April 07, 2019

Tea Travels: Tea Ceremony and Ritual Part 1

Tea Travels: Tea Ceremony and Ritual Part 1


During the most recent winter holidays, Team Tèaura and family travelled to Japan and China. You may have noticed our Instagram updates… or not! Even though we did not designate our most recent trip to replenish our physical and mental wellbeing, our visit felt surprisingly nourishing for our mind, body, and soul.   

Japan is a country known for tradition, hierarchy, its green teas… hot springs, sushi and mochi (a glutinous rice-based dessert - gosh, we just love black sesame mochi). This time, we visited Japan on our pilgrimage for green tea. We had many memorable moments- grinding our own Matcha with a mini stone miller, having the best Cremia matcha ice-cream (an indulgently smooth and jaw-droppingly tasty soft serve ice-cream) and roasting our own Houjicha to take home, but none outshone the experience that we had in the Japanese tea ceremony. Not only was it my first time to wear a semi-formal kimono (for the tea ceremony), the graceful ritual and the serenity of the ceremony were mesmerising. As you’ll see, there is a lot to say about the Tea Ceremony so we have split our learnings from this trip into two parts. This is part one!

The Origins of the Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony, otherwise known as chanoyu or chado 茶道, is a traditional ritual where matcha 抹茶 (powdered green tea) is ceremoniously prepared for a small group of guests in a tranquil setting. Matcha came to Japan in the 11th century from China via Zen Buddhist monks. The current tea ceremony ritual was perfected and popularised by Sen no Rikyu, the first Grand Tea Master, in the 16th century. Chado used to be reserved for the elite and for men only until the 20th century.   

The Four Zen Principles of the Tea Ceremony

Traditionally, the Japanese tea ceremony has been deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism in the practice of a Zen way of life, attaining selflessness and a calm and pure state of mind. Everything from the graceful movements and utensils used in the tea ceremony to the simple decor and tranquil setting exhort the four principles of harmony (wa 和), reverence or respect (kei 敬), purity (sei 清) and tranquility (jaku 寂).     

The Teahouse

Certainly, in modern day settings, tea houses are no longer the prerequisite to enjoy chanoyu. Nonetheless, we were in Kyoto so we chose to visit a traditional teahouse to experience chanoyu for ourselves. Before entering the teahouse, we were invited by our host, Sensei Yuki, to wash our hands and rinse our mouths in a stone basin in the garden outside the main teahouse. This gesture is to symbolically help us wash away concerns of the outer world before entering the tranquil teahouse. As we took our shoes off in entering the teahouse and stepping onto the tatami, we instantly noticed the minimalist decor.

Tea ceremony room


The tea house is always kept very simple. Normally, you would find a cauldron of hot water, utensils for the tea ceremony and a simple seasonal flower arrangement (茶花 chabana). You may also find a hanging scroll of traditional calligraphy (shodo) or ink paintings of landscape (水墨画 suiboku-ga) that guests may admire during the ceremony.


This shodo scroll that accompanied us reads “一期一会 ichi-go-ichi-e”. This is a common refrain to describe tea ceremonies, which loosely translates to “This tea gathering is special because it is once in a lifetime. No two ceremonies are the same.”   


Shodo scroll in tea ceremony


Although Jamie and I are already huge fans of Scandinavian-inspired minimalist interiors and decor, the minimalist interior of the teahouse really struck us. The tatami and the lack of furniture created ma  (serene space) - for our state of mind in preparation for the tea ceremony- the shodo (scroll) and and simple flower arrangement in the background gently reminding us of the beauty in simplicity.

The Ritual in the Tea Ceremony

The first few steps involve the Tea Master using his or her chakin 茶巾, a rectangular, white, linen cloth, to ritually clean the tea bowl (chawan) and his or her fukusa 袱紗, a square silk cloth, to ritually clean the tea scoop. After using the fukusa, the Tea Masters tucks it back into his or her obi, the belt of the kimono.

After the ritualistic cleaning - even these were graceful movements, each wipe very intentional - we were invited by the Tea Master to taste the traditional and always seasonal Japanese sweet (和菓子 wagashi). Thus, we sweetened our palettes before tasting the matcha. Remember to have the whole wagashi as nothing is done in halves in the tea ceremony!  

Wagashi sweet to eat before matcha

The next few steps involve the preparation of the matcha. The Tea Master first scoops a generous amount of matcha from the matcha caddy (natsume) into the matcha bowl (茶碗 chawan). After gracefully attending to the ladle (柄杓 hishaku) to pour water from the cauldron into the chawan, the Tea Master whisks the matcha in a very swift zig zag action with the bamboo matcha whisk (茶筅 chasen) in the chawan. Any Matcha Latte lover would recognise this part well! According to Sensei Yuki, the different schools of chanoyu vary slightly in the ceremony and preparation of matcha - for example, one school does not, in fact, whisk the matcha to make it frothy.      


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