Great care is taken not only in the preparation of the beverage itself but also in the table setting. There are certain rules that must be respected when attending a tea ceremony in Japan, and we’ll cover those later on.
The ritualistic nature of the “way of the tea” promotes mindfulness, and is thought to encourage well-being in those who practice it. Beyond the green tea itself, this tea ceremony also focuses on other aspects, such as being present in the moment and enjoying the server’s hospitality.
The Japanese tea ceremony is as much about human connection and honoring your body, as it is about tea.
Origins & history of the Japanese tea ceremony
When did tea become popular in Japan?
The introduction of tea into Japanese culture was a monumental event in the country’s history. Tea did not grow in Japan until around the 8th century when tea seeds were brought over from China. This was an important political moment for Japan, as well. Relations between the two neighboring countries truly reached a new peak during the Tang dynasty (618-907, China). Without close border relations, tea might never have made its way into Japanese culture, and the way of tea might not exist.
As was the case in many countries, when tea was first introduced into Japan, it was a beverage enjoyed only in higher society, by noblemen and by monks, or other religious figures. Drinking tea was not only a mark of entitlement and nobility, at the time, but also an important health practice.
Although tea may have been introduced into Japanese culture a little earlier, the first written mention of a proper tea ceremony only appears in the 8th century. Still, it would take centuries for tea to permeate through society and become the popular beverage it is today. Only during the Muromachi Period (1333-1573) did tea drinking become a popular pastime.
However, while it spread to the lower classes, tea still retained a certain mystical quality and retained its popularity among the Japanese nobility. The upper classes would frequently host tea parties, during which it became popular to show off their fine China, and tea bowls, as well as impart and impress others with their knowledge of tea.
How did the Japanese tea ceremony first come about?
There are multiple theories as to how the present method of the tea ceremony came to be. One of the more popular theories has its roots, once again, in China.
During the 8th century, when tea first became a popular drink in Japan, a Chinese Buddhist monk, Lu Yu dedicated an entire book to the proper preparation of tea. In the book, The Classics of Tea, you could find useful information like the appropriate temperature at which to boil the tea, and how to best enjoy the leaves’ healing and nourishing properties. It also focused on the proper usage of tea vessels, and many believe that the modern way of tea is owed, in large part, to that book.
The School of Sen no Rikyū
However, while The Classics of Tea may have borne an important contribution to the preparation and drinking of tea, it was the Japanese artist Sen no Rikyū who is credited as “the father of the way of tea”. The artist, often known just as Rikyū, lived much later (1522 - 1591), and taught extensively on the proper art of tea.
As a young boy, Rikyū actually studied tea in a formal setting and continued to do so until becoming a tea master, at the age of 58. It might seem strange now, but at the time, Rikyū was actually quite a rebel. Spending much of his life as a student of the great tea master Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Rikyū was quite a visionary when it came to tea. He was among the first to opt for the minimalistic setting and the use of tatami mats. Sen no Rikyū was also the first to devise new uses for the traditional tea-drinking vessels and to devote a stronger focus to the vessels themselves.
Instead of focusing on grandeur and splendor, Rikyū taught the deeper spiritual connection between the act of drinking this healing beverage, and respect for the soul.
Because of his views, which were deemed unusual at the time, Rikyū eventually earned the wrath of his master. Deeming Rikyū far too independent and disruptive for the school of tea, Hideyoshi ordered him to commit seppuku, the Japanese suicide tradition, which Rikyū did at the age of 70. Right before taking his own life, the tea master performed a beautiful tea ceremony, offering each guest a piece of the tea-serving set, as a souvenir.
However, Hideyoshi’s order came a little too late. Rikyū’s austere understanding of the way of tea would give rise to several schools of tea, including the popular Omotesenke (表千家) and Urasenke (裏千家), two of the main tea schools today.
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What is the modern-day meaning of the way of tea?
When visiting the Land of the Rising Sun, attending a Japanese tea ceremony remains a popular tourist attraction. Indeed, numerous teahouses are strewn all across the country, many of them holding the rudimentary and simplistic teachings of Sen no Rikyū.
But what does it mean to attend a tea ceremony in present-day Japan? For some tourists, attending a tea ceremony can just be an incursion into an exotic culture. It can just be the savoring of a fine cup of matcha tea, using exquisite tea vessels, and nothing more.
However, if while in Japan, you decide to attend a Japanese tea ceremony, you could also delve deeper for added meaning. At its origin, the way of tea was about structure and discipline. Everything from the vessels to the tea preparation, even to the way the flowers or the mats in the room were arranged – all abided (and still abide) by a strict set of rules.
The tea ceremony was and continues to be an act of sharing and communing with your fellow human beings. Traditionally, inviting someone to a tea ceremony was perceived as an act of hospitality, friendship, and good faith, on the part of the host. Sharing in this ritual together brought host and guest a little closer.
On a more personal level, participating in a tea ceremony is about the relationship with the self. You are encouraged to be mindful of the setting. Holding the tea close to one’s chest gives the participant a deeper appreciation for life in general, but also for the healing powers of matcha.
Finally, as understood by Sen no Rikyū and his later disciples, the tea ceremony is a quest for beauty. Although, given his strong insistence on austerity, it can be argued that the beauty Rikyū sought existed more on a spiritual level, than merely on the physical plain.
Looking to dive deeper into the rich and nuanced culture of Japan? Read our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Culture here!
What happens during a tea ceremony?
An important part of the Japanese tea ceremony is how the tea is prepared, how the room is arranged, and how the tea is served. What a visitor needs to understand is that a Japanese tea ceremony isn’t just about sitting down and having a cup of tea.
First, participants attend a multi-course meal. A kaiseki ryori is a traditional haute cuisine event that can stretch out over several hours, and several courses. All kaiseki ryori meals follow a similar structure:
- Starters – The meal will be kicked off with a Shokuzen-shu, which is a small glass of locally-brewed alcohol. During this initial stage, participants will also be served a plate of bite-sized appetizers.
- Main course – the kaiseki is the main part of the meal and can include several courses, according to the chef’s taste. A typical round of main courses will feature soup, sashimi (raw fish), nimono (boiled vegetables in soy sauce), yakimono (grilled fish or meat), agemono (deep-fried fish), mushimono (a type of stewed egg custard with vegetables and chicken), and finally, sunomono (a salad of vegetables and seafood in vinegar).
- The “Post-Meal” – the post-meal consists of a final, pre-dessert course, typically involving rice, miso soup, and pickles.
- Dessert – the traditional kaiseki ryori dessert consists of a light sorbet or a dish of seasonal fruit.
Then, once the meal is done, participants are invited to savor not one, but two cups of Japanese tea. First, there is a course of a thicker tea, followed by a thin tea, to conclude the ceremony.
While it’s perfectly agreeable for participants to chitchat while savoring the tea, it’s important that they keep silent during the preparatory phase. This gives one a chance to meditate and contemplate the process the tea goes through before being enjoyed.
How the tea is prepared depends on the occasion, as there are multiple tea ceremonies with deep seasonal ties, observed throughout Japan. The two main types of tea ceremonies are during the summer (using a furo) and the winter (using a ro). There are basically different kettle types.
The preparation of the tea is quite complex, and generally follows a number of steps combining courtesy with actual tea preparation. Although we won’t go into too much detail, below we look at the main steps of a tea ceremony.
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Step-by-Step: The Japanese Tea Ceremony
- The teishu (host) opens the door to let the guests in.
- They then present the sweets, in a special bowl, to the guests.
- Next, the teishu will bring in the utensils for preparing the tea.
- Before actually beginning, they will greet the guests formally, and make arrangements (such as taking coats) to ensure everyone is comfortable.
- The teishu then cleans the natsume (tea caddy), the chasaku (the bamboo scoop used for matcha), and the chasen (the tea whisk).
- Set the chagama (tea kettle) up to warm the water.
- Next, they will begin to warm the chawan (bowl) in their hands.
- The teishu then scoops matcha into the warmed chawan.
- Now, the teishu scoops warm water from the chagama into the chawan, and whisks the matcha in together with the water.
- Once the whisking is done, the teishu can begin serving the guests. Only now can you, as the guest, begin speaking to the others. Typically, the teishu will initiate conversation during this stage. It’s traditional for the first guest, the shokyaku, to compliment the host on the tea, and continue chatting to them.
- Once the host announces that everyone has had enough tea, the bowls must be returned, and the teishu will begin cleaning, then returning the utensils.
A tea ceremony doesn’t just involve strict rules for the teishu, but also for the guests. Usually, if you are a foreign visitor in Japan and are attending a tea ceremony, the host will not expect you to know the intricate rules of etiquette. However, to go in completely unprepared or worse, to disregard the basic rules of the tea ceremony is considered bad manners.
This is why tourists are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the basic rules and guest etiquette expected of them during a tea ceremony.
While there is no dedicated outfit for participating in a tea ceremony, it’s best to wear something in keeping with the austere setting. Guests are discouraged from wearing flashy, bright clothing, or bombastic jewelry that may damage the tea-drinking utensils.
Another important rule to abide by when participating in a Japanese tea ceremony is foregoing the use of pungent perfumes or body lotions with strong artificial fragrances. This is because the scent of the matcha is an important aspect of the tea ceremony. Wearing strong fragrances is thought to take away from that experience.
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There are very minute, very discrete rules to attending a tea ceremony. Again, visitors won’t be expected to know these intricacies, but are encouraged to respect the basics.
During the ceremony, the tea will be served alongside a dashibukusa, which is a small, embroidered cloth. The shokyaku (first guest) is expected to sit in front of the chawan. Using their right hand, they must place the dashibukusa on their left hand, then place the chawan on top of it. Holding the chawan, they walk back to their place, and sit down, making sure to arrange their clothes as you they down.
The shokyaku must apologize for drinking before the other guests. They must then place the chawan in front of their knees, and thank the host for making tea using the phrase “Otemae choudai itashimasu” (Thank you for preparing the tea).
Once again, place the chawan on your left hand, then bring it up to chest level, and rotate it twice, clockwise. Bringing your left hand up slowly, sip from the tea.
Tip: Be careful not to damage the dashibukusa, as it is a fragile cloth.
Remember to leave enough tea in the bowl for the other guests, as you will all be drinking from it. When you’re done drinking, take a kaishi (a special tea ceremony tissue), and wipe the rim of the bowl. This is merely a symbolic gesture of cleanliness.
Where can you attend a Japanese tea ceremony?
Attending a Japanese tea ceremony is a favorite activity for many tourists. Because of that, numerous hotels, gardens, temples, and restaurants offer this service. Throughout the major cities, you will also find actual traditional tea houses that can accommodate such an experience.
Although, as we’ve seen, the traditional Japanese tea ceremony can last up to several hours, many teahouses across the country offer shortened versions, so that the experience can better fit into a tourist’s busy schedule.
If you are worried about observing proper tea ceremony etiquette, there are a number of options available to you. Again, it’s always appreciated by tea masters when the visitor knows some basic etiquette rules. However, in the interest of maintaining a friendly and pleasant atmosphere, many teahouses (or other venues hosting tea ceremonies) will briefly instruct guests on proper etiquette beforehand.
Although you can probably get away with only knowing some basic etiquette principles, a Japanese tea ceremony has many rules that can vary depending on the season, and the particular type of ceremony. If you would like a more in-depth understanding of these rules, you may sign up for courses at one of the several tea schools across Japan.
Kyoto is a major destination for attending a traditional tea ceremonies. While there are several teahouses in this major city, the Camellia Tea House, situated conveniently near the Kiyomizu Temple offers a schedule-friendly (only 45 minutes) and elegant experience.
If attending a tea ceremony in Japan’s capital, Tokyo also boasts a great many excellent tea ceremony venues. The Shunkaen Bonsai Museum, for instance, is located in eastern Tokyo and offers a stunning, traditional experience. Located in the Asakusa district, Jidaiya is another popular venue for a tea ceremony that allows you to even rent your own kimono.
How much does attending a Japanese tea ceremony cost?
Obviously, the precise cost of entry to a ceremony will depend on the chosen venue and its location. Of course, teahouses and hotels located in busy tourist areas will probably cost more.
Generally speaking, a tourist can participate in a wonderful and traditional Japanese ceremony for 2,200 - 5,000 Yen. Roughly speaking, a single ticket to such a ceremony costs between $20 and $50USD, with some places offering various group options and additional extras.
How long will a tea ceremony last?
As we saw above, many tourist-oriented teahouses offer abbreviated tea ceremonies that typically don’t last more than 45 minutes / 1 hour. However, if you’d like to experience a full Japanese tea ceremony, you can. Be aware, though, that these will cost more, and will take up to several hours. Also, when attending a full Japanese tea ceremony, a heavier focus is placed on respecting proper etiquette.
Final thoughts: Is a Japanese tea ceremony worth it?
Many tourists coming to Japan for the first time wonder if a Japanese tea ceremony is worth fitting into their packed schedule. A traditional tea ceremony will offer you a glimpse into the country’s rich culture, and give you a chance at introspection and stillness, all while enjoying a flavorful, nourishing cup of matcha.
Given that you can participate in a 20-minute, or a 45-minute tea ceremony, we’d say that yes, attending a traditional Japanese tea ceremony is a must, while in Japan! If you're looking for other ways to fill up your agenda, can we interest you in training with a bona-fide, genuine sumo wrestler? If so, head over to our Ultimate Guide to Sumo Wrestling to find out how!
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