Japanese tea ceremony: Description, History, & Facts

The Japanese tea ceremony is something that both interests and confuses people when they visit Japan. With so many steps, utensils and concepts, the Japanese tea ceremony is both fascinating and difficult to fully understand. In this article, we are going to break down what the Japanese tea ceremony is but more importantly what it represents. We highly recommend reading this guide before you take part in a tea ceremony of your own so you know what to expect!

 

Japanese Tea Ceremony Video (coming soon)

 

What is the Japanese Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony is essentially a practice that uses matcha tea as a way to promote a positive relationship between the host and their guest. While there are some complexities and nuance to the Japanese tea ceremony, its core values lie in simplicity. All you need to do is step into a Japanese tea house to experience this simplicity. The room is sparsely decorated, with nothing but a scroll and a flower arrangement. There are a few objects around to prepare the tea, but these are not the focus. The main focus of the tea ceremony are the 4 principes Wa, Kei, Sei and Jaku and the objects simply serve as a way to demonstrate these principles.

 

Why is it the matcha tea ceremony and not the loose leaf tea ceremony?

matcha powder - ceremonial grade matcha tea from Japan

Although loose leaf tea like sencha is now by far the most common way to consume green tea in Japan, it wasn’t always like that. In medieval Japan, tea was consumed in powder form, what would now be considered “matcha” or powdered tea. When the tea ceremony was first created, this was the most common form of tea consumption, so the rituals of the Japanese tea ceremony were built around this drink. This is why we now only see matcha being used in the Japanese tea ceremony, instead of loose leaf tea, making it a matcha tea ceremony rather than a loose leaf tea ceremony.

 

What Matcha Utensils are used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony?

As the tea master enters the tea room, she will present the utensils to be used in the Japanese tea ceremony. There are 9 main tea utensils we will be discussing today, each of which has its own use and significance.

 

Fukusa

This is the dry cloth the tea master uses to clean off the utensils before preparing the tea. The significance of this is practical as well as symbolic. As a sign of respect, the tea master is cleaning the utensils in front of the guest so they can be assured that they are clean.

 

Natsume

This is the first item to be cleaned or purified by the tea master. The natsume is also called the “tea caddy” and it is how the matcha powder is transported. The matcha powder is often sifted beforehand to remove the clumps and then it is brought into the tea room to be prepared.

 

Chashaku

Chashaku bamboo matcha spoon

This is the bamboo tea spoon used to scoop the matcha powder into the bowl. The chashaku is simply designed, but it is the perfect tool to scoop powder out of the natsume, as it has more of a vertical design, rather than a typical horizontal design. The tea master uses 2 large scoops of the Chashaku which comes out to around 2 grams of matcha powder. This is the perfect amount for a bowl of matcha.

 

Kama

This is the iron pot used to heat the water for the Japanese tea ceremony. A perfect square is carved out of the tatami mats and it is enclosed by a flame resistant material. Beneath the iron pot are hot coals that heat up the water throughout the ceremony.

 

Hishaku

This is the bamboo ladle used to scoop water out of the kama in order to prepare the matcha tea. The hishaku has a long handle to reach the water within the iron pot, and the tea master pours the water slowly so it cools off before it is used to prepare the matcha tea. Boiling water is too hot to prepare a good tasting matcha, so it needs to be cooled slightly through technique.

 

Matcha Bowl

Matcha bowl chasen clay tea bowl

This is the clay tea bowl used in the Japanese tea ceremony. It is made from a heavy clay and it often has a beautiful pattern on one side. The bowl is preheated before hand so that it keeps the matcha warm throughout the tea ceremony and the higher walls of the bowl make it easier to prepare the tea. 

 

Matcha Whisk

matcha whisk - chasen bamboo matcha whisk

This is perhaps the most famous of the tea utensils. The chasen or bamboo matcha whisk is carved out of a single piece of bamboo and the 100 small bristles move through the water quickly to aerate the tea. This tool has been used for hundreds of years in the tea ceremony, but still works better than any modern tool.

 

Kensui

This is the waste water bowl used in the Japanese tea ceremony. Sometimes water is used for things other than preparing tea, like heating up the matcha bowl. This water needs to be discarded and the kensui is the most graceful way to do that. This makes it so that the tea master doesn’t need to leave the tea room during the ceremony.

 

Chakin

The chakin is a separate cloth used by the tea master to clean off the matcha bowl. While the Fukusa is kept dry and used to clean off the dry utensils, the chakin is used to clean off the wet utensils.

 

What are the steps of the Japanese Tea Ceremony?

The Japanese tea ceremony requires many small steps that are repeated in careful order. To learn these steps, teamasters must practice nearly everyday and there are even schools dedicated to learning the Japanese tea ceremony. Today we are just going to cover a few of the broad strokes and why each step matters.

 

Step 1 - Bowing

Before the tea master enters the room, she will stand at the entrance and bow to the guests, at which point the guests are expected to bow back. This is a simple introduction and demonstration of respect. Mutual respect is a very important part of the tea ceremony, and something that we will discuss later in more detail.

 

Step 2 - Purification of tea ware

After the tea master sets down the teaware, she will begin to purify it. This is done to demonstrate to the guest that the teaware used to make their tea is clean and pure. The fukusa is taken out and unfolded and later is used to clean the tea utensils, starting with the Natsume and then the Chashaku.

 

Step 3 - Preparation of japanese matcha tea ceremony set

After the teaware is purified, the tea master needs to prepare the utensils for making the matcha tea. She will take the fukusa and open up the iron pot to gather some hot water. This hot water will be poured into the chawan in order to preheat it. The matcha bowl is made from thick clay so it absorbs a lot of heat. If it is not properly heated beforehand, the matcha bowl will absorb much of the heat from the matcha tea and cause it to get cold much more quickly. While the water is still warm, the tea master will then take the matcha whisk or chasen and dip it gently into the water. She will then give it a quick whisk around in the water. By soaking the matcha whisk in water, you make it more pliable and less likely to break. When this delicate wood is dry, it can be quite brittle and easily broken.

After the matcha bowl and matcha whisk have been prepared, the water is poured out of the matcha bowl into the kensui and the matcha bowl is cleaned off using the chakin. The tea master is now ready to prepare the matcha tea.

 

Step 4 - Preparing Matcha Tea

Finally we get to the most important part of the tea ceremony and that is the preparation of the matcha tea. This is seen as the main event of the Japanese tea ceremony that everything else is building up to.

First the tea master will take 2 large scoops of matcha powder from the natsume and place it into the matcha bowl. She will then scoop less than a full hishaku full of hot water into the bowl, making sure to pour it really slowly so it has a chance to cool off before it touches the matcha powder.

Finally, the tea master will take the matcha whisk and gently scrape the sides of the tea bowl to mix the matcha in and then begin to whisk the tea up in a zigzag motion. By whisking the matcha tea in this way, the tea master is able to create a light foam on top which gives it a smoother consistency and taste. When the matcha bowl is finished, the tea master sets the matcha whisk aside and turns the bowl so the design faces the guest.

 

Step 5 - Drinking Matcha Tea

Now comes the time for the guest to play a role in the Japanese tea ceremony. While the guest’s job may be far easier than the job of the host, there is still some tea ceremony etiquette to be mindful of when drinking the matcha tea.

First, you should bow when the tea is presented to you to convey gratitude without speaking. You can then take the bowl of tea and place it on your tatami mat before drinking it. The bowl can then be held with 2 hands and you should turn it so the pattern or design on the bowl faces the other guests. This is seen as a sign of respect, allowing the other guests to view the most beautiful part of the bowl as you drink.

After you are done, you can place the bowl on the other side of the tatami mat where it was presented to you.

 

Step 6 - Wagashi

The wagashi or Japanese sweets are another aspect of the Japanese tea ceremony in addition to the matcha tea. These are made with simple ingredients, and often used to convey the theme of the tea ceremony. They are meant to complement the flavor of the matcha, with the sweetness of the wagashi smoothing out the bitterness of the matcha. This should be eaten whenever it is presented to you, and it should be finished so the host knows that you liked it.

 

What are the Principles of the Japanese Tea Ceremony?

While the steps and utensils used in the tea ceremony seem to get all the attention, the principles are the most important. These principles are Wa, Kei, Sei, Jaku or Harmony, Respect, Purity and Tranquility. We will briefly cover each of these principles and how they are represented in the tea ceremony.

 

Harmony

Harmony is the positive interaction between the host and the guest. This is an ideal that people should strive towards not just in the Japanese tea ceremony, but in the outside world as well. The matcha tea is not a solitary pursuit but something to be shared between the host and their guest.

 

Respect

Respect is the ability to understand and appreciate others. The guest should be thinking of the host throughout the tea ceremony and the host should be thinking of the guest throughout the tea ceremony. Inside the tea room, all people are equal, regardless of their status outside the tea room. The respect for people is conveyed through bowing and deference in the tea ceremony and respect for objects is conveyed through the treatment of the matcha utensils. Objects of different values are treated the same, just as people of different outside status are treated the same during the Japanese tea ceremony.

 

Purity

Purity is the ability to treat oneself and others with a pure heart. The concept of purity in the tea ceremony is not only demonstrated when the tea master purifies the matcha tea ceremony utensils, but before the guest even enters the tea room. Before entering the tea room, the guests must purify their hands at the tsukubai and also purify their hearts and minds. Only after they have left their worldly thoughts and worries behind are they able to enjoy something as simple as a bowl of tea in silence.

 

Tranquility

Tranquility is achieved when the 3 other principles are realized. This is a sense of selflessness and while it is the ultimate goal of practicing the tea ceremony, in a way it is still the beginning. The principles need to be constantly practiced to maintain tranquility, and the matcha tea ceremony is the way to train.

 

What is the history of the Japanese Tea Ceremony?

Tea originally was adopted by the monks who used it to help them focus during long periods of meditation. Soon the upper classes began to take notice of its benefits, which elevated the status of tea to a drink of the nobility. Tea was seen as a status symbol and a way for the wealthy elite to compete with one another for prestige. This gave rise to a certain type of tea ceremony, where the host would invite guests over as an excuse to showcase their expensive tea rooms, tea utensils and tea powder. This was a corrupt version of the matcha tea ceremony, and a man known as Sen no Rikyu soon came along with a more humble vision for the Japanese tea ceremony.

Rikyu advocated for a rustic tea room out in the countryside, away from the city. This tea room would be decorated in a minimalist style, with nothing but a scroll and a flower arrangement as decoration. Instead of the tea ceremony being an excuse for the host to showcase their wealth, it became the complete opposite, a place where everyone was equal. This was a simplified version of the tea ceremony, which sought to build a relationship between the host and their guest and promote the principles of Wa, Kei, Sei, Jaku.

This matcha tea ceremony is still popular today, particularly with tourists who come from all over the world to take part in Japanese tea culture. The modern Japanese tea ceremony as we know it today is as old as the Sengoku period, with the first records dating back to the 1500s

 

How to make your own Matcha Tea Ceremony

A lot of tea drinkers like to make their own matcha tea ceremony at home. While it is possible to get all of the utensils we mentioned earlier, there are 3 main ones that are important. The matcha whisk, matcha bowl and matcha spoon are used to prepare a bowl of matcha tea that tastes just like the matcha tea ceremony. This is a good way to practice some of the principles of the Japanese tea ceremony, even if you’re not in Japan.

Even though you may not see it being used in the Japanese tea ceremony, you may want to invest in a metal sifter or furui to sift your matcha powder. Matcha powder will automatically form clumps as it’s exposed to the humidity in the air, and this can make it so that your matcha tea doesn’t mix as evenly. If you really want to get the most out of your matcha tea ceremony, this extra sifting step can make all the difference.

If you want to learn more about how to prepare the best matcha tea, you can read this article here that will take you through the preparation step by step.

 

Where to get the best Matcha tea ceremony set

matcha tea ceremony set - matcha tea sampler with matcha bowl, matcha whisk and chashaku

If you are looking for the best matcha set to create your own matcha tea ceremony, look no further than this matcha bundle here. This bundle includes 21 different types of matcha tea, plus the matcha whisk, matcha bowl and matcha spoon. With this bundle, not only do you get to try a huge assortment of different matcha teas, you also get all the tools you need to prepare them the proper way!