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The Japanese Tea Ceremony – Step by Step

Posted on 04/06/2023

The Japanese tea ceremony, otherwise known as Chanoyu, is the artistic ritual preparation of Matcha green tea, a time-honored tradition originally created by Zen Buddhist monks centuries ago. With deep cultural roots in religion and philosophy, the ceremony has been developed over time to include many meaningful symbolic steps that venture far beyond the process of whisking and sipping. More than just a simple cup of tea, architecture, garden design, the fine arts, and ancient hospitality traditions all play a part in making this ritual a perfectly tranquil tea experience.

I. The guests arrive.

When the guests for the tea ceremony arrive, a room is prepared to receive them. This receiving room is called the Yoritsuki. Here, guests may choose to wash up or to change clothes into traditional robes. This is to make them feel welcome and relaxed as a gesture of good will and hospitality. Guests are served hot water to cleanse their palates.

II. The guests make their way into the garden.

The tea room is a self-contained structure set apart from the house, and is traditionally made of natural materials such as wood beams and clay walls, with paper sliding doors. On their way from the house to the ceremony, the guests will travel down the roji, the garden path to the tea room from the receiving room. Traditionally, the roji is constructed of flat stepping stones called tobi-ishi, which have been swept clean by the host prior to the guests’ arrival. The ground has been sprinkled with water to mimic rainfall, symbolizing purification. Moss covers the ground surrounding the tobi-ishi. Walking down this green path should evoke feelings of tranquility.

III. Spiritual cleansing.

Down the path, guests make a stop at the tskukubai (literally translated as the “squatting around the stones”). Meticulously arranged, this area is paved with pebbles and landscaped with artistically placed rocks, grasses, shrubs & trees. A stepping stone sits before a stone basin, into which clean water flows. Guests pick up a water dipper and rinse their hands and mouths before continuing down the path. This symbolic cleansing is the first of many. In some ways, Chanoyu itself is a ritual of cleansing and renewal.

IV. Guests arrive in the waiting room.

The waiting room, or machiai, is a simple roof structure with a bench against a wall. The guests wait here, by the tea room, for the rest of the group to catch up so they can enter the ceremony together. The machiai is a place to sit and enjoy the natural beauty of the garden. Once everyone has gathered, the host will finally make an appearance, exiting the tea room to make their presence known. Guests stand and bow without speaking. The host then walks back inside and sounds the gong to let everyone know that it is time to begin. The gong is familiar to the ears of many Japanese ceremony-goers as the sound of temple bells in mountain shrines. The religious influence of the monks who created this ceremony shines through each step of the process.

V. Entering the tea room.

When the sounding of the gong has ceased, the guests move toward the entrance together. The tea room itself is referred to as the chashitsu. The entrance, or nijiri guchi, is deliberately short. Each guest has to stoop to enter it, symbolizing that all who enter the tea room are of equal status there.

VI. Acknowledging the tokonoma.

The tokonoma is a small alcove raised above the ground in the chashitsu. Its sole purpose is to display art. Here the guests will find calligraphy, a seasonal flower arrangement and incense. Each guest bows and contemplates the meaning of the calligraphy, which is relevant to this unique ceremony being held.

VII. The guests take their seats.

At this time, the host will be seated with the tea kettle and utensils on display. Guests move on from the tokonoma to the host, taking their seating places.

VIII. A moment to savor.

The host opens a sliding door connected to the tea house kitchen, where everything but the tea has been prepared ahead of time. Bringing out a tray of sweets, the host enters quietly. With a bow, the guests enjoy their cakes and discuss the occasion. The tea ceremony is an occasion of celebration.

IX. Cleansing the utensils.

The host brings a tray into the tea room. It is covered with a special cloth napkin called a fukusa. The tray is uncovered to reveal a decorative tea caddy, known as the natsume, a bowl and bamboo tea utensils. The fukusa is folded carefully in a series of neat, practiced motions, and placed onto the tray. The host cleans the tools and bowl symbolically by polishing them with the fukusa. Hot water is poured into the bowl, and a special bamboo tea whisk known as the chasen is moistened. The host pours the hot water used to clean the bowl into a waste water container called the kensui. Finally, the bowl and rim are cleansed with a white cloth called the chakin. The guests are relaxed, the tea utensils are purified, and it is time to prepare the tea.

X. Preparing Matcha for the guests.

The host picks up the bamboo tea scoop, known as the chashaku. Holding the natsume carefully above the bowl, the host removes the lid and scoops out the Matcha powder, tapping the chashaku on the rim to ensure that none is wasted. The host adds hot water to the bowl, brushes the bottom with the chasen and then whisks the tea until frothy. In the traditional “thick tea” style, one bowl of tea is given to the guests to share. This simple moment is the culmination of the ceremony, its essential purpose to become one as a group in perfect harmony, sharing a peaceful moment with tea. When guests are finished drinking, they bow. The bowl is returned and rinsed and any residual water is poured into the kensui. Neatly replacing everything on the tray and methodically cleansing the utensils once more, the host removes the tray to the kitchen. Feeling refreshed and relaxed, the guests take a moment to reflect on their shared experience as the tea ceremony comes to a close.

We hope you have enjoyed joining us in our celebration of tea and culture! Have you attended a tea ceremony?

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