Japanese Tea Ceremony (茶道)

  • 3 min read
Japanese Tea Ceremony


The Way of Tea

The Japanese tea ceremony (茶道, lit. "the way of tea") is a deeply important cultural tradition in Japan.Matcha (抹茶) takes center stage, being prepared and presented in precise steps and movements to show hospitality to guests while complying with formal etiquette. 

There are two approaches:chano-yu(茶の湯), an event to treasure a once-in-a-life-time gathering, andsadō (茶道), a disciplinary practice to reflect and improve oneself. In addition to matcha, it’s the host’s duty to select sweets, tea bowls and art pieces (Eg. a hanging scroll and a single flower displayed in the room) associated with the theme and as a reflection of either the season, cultural event or Zen teaching. 

Since the tea room is perceived as a sacred space, guests are expected to wear formal attire, take off any jewelry, and change into traditionaltabi (足袋)socks for the ceremony. Throughout the ceremony, guests practice etiquette, meditate their minds, learn seasonal events and nourish their five senses.

History of the tea ceremony

History of the tea ceremony

Tea was first introduced to Japan as a medicinal practice around the 8th century by Japanese monks who trained in China. Centuries later, the Zen Buddhists spread the consumption of matcha, influencing the hierarchical classes and samurai to practice the way of tea. 

The tea ceremony incorporated the Zen philosophy ofwabi (侘),finding aesthetics through imperfection, and transformed to awabi-cha (侘茶)practice developed bySen no Rikyu(1522-1591). He popularized the compact-style tea room which created a personal rapport between the host and guests, and designed a narrow entranceway which meant guests couldn't bring their swords into the room (ensuring safety and indicating that all participants were equal). While these were designed in response to the constant civil wars and social upheaval, his teachings continue to be a foundation of today’s modest and tranquil tea practice. 

Experiencing the tea ceremony

Experiencing the tea ceremony

The tea ceremony begins on the host’s cue by leaving the sliding door slightly open. Before entering, guests sit on their heels, a position known asseiza (正座), place a closed folded fan in front of them to create a boundary between them and the host, and open the sliding door in three gradual steps. The guests bow once and slide their body in a seated-seiza position to enter the room.  

Often a beautiful Japanese sweet, known aswagashi (和菓子), is served before the tea. The sweet and bitter combination is a symbol of the bitter sweet aspects of life. Guests bow to the person on their left, asking for pardon for taking the sweet or tea ahead of them. 

The host carefully wipes all the equipment, including the bowl, in order to purify them. The bamboo whisk, or chasen (茶筅), is soaked in warm water to soften the tines before whisking. The guests quietly observe the host’s sophisticated performance of whisking the matcha using careful and exact movements. 

Before accepting the tea, the guest bows to the host, then lifts the bowl with their right and places it in the palm of their left hand. The bowl is turned clockwise with the right hand until thefront of the bowl faces the host, as a sign of respect.The tea is consumed in two to three sips, with an appreciative slurping sound, leaving no foam behind. The bowl is then turned clockwise again back to its original position and the design of the empty bowl is admired while keeping it level to the floor. The guests bow again to the host in appreciation. 

Tea Ceremony Tools


Tools used by hosts:

  • Fukusa(帛紗)﹘Silk cloth to clean the tools or to open the hot lid covering the boiling water
  • Cha-ire (茶入)﹘Container that stores the matcha
  • Chasen (茶筅)﹘Bamboo tea whisk 
  • Chashaku(茶杓)﹘Bamboo tea scoop 
  • Chawan (茶碗) - Tea bowl
  • Hishaku(柄杓)﹘Long bamboo ladle for the boiling water
  • Kama (釜)﹘Iron pot to heat the water
  • Mizusashi(水指) - Container of fresh water to clean the tools
  • Kensui (建水)- Container for disposing water

Tools used by guests:

  • Kaishi(懐紙)﹘Parchment paper to place the sweets
  • Kuromoji(黒文字)﹘Knife, shaped like a letter-opener, to cut the sweets 
  • Sensu (扇子)- Folded fan used for greeting the host, observing the bowl, and dividing the line between the host and guest to show respect. Never used for fanning.


Tea Ceremony at Home

Tea Ceremony at Home

Try practicing the tea ceremony at home with these three items: matcha powder, a tea bowl, and a bamboo tea whisk (chasen). Find a peaceful place to listen to the whisk of the chasen and sip the matcha for self-reflection.  

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