Japanese Tea Ceremony

The Way of Tea

Mark Brazil|October 16, 2018|Blog Post

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Mark Brazil developed his fascination with the natural world, especially birds and mammals, during his boyhood in the landlocked English county of Worcestershire. He pursued academic interests in biology during studies in England and Scotland, while exploring the coasts and mountains of Britain in search of birds. Mark earned his PhD from Stirling University, Scotland, for his work on avian behavioral-ecology in Iceland and Scotland. 

I recently enjoyed the opportunity to lead a group through the cultural traditions of Japan, traveling from Tokyo, through villages in Niigata and Sado Island, and ending in Kyoto. This journey included a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in Kanazawa; here are my thoughts.

To experience the Japanese tea ceremony is to experience an oasis of calm in the midst of the rush of modern life. This refined and elaborate art harnesses grace and etiquette to demonstrate respect towards the invited guests. The habit of drinking tea in Japan dates back to sometime in the 9th century, though the styles of a tea ceremony have certainly evolved. A common theme that runs through the ages is that despite the strict hierarchy of traditional Japanese society, all guests are considered equal when participating. This point is driven home in a traditional tearoom, which has a low entrance doorway, forcing everyone to bow low as they enter.

Japanese Tea Ceremony

The room in which tea is served is traditionally ‘carpeted,’ with tatami matting. In an alcove at one end of the room a scroll hangs—displaying pithy words or a delightful scene, and beneath that is a pleasing example of ikebana, or arranged flowers. The room is otherwise unadorned, serving to focus one’s attention on the ceremony at hand, or the view from the window towards the tea garden.

As we enter the Gyokusen-in teahouse in Kanazawa, the subtle fresh scent of cedar and tatami wafts towards us. We slip out of our shoes, leave all unnecessary items behind in the foyer, and proceed into the main room itself through a more typically scaled sliding Japanese doorway.  Once inside, those of us who are able to do so sit or kneel on the floor, while others are offered seats. (Traditionally the tearoom lacks furniture, so the presence of chairs is unusual; they were provided specially for us.)

A low screen serves to delimit the area in which the ceremony will take place, and does nothing to hide the host or the tea implements. These items include a gorgeously lacquered stand, which supports the items of the ceremony, a brazier, and a cast-iron tea kettle. Powdered tea is stored in another delightful lacquered container; a bamboo dipper is placed, ready to take water from the kettle to the tea bowls; and the finest of bamboo whisks stands, ready for its role of frothing the powdered tea into a foam-capped drink.

person pouring tea on cup

Our host approaches the room, kneels and bows, then enters. She is dressed in an understated silk kimono, with a distinctive obi and white tabi ; the word elegance immediately springs to mind. Everything she does follows the pattern of ritual, each movement is considered and planned in great detail. To the uninitiated it may seem overly controlled, but there is a depth to this control that gives the host the confidence to deviate in explaining and showing the ritual to us.

Imbibing Japanese tea is a bittersweet experience—literally. Tea was introduced into Japan by monks who saw its bitterness as the ideal means of support for meditation; after all, it allowed the monks to remain awake without dozing! The finely powdered tea, or matcha, which is used in today’s tea ceremony, has a typically bitter flavor. This is countered by an extremely sweet confection that is served first, and is filled with sweet beans. A nibble of sweet followed by a sip of bitter tea, leaves a long-lasting impression.

The Way of Tea is an extraordinarily refined art; it takes years to learn and books to describe. Unsurprisingly, the fine details of the process are lost on those of us who experience it for less than an hour; but what is not lost is the calm, peacefulness of it all. We take in the refined ritual, and recognize the respect that seems afforded to the utensils, many of them heirlooms, to the minutiae of the movements of the master serving the tea, to the room, and to the honored, if clumsy, guests.

Japanese Tea Ceremony

The host bows to us all and begins. As we learn about the history of tea and of the tea ceremony itself, we realize we should have given greater respect to the sacred alcove and raised polite conversation about its contents, but didn’t know enough to do so.  In fact, there is much we should have done, but this experience is all about learning, not about needing to know.

We watch as each implement—the tea bowl, the bamboo whisk, the wooden tea scoop—is cleansed and purified in prescribed, elegant movements. There is such economy of movement, it is easy to miss the significance of each. Somehow, suddenly, the implements are all now in their correct places, and ready. Our host begins the process of preparing the tea.  

The fine, emerald powder is whisked in water that has been allowed to cool a little from boiling, and presented to each guest in a special bowl. These tea bowls are themselves an art form, and part of the procedure of the ceremony involves admiring and appreciating the bowl. Receiving the bowl from the host with a bow, the guest then turns the bowl, so as not to drink from the front, and takes a series of sips before draining the bowl. An appreciative bow, an admiring turn of the bowl, a few polite comments, and it is suddenly all over. The bluster and blather of the real world await; but for those very special minutes we were in a pleasant and isolated world. The world of tea.

Learn more about traveling Japan here: Japan Travel Guide