Japanese Tea Ceremony: Here’s What You Need To Know
The world has always been pretty fascinated by the Japanese tea ceremony.
With its quiet, sombre whispering, delicate tea service, bowing, and passing around of the matcha bowl, it seems like the perfect example of refined Japanese hospitality.
So what goes on in a Japanese tea ceremony? This article unpacks what it is, what it means, and where it comes from. If you’re planning on attending—or hosting—one in the near future, you’ll find tips for how to go about it right here.
Japanese Tea Ceremony: The Origin Story
In the 9th century, a Buddhist monk named Eichu brought the tea plant to Japan. It was a gift to the emperor of Japan. Tea, which had been a mainstream staple in China for hundreds of years, became part of an imperial decree—and so tea plantations were cultivated across Japan.
Generations later, tea—specifically matcha tea—began to be included as part of Buddhist religious rituals that continue to this day.
So what happened in between? In a word: betrayal.
The Samurai and the Monk
Rikyu, who was a highly honored Buddhist monk, was a close friend and confidante to samurai regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The samurai regent—an extremely powerful man in early Japanese culture—supported Rikyu as he spread the new ritual called, ‘The Way of Tea’. This was the earliest version of our modern day Japanese tea ceremony.
Hideyoshi inwardly had his own beliefs about what a tea ceremony should be. At the time, tea was a powerful political currency, and an effective way of gaining influence over influential figures on the political scene.
The pair were destined to clash. One saw tea rituals as a pursuit of purity and spirituality. The other saw tea as a vital tool in his quest for power.
Over time, Hideyoshi began to distance himself from his friend, the monk. Rikyu became more of a hindrance to his political goals, than a friend.
By 1590, Hideyoshi had reached his limit—he could no longer tolerate Rikyu’s growing influence and that threat to his own, weakening power. In a desperate bid to weaken his perceived enemy, he ordered the execution of a key figure in Rikyu’s social and spiritual circle.
It didn’t cripple Rikyu’s level of influence. In fact, it had the opposite effect.
So Hideyoshi followed that up with an order that would change the course of Japanese history: he ordered his long-time friend to commit suicide—hara-kiri.
True to Rikyu’s intrinsic selflessness and authentic character, he obeyed. In his final moments, he addressed a poem to his dagger, sharing his wish for the spiritual growth of his people—and for his tea tradition to endure.
And endure, it did. The tea ceremony moved away from the opulence and extravagance of the upper class, and became a part of the humble, minimalist townspeople of the country.
Okakura Kakuzo, author of The Book of Tea, describes the relationship Japan has with tea as being representative of purity and harmony.
“It is a worship of the imperfect (…) A tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”
Ironic, really, that such a violent betrayal and dispute can lead to one of Japan’s most peaceful and elegant Japanese institutions.
Japanese Tea Ceremony: What It Is
Chado—The Way of Tea—is the ritual of preparing and serving matcha tea to guests.
Traditional chado service takes place in a minimalist room, decorated with tatami mats and elegant Japanese art. It is usually delivered to up to five guests, over four hours of formal service.
Japanese tea ceremonies are a spiritual, almost meditative process, where everyone focuses on harmony, inner peace, and taking pleasure in the present moment. Everything about the ceremony is designed for the wellbeing of guests. Movements are elegant and delicate—designed to convey respect and humility. Décor is often chosen to suit the guests, or their character. Even the tea utensils are set upon the tatami mat so that guests get the best view to admire them. From start to finish, the Japanese tea ceremony is designed to make guests feel happy and valued.
Japanese Tea Ceremony: How It Works
Professional chado hosts spend decades mastering the craft of serving tea. They often study philosophy, aesthetics, calligraphy, and design, to prepare them for offering a meticulously customized experience to each guest.
While every Japanese tea ceremony is tailored to its guests, the basic structure looks something like this:
- Chado hosts wake before sunrise to prepare the décor and service utensils.
- Guests are greeted and led through a traditional Japanese garden.
- A symbolic cleansing ritual is performed to remove the pollution of the outside world.
- Guests bow as they enter the tea chamber.
- The host cleanses their utensils using purified water and a traditional iron kettle.
- Fukusa is drawn from the host’s kimono sash, inspected, folded, and used to carry the hot kettle.
- Matcha and water are mixed using a bamboo whisk.
- The prepared matcha is handed to the first guest.
- The guest rotates the bowl twice and takes a sip. This is to avoid drinking from the elaborately decorated ‘front side’ of the bowl.
- The guest wipes the bowl and passes it on.
- Azuki bean sweets are served by the host.
- Eventually, the bowl is returned to the host, the tools are cleaned in another ritual, and the ceremony is closed.
Japanese Tea Ceremony: Quick Tips
- Wear modest clothes, simple jewelry, and avoid strong-smelling fragrances.
- Remove your shoes when you enter a traditional Japanese home, unless instructed otherwise.
- Bow slowly and deeply as you enter the tearoom.
- Monitor the volume of your voice.
- Avoid idle chatter.
- Turn off your phone.
- Bow again once you are seated, then take a minute to admire the décor that has been carefully selected for you.
- When you return the bowl to your host, turn it so the decorative ‘front side’ faces your host.
- Remember to thank your host, as they have invested a lot of time in making this a positive, enjoyable experience for you.