A Japanese tea ceremony

Anthropology: The Japanese Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony is one of the most ancient and time-honoured traditions of Japan. With its roots in the principles of Zen Buddhism, the tea ceremony is known as chadō, which means ‘the way of tea’, while the art of preparing and presenting tea is known as temae. Chadō is one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement, the other two being kōdō (incense appreciation), and kadō (flower arrangement.)

The chadō is a spiritual process. Combining philosophy, art, aesthetics and calligraphy, the ceremony takes the participants away from the mundane world to seek inner peace and harmony. Each tea ceremony is a unique experience for those present. Everything from the movements, gestures, ceramics, utensils and even the angle at which everything is arranged is carefully choreographed. Here, I have explored the history, meaning and process of the Japanese tea ceremony.



Eichū, the Buddhist monk.
Eichū, the Buddhist monk. credit@ Pinterest

Documents show that tea serving first existed in Japan as far back as the 9th century. An entry in the Nihon Kōki (Japanese history text) shows that the Buddhist monk, Eichū, started the tradition. Upon his return from China, Eichū had brought back some tea to the country which he prepared and served to the then emperor, Saga. This was in 815. By 816, Saga ordered that tea plantations had to be cultivated in the Kinki region in Japan.

Chinese influence

Legend states that tea has already existed in China for more than a thousand years. In China, tea was initially prepared and was made for medicinal purposes and then it developed into a pleasurable activity. During Eichū’s time, the form of tea popular in China was dancha, which means ‘cake tea’ or ‘brick tea.’ Here, tea is compressed into a nugget, which will then be ground in a mortar. The ground tea is mixed with numerous herbs and flavourings.

An English translation of Lu Yu's The Classic of Tea.
An English translation of Lu Yu’s The Classic of Tea. credit@ Amazon. in

During the early part of the 9th century, Lu Yu, the Chinese author, wrote The Classic of Tea, a monograph that focuses on tea cultivation and preparation. Buddhism was a major influence on Lu Yu’s life, and researchers believe that this in turn played a vital role in the development of Japanese tea.

Towards the end of the 12th century, the Buddhist monk Eisai introduced the ‘tencha’ to Japan when he returned from Japan. In this style of tea preparation, powdered matcha (tea leaves) is placed in a bowl and hot water is added. The hot water and tea are whipped together. Eisai had also brought back tea seeds with him and this variety proved to be so popular in Japan that it was soon declared to be the finest quality in all of the country. The tencha was first used during religious rituals in the Buddhist monasteries.

By the 13th century, the Kamakura shogunate (feudal military government of Japan from 1185 to 1333) was ruling the country. Tea and all its associated luxuries soon became a symbol of status among the warrior class. Tōcha (tea tasting) parties were organized where the contestants, upon guessing the best quality tea, would win extravagant prizes. By then, Kyoto was the centre where tea was cultivated using the seeds which Eisai had brought back from China. 

Japanese spirituality

The Muromachi period (1336 to 1573) was the next major period in the history of Japan. The period is marked by the rise of two different cultures: the Kitayama culture (characterized by the fusion of traditional noble culture with the newly emerged culture of the samurai class) and the Higashiyama culture (characterized by the fusion of the samurai class, nobility and the Zen priests of the Higashiyama mountain villa in Kyoto.) The Kitayama culture is centred on Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (ruled Japan from 1368 to 1394), his cultural world and his villa in Kyoto’s northern hills, while the later Higashiyama culture centred on Yoshimasa’s cultural world in his retirement villa in Kyoto’s eastern hills.

Traditional Japanese culture grew exponentially during the Muromachi period. Japanese tea culture drew its aesthetic from the wabi-sabi principles and soon developed into a transformative practice. Wabi denotes the spiritual experiences of human lives characterized by sober refinement, humility, simplicity, restraint and naturalism. It calls for simple and unadorned objects and architectural space. Wabi is more about celebrating the mellow beauty imparted to materials with time and care. On the other hand, Sabi referred to the material aspects of life. Accepting imperfect beauty and understanding emptiness was believed to be the most effective way to attain spiritual awakening. Imperfections had to be embraced and it served as a reminder that human nature itself was unpolished and unfinished. Accepting this was one of the first ways of seeking enlightenment.

Japanese influences

Murata Jukō, who developed the tea ceremony based on wabi-sabi principles
Murata Jukō, who developed the tea ceremony based on wabi-sabi principles. Credit@ Wikipedia

It was Murata Jukō who developed the tea ceremony based on the wabi-sabi principles. He was a student of the monk, Ikkyū, under whom he studied Zen. Ikkyū revitalized Zen during the 15th century. By the 16th century, tea drinking was a popular activity in every society in Japan. It was further developed by Sen no Rikyū and his master Takeno Jōō, who emphasized that each ceremony or meeting must be unique and treasured through the concept of ichi-go ichi-e. It was Takeno Jōō’s teachings that added perfection to many of the newly developed forms of gardens, architecture, art and the tea ceremony. Today, the chadō is centred on the principles he put forward- respect, harmony, purity and tranquillity.

Sen no Rikyū.
Sen no Rikyū. credit@ Wikipedia

Sen no Rikyū worked as the leading tea master for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a samurai and a feudal lord. Hideyoshi greatly supported his endeavours by spreading the way of tea. The feudal lord had an ulterior motive too- he saw it as a way of increasing his political power. While Hideyoshi was greatly influenced by Sen no Rikyū, he had his own ideas on how to increase his power, by combining the way of tea with politics. So he constructed the Golden Tea Room and hosted the Grand Kitano Tea Ceremony in 1587. For Sen no Rikyū, the tea ceremony was more of spirituality, aesthetics and simplicity, as opposed to Hideyoshi’s grand activities. Hideyoshi saw Sen no Rikyū’s ideas as a threat to his power and position. Their relationship began to suffer so much so that in 1590, Hideyoshi brutally executed Yamanoue Sōji, one of Sen no Rikyū’s leading disciples. A year later, Sen no Rikyū himself was ordered by Hideyoshi to commit ritual suicide ( which involved stabbing oneself in the belly with a short sword, slicing open the stomach and then turning the blade upwards.) However, Hideyoshi’s attempt to curb Sen no Rikyū’s influences only further fuelled it. After Sen no Rikyū’s death, three schools descended from the master to continue his teachings and the way of tea. Initially, the tea ceremony was seen as a symbol of status among the nobility and the samurai class, but the teachings spread throughout the country and amongst the townspeople. In Japan, many schools of the Japanese tea ceremony are active today.

Types of temae

As mentioned above, each chadō is unique. Everything from how a kettle is used, how tea is scooped into a cup to how a teacup is examined depends on the school, season, occasion, equipment and setting. Here are some of the most common types of temae in Japan.

Chabako temae

The chabako or tea box with the equipment.
The chabako or tea box with the equipment. credit@ Sakao

Chabako temae is named so because the equipment once used is placed in a special box called the chabako. The chabako temae is performed during an outdoor tea ceremony. The chabako is a convenient way of preparing the equipment for serving tea outside. The basic equipment in a chabako is the tea bowl, whisk, tea scoop, tea caddy, white cloth and a small container for sweets. All the equipment is made smaller than usual to fit it into the chabako.

Hakobi temae

Hakobi temae gets its name from the fact that all the essential tea-making equipment (except for the hot water kettle) is carried into the tea room by the host. This is part of the temae. In other tea ceremonies, the equipment is arranged in the room before the guests enter.

Obon temae

Obon temae, also known as bonryaku temae, is a simple ceremony for making thin tea. This kind of temae is the one which is usually learned first and the easiest to perform. It doesn’t require much expertise or specialized equipment. The obon temae can be performed outdoors or sitting at a table.

Ryūrei temae

Ryūrei temae originated in the Urasenke school and was initially performed for non-native guests as it was thought they would be more comfortable sitting on chairs. During a ryūrei temae, the host prepares the tea by kneeling at a special table. The guests would also be kneeling at tables. It is the host who performs the first and last bows, standing up. The host usually has an assistant who moves their seat accordingly when the host sits or stands up. The assistant is the one who serves the tea and sweets to the guests. The ryūrei temae can be performed anywhere.


With the change of seasons comes a change of aspects that make up a tea ceremony. Traditional tea practitioners divide the year into two main seasons: the sunken hearth season, which consists of the colder months (November to April) and the brazier season which consists of the warmer months (May to October.) Seasonal changes mean changes in the tea ceremony, preparation of tea, equipment and utensils used.

Thick and thin tea

Japanese green tea
Japanese green tea. credit@ Wikipedia

The matcha is prepared in two main ways for tea consumption: thick tea (koicha) and thin tea (usucha). The best quality leaves are used when preparing thick tea. When koicha leaves are stored in a tea urn (chatsubo), they are packed in tea leaves that will later be used to make usucha. Koicha is a thick blend made of hot water and matcha. The water used to make koicha is three times more than the amount of water used to make usucha. While koicha is kneaded with a tea whisk (chasen) to blend the matcha and hot water, the same ingredients are whipped together with the chasen to prepare the usucha. Koicha is served to the guests in one bowl to share, while usucha is served in individual bowls. The invention of the sharing method is credited to Sen no Rikyū. Koicha is served during formal gatherings known as chaji, while usucha is served during a chakai or informal gathering.

Equipment for a tea ceremony

The equipment used during a tea ceremony is collectively known as called chadōgu. The type of chadōgu used depends on the event and season. A wide range of chadōgu are available and most are made out of carefully crafted bamboo. All the equipment are handled with the utmost care. Some of the essentials for a tea ceremony are

A Japanese tea bowl
A Japanese tea bowl. credit@ Pinterest

A tea bowl (chawan): Tea bowls of all sizes and styles are available. Different styles are used while preparing thick and thin tea. During summer, shallow bowls are used so that the tea cools rapidly. During the winter months, deep bowls are used. More often than not, tea masters themselves make their bowls. During extremely special occasions, bowls that are more than four hundred years old are used today. Imperfections or irregularities in the bowl are prized.

chakin or white cloth
chakin or white cloth. credit@ ippodo

Chakin: The chakin is a white linen or hemp cloth used to wipe the tea bowl.

A Japanese tea caddy.
A Japanese tea caddy. credit@ Pinterest

Tea caddy (Natsume or Chaire): The container in which the matcha is placed.

Japanese tea scoop
A Japanese tea scoop. credit@ Hibiki

Tea scoop (chashaku): The tea scoops are usually carved from a single piece of bamboo, but wood or ivory can also be used. The matcha is scooped into the tea bowl using these. Different tea scoops are used for different occasions.

Japanese tea whisks
Japanese tea whisks. credit@ Pinterest

Tea whisk (chasen): Tea whisks, like tea scoops, are carved out of a single piece of bamboo. They are used for mixing the matcha with hot water.

Essential elements

Tea rooms

A traditional Japanese tea room.
A traditional Japanese tea room. Credit@ Architecture style

Japanese tea ceremonies are conducted in rooms or spaces specially constructed and designed for the purpose. While the ideal venue is considered to be a tatami (mat) floored room, any place where the host can carry out the tea-making and serving process in the presence of the guest can be made use of. Tea gatherings can even be held outdoors.

A tea room specially designed for a tea ceremony is known as a chashitsu. The room has a low ceiling, an alcove to hang scrolls and place other objects, a built-in hearth, a preparation area called the mizuya, and two separate entrances for the host and guests. A tea room or chashitsu is built and decorated with simple and rustic materials in keeping up with the wabi-sabi principles. Chashitsu also refers to separate buildings constructed exclusively for tea ceremonies. Such buildings may have several tea rooms of different sizes and styles, waiting rooms and dressing rooms. There may be a surrounding garden known as a roji.

Hanging scroll

The scroll hung in the tokonoma
The scroll hung in the tokonoma. credit@ Matchadoh

Scrolls written by Buddhist monks or calligraphers are hung in the scroll alcove (tokonoma) in the room. Calligraphy plays an important role in the tea ceremony. The season and theme of the gathering control the scroll to be selected. The scrolls feature Buddhist quotes, poems, words or phrases connected with tea or descriptions of famous places.

Flower arrangement

A flower is arranged for the tea ceremony.
A flower is arranged for the tea ceremony. Credit@ Talking Tea

Chabana, which means ‘tea flower,’ is the simple arrangement of flowers in tea rooms. The arrangement is so simple that only a single blossom is used, which should lean towards the guests. Chabana evolved from ikebana ( an old style of Japanese flower arrangement). According to Sen no Rikyū’s teachings, chabana should create the same impression one would get if the flowers are growing outside.


Kaiseki or cha-kaiseki is the meal served during a formal tea ceremony. Only fresh seasonal ingredients are used while preparing the meal. Great care is taken when the ingredients are selected, the types of food to be prepared and what utensils are used to serve the dishes. Edible leaves and flowers are served with the meal to enhance the flavour. The serving ware is as important as the food itself. The dish is served in individual dishes and trays. If the guest is an important person, then they are provided with their own table.

The tea ceremony

The chaji

The guests arrive before the appointed time and store their belongings like coats and outdoor shoes in the waiting room. They put on tabi socks. Traditionally, a waiting room has a tatami floor and a tokonoma, where the scroll may be displayed. Upon entering the tea room, the guests are first served a cup of hot water, roasted barley tea, kombu tea or sakurayu (cherry blossom tea.) When all the guests have arrived and are done with their preparations, they proceed outside and wait in the garden, until their host summons them back in.

When it is time for the ceremony, the guests and the host bow to each other silently, after which the guests proceed to the tsukabai or stone basin. A ritual purification follows where they wash their hands and rinse their mouths with water. It is only after this that they enter the tea room. The tea room will have a tokonoma where decorative items or tea equipment are placed. The guests are seated on the tatami in seiza style ( a formal traditional way of sitting in Japan- on one’s knees) in order of prestige. When the last guest is seated, the door is closed with an audible sound so that the host is alerted. The host enters the room, welcomes each guest and then proceeds to answer questions from the first guest about the scroll and other items in the room.

Preparing the tea
Preparing the tea. Credit@ Matador Network

A charcoal fire is lit on the hearth to heat the water. After this, a meal is served in several courses along with sake and wagashi (a sweet eaten from special paper). The guests carry the wagashi either in a decorative wallet or tuck it into the breast of their kimono. After the meal, comes a break during which the guests return to the waiting room. During the break, the host sweeps the tea room, takes down the scroll and replaces it with a flower arrangement, opens the shutters and makes preparations to serve the tea. A bell or a gong summons the guests back to the tea room and they purify themselves for the second time. The host ritually cleans all the utensils in the presence of the guests. All the movement, gestures and cleaning procedures depend on what kind of temae is done. When the utensils are cleaned, the host prepares thick tea.

A guest raising the bowl to the host in respect
A guest raising the bowl to the host in respect. credit@ InsideKyoto

When the first guest is served the tea in a bowl, they exchange bows with the host. The guest then turns to the second guest, bows to them and raises the bowl to respect the host. After taking a sip, the guest complements the host. A few sips later, the guest wipes the rim of the bowl and passes it to the second guest. The procedure continues until all the guests have taken their tea. The bowl is passed to the host who cleans the equipment.

The chakai

The chaji is always followed by a chakai. After the formal tea ceremony, the host rekindles the fire. The host brings a smoking set to the tea room and more sweets to be had with the thin tea. Thin tea is served in individual bowls. During the chaji, few formal comments are exchanged between the guest and host, but during the chakai, the guests engage in casual conversation. After the tea is had by all the guests and the host has cleaned the utensils, the guest of honour will request the host to allow the guests to examine the utensils. All the items are treated with extreme care as some maybe hundreds of years old, priceless and irreplaceable. A special brocaded cloth is used by the guests to handle the items. After this is done, the host collects the utensils and puts them away. When the guests leave the tea house, the host bows from the door.

Combing ancient principles, tradition and culture, the Japanese tea ceremony signifies purity, respect, harmony and tranquillity. The entire process is imbibed with positive values which the guests must embrace before getting to the end product. It is a way of life with deep-rooted meanings kept alive through tradition and practice.

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