Origins of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

The tradition of drinking green tea has its roots in China, dating back to the fourth century. However, tea plants were not native to Japan until seeds were brought from China during the Tang dynasty (618-907), a time of flourishing cultural exchanges between the two countries.

In the eighth century, the first mentions of a formal tea-drinking ceremony appeared, although it likely differed significantly from the tea ceremony as we know it today. During this period, a Chinese Buddhist priest authored a book called “Cha Ching,” which detailed the proper method of preparing tea, including the ideal water temperature and the use of specific tea vessels. It is believed that this book played a significant role in shaping the evolution of the tea ceremony.

In Japan’s Nara period (710-794), tea plants were cultivated locally and primarily consumed by priests and nobles for medicinal purposes. While China was transitioning from tea as medicine to a beverage during the declining years of the Tang dynasty, this transformation did not reach Japan due to strained relations between the two nations. Consequently, the Japanese had to develop their own unique traditions and cultural practices surrounding tea. Since tea was a scarce and valuable commodity from the Nara period through the Heian period (794-1192), rules and formalities surrounding tea ceremonies were influenced by this scarcity. Had tea been native to Japan or more readily available, it is likely that the tea ceremony would have taken a different form or may not have been established at all.

The Influence of Myoan Eisai on the Tea Ceremony

In 1187, a Japanese priest named Myoan Eisai embarked on a journey to China to study philosophy and religion. Upon his return, he became the founder of Zen Buddhism and established the first temple of the Rinzai sect. Eisai is credited with introducing a new purpose for cultivating tea, distinct from its previous medicinal use. He advocated for its religious significance and became the first to propose and teach the practice of grinding tea leaves before steeping them in hot water. These innovations, along with references to a bamboo whisk used to whisk the tea in a book by Sung emperor Hui Tsung called “Ta Kuan Cha Lun” (A General View of Tea), laid the foundation for the tea ceremony as it is practiced today.

Eisai faced some opposition from monks who resisted his newly introduced religious ideas. However, his early converts among the Kamakura shogunate provided him with protection, ensuring his success. In 1211, Eisai became the first person to write a treatise on tea in Japan. His treatise, “Kissa Yojoki” (Tea Drinking is Good for Health), highlighted the various health benefits of tea and its potential to treat ailments such as loss of appetite, paralysis, beriberi, boils, and waterborne illnesses. Eisai presented tea as a remedy for all kinds of disorders, and this emphasis on its therapeutic properties likely contributed to the rapid popularity and widespread adoption of the Tea Ceremony.

Eisai’s teachings and treatise on tea played a pivotal role in shaping the cultural significance of tea in Japan and laid the groundwork for the development of the Tea Ceremony as a distinct practice.

The Spread of Tea and the Evolution of Tea Parties

Tea cultivation initially thrived in the Uji district, but as its popularity soared, demand for tea expanded throughout Japan. The samurai class, captivated by the allure of the Sung dynasty and enamored with the tea ceremony, wholeheartedly embraced the practice, further fueling its widespread appeal.

In 1333, the downfall of the Kamakura shogunate plunged the country into civil wars. As a result, a new class emerged known as the Gekokujou, characterized by their newfound wealth and extravagant lifestyles. These noble parvenus often hosted tea parties, called Toucha, for their friends. During these gatherings, guests were challenged to discern genuine tea, known as Honcha, from other varieties. Over time, the game incorporated betting, adding an element of excitement and offering valuable prizes to the winners.

Initially, guests were served ten cups of tea, but the number gradually increased to twenty, thirty, and even one hundred cups per person. As the guest list grew, it became impractical to provide each individual with one hundred cups. While the exact procedures followed are unknown, it is speculated that guests likely passed the cups from one person to the next. This practice of sharing and passing the tea bowl likely influenced the use of a single tea bowl in today’s Tea Ceremony.

Although the custom of sharing may seem unusual to us now, its origins can be traced back to the samurai class. The samurai valued strong family bonds, and on important occasions, it was customary for the lord to take the first sip of sake from a large cup and then pass it to his retainers as a reaffirmation of their close-knit relationships. This tradition likely influenced the tea-sharing practice observed during tea parties.

The evolving nature of tea consumption and the integration of social customs from the samurai class played a significant role in shaping the Tea Ceremony as we know it today.

Evolution of Japanese Architecture and Influence on the Tea Ceremony

During the Muromachi period, Japanese architecture underwent a notable transformation. It transitioned from the formal palace style prevalent in the Heian period to a simplified style favored by the samurai. Subsequently, another shift occurred, moving from the samurai style to the Shoin style, which incorporated elements of temple architecture. Some of the design elements from the Shoin style were adopted for the tea ceremony, including the alcove (Tokonoma), a pair of shelves (Chigaidana) positioned beside the alcove, and the side-alcove desk (Tsuke-shoin). Naturally, Tatami mats were utilized to cover the floor in accordance with the Shoin style.

The samurai nobles took great interest in perfecting the art of decorating the alcove and shelves in the side alcove. The Shoin desk became a fixed feature, providing a platform for arranging a small number of utensils and articles in a manner that was both aesthetically pleasing and functional.

Over time, the Shoin style found its way into the ceremonial serving of tea, particularly by the Douboushuu. These tea practitioners exclusively used utensils imported from China, which were elegantly displayed on a large utensil stand known as the Daisu.

The evolution of Japanese architecture, from the formal palace style to the simplified samurai style and eventually to the Shoin style, had a significant influence on the tea ceremony. The incorporation of design elements and the careful arrangement of utensils and articles added a distinctive aesthetic and functional dimension to the practice.

The Emergence of Tea Gatherings and the Influence of Murata Shukou

As the tea ceremony, initially enjoyed by the samurai class, piqued the interest of people from other social classes, smaller and more modest tea gatherings began to take place in appropriate settings. These intimate settings gave rise to a small room known as the Kakoi.

Among the notable designers of these smaller tearooms was Murata Shukou, a Zen priest who would later be revered as the father of the tea ceremony. Shukou’s teachings and practices laid the foundation for the etiquette and spirit of tea. He embarked on his spiritual journey at the age of eleven, entering Shoumyou Temple, where he spent a decade. Afterward, he pursued Zen meditation under the guidance of the monk and teacher Ikkyuu Soujun at Daitoku-ji Temple. Recognized for his deep understanding of Zen, Shukou received a diploma from the Chinese monk Yuanwu. Subsequently, he dedicated the rest of his life to perfecting the tea ceremony in his tea room in Nara, imparting his knowledge to anyone interested in learning this art. Shukou was particularly devoted to instilling the true spirit of simplicity and Zen-inspired tea in his students.

Another significant innovation introduced by Shukou was his personal involvement in serving tea to his guests. He favored the intimate and personal atmosphere of a small room, accommodating around five to six individuals. The design of his four-and-a-half-mat room aimed to create a serene ambiance during the tea ceremony, drawing inspiration from the Zen philosophy he had studied at Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto.

In a letter to his favorite pupil, Harima no Furuichi, Shukou outlined his fundamental concept of Chanoyu (the tea ceremony) and his personal philosophy of aesthetics. He emphasized the notion of refined simplicity, known as Kakeru, and stressed the importance of appreciating the aesthetic qualities of subtly colored pottery from Bizen and Shigaraki. Shukou’s letters also reveal his meticulous study of the optimal way to integrate Chinese and Japanese tea utensils.

During the late Muromachi period, tea culture reached its zenith, and individuals dedicated to the art were bestowed with various titles to denote their involvement. A Chanoyusha was a professional tea ceremony teacher, similar to Shukou. A Wabi-suki was a teacher who possessed three distinct qualities: unwavering devotion to the practice of tea, the ability to conduct oneself with the decorum expected of a master, and exceptional practical skills. Finally, the Meijin surpassed the qualifications of a Wabi-suki and additionally excelled as a collector of fine Chinese tea utensils.

Murata Shukou’s contributions, both in the design of smaller tearooms and in the philosophical aspects of the tea ceremony, played a pivotal role in shaping and elevating the art of Chanoyu.

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