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The origins of the Japanese tea ceremony
The custom of whisked tea was brought to Japan by Japanese Zen Buddhist monks studying in China and the Song fashion for whisked tea became enshrined as the method of preparation. It evolved during the 14-15th centuries and reached its apogee in the 16th century. The Japanese tea ceremony, Chanoyu, was introduced by Sen Rikyu who said of it: “it is simply to drink tea, knowing that if you just heat the water your thirst is certain to be quenched. Nothing else is involved.” However, under his influence the ceremony became an art form combining nature, crafts, philosophy and religion. The ceremony can last up to four hours.
The monks’ day was prescribed by the rules of ‘shingi’, the oldest being the rules of purity written by monk Dogen (1200-53) which included tea etiquette for serving tea which took the form of a complex ritual. The preparation of a bowl of tea is governed by one thousand variations of temae – the rules of body movement for the tea ceremony.
In 1474 after Kyoto was again laid waste during the Onon and Bummei wars Ashikaga Shogun Yoshimasa created his first tea room at Higashiyama. This minimally furnished retreat featured mats on the floor and an inset central shelf for tea preparation. It was also a place for appreciating collected Chinese art.
Unlike the Chinese tradition of using iron in which to infuse the tea in Japan porcelain was preferred. The tea used was from Uji, to the south of Kyoto. After picking the leaves are steamed and then dried over charcoal. The finest grades of the spring picking bought by the nobility were then sent in caddies to monasteries high in the mountains where the coolness would keep the green colour of the leaf. In October the caddies were called for and a special ceremony ‘kuchi-kiri’ was held on the day the caddies were opened.
Sen Rikyu became a favourite of society when many treasures were displayed during the serving of tea yet the monk’s preference as written down by his disciple manifested itself in the simplest and most minimal aspects of shelter, nature, the veneration of Bhudda and the appreciation of tea.
The formalities of the tea ceremony
In winter a hearth is positioned in the centre of the room. In summer a brazier is placed in a corner, away from the participants.
The ceremony is always performed in honour of the first guest.
Where there are four mats in the room, up to three guests may be invited.
The host fills a basin with water and sprinkles some of this onto bushes in the garden outside the pavilion before greeting his guests.
The guests are welcomed with deep bows but no words.
Guests are greeted outside the pavilion in which the ceremony is to be performed.
Guests proceed carefully across stepping stones to the basin, wash themselves and remove their sandals.
They proceed to the tearoom through a very small doorway or ‘mouse wicket’ which symbolically separates the mundane world from the utopian.
On entering the room, the first guests contemplate a chosen calligraphy scroll.
A frugal meal then commences of soup and two or three dishes.
After cleaning themselves again the guests admire one or two flowers whilst thick tea, ‘koicha’, is prepared. At this point they may enjoy the garden.
The kettle is boiled and when it sounds like “wind rustling in the pines” a gong is struck summoning the return of the guests.
The preferred cups for serving tea are raku and their pleasing sense of touch is an important aspect of the ceremony.
Ceremonial grade matcha tea is used for Koicha, thick tea at 4.0 grams per cup (20-50 ml). First, freshly boiled water is left to cool a little (to around 80 degrees C). Some is then poured into a bowl containing the correct measurement of tea where it is whisked with a chasen. The remaining water is then added and it is whisked again. The final consistency should be that of melted chocolate or syrup with a noticeable kick due to the high caffeine content. The cup is then placed to the right of the hearth.
Serving the tea
The first guest crawls over to get the cup and returns to his place. He raises the cup to his forehead in thanks then swallows a mouthful of tea.
The host asks “Is the tea to your taste? Don’t you find t too strong or too weak?
The first guest replies “It is just right. You know how to blend tea and water well.” He drinks another two and a half mouthfuls, wipes the cup and passes it to the second guest.
The last guest drains the cup. This is then inspected in turn by the guests and the ‘three treasures’ of the caddy, silk-brocade bag and the teaspoon.
Koicha is normally followed by usucha or ‘thin tea’.
Usucha is prepared with about 2.0 grams of tea per 35 ml water and is the more common way of preparing tea in Japan. The tea is again made with water cooled to around 80 degrees poured into a pot. It is infused for around 2.5 minutes and then is poured into the cups in turn ensuring the strength of the infusion is equal for each. Alternatively, usucha may be whisked to create a more frothy beverage. The resultant cup will be smooth, foamy with a pleasant ‘umami’ or aroma.
Sen Rikyu was sentenced to crucifixion by the emperor, by possibly causing confusion in the ceramics market, commuted to ‘seppuku’ or ritual disembowelment.
A vastly simplified ceremony was created by Baisao, a Zen monk using sencha green tea. He died in 1763. This ceremony focuses much more on the tea itself.
Today black tea is increasingly popular in Japan and classes are held to teach participants the English tradition of serving tea. However, the Japanese tea ceremony is still widely practiced.
See our Japanese teas.