A Complete Guide to the Japanese Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony, or Cha-No-Yu (茶の湯), is a traditional form of ritualized hospitality that originated in China. But the Japanese tea ceremony that we know today was mostly developed in Japan after Japanese Zen Buddhism came to the country from China.

The tea ceremony is a tradition that has been passed down from one generation to the next and it consists of several different parts that include: preparations, cleansing, presentation, drinking, etc. Everything must be done with care and great attention paid to every detail.

It has evolved into an elaborate aesthetic and ceremonial art form with many symbolic meanings attached to it. One of the most important aspects of the ceremony is the “harmony” between host and guest, which can be interpreted as respect for others, selflessness, or simplicity. The purpose of this guide is to provide you with everything you need to know about how to perform the Japanese Tea Ceremony correctly!

The Japanese Tea Ceremony is a centuries-old tradition of the art form of preparing and serving matcha. Matcha is finely ground green tea leaves that are whisked with hot water to produce a frothy beverage.

In this article, we will talk about what it means to do the ceremony properly, how to do it, what to wear, what to avoid, and much more.

What Is A Japanese Tea Ceremony?

A Japanese tea Ceremony was originally intended to be a vehicle for expressing Zen Buddhist ideas. Today, it is practiced more as a hobby. A Japanese tea ceremony is the art of preparing and consuming green teas, in a traditional Japanese tearoom, with a tatami floor.

Today, many Japanese tea ceremonies are held in various locations for the enjoyment of tourists as well. Between traditional Japanese gardens, hotels, and culture centers, the authenticity of these tea ceremonies varies.

The History of the Japanese Tea Ceremonies

Ritual tea ceremonies originated in China but were swiftly taken up by the Japanese as a form of expression. The Japanese began their ritual tea ceremonies in the Kamakura period between the years 1192-1333.

According to britannica.com, the tea ceremonies were first taken up by “Zen monks, who drank tea to keep awake during long sessions of meditation.” Britannica.com also states, “It later became an active part of Zen ritual honoring the first patriarch, Bodhidharma (Japanese: Daruma).”

During the 15th century, Japanese tea ceremonies became a gathering between friends as a way to relax in a private atmosphere and discuss aesthetic things like art, flowers, and even the tea utensils themselves.

This “modern” change allowed the tea ceremony to be more of a social event. and more people were introduced to this wonderful tradition.

One of the more important aspects of a tea ceremony is called, “Sen Rikyu.” It is meant to mean simplicity and quiet. It is still valued in tea ceremonies today. A relaxing, quiet aesthetic is highly valued during tea ceremonies, and continuing this tradition is important to keeping the Japanese tea ceremony alive.

What Is the Purpose of a Japanese Tea Ceremony?

Originally, the main purpose of a Japanese tea ceremony was to be an expression of Zen Buddhism philosophy. Done by monks first, followed closely by those who claimed the philosophy as well.

Soon after, the ceremony was used as a reprieve from the public. Groups of friends would gather in a serene, private location and find tranquility in the tea ceremony. They would discuss current art and paintings among other things.

Today it is most often a simple hobby or tourist attraction but is still practiced by some as an expression or reprieve.

A perfect tea ceremony should be a time to relax and enjoy the moment with those around you. It’s about taking your time and focusing on what is important: the people and atmosphere, not just the tea itself.

There are 4 main qualities meant to be emphasized during a Japanese tea ceremony while drinking tea from the perfect cup of tea bowl:

Harmony

  • Meant to bring peace between all guests

Respect

  • Respect for the host, the guests, and even for the tea and utensils.

Cleanliness

  • Guests are asked to wash their hands and mouths before partaking in the tea ceremonies.

Tranquility

  • Tranquility is achieved through relaxation. One must take their time to enjoy each aspect of the tea ceremony: the atmosphere, the tea, the sweets, the company, etc.

If all 4 of these qualities come together in unison, they can create what is considered the perfect tea ceremony.

How to Do the Japanese Tea Ceremony: A Step by Step Guide

Even for the first time, hosting a Japanese tea ceremony is straightforward, but in order to make it an excellent Japanese tea ceremony, you must follow the guidelines below.

The host of the tea ceremony must provide their guests with a comfortable place to sit and relax; think to cushion seating on tatami mats. The Japanese prefer sitting on cushions in a seiza position (sitting cross-legged) but if that’s not possible then sitting as you would at any other tea ceremony is just fine.

 

To start, it is important to understand what you are going to need:

  • Tea utensils
  • High-quality Japanese Green tea -Matcha powdered tea-
  • Sugar cubes or rock sugar if preferred over plain white sugar.
  • Matcha powder for whisking the Japanese green tea. Make sure this is a fine quality and good-tasting matcha powder!

Step 1 – Invitations

The host must send out formal invitations which are typically chosen based on aesthetic value. The invitations must be sent several weeks in advance, as is respectful to the guests and their schedules.

Step 2: Pick the Right Tea

There are two kinds of powdered green tea. One is thick and one is light. The thick one uses a sweeter and less bitter powder. Since the thick tea is three times thicker than the light one, it has more nutritional value. The green tea that has a bitter taste isn’t good for the thick tea.

The sweeter it is, the more expensive it gets. Most of the powdered green tea you see in some Japanese cafes are light teas so getting to enjoy and experience a thick tea is a deep experience for tea ceremony.

Usually, in Japanese tea ceremonies, you will drink first thin tea and then thick tea.

Step 3: Preparing the Ceremony Room

When preparing a tea ceremony room, the current season is the first thing to consider. You should also think about when the ceremony will take place.

The arrangement, tools, and types of mats the guests will sit on, all depend on these aspects. A more basic, informal tea ceremony would more likely just require the tea room to be well cleaned and all necessary utensils are offered.

Step 4: Prepare for Guests to Arrive

Before the guests will arrive, you should prepare the ceremony area, and bring all the tools and utensils that you will need. You should also prepare tea and sweets for your guests to enjoy.

Step 5: Welcome the Guests

Before serving tea, you should welcome your guests first.

On the day of the ceremony, the invited guests will arrive and need to be greeted and seated. Guests should wait in the waiting room until formally invited to enter the tea room out of respect for the host. The first guest will always be the most important one, the highest-ranking guest.

After being announced, the guests will remove their shoes before entering the tea room. Guests must also wash their hands and mouths as a symbol of purifying and cleansing themselves.

They will then be seated according to rank. After all, guests have been seated in their rightful place, the host will acknowledge each of them in turn. It is at this time that sweets will be offered if they are being served.

Step 6: Cleansing the Utensils

The tea master (the host) should then bring out the traditional tea set after the guests have been seated. Each utensil will be meticulously cleaned in front of the guests.

Step 7: Preparing the Thick Tea

When all utensils have been properly cleaned, the tea master will then start by preparing a thick, matcha tea in the tea bowl. This type of tea is known as, “koicha matcha”, and is served at formal tea ceremonies.

3 teaspoons of matcha are added to 1 tea bowl of hot water and mixed thoroughly with the tea whisk. The bowl containing the finished tea will be passed to the guest of honor so they can take the first sip.

It is an honor and show of respect. The guest with clean the rip of the bowl with their napkin and pass the bowl to the second guest. This continues until each guest has had a sip of the tea.

It is important for each guest to complement their host as they get their turn.

Once everyone has been given their opportunity to sample the thick tea, the bowl will be returned to the host who will properly clean the bowl and prepare the thin tea.

Step 8: Preparing the Thin Tea

It is at this time that the host will prepare the “usucha matcha,” or thin matcha tea. 1 teaspoon of matcha is combined with 1 cup of hot water and mixed using the tea whisk until it becomes frothy inside the tea bowl.

Once ready, the tea will be served in the same manner as the thick tea. If confections are being offered, they would be served at this time.

Step 9: Cleansing the Utensils

When all guests have had their samples of the teas, the host will clean the utensils for the third time. The guest of order asks to examine the tools at this time in order to admire the craftsmanship.

After the guest of honor has admired the tools, they can be passed around to the other guests as well. Oftentimes, in a traditional household, the tools are priceless antiques.

Step 10: Guests Departure

At this time, the tea ceremony has ended and the guests will leave in an orderly fashion, giving the host the chance to bow to each guest as they exit.

How Long Do Japanese Tea Ceremonies Take?

Typically, the formal tea ceremony takes around 4 hours to complete. A more informal ceremony can be quicker but it will still be a few hours.

If you are participating in a tea ceremony for the first time, there is no need to worry. The participants will be invested in making sure that all of your questions have been answered and you feel comfortable with what’s going on around you.

What Food is Served at a Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony?

For a formal Japanese tea ceremony, sweets are served as well as a full course meal. Some examples are given by DAVIDsTEA blog are as follows:

  • Japanese Sencha and Salmon
  • Sencha is the type of tea served. It pairs well with the salmon.
  • Sencha Ashikubo and Onigiri
  • Sencha Ashikubo is another type of Japanese tea and Onigiri is bites of rice wrapped in seaweed nori.
  • Matcha Matsu and Seafood
  • Matcha Matsu is a vibrant green tea often paired with rich seafood dishes like shrimp tempura.
  • Matcha and Chocolate
  • Ceremonial Matcha tea is paired with chocolate due to its bitter flavors going well with the sweetness of chocolate dishes.
  • Cherry Blossom Tea and Macaroons
  • A refreshing cherry blossom tea often pairs well with a sweet coconut macaroon. The sweet cherry blends nicely with the fluffy toasted coconut treats.

What to Wear to a Japanese Tea Ceremony?

In a formal ceremony, it is proper to wear a kimono. In an informal ceremony, one typically wears a plain or undecorated kimono. One must make sure their kimono is not too flashy. If the host has not specified any requirements for guests, conservative Western attire is appropriate.

It’s important to keep in mind that shoes should be removed before entering a tea room. In some cases, you must remove your socks as well to ensure the cleanliness of the floor is maintained.

What to Avoid Wearing to a Japanese Tea Ceremony

Don’t wear anything too flashy but also don’t wear anything too casual. You wouldn’t want to offend the host or fellow guests. When attending a ceremony that does not require kimonos, women should not wear anything revealing or skirts shorter than knee length, it is seen as a sign of disrespect and can be problematic when sitting for too long.

Tea Ceremonies are formal events and should not be taken lightly. If one were to show up in jeans and a t-shirt, it would be disrespectful to the formality and the host.

Why Do Japanese Tea Cups Have No Handles?

Japanese teacups (This tea bowl is called Yunomi) do not have handles so that the guest will be forced to hold the cup itself. This way, one can tell if the tea is too hot to drink. If it is too hot to hold, then it is too hot to drink. This way, you’ll be able to tell how hot the tea is and avoid getting burned.

These tea bowls are also small so they can be grasped with the thumb and two-finger. It is a more delicate way of holding a cup and is much more elegant.

Japanese tea is also meant to be enjoyed in small amounts of a few sips (3-5 sips) from the tea bowl, so the cups need not be too large. Unlike the U.S. and some European countries who serve and drink tea in much larger cups.

The tea bowl is usually made of ceramic material, so the tea remains warm longer. When drinking matcha, it is very common to have multiple units of the same bowl throughout a ceremony.

Is Talking Allowed During A Japanese Tea Ceremony?

There should be no talking or use of phones/electronics at a Japanese tea ceremony. These ceremonies are meant to be enjoyed in silence and harmony. Outside of compliments to the host on the preparation of the tea and the quality of their tools, talking is not proper.

It is important for tea ceremonies to be harmonious and relaxing. In order for this to be true, talking is to be kept out. Electronics and things that make unnecessary noise should also be excluded. The silence behind a tea ceremony is considered very important. It can also be seen as disrespectful for a guest to be talking when it is unnecessary or out of turn.

What is Itadakimasu?

Itadakimasu translates to, “I am going to receive the lives of animals and plants for my own life”. And the meaning of this expression is “I’ll enjoy this”. It is the respectful, proper, and expected thing for a guest to say before they sample the host’s teas. It tells the host that the guest is grateful to be a part of the ceremony and is glad to be sampling the handmade teas of the host. It is a sign of respect and gratitude.

In the most traditional and formal settings, not expressing one’s gratitude to the host in this way can be seen as a sign of disrespect and ungratefulness. One should also compliment the tea in some way after tasting it.

If you are finished drinking tea and wish that the host stop serving tea, you should say “Oshimai ni itashimasu”, This means, “I will finish”. It tells the host you are through. The host will accept your request by replying with the same phrase.

How to Bow in a Japanese Tea Ceremony?

The best way to thank the host is to bow to them and say, “Otemae choudai itashimasu”. This translates to, “Thank you for the tea you have prepared”. Saying this lets the host know that you enjoyed the tea and are very grateful to have been invited to their formal ceremony. Being invited is a sign of love, respect, friendship, or all three.

The deeper and longer the silent bow, the more respect you show. This is more formal, but one should not overdo it. A slight nod or shallow, a short bow is casual and should not be used in the case of a formal tea ceremony.

The best bow for this occasion would be to bend at the waist briefly and then return to a standing position. It is unnecessary to hold the bow for a longer period of time, as the host is likely not someone of extremely high status.

Deep, long bows are reserved for people of high status such as an emperor. Don’t bow for too long but be sure to bow deep enough and long enough to assure the host of your respect and thanks.

Conclusion

The Japanese tea ceremony is a ritualized and highly ceremonial process, with rigid rules governing the way that it must be carried out. It has been practiced in Japan for centuries, but its popularity is growing worldwide among those who want to experience something different from what they’re used to.

If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about the Japanese culture, how this tradition came into existence or why people find it so appealing today, I hope this article provided you with the answers that you looked for and helped you understand how to properly own a Japanese tea ceremony.

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