The Japanese Tea Ceremony: An Elegant Tradition Steeped in History

April 23, 2019

A ritual both effortlessly simple and delicately complex, tea ceremony in Japan is a long-practiced tradition dating back over 1,000 years. Known as chanoyu, ‘the way of tea’ involves the preparation and serving of a smooth but bitter tea with a seasonal sweet. Strongly associated with Kyoto thanks in part to the tea-growing Uji region, the tradition remains a strong part of contemporary Japanese culture, with tea-ceremony clubs still popular in both junior and senior high schools today.

Introduced by Buddhist monks on their return from China, the preparation of green tea became a hobby for Japanese nobles, eventually becoming a symbol of wealth. Its enjoyment became increasingly ritualized, with the finest Chinese bowls being used in ceremonies and participants wearing their very best attire.

In reaction to this, devoted Buddhist monks and tea-masters Murata Juko (1423–1502) and Sen no Rikyu (1522–1591) attempted to reclaim the ceremony as a humble, austere experience. Using only simple, locally made bowls and encouraging visitors to search for the beauty within them, the wabi-cha movement was formed. Considered vital in the development of wabi-sabi aesthetic, the tea ceremony became a process of appreciation—enabling participants to accept imperfection and accept the imprint of time rather than seeking the easy gratification of bright colors and gilded adornments.

Traditionally held in a tatami-floored tea room known as a chashitsu, the ceremony is strongly interwoven with the changing of the seasons. As such, a traditional Japanese garden is ideally viewed from the room, but scrolls and ikebana flower displays are also used to signify the season. As participants are seated in a seiza position, the tea master prepares and serves the tea, following the intricate rules of their school. Fine matcha powder is taken from the tea caddy using a delicate scoop, often made of bamboo, as are the whisks used to mix the tea with hot water.

Once ready, a bowl is placed before each guest along with a small sweet called wagashi. Directly contrasting the bitterness of the tea, the sweets are made of bean paste, rice and seasonal fruits. While tea ceremony originally involved multi-course meals, today it is more often served with only the wagashi.

Across Japan, there are a range of places to experience chanoyu, either by participating in the full ceremony or simply enjoying the end result at a temple or garden teahouse. In Kyoto, many traditional tea houses offer a sample experience, often encouraging guests to attend in the austere mindset—foregoing strong perfumes and opting for simple outfits. An already popular destination, Kinkaku-ji Temple’s teahouse offers a gold-leaf adorned sweet to enjoy as you admire the gardens from a parasol-shaded seat in summer or a warm tatami room in winter.

In Tokyo, one of the most popular tea-houses can be found in Hamarikyu Gardens, overlooking the water. Each Autumn, the gardens host a Grand Tea Ceremony, with guests taking part in a full traditional ceremony. The capital has some more contemporary options, however, such as the modern Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience in Omotesando. Offering a tasting course of teas selected by owner and tea-master Shinya Sakura, this is a contemporary introduction to tea.

However it is enjoyed, the Japanese tea ceremony is a quintessential cultural experience offering a chance to connect with nature in a profound yet humble way.

For more details, contact DMC Japan to discuss ideas, locations and rates.
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