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The Japanese Tea Ceremony: Tea as a Way of Life - December 2006 Newsletter


To the Japanese, tea is not just a beverage; it is a philosophical and symbolic experience.  The Japanese name for the tea ceremony is chadõ or sadõ, which translates to “the way of tea.” For the Japanese, the way of tea is the way of life; the ceremony is a model for how people should behave in society. 

The Japanese were not the inventors of tea.  Tea was introduced to Japan by the Chinese in 8th century when a Buddhist monk brought tea seeds back to his monastery. The monks used tea to stay awake while meditating. It was not until the 13th century that tea drinking became common outside of the monastery. From the Buddhists, the enjoyment of tea spread to the ruling class: the aristocrats and the samurai.  The first tea gatherings were parties where participants would bet on who could accurately name the flavor of the tea that was served. From this, the tea ceremony evolved, first as a source of peace in the turbulence of the civil wars in the 15th and 16th centuries, then to a Zen practice outlined by the monk Murata Jukoh that emphasized serenity and simplicity (wabi and sabi). Tea became so important in Japanese culture that it grew into a kind of philosophy, aptly titled Teaism.  In The Book of Tea, written in the 1900’s, Okakura Kakuzo describes Teaism as finding the beauty in everyday existence.  Taking ideas from Taoism and Zen Buddhism, Teaism says that every small task and detail is significant.  Like the philosophies it draws from, Teaism upholds both aesthetic idealism and the idea of the great in the small, maintaining that every action, role, and aspect of life is equally important.

The tea ceremony eventually evolved into the highly ritualized tea presentation called chanoyu (which translates to hot water for tea). Developed by Sen-no Rikyu (1522-1591), chanoyu emphasized four principles: harmony (wa), respect (kei), cleanliness (sei), and serenity (jaku).  He designed a set of seven rules for the tea ceremony that would uphold these principles that explained how to properly prepare and present the ceremony.  For a chanoyu to be correct, the host must not only prepare tea perfectly, by heating water to barley a simmer using charcoal and a pot, and serve the correct amount of tea, but also make considerations to the time of year.  If it is summer, you must make sure to serve tea in a cool environment; in winter, make sure your guests will be warm.  Every aspect counts; it is even important to arrange flowers as they might be found in nature.  Prepare for your chanoyu in good time, and be ready in case of foul weather. Finally, perhaps most importantly, you must respect your guests.

In the past, tea was served in a special building overlooking a garden, where guests could appreciate the beauty and tranquility of the nature around them.  Teahouses developed from the bare, simple style of the Zen monasteries. Orthodox tearooms were only 10 square feet, and the entranceways were only three feet high. The doorway was low so that participants would bow upon entering as a sign of humility. As an important aspect of the ceremony, participants walked along the roji,or garden path, on the way to the tearoom. This journey symbolized the first stage of meditation and a return to nature. Today, tea is often served in a special tearoom within a host’s home.  There are also public teahouses, and sometimes there are even special areas within the workplace designated for enjoying tea. 

A Chaji, or full tea, can take approximately four hours. This highly structured event involves a meal and two separate tea ceremonies. The ceremony begins with the guests arriving and being led into a waiting room, where they are given a sample of the water that will be used to brew the tea. From here, they are led through the garden where they are received by their host or hostess, who then accompanies them to the teahouse. This journey is meant to take them away from the every day and back to the simple pleasures of the natural world. On their way, guests stop to wash their hands at a basin of fresh running water. After entering the low doorway to the teahouse, guests take several minutes to appreciate the scrolls, flowers, and pot that their host has chosen for the occasion.  The guests then kneel on tatami, or rice straw mats and watch as the host lights the charcoal fire and the ceremony begins.  Before tea is served, an elegant meal is presented and a round of sake is drunk. It is not until after the meal, which may take as long as an hour, that the first tea ceremony is performed.  Guests leave the teahouse and step into the garden while the room is cleaned and prepared.  The first brew is green tea, which is made from a powder and whipped in boiled water.  This round takes approximately forty-five minutes and includes dessert, a sweet cake that is eaten with small wooden stick the guests provide for themselves.  When the fire has burnt low, the host performs the second fire-lighting ceremony, as well as the second round of tea.  Guests converse while waiting for the kettle to boil.  Then, a thinner, lighter tea is served. This too is accompanied by sweets.

The art of tea is something that must be learned.  Becoming a tea master can take years of training. The basic ceremony can be learned in three years, but becoming a true master takes a lifetime of dedication. Traditionally, women were required to master this ritual before they could be wed.  Today, those proficient in the art of tea are still given the title of Master, and are highly respected.

Ready to start your training? Learn more about this rich tradition with a copy of The Tea Ceremony by Seno Tamaka.  Once you become familiar with the history and philosophy of tea, invite your friends over for your own tea ceremony, or at least a tea party.  You’ll find everything you need, from teapots and cups to the tea itself, right here at Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen.


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