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Japanese Tea Ceremony (Part I) - Rivertea Blog

Japanese Tea Ceremony (Part I)

| On 27, Mar 2013

Tea is much more than a simple beverage in many different cultures around the world. Japanese have developed their own “way of tea” which needs deep study and understanding. Discover how the Japanese tea ceremony was born and what the steps for a perfect performed ritual are.

The Japanese tea ceremony, also called the Way of Tea, is a Japanese cultural and choreographic ritual of preparing and serving Matcha, Japanese powdered green tea. In Japanese language the ceremony is named “Chanoyu” which translates as “hot water for tea”, and “Sado” or simply “Ocha” which translate as “the way of tea”.

The entire process of the ceremony is not about tea drinking, but about generosity and connecting with the guests of the ceremony at a high spiritual level. The aesthetics of the ceremony is one of the most important parts to take into consideration because preparing with elegancy a bowl of tea for the guests actually is a form of respect and shows an open heart and true friendship towards the people the tea is prepared for.

Philosophy of the Tea Ceremony

Japanese tea ceremony is very often regarded as a set of formal and traditional stages of preparing tea, but in fact the ceremony represents more than those stages and features a unique flexibility also. What makes this ceremony special is the symbolism and philosophy behind the tea preparation and serving. The flexibility comes from the numerous different ways in which this ceremony is performed depending on the season, event, celebration, participating guests and so on.

The changing of seasons is highly important in the tea ceremony as for each season the ceremony has certain variations in the way it’s performed and the tools used and also in the way the tea room is decorated, prepared either for cold or for the warmer months of the year. Traditionally the tea practitioners have divided the year into two main seasons: the “sunken heart” season or “ro” in Japanese which is represented by the colder months of the year starting with November and lasting until April, and the “brazier” season or “furo” in Japanese which are the warmer months, May to October.

The Japanese tea ceremony is a subtle way to commune with nature and with friends or family. Deeply rooted in Chinese Zen philosophy, it is a way to remove oneself from the mundane and sometimes stressful affairs of day-to-day living and to achieve, if only for a time, serenity and inner peace.

There are four key concepts which the Japanese tea ceremony honors and those concepts are “Wa, Kei, Sei, Jaku”.  “Wa” stands for the harmony in the nature. The performer of the tea ceremony tries to bring harmony around the house where the tea is prepared and to those for which he prepares the tea for. All objects used in the ceremony need to be in harmony with each other in a subtle way, and to bring upon the household and guests inner peace and tranquility.

“Kei” stands for respect. This concept wants to break down all the social hierarchy and barriers as everyone no matter their rank or social status has to be respectful with each other and with the nature and tools involved in the tea ceremony. This form of respect is represented by the small entrance in the tea room which obliges all the participants to bow down in order to be able to enter the room and to sit next to each other in Seiza position (folding their legs underneath their thighs, while resting the buttocks on the heels).

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“Sei” means purity. In my opinion this is the most complex aspect of the ceremony, but also the most beautiful one.  When crawling into the tea room one has to leave behind all their earthly worries or thoughts and to become pure in mind and heart. The Japanese believe that the real tea master does not perform the ceremony with the mind or following just formally the steps of the ceremony. What is really important is performing the ceremony sincerely and with an open heart.

“Jaku” means tranquility. Japanese believe that only after discovering the harmony, treating each other and the nature with respect, and also leaving behind the mundane worries, only then people involved in the tea ceremony will have learned what tranquility really means.

There are also other secondary concepts around which the Japanese tea ceremony has been born and evolved. There is the concept of “wabi” which practically means loneliness. This concept is all about appreciating a simple life and the beauty of simplicity and of living a solitary life in the middle of the nature. This concept can be put into practice during the tea ceremony by setting the tea room in a simple and rustic fashion as close as it can get to nature. Another concept is “kokoroire” which actually means devotion and would literally translate “pouring one’s heart totally into the tea ceremony”.

History of the Tea Ceremony

Tea drinking and production originated in China around the 4th century. Tea seeds were first brought into Japan during the time of the Tang Dynasty from China, when the cultural and goods exchanges between China and Japan were flourishing.

The first mention of a formal tea ceremony involving tea drinking was made around the 8th century, but it was just a simple, raw version of what we know today. Also, during the 8th century a Chinese Buddhist priest wrote a book on the proper method of preparing tea, which taught the correct temperature of hot water and the use of tea vessels. It is believed that today’s style of the tea ceremony evolved largely through the influence of this early tea book.

During the Nara period in Japan, between 710-794 tea plants were grown, but only for medicinal purposes and they were mainly consumed by priests and noblemen. Tea was slowly beginning to transform itself from a medicinal beverage into a social leant, but in Japan it remained a rare and highly valuable commodity until around the year of 1192. Tea was slowly transformed into a beverage around which rules and formalities were needed and implanted. Historians consider that if tea had been native to Japan (and a common beverage available to everyone), the ceremony wouldn’t have been created.

In 1187, Myoan Eisai, a Japanese priest, traveled to China to study philosophy and religion. When he came back, he became the founder of Zen Buddhism and built the first temple of the Rinzai sect. Historians believe that he was the first one to cultivate tea for religious purposes, unlike others before him who grew tea for medicinal use only. He was also the first one to suggest and teach the grinding of tea leaves before adding hot water. Eisai was the first to write a treaty on tea in Japan in which he showed that tea drinking was good for health. According to him it was an important cure for all illnesses.

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In the 13th century the samurai class embraced with eagerness the tea ceremony, making it truly popular around Japan. They organized lavish tea parties with many guests where they played a tea game, testing the ability of the guests to distinguish between tea and other herbal beverages. The guests received many cups of tea ten at first, then the number increased at twenty and eventually reached one hundred cups per person. If there were an important number of persons attending the party, they would probably pass the cups from one to the other, technique which may explain why today only one tea bowl is used in the ceremony.

Tea gain more and more into popularity so people from other social classes than the Samurais were beginning to organize small tea parties in tea rooms more appropriate to their social status. Historians believe that from here the custom of small tea rooms evolved into the shape the ceremony gives it today.

One of the most important designers of small tea rooms was a Zen priest called Murata Shukou later known as the father of the tea ceremony. He dedicated his life to learning and perfecting the tea ceremony and the spirit and philosophy of tea ceremony were his creation. After entering the priesthood at the age of 11 and learning about Zen meditation, he dedicated the rest of his life to the tea ceremony. He spent all his days in his tea room in Nara and gave lessons to anyone interested in learning the art of tea ceremony. He tried to spread the spirit of Zen-inspired, simple tea.

By the 16th century, tea drinking had spread to all levels of society in Japan. The key concepts which are still actual in the tea ceremonies today ( sei, kei, wa and jaku) were developed by Sen no Rikyū (1552 -1591) another historical, important figure in tea ceremony. His teachings perfected many newly developed forms in architecture and gardens, art, and the full development of “the way of tea”.

Depending on the philosophy and on the different types of tea ceremony, the schools of Japanese tea ceremony were born and have evolved, referring to the various ways/lines which the tea ceremony has been and continues to be shaped. The schools of Japanese tea ceremony are still active today and what is more the Japanese students attend special classes in which they learn “the way of tea”.

Discover more about the Japanese tea ceremony in the second part of the article to follow next week.

 

We’ll soon launch our new incredible tasty tea blends. Join us, there are lots of special gifts waiting for you. 

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