Japanese tea is not just a drink, it is a cultural phenomenon that has evolved over centuries. From the traditional Japanese tea ceremony to modern-day tea trends, it continues to fascinate people around the world. In this article, we will delve into the richness of Japanese tea culture, exploring its traditional practices and current trends.
Traditional Tea Culture in Japan: Sado and Senchado
Japanese tea culture has a long and deep history, with the traditional Japanese tea ceremony taking on a predefined ritual where every movement and item matters. The traditional tea culture in Japan has several rituals that use either matcha or sencha, and there are several schools teaching about them. Some of these precepts were developed centuries ago and are still observed today, making the rigidity and longevity of Japanese tea tradition fascinating to foreign observers.
Sado, the Japanese tea ritual with Matcha, began forming in the 15th-16th centuries. Initially, it was consumed by aristocrats in lavish reception rooms for entertainment. However, influential tea persons, such as Murata Junko and Takeno Joo, recognized the need for a more modest and composed way of consuming tea. They brought focus to wabi sabi – the appreciation of natural beauty and imperfection. With that, tea rooms became smaller, distracting decorations reduced, and smaller designated tea rooms were created. Attention shifted from rare imported items (karamono) to locally produced items (wamono), and Sen no Rikyu codified the practices and set a standard, making him the godfather of Sado.
Today, Sado is practiced by several different schools. Most of them fall into either a merchant style tea, started by Sen no Rikyu and continued through his bloodline, or into warrior style tea started by Sen no Rikyu’s students. Merchant style schools, especially Urasenke, are more populous in terms of the number of practitioners. Most schools appear similar in their philosophies, and the differences mostly lie in the execution.
Besides Sado with matcha, there is another ritual with sencha – Senchado. It started as a resistance to the rigidity of Sado. The artist layer in Japan looked for alternatives and discovered loose leaf tea in China. However, the sought freedom of expression in tea preparation soon gave way to defined precepts as Senchado gradually assimilated to Sado. Visually, on the other hand, it managed to keep some differences as it tends to use brighter, more shiny colors typical in China. Compared to Sado, Senchado also allows a bit more freedom in the movements and conversations during the ritual.
Tea Culture in the Present Day: From Bottled Tea to Trendy Teahouses
While tea rituals continue to be practiced and preserved, only a small part of the population is involved in them today. Tea has become a more casual beverage, and tea making at home has given way to ready-to-drink bottled teas, and a teapot is no longer common in young people’s homes. However, this has inspired the development of a few trendy teahouses in some major cities, providing an opportunity to go out and enjoy tea. These teahouses focus on creating a cozy and welcoming environment while providing a unique tea experience, be it with some interesting rare teas or some unique ways to brew and serve them.
Another significant trend with Japanese tea in the past few years is to use it more as an ingredient in food and sweets production. Tea-flavored sweets and snacks are sold in supermarkets and convenience stores, and tea is being used as an ingredient in various dishes.