Without a doubt, tea is one of the most consumed drinks on the planet. Whether you like it hot or cold, with milk or without, drink it for pleasure or medicinal purposes, it certainly plays a major role in many cultures. For those of us bracing against a chill winter, it is a comforting brew to huddle over. Of course, whilst a global treat, tea originates from East Asia, and the majority of tea production still takes place in this region. So, it is no surprise that Asian culture is steeped in tea, including the famous ritualized practice of the tea ceremony.
Historically, the first documentation of tea being consumed in Asia dates to 4th Century China. It was widely taken for its medicinal properties, and so too drunk for sheer enjoyment. The beverage was introduced to Japan in the 9th Century, and the beginnings of what we know today as the Japanese Tea Ceremony formed towards the end of the 12th Century, when the Buddhist Monk Eisai began performing the tea preparation known as tencha: powdered green tea called matcha is added to a bowl, followed by hot water, and then whipped together. This ritual of preparing and then serving tea has become known as chado or sado, which translates to ‘the way of the tea’.
The Japanese Tea Ceremony, like its origins in China, is strongly influenced by the Buddhist tradition, and like other rituals, it has a strong focus on aesthetics and gestural movements. It is practised as a spiritual process, intended to bring harmony to the attendees. This then became a highly formal social practice, which hosts would study the art of the years before they were able to perform the ceremony. Geishas, in particular, would be trained from childhood to perform the ceremony with ethereal levels of grace, and would host them for the country’s highest society.
These ceremonies were originally only practised and enjoyed by Japan’s elite, due to the status symbol that was held in the consumption of the finest grades of tea, as well as the wealth and grace displayed in the ceremony’s pomp. However, tea drinking, along with the ritual, became accessible to wider Japanese society in the 16th Century, and is still often consumed and performed to this day.
In particular, the tradition has become a treasured and revered part of Japan’s New Year ceremonies. New Year is a time of firsts for the Japanese, with great value placed on January 1st’s first sunrise, the first moment of laughter, the first temple visit, and importance read into the first dream. Naturally, then, the first tea ceremony is even more eventful than it is the rest of the year. This special ceremony is called Hatsugama, and is traditionally celebrated between tea masters and their students. In fact, it is the only time when the master will serve their student, a reversal on the usual status. Hatsugama is also unique due to its festive mood, its especially fine cuisine, and the display of curved braided willow branches that are hung in the alcoves of the venue. It is also used as a time to reflect and meet each other in a large gathering.
The host of a tea ceremony performs a choreographed set of movements at every stage, bringing a visual beauty and serenity to the experience. In the case of geishas, the graceful movements of the hands were designed to be both aesthetic and subtly erotic, with small suggestions at their wrist’s delicacy and the slight exposure of their skin. Whoever performs the ceremony, a specific set of utensils are required, known as chadogu. These consist of a chakin – a hemp cloth that is used to clean the tea bowls; a natsume – the receptacle that holds the brewing tea; a chashaku – a bamboo scoop used to transfer the tea from bowl to bowl; a chasen – made from a single piece of bamboo, this is a unique whisk used specifically to combine the powdered tea and water; and a chawan – a bowl used to consume the brewed tea. These items are all integral to the performance of the ceremony, and to keep each tea ceremony unique, the same combination of objects is never used more than once.
The ceremony varies from season to season, and dependent on the formality of the occasion. Technically, they can be practiced at any venue, but traditionally they are performed at Japan’s iconic tea houses. The host will begin preparing the ceremony at day break, with plenty of time to spare. Once the guests have arrived, they are treated courteously and led through the tea garden to a stone basin where they wash their hands and rinse out their mouths. The guests then proceed to the tea house; once they have arrived, they bow to the host, kneeling before each other on a cushion. With aesthetic grace and beauty, the host cleans the chadogu utensils, boils pure water in the pot, and add the powdered matcha to a serving bowl. Once the water has boiled, it is ladled into the chawan with the chashaku and whisked thoroughly together using the chasen. The tea is then offered to the guest, who rotates the chawan to avoid drinking from its decorated front side. After sipping, the bowl is wiped and passed along to the next attendee, until it is completely emptied. The ceremony comes to a close with the consumption of special sweets known as wagashi. The chadogu are then cleared up by the host with great care, and the ceremony is ended. At its most formal, the ceremony can last up to four hours.
If you want to experience a Japanese Tea Ceremony and are lucky enough to be in Japan, then there are various venues and tea houses that welcome the public to share the experience. Alternatively, there are many fine examples recorded and available to watch online, which are wonderful spectacles to observe. Matcha tea is also widely available at high-street coffee and tea outlets if you want to give it a taste. When prepared properly, it also holds major health benefits – ten times more than those found in normal bags of green tea. These include antioxidants, the ability to boost your metabolism and a calming effect on the body. Perhaps this is one of the reasons it became the tea of choice in the ceremony?
The Japanese Tea Ceremony reminds us to take a step back from the chaotic lives we live in the 21st Century. Use the time to relax and truly appreciate one the simple pleasures in life – tea. The next time you make yourself or someone else a cuppa, savour the ritual and the harmony of preparing it, the taste of the gift of tea given to us from the earth, and equally, the social aspect, too.