Japanese Tea Ceremony: History & Steps

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, we are going to discover the delicacy and protocol behind one of the most important Japanese ceremonies: The Tea Ceremony. Learn about the origins and history of this ritual, as well as the steps performed before, during, and after the ceremony.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony

The Japanese Tea Ceremony, also known as the Way of Tea, is a ritual in which tea is prepared and served, following a strict protocol. It is considered one of the classical Japanese arts of refinement, and there are even schools devoted to teaching the proper way to perform this ritual.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony
The Japanese Tea Ceremony

There are two main different types of gatherings related to this ceremony, one informal, the chakai, and one formal, the chaji. They vary in complexity, protocol, and duration. The type of tea used in these ceremonies is usually powdered green tea, known as matcha. Another, less famous ceremony, the senchado, uses leaf tea instead of powdered tea.

History of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

The origins of this ceremony in Japan date from the 9th-century CE. The first documented evidence of its celebration is found in a historical text describing how a Buddhist monk named Eichu, served tea to the Emperor Saga, the ruler of Japan at the time. The Emperor was on a trip to the village of Karasaki, in the year 815 CE.

During the 12th-century CE, a monk named Eisai is believed to have introduced a specific way of preparing tea and also the usage of the main ingredient, the powdered green tea. When he returned from a trip to China, he brought a technique of preparing this drink by placing matcha into a bowl, then adding hot water, and mixing both ingredients together. Tea rituals became common among Buddhist monks.

The matcha, or powdered green tea
The matcha, or powdered green tea

In the 13th-century CE, a feudal military government ruled Japan. Under their power, tea became a symbol of status among warriors. There would have tea testing contests in which participants had to guess the best-quality tea, and they would win prizes.

By the 16th-century CE, drinking tea had become popular in Japan. Sen no Rikyu was a Japanese expert on tea at that time and he set the foundations of what we know today as Way of Tea. His book Southern Record explained his knowledge of tea, and put forth the idea that a meeting should always be treasured because it is a unique occasion, that can never be reproduced. He also mentioned the principles he had learned from his master, Takeno Joo, which should be present in every ceremony. Those principles were harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.

Sen no Rikyu
Sen no Rikyu

Rikyu probably had the deepest influence on the Way of Tea. After his death, the three main schools of tea preparation were founded following his teachings. They continued to promote the tradition of drinking tea. Those were the Urasenke School, the Omotesenke School and the Mushakojisenke School. The three of them are still active today.

Steps of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

Prior to the ceremony, an invitation has to be sent to the guests and the teahouse has to be cleaned including any garden around it. The utensils have to be selected beforehand and the meal has to be prepared in advance.

A Traditional Tea Room
A Traditional Tea Room

Some of the steps of the ceremony change from one school to the other, and several elements, such as the time of the day, the season of the year, and the venue also modify some of the steps. There are some differences between the winter and the summer ceremony, mostly regarding the location of the kettle used to heat the water. However, the same general steps are followed in most cases:

1. The door to the tearoom is opened and the guests come into the room.

2. A tray of sweets or a meal is presented to the guests, depending on the formality of the ceremony and the time of the day.

3. The tea utensils are brought and displayed. The order in which they are presented is:

  • First, the Mizusashi, or cold water container.
  • Second is the Furo, a small stove made mostly of clay.
  • Third is the Chawa or tea bowl, the Chasen or tea whisker, and the Chashaku or teaspoon used to place tea in the bowl.
  • Fourth is the Natsume or tea container.
  • And fifth is the Kama or kettle and the kettle lid.

4. Greetings are exchanged. The tea preparer, or Teishu, focuses on entering the right meditative state of mind to prepare the best bowl of tea.

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