The Japanese tea ceremony, also known as Sadō or Chadō, is a cultural tradition that has been practiced in Japan for centuries. It is a ceremonial way of preparing and drinking green tea, typically in a traditional tearoom with a tatami floor. This practice goes beyond just serving and receiving tea; it is a way for guests to experience the hospitality of the host in an atmosphere distinct from the fast pace of everyday life.
Today, the tea ceremony is not only practiced as a hobby but also a popular attraction for tourists. Tea ceremonies of varying degrees of formality and authenticity are offered by many organizations across Japan, including at some traditional gardens, culture centers, and hotels. Kyoto and Uji are among the best destinations in the country to enjoy Japan’s tea culture.
Tea was first introduced to Japan in the 8th century from China and was mainly drunk as a medicinal beverage by priests and the upper class. However, during the Muromachi period (1333-1573), the beverage gained popularity among people of all social classes. Tea drinking parties became popular among affluent members of society, where participants would show off their exquisite tea bowls and display their knowledge about tea.
Around the same time, a more refined version of tea parties developed with Zen-inspired simplicity and a greater emphasis on spirituality. It is from these gatherings that the tea ceremony has its origins. Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), the father of the modern way of tea, advocated for an austere, rustic simplicity. Most of today’s schools of tea ceremony, including Omotesenke and Urasenke, developed from his teachings.
Tea Ceremony Procedure
A full, formal tea ceremony is a multi-hour event that starts with a kaiseki course meal, is followed by a bowl of thick tea and ends with a bowl of thin tea. However, most tea ceremonies these days are much abbreviated events that are limited to the enjoyment of a bowl of thin tea.
It is essential to dress appropriately for a tea ceremony. Avoid gaudy fashion and fragrances that can distract from the tea experience. Wear modest clothes, remove jewelry that may damage the tea equipment and avoid strong perfumes.
The traditional tea ceremony venue is surrounded by a garden, although many modern venues lack a garden. The garden is deliberately kept tranquil and simple to encourage a calm spirit. Flowers with gaudy colors or deep scents are avoided as they are a distraction. Stones of varying shapes and sizes make up the path that leads to the teahouse. A stone lantern is placed close to a stone basin near the entrance where visitors wash their hands before entering the tearoom.
The ceremony is traditionally held in a tatami room. The entrance for guests is sometimes kept low so that entering guests have to bend over, symbolizing humility. Decorative elements in the tearoom include an alcove (tokonoma) where a scroll or seasonal flowers are displayed.
Preparing the Tea
The host typically prepares the tea in front of the guests. The main equipment includes the tea whisk (chasen), tea container for the powdered green tea (natsume), tea scoop (chashaku), tea bowl, sweets container or plate, and the kettle and brazier. Each piece of equipment was carefully selected according to the circumstances and has its specific place.
Enjoying the Tea and Bowl
A Japanese sweet is served before tea and is supposed to be eaten before the tea is drunk. The tea bowl is placed onto the tatami mat in front of you, with its front facing you. Pick it up with your right hand and place it on your left palm. With your right hand, turn it clockwise by around 90 degrees so that its front is no longer facing you. This is a sign of respect towards the other guests, as drinking from the front of the bowl is considered impolite. After enjoying the tea, place the bowl back onto the tatami mat in its original position.
Appreciating the tea bowl is an important part of the tea ceremony. Towards the end of the ceremony, there will be time to inspect and appreciate the bowl by lifting it. Guests are expected to admire the bowl’s design and texture, which are carefully chosen to match the season and the occasion.
The host may ask if guests would like another round of tea, and if not, the tea ceremony is over when the host washes the tea utensils and returns the equipment to where they were before starting. After the ceremony, guests may be invited to stroll in the garden or to admire some of the tea utensils that were used during the ceremony.