What is it? Japan and Tea
Tea (cha) has been an important part of Japanese culture for centuries, and it is still the most consumed drink in Japan (though coffee has become extremely popular as well in the last couple of decades). Japanese society is now steeped in the habit and ritual of tea, especially green tea. One of my favorite parts of flying on Japanese airlines is the seemingly constant offers of hot or cold green tea, and I love that you can get unsweetened green tea in vending machines all over Japan. The Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu) evolved centuries ago, largely out of a burgeoning love of tea and the mentality of Zen Buddhism. The actual point of the ceremony is not just to enjoy some tea with friends or family, but it is also supposed to be (if you are doing it right) a very personal, being-in-the-moment, harmonious experience, where the act of making the tea is as beneficial and comforting as the actual drinking of it. It is a form of meditation. It is peaceful. It is a gift given by the host to the guests. And best of all, you get to drink some really delicious tea as well.
The combination of ritualistic tea preparation and the mindfulness and spirituality of Buddhism gave rise to the Japanese tea ceremony as early as the 12th century. Like a lot of things in Japan, the importance of tea and the idea for the tea ceremony originated in China and was brought over by Japanese Buddhist monks returning to Japan, first by the Japanese monk Eichu. In fact, there were no tea plants in Japan until the first seeds from China were imported over 1000 years ago. For the most part, tea was consumed as a form of medicine for a large number of illnesses. It was later incorporated into religious ceremonies by the monk Eisai, who founded Zen Buddhism in Japan. He was also the person who decided to try grinding up the tea into a powder before adding the hot water and using a bamboo whisk to mix them together. This formed the basis of what we now know as the Japanese tea ceremony. Through the years and various periods, tea and its ceremony were adopted by the Samurai class who added to it the importance of simplicity and aesthetic quality. After a long time, it spread down through the classes to more common people, though it still kept the Zen Buddhist influence of intimacy, aesthetics, and the sharing of tea amongst friends or guests.
How does it work?
As the ceremony has evolved over hundreds of years, there have been different schools of thought, variations, and models that developed on how a tea ceremony should be performed. This is a general guideline for what a traditional experience is like today (*Note: if you find places in Japan offering a “tea ceremony” it is probable that no two will be the same and may vary wildly in scope and execution). The traditional room for a Japanese tea ceremony is a small, four-and-a-half tatami mat room. A tea ceremony requires a lot of preparation for the host to make their guests feel relaxed and at peace. Everything needs to be clean and aesthetically pleasing. Your tatami mats must be swept, the paper on your shouji (Japanese screens lined with paper) must not be damaged or discolored, even the path leading up to your chashitsu (tea room) must be neat, tidy, and the plants trimmed (if outdoors). During the actual ceremony, many of the utensils are cleaned or wiped clean as part of the process. Predominantly the tea used is matcha (powdered green tea) but there are versions for sencha (whole-leaf green tea) as well as others. Due to the immense history and variation of the chanoyu there are literally hundreds of different types of tools (DŌgu), utensils, and accessories that different people use. For this reason, I will just list a few of the basic essentials:
Cha-ire (tea caddy) – the large, usually ceramic, container in which the matcha is kept. The cha-ire itself is usually stored and transported in a bag called a shifuku.
Chakin – a white cloth that is used to clean the tea bowl before and after being used in the ceremony.
Chasen (whisk) – these are typically made from a single piece of bamboo and are used to mix the powdered tea and hot water for a smooth and consistent tea-drinking experience. There are different types of whisks used for different types of tea.
Chawan (tea bowl) – the very important bowl from which you will drink your delicious tea. Different shapes and styles of bowls may be used in different seasons to aid in the temperature that you would want your tea. These are also usually ceramic and preferably hand made. Extreme tea enthusiasts may even use tea bowls that are hundreds of years old.
Chashaku (tea scoop) – these tools are specific to matcha. Because the tea is a very fine powder small scoops like these are necessary to get the portions of tea precise for how strong your guests like their tea. These are also usually made from a single piece of bamboo and used to transfer tea directly from the cha-ire into the chawan tea bowls.
Kama (iron pot/kettle) – these large metal containers are used to heat the water used in the tea ceremony. They tend to be large enough to serve multiple guests.
Hishaku (ladle) – these scoops are made from bamboo and have a long handle attached to a bamboo cup or scoop at the end. They are used to transfer the hot water from the kama to the chawan tea bowls rather than using a more modern style tea kettle (like most of us have in our kitchens) where the hot water is poured directly out of the spout on the side into the cup or bowl.
The ceremony focuses heavily on small details. Almost every moment and movement must be precise. This may be true of your tea ceremony experience down to which way the tea bowl is facing and which side of it you drink out of as well as which way the host and guests are facing and which hand uses which tea preparation tool.
Japanese Tea Ceremonies in Tokyo
I know what you are thinking: “This history lesson is all well and good, but can I try one of these tea ceremonies myself?” The short answer is yes. There are places scattered all over Japan that perform a version of the tea ceremony that you can participate in. They are very popular in Japanese gardens and at certain temples and shrines as well as some shops run by Japanese tea enthusiasts. Here are just a few of the many places in Tokyo where you can (usually for a fee) enjoy and experience a version of the Japanese tea ceremony today.
Imperial Hotel Tokyo
Located in the Chiyoda area of central Tokyo, right next to the incredible Hibiya Park (one of my favorite parks in Tokyo), the Imperial Hotel Tokyo provides a unique tea experience. They have a tea ceremony room called the Toko-an, where you can quietly enjoy a very traditional tea preparation ritual. Follow the stone path to the tatami mat room where, according to them, they are “faithful in minute detail to the prescribed sukiya style”. Watch your tea being prepared slowly and methodically using traditional utensils and cookware before you get to taste your specially created tea with the usual accompanying sweet treat. Reservations are required and a trip to the Toko-an will cost about 2,000 yen per person. But it is definitely worth trying.
Would you like to get a more hands-on experience and actually participate in a Japanese tea ceremony? Just a few blocks away from the Imperial Hotel Tokyo in the Ginza district, is the Jugetsudo tea shop and cafe. It is located up on the 5th floor of the Ginza Kabukiza Tower and offers a more modern environment for tea preparation. They offer a class called “Tea Ceremony for Beginners” in both English and Japanese. In the class, a tea expert will explain the meaning behind the ritual and tools and guide you through the steps of the Japanese tea ceremony so you can participate in and understand the process for yourself. The tickets are much more expensive at 6,000 yen per person but that includes a green tea ceremony starter kit with the necessary utensils to be able to perform your own tea ceremony at home.
Over in Nishi-Asakusa, you can find a tea school called Shizu-kokoro that offers an intimate traditional tea experience. For the high but reasonable cost of about 4,000 yen per person, you can watch a very traditional and intimate Japanese tea ceremony in a traditional and authentic tea room. After you witness how the ceremony works they will walk you through a workshop to teach you about chado (way of tea) and how to perform the tea ceremony yourself. You will learn how to use the utensils and tools while practicing mindfulness and gaining a new skill that you can use to entertain your own guests at home. If you are heading over to Kaminarimon and Sensoji for some sightseeing, you should definitely swing by and check it out.
Shinjuku National Gyoen
Right in the heart of Tokyo, inside the Shinjuku National Garden, there are a number of snack shops, stalls, and rest areas. One of these is a small tea house added in 1987 called the Rakuu-tei. For a few hundred yen you can sit and be served some green tea and sweets while enjoying the Japanese garden section of the park. There is not as much traditional ceremony involved, but if you are new to Japan it is still a lovely way to spend an afternoon while getting the basic Japanese tea experience for less than 1000 yen.
You may have seen this garden mentioned in the previous article about the Best Japanese Gardens. In Yokohama and just south of Motomachi-Chukagai, you can find one of my favorite places in Japan. This garden has an indoor museum/gallery devoted to its history and that of its founder, Sankei Hara. They have a beautiful section set aside for tea ceremonies. For 500 yen (separate from entrance fee) you can enjoy hot tea prepared by Japanese tea masters in kimonos. They also provide some helpful instructional guides in multiple languages so you can follow the proper protocol for the ceremony.
If you have the time, I highly recommend making a trip over to one of the places mentioned above and treat yourself to a lovely cultural experience as well as some incredible tea (and sweets).
What do you think?
I really love tea and I hope you do too. I find these rituals to be a wonderful way to relax and experience a bit of historical Japanese culture that has been passed down thru a millennium. What about you? Have you ever experienced a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony? Where in Japan have you found to have the best modern version or the most classic old-school version? If this is something you have never tried, I highly recommend going out and trying one of the places listed above. Or you can try to find your own special place and let us know all about your Japanese Tea Ceremony.