The Amazing Japanese Tea Ceremony
The Japanese tea ceremony is more complex than you might expect.
Recently, I slowly started to become fascinated with the art of making and enjoying tea. While I have previously written about different types of tea in another post, I failed to mention much of the culture behind tea and tea preparation, especially in Japanese culture, which has some of the most complex tea preparation techniques. So, in this post, I will be exploring the art of the Japanese tea ceremony, known in Japanese as chanoyu.
Chanoyu literally means “hot water for tea” and must be performed in a special area with a unique technique that involves matcha tea, which is a type of powdered green tea. One of the purposes of the ceremony, which takes years to master, is to relax and retreat from your busy life by entering the solitude of a small hut that can only accommodate about four people. The hut usually surrounded by a peaceful garden.
Once in the tea room, the interaction between the host, the tea, and the guests becomes extremely important. Interestingly, every tea ceremony is unique because of the way the host chooses his utensils for tea preparation. These utensils are chosen from a variety of objects that are never the same twice. As for the guests, their role is certainly not just to sit around and drink tea.
Japanese Tea Ceremony
They must act in a certain way in accordance with the host to maintain the proper air of the ceremony. For example, when the guests are given a warm bowl of matcha tea, rather than gulping it down immediately, they are expected to reflect on the beauty of the emerald green tone of the tea, on the smell, on the warmth of the bowl, and then, finally, on the taste.
The ceremony is an event that can last several hours. After bowing, sitting on the tatami floor, and bowing again, the ceremony starts with the quiet admiration of the simple tea house’s surroundings. The décor may be a modest flower arrangement or a scroll. The ceremony then progresses to enjoying Kaiseki ryori, which is a refined multi-course meal, followed by the drinking of thick tea, followed by the drinking of thin tea. However, many tea ceremonies these days may just include tea drinking.
Usually a small sweet is served before the tea is drunk. When the tea bowl is served to you, pick it up in your right hand. Rest it in your left palm and make sure to turn the bowl so the front is not facing you but instead faces the host. After finishing your tea, bow. For tea house guests, especially tourists, it is preferred that simple clothing is worn and strong perfumes are avoided as they might take away from the delicate scents of the tea. It is not expected that tourists know all the details of the tea ceremony, but it certainly helps to familiarize yourself with the process to maintain the respect and dignity of the ceremony.
The types of vessels used in chanoyu are traditionally made of ceramic and include bowls rather than cups for tea, as well as water jars and tea caddies. All of these vessels that make up a tea set usually are very minimalistic yet aesthetically pleasing in appearance. These vessels are also chosen by the host and offer a chance for the host to display his refined tastes in design.
The Japanese tea ceremony as we are familiar with it today began around the 16th century and was mainly a practice for rulers, prestigious merchants, and elite warriors to network together. The ceramic tea sets that came to be used in Japan originated in China and Korea. The point of using plain, rather unglamorous ceramic vessels was to celebrate natural and imperfect forms, and this aesthetic is known as wabi1.
Before the wabi view was developed, ceramic tea sets were mainly used by farmers and peasants. While these tea sets were unglazed, they would sometimes be naturally glazed with hot ash in the kiln, giving the tea vessels a completely random appearance. This allowed the opportunity for some tea sets to naturally be more attractive than others, permitting them to be chosen by tea masters and declared works of art. However, these natural and unpredictable results did not last long. As time progressed and kilns became more advanced, potters were able to better control the results of the objects they fired.
What to Know
With more advanced kilns, more advanced types of ceramics were able to be fired, such as Raku ware. In the tea community, Raku ware was–and is–highly revered due to its difficult production. Raku ware is very lightweight and created by molding clay into exceptional thinness while maintaining evenness. Other wares were more eye-catching, such as Oribe ware, which was usually glazed in startling green and no doubt would have been a great choice to surprise tea house guests. Shino ware was more mild, usually with a pale, milk-toned glaze, sometimes even hand-painted.
Interestingly, until the 17th century, potters remained anonymous since they did not sign their work (though certain creative styles might indicate a particular artist). Once the 17th century rolled around, potters finally began marking their work. One of the first potters to do this was Nonomura Ninsei, whose work, interestingly, was nothing related to wabi. His tea jars and other wares were instead enameled with bright and delicate colors. Despite this different style, Ninsei’s wares were still highly valued by tea masters for their refined nature. Interestingly, since this period, the practice of the Japanese tea ceremony has remained relatively unchanged, giving tea house guests the feeling of briefly stepping back in time.
- Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (2011). “The Japanese Tea Ceremony.” The Met. Retrieved from https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jtea/hd_jtea.htm.
Really enjoyed reading this post thanks so much for taking the time to write it and help to share chanoyu with the world
I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I’ve always found tea ceremonies to be very interesting.