It is thought that the first evidence of tea being served in Japan dates all the way back to the 9th century, when a Buddhist monk brought tea back from his travels to China and prepared it for the Emperor. It wasn’t until the 12th century that the foundations of what would eventually become the traditional tea ceremony, popularized much later in the 16th century, by Sen no Reiku, began.
Around the same time, Buddhist monks also brought back tea seeds, which would eventually produce tea that was of the highest quality found anywhere in Japan. At first something only enjoyed by royalty, overtime, the importance of tea throughout Japanese culture would slowly change and grow until it became a ritual enjoyed by everyone. Sen no Reiku is still venerated as the unquestioned “master of tea,” associated to this day with being the father of the modern traditional tea ceremony, widely spreading the rituals and traditions associated with correctly preparing the matcha tea. The founding principles set forth by Sen no Reiku of Harmony (wa), Respect (kei), Purity (sei), and tranquility (jaku), are still a central part of the traditional tea ceremony to this day.
Slowly over time, the tea ceremony developed as a “transformative practice,” evolving its own aesthetics, architecture and design, mostly based on the ideals of “Wabi-Sabi.” Wabi represents the inner spiritual experiences in human life. It generally came to be associated with quiet, sober refinement, which emphasized simple objects and celebrated the simple beauty that time and care impart to materials. Sabi, in contrast, emphasizes the outer, more material side of things, the construction and placement of objects. Originally, the word came to mean “worn, weathered, or decayed,” once again almost emphasizing the fleeting nature of every experience. Throughout our study of the Japanese tea ceremony, this concept is something that, at least for me, became almost synonymous with it, showing up over and over again, the idea that everything is transient, and therefore every moment should be cherished. The often mentioned tea master Sen no Reiku, seemed to deeply believe in the philosophy ichi-go ichi-e, basically the concept that every meeting is unique and should be treasured, because that exact moment only happens once, and can never be reproduced. For a very interesting article, which explores with much greater depth the philosophies associated with the tea ceremony, click here.
The changing seasons are another very important part of the tea ceremony, different variations in the ceremony dictated by the month, and season of the year. If food is served along with the tea, the season is especially important because usually only seasonally available vegetables or fruits are used. The year is broken into two parts; the “sunken hearth season (ro),” made up of the cooler months — usually November to April, and the “brazier season (furo) making up the warmer months — May to October. Often during the warmer months, the tea ceremony can take place outside picnic style, or within view of the beautiful blooming cherry and plum trees. Flower viewing, also known as Hanami, is something of a national pastime every Spring, from the end of March, all the way through May. Every year, the national weather service in Japan, posts a forecast of the days when the cherry and plum trees are expected to be in full bloom and looking their best. Often, entire parties with food, drinks, and music, are set up, allowing everyone to enjoy the beautifully blooming trees.
There are two main ways of preparing the matcha green tea for the ceremony: thick (koicha), which gets its name due to the fact that it requires nearly 3 times as much powdered tea, and thin (usucha), with the better quality tea leaves used to make the thick tea.
Usually, this list of basic equipment, is used in every tea ceremony:
- Small rectangular cloth (Chakin) — used to wipe the tea bowl.
- Tea Bowl (Chawan)— tea bowls come in a huge variety of styles and sizes, differing according to the type of tea being served. Shallow bowls, which allow the tea to cool more quickly, are usually used in the Summer, deep bowls are used in the winter.
- Tea Caddy (Natsume) — a small lided container, holding the powdered matcha.
- Tea Scoop (Chashaku) — used to scoop the tea from the caddy to the bowl.
- Tea Whisk (Chasen) — used to mix the powdered matcha with the hot water. Often carved from a single piece of bamboo.
If you are interested in learning the actual steps for preparing the tea, along with some of the ways it can be served, check out this brief video.
The actual rituals of the tea ceremony are made up of a series of very well orchestrated events, each having its own meaning. You first meet your fellow guests, then walk through the grounds of the tea house, performing ablutions like washing your hands and removing shoes, before entering a sparsely decorated room, meeting your host, admiring all the features of the room and tea utensils, watching the tea being prepared and poured, then bowing, and consuming the food and tea. A light meal of seasonal ingredients and rice can accompany the tea, or it can simply be made up of a sweet bean paste or sweet cake. Usually something sweet is served along with the tea because especially the thick tea is extremely strong and rather bitter. The sweet cleanses the palette and balances out the bitter.
Even if you drink matcha as part of an informal ceremony, always hold the bowl in your right hand, and place it in the palm of your left. Turn it clockwise about 90 degrees, raise it with both hands, then slowly empty it in three gulps. A short video further explaining the intricate way of serving and drinking the tea can be found here. It is narrated by a woman who studied with some of the great teachers of the tea ceremony, and actually opened a traditional Japanese tea house in Malibu, California in 2009.
As you can imagine,there is much more to the fascinating history and ritual of the tea ceremony than could possibly be fit into one single post, something that would definitely be interesting to study further in the future. I hope you have enjoyed learning about it as much as we did, and journeying along with us into the world of Japanese food culture.