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Tea Ceremony

The Tea Ceremony (茶道, sadō/chadō, or 茶の湯, chanoyu) is a ritual of Japanese culture linked to Buddhism and more particularly to Zen philosophy. The simple task of making a drink of tea for a guest is elevated in Japan to an art form during the ceremony, with an intricate series of movements performed in a strict order. The Japanese tea ceremony consists of preparing, serving and drinking tea in a ceremonial manner. The purpose of the tea ceremony is to create a bond between the participants, to seek inner peace and to promote well-being, awareness and harmony. The tea used is a powdered green tea called matcha tea.


The origin of a formal ceremony that accompanied and regulated the consumption of tea is certainly in China, from which Japan imported the plant for the first time around the eighth century. The most plausible period is that of the Song dynasty (960-1279), when the spread of this drink among the Chinese aristocratic classes would have triggered the spread of simple ceremonials. The custom of drinking from a cup of tea in front of a statue of Bodhidharma, as a physical support to the exhausting meditative practices thanks to the caffeine contained, also dates back to the period of the Song dynasty in Chinese Buddhist monasteries.

In Japan, the monk Eisai, founder of the Rinzai Zen Buddhist school, is credited with popularizing tea in the country after returning from a pilgrimage to China in 1191. In the following centuries of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) the drink gained popularity among people of all social classes, and in particular among the aristocrats. It was in this period that the practice of Tōcha (闘茶) also spread, a term that indicated competitions between friends in which they tasted a series of cups of tea and challenged each other to guess the regions of origin of the tea leaves.

It was the Zen rinzai monk Murata Shukō (1423-1502) who, together with his teacher Ikkyū Sōjun (1394-1481), developed the first tea ceremony in Japan. This ceremonial was based on the principle of "reading the Buddha's Dharma even in the tea drink", eliminating any ostentation of wealth and that spiritual decadence typical of the Tōcha, bringing the tea ceremony to a level of greater simplicity and sobriety.

In 1489 the eighth shōgun of the Ashikaga clan, Yoshimasa (1435-1490), after retiring from government, moved to a villa-temple built by him in 1473 in the north-east of Kyōto. Yoshimasa spent the rest of his days in this villa, promoting meetings of poetry and traditional arts. Upon learning of Murata Shukō's tea ceremony, he invited him to his residence to find out more. This residence still exists today and it is possible to visit it: it is today's Ginkaku-ji Temple ("Silver Pavilion") in Kyoto. Fascinated by the new traditional Zen art, Yoshimasa quickly became an active promoter of the tea ceremony. Today, Ginkaku-ji is traditionally considered the birthplace of the tea ceremony.
ginkakuji temple in kyoto the Ginkaku-ji Temple in Kyoto
The third great tea master was another Zen monk, Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), universally considered the ultimate coder of the Tea Ceremony. The Tea Ceremony practiced today, in all its styles, is based on the four basic principles written down by Sen no Rikyū.

The four principles of Sen no Rikyū's tea ceremony

Where the Tea Ceremony takes place

The ceremony takes place in a room with a tatami floor. This is traditionally surrounded by a garden, simple in style to encourage a peaceful mood. The tea room (chashitsu) is usually quite small (the standard size is four and a half tatami mats) and lacking any furniture. The room must in fact be as empty as possible, as the minds of the guests should be during the ceremony, empty of any futile thoughts. The only decorative element is usually a typical raised alcove (tokonoma) inside which hangs a work of calligraphy (shodo) or a floral arrangement (ikebana, which in this context is called chabana, "flowers for tea"). The calligraphy and flowers, if any, are adapted to the circumstance of the event and the season.
tea ceremony tatami room a traditional Japanese tea ceremony room

How the Tea Ceremony is done

What differentiates the Japanese tea ceremony from any other ritual related to tea consumption in the world, is that in the Japanese view the purpose of the ritual is not to prepare and drink tea, but the latter are only a means to achieve harmony with nature and an inner peace that favors meditation, as per Zen tradition. The protocol of a tea ceremony is defined by the exact hand movements that vary slightly between different schools. Today there are many Tea Ceremony schools in Japan, each with its own style. The most important, founded by close descendants of Sen No Rikyu, are Ura Senke, Omote Senke, and Mushanokoji Senke. The differences between one style and another are however negligible if you are not an expert, any tea ceremony has a common procedure.

First the guests enter the tea room, in order of importance, they make a bow and take their place on the tatami sitting in the seiza position. Once everyone is seated, another bow is made and the room and its decorations can be observed. After the guests enter, the tea maker, the teishu (who sometimes brings the tea set with him), appears behind a sliding door.
tea ceremony
The teishu also seats on the tatami in the seiza position. At this point the teishu begins to place the various utensils and to prepare the tea in front of the guests. The main equipment includes the linen handkerchief for drying the cup after washing it (chakin), another silk handkerchief for cleaning the chashaku and chaki (fukusa), the bamboo whisk for mixing matcha tea with hot water (chasen), the container for tea powder (chaki), the measuring spoon for tea (chashaku), the tea bowl (chawan) and the dessert plate (higashibon).
tea ceremony utensils
Before serving the tea, guests are invited to eat the traditional rice cake that always accompanies the tea ceremony. The teishu then serves the cup of tea to the guests: the tea bowl is placed on the tatami in front of each guest. Then, the guest picks up the bowl with his right hand and places it on his left palm. With his right hand, he rotates the bowl clockwise about 90 degrees and drinks the tea. Each guest, before starting to drink, asks the neighbor's permission, saying the word "osakini". Tea should be drunk with a few short sips.
tea ceremony sweets okashi
tea ceremony drinking tea
Once finished drinking, each guest cleans the rim of the cup and places it in front of him, bows and thanks the teishu, who will pick up the cup and take care of washing it. In some cases the teishu might offer a second cup of tea before starting the wash phase.
tea ceremony bowing
Before the ceremony is over, there is also a time to look closely at the bowl and other utensils used and appreciate their style and decorations. Traditionally, when everyone has finished drinking, the most important guest asks for permission to examine the utensils, so each one passes the various objects from hand to hand, and the bowl is observed last. The ceremony ends when the teishu washes the utensils used and returns the equipment to the position they were in before starting the preparation. The teishu bows in front of the guests, gets up and leaves the room closing the sliding door.

How to attend a Tea Ceremony in Japan

For a niche of aficionados, the Tea Ceremony is now considered a traditional art form. It takes years of practice to reach the point where a Ceremony Master can perform every single movement perfectly and with minimal mental effort. However, there are also many people in Japan who practice the Tea Ceremony as a simple hobby, and there are also places where tourists can try this experience. If you are lucky enough to spend a period of study in a Japanese university, you will probably find, among the many student clubs, a tea ceremony club where you can practice the ceremony together with other students. If you are a tourist in Japan, you will have two alternatives:
traditional japanese matcha tea set typical set of matcha tea and rice cake in a tea house

Guided tours, activities and other things to do

If you are planning a trip to Japan and you want to do something more than just visiting famous places and monuments, we suggest you to use Rakuten Travel Experiences.

How to use Rakuten Travel Experiences

Rakuten Travel is a very useful website to enrich your travel experience, especially if you are going solo or it's your first time in Japan.
Because of the language barrier (and more), in Japan it is very difficult to interact with the locals and to get off the tourist track.
Thanks to Rakuten Travel you can find a lot of interesting and sometimes unique guided tours and activities all over Japan (and not only in Japan), that you would otherwise never be able to enjoy.
But there's more: on Rakuten Travel you can also buy tickets for several famous attractions, events, transportation and other useful services for tourists. Last but not least, you can reserve a table in hundreds of restaurants.

Some examples

Take a look at Rakuten Travel Experiences

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