Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Japanese Tea Ceremony Somewhat De-Mystified

(Cross-posted with InSteep blog)

There's more to being a guest at a Japanese tea ceremony than simply showing up. I learned this humble lesson several weeks ago while attending a demonstration benefitting a local Magonote group who help elderly Japanese in my local area. It's a semi-annual evening at my local tea shoppe with a limited enrollment and typically is difficult to get into, but I was lucky to be able to reserve a spot for the Fall event.

The instructors follow the Urasenke school of Chado (the way of tea). I had not known before that evening that Urasenke roughly translates as "the back-field son." When Sen no Rikyu retired from the "business" of instructing Chado, the honor eventually passed to his grandsons, who each inherited a third of the family's estate and essentially founded the three different 'schools' or 'techniques' for the ceremony. Sen being the family name, the three different schools are named after the brother who founded them, Urasenke being the brother who inherited the back plot of the family estate.


The lesson begins before one enters the traditional tea room. Everyone, regardless of class or social rank, enters through the same low door. This means bowing or crouching down, even if you're the Emperor. It was explained as being a way to bring humility and harmony to the occasion; a reinforcement of the idea that everyone is equal as they gather together.

More surprisingly, I was told that the host (or the tea preparer) isn't usually there to greet the guests as they arrive, but rather they have prepared a small display of seasonal flowers or a scroll with a particular meaning for the guests to reflect upon for several minutes as they gather. The theme is nearly always in harmony with the given season. For my event, the hosts had prepared a text and a lithograph of Japanese ducks to look at, in keeping with fall that has settled in around us.

Contrast this with the Western emphasis on greeting each guest promptly at the door and ushering them to the sitting room. Most of us expect to be waited upon or otherwise welcomed and then instructed where to go or what to do, but the tea ceremony guests is already conscious of where they're expected to gather, and they do so patiently. While it is a social gathering, it seems to be one focused on the meditation of sharing the same space and experience, and less about an occasion to catch up on the latest news.


Once the guests have gathered in their places in the room, the host usually has a helper who presents a tray of sweets that are intended to be nibbled before the tea is consumed. The host begins preparing the water, which is likely to be boiling over a fire of hot coals or, as was the case this particular night, a hot plate for safety reasons.

If you're a frequent tea ceremony guest, you likely have brought a small decorated purse-type bag with you containing a traditional folding fan (sensu) to combat the temperature in the room, a large pick (youji) that serves as a knife and fork for the sweets (wagashi), a supply of fiber paper (kaishi) to lay the sweet upon, and a special cloth (dashibukusa) to handle the tea bowl you'll be served. It is possible that if you attend a number of authentic tea ceremonies, you'll be served matcha in your host's most prized bowls. I was told that the demontrators had attended ceremonies where they were served from pieces dating as far back as the 1700's. As a guest, you want to respect your host's teaware and protect the piece as much as possible.

There is also a funny give-and-take of politeness between guests and their neighbors. When the host offers the sweets, the first guest places the plate between themselves and their neighbor and then asks to be forgiven for eating first, but nonetheless takes the first nibbles as the guest to their left patiently waits their turn. We were served a small pancake-like pastry filled with red bean (or adzuki) paste. It was delicious and sweet, the exact intention. Beginning with sweet and ending with the somewhat bitter matcha re-emphasizes the concept of harmony between extremes.

The same pecking order occurs when the tea is prepared and offered. The guests are generally served one at a time, with the guest on the right going first. They accept the bowl with their right hand, turn it gently around in their palm until the front motif of the bowl is facing the host, and then take 3-5 sips. One last loud sip signals that the matcha serving is finished, and the bowl is placed back on the mat and admired one last time before returning to the host.
Casual ceremonies may last between 45 minutes to 1 hour and can find the guests and hosts switching roles during the course of the evening.


Ceremonial grade matcha is much sweeter than the typical restaurant grade that you might encounter in your local tea shoppe as served in lattés or mixed into different pastries. It is something everyone should try at least once! The color was an opaque, turquoise-like emerald green, and I regret that I didn't get pictures taken, but there was the privacy of my fellow participants to consider.

For those not familiar with matcha, it is simply the green tea leaf that is ground into a fine powder and whisked into boiling water rather than steeped like traditional tea. You're consuming the entire leaf, and it's for that reason that you can expect some vegetal bitterness in the cup, but at the same time it is a refreshing taste when properly prepared.

MORE TO COME : In the next installment, I'll go into more detail about tools and techniques from the tea preparer's point of view.

No comments:

Post a Comment