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My Experience With Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremonies

Updated on September 1, 2017
Jean Bakula profile image

Jean has taught astrology and tarot for 40 years. She enjoys music, reading, knitting, gardening and meditation in her cottage in the woods.

Japanese Tea House

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. | Source

Drinking Tea is an Art in Japanese Culture

There's nothing more comforting than a cup of hot tea on a rainy or cold afternoon, is there? Or just the act of sitting and quietly sipping, not worried about our worldly problems. Well, the Japanese capitalized on these two lovely ideas and made "having tea" into an art. A very serious art, which is an important part of Japanese culture. They call this art of having tea, cha-no-yu. This zen art has had a huge influence on Japanese life, as a chajin, or “man of tea,” is a sort of Renaissance man, who has excellent tastes in matters of gardening, architecture, ceramics, metalwork, lacquer, and flower arranging. The Japanese people are used to a very formal and structured culture, where strict protocols are observed. The austere presentation of the tea ceremony is a great example of zen, as it requires only a bowl, tea and hot water. The art of tea can be practiced anywhere and with whatever items are available, as it is very Zen-like in its simplicity.

My Experience with Japanese Culture

I am a self confessed Blue Mountain Coffee convert myself. But my son has been groomed to be the front man and eventual successor to a traditional Japanese Goju-Ru Karate Academy. He has trained there for nineteen years now. He fell in love with the Japanese culture, and I have also gotten used to it myself over the years, as he was ten years old when he joined. It is a large, family group, and we all would get together at promotion ceremonies, Christmas parties and the like. So I got used to eating with chopsticks, and as he was teaching more, his students would often gift him with Japanese tea sets.

I can't even count the amount of tea sets he has in my cabinets! His teacher, or Sensei, also loves the Japanese culture, and took care of his own Sensei on Okinawa when he was ill and dying. I have had the pleasure of attending the traditional tea ceremony that many will recall in the clip of the Karate Kid 11 I have included below.

I have come to enjoy a quiet sitting around the teapot, taking small sips from all the beautiful cups and enjoying all the delicate tea pots he has been given. It's a nice treat to have a tea with friends for their birthdays or around the holidays, especially when times are very hectic. The traditional tea ceremony is made with powdered green tea, but since I have many other lovely tea sets, I also enjoy a cup of green tea made with the more regular kind of tea leaves most people are used to seeing.

Religions are Often Associated with Beverages

Christianity is associated with wine, Islam with coffee, and Buddhism with tea. Tea’s way of clearing the mind and providing an invigorating taste is believed to assist one in “awakening” or satori. The tea’s bitterness has a natural texture, and the “middle path” of taste between sweet and sour is reminiscent of Buddhism. Years before the practice of cha-no-yu, monks used tea as a stimulant for meditation. It was drunk in an atmosphere of unhurried awareness which naturally lent itself to a type of ritual behavior. Tea was refreshing in the summer, and in the winter months it helped warm wandering hermit monks who lived in bamboo huts in the mountains, or near rock filled streams in the forests. The lack of distraction and simplicity of the Taoist or Zen hermits helped set the style for a type of house not only used for cha-no-yu, but for Japanese architecture as a whole.

Japanese Tea Ceremonies are Sometimes used in Romantic Circumstances (You tube, from the Karate Kid 2)

Lay People Began Having Tea Ceremonies in the Fifteenth Century

The monastic tea ceremony was introduced into Japan during the fifteenth century, but adopted for lay use shortly afterward. Ceremonial tea is not ordinary tea leaves steeped in hot water, it is finely powdered green tea mixed with a bamboo whisk until it becomes very thick and green. This custom is most appreciated when confined to a small group, or just two people, and was especially loved by the old time Samurai, as an unhurried escape from the world. It is also loved today by stressed out people. A woman being courted by a man would observe this ritual with him too, in a more ornate way, but with the same structure and rules observed.

The tea we Americans buy in supermarkets today, such as Tetley or Lipton, are considered "tea dust" by cultures who brew the whole leaves. I certainly couldn't read tea leaves from those brands! There is a company called Upton Tea Company which sells a plethora of teas to consumers. They are also very generous with samples, and carry a large amount of tea varieties. If you go to Uptontea.com you will definitely want to order tea, and will receive a quarterly catalog to introduce you to more types than you can imagine! But for purposes of a Japanese Tea ceremony, green tea is the preferred type. It is also not leaves of the tea, but a powdered green substance that has been pulverized and is very strong.

Tea Areas are Separate from the Main House

In the best circumstances, cha-no-yu is served in a small area or house set apart from the main house, perhaps in a garden area near the dwelling. There are straw mats or tatami on the floor, an enclosed fire pit, and the roof is normally thatched. The walls in Japanese homes are paper shoji, supported by uprights of wood with a natural finish. One side of the room is occupied by an alcove or tokonoma, the spot where one single hanging scroll will be displayed, along with a painting or calligraphy, perhaps a rock, a vase of flowers or one other art object.

The Procedure Has Many Steps

Although the ceremony is formal, it is also relaxed, and the guests may talk or sit in silence if they wish. The host takes time making preparations, and uses a bamboo dipper to pour water into the iron kettle. He brings out other items, a plate with little cakes, the tea bowl and caddy, the whisk, and a bigger bowl for the used tea leaves. He behaves in a completely unhurried manner, and conversation can begin during these preparations. Soon the water begins to simmer (boiled water will burn green tea leaves), and as the kettle begins to make sounds, the guests fall silent. Tea is then served to the guests one by one from the same bowl, as the water is poured from the caddy, whipped into the froth, and then the bowl is put before the first guest.

Japanese Tea Ceremony Utensils

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The Tea Sets are Simple, Yet Lovely

The bowls are mostly roughly finished, and often unglazed at the base. The glaze on the sides has been allowed to run, a calculated “mistake” believed to offer many opportunities for “controlled accidents” in life. All of the pottery is carefully chosen for unaffected beauty. Once the tea has been drunk, guests may ask to inspect the utensils used, as they are often saved for these occasions and brought out because the host thought a particular guest would appreciate a certain item. You can find really beautiful sets in any Chinatown you visit.

Zen Taste is on Display

Every piece used for cha-no-yu has been carefully selected with taste and sensitivity, and Japanese people have considered this for centuries. Although their choices of items may be intuitive, often careful measurements of the objects show interesting and unexpected proportions, such as the geometry of a spiral shell or the structure of a snow crystal. Painters, architects, gardeners and craftsmen are all cha-no-yu masters, and work together so their Zen taste is reflected into objects they use every day. This applies to all ordinary kitchen items, bowls, teapots and cups, floor mats, baskets, bottles, jars, textiles for clothing and many other artifacts which the Japanese use to show off their good taste.

A Tea Ceremony Introduces Zen into Life

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There is Spirituality in Nature

The Zen of cha-no-yu shows up all the more for the purely secular character of this ritual, though it has no religious purpose like a Catholic Mass or certain elaborate ceremonies of Buddhism. The guests avoid controversial matters in the conversation, although there can be polite discussions of philosophical matters. The preferred topics are art and nature. Japanese people love to discuss these subjects, just as Americans love to speak of sports and pop culture.

But when they speak of natural beauty it does not sound forced as it would in American culture. The Japanese also do not feel guilty taking this long escape from the daily reality of worldly competition. They feel that it is natural and necessary to get away from such matters at times. The Japanese tea ceremony is not awkward or embarrassing in a Taoist world of carefree hermits, who wander through the mountains with nothing to do except grow some vegetables, gaze at the mists, and listen to the waterfalls. Perhaps in this way they can find the secret of bringing different aspects of life together—the one of tough realities and the one of flowing spirituality as in the working of the Tao. If such a ceremony was adopted in the United States, we would be a less stressed out and more spiritual society. Sometimes we really have to just stop, think, and listen to what other people have to say.

© 2017 Jean Bakula

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    • Jean Bakula profile image
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      Jean Bakula 3 weeks ago from New Jersey

      Hello Peggy,

      Doesn't it sound cozy? And calm too, something we could all use more of. Take care, Jean

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 3 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      The Japanese Tea Ceremony sounds lovely and relaxing. It truly sounds like something that almost anyone would enjoy if taking a break from a normally busy life.