The tea ceremony is one of the most important fixtures of medieval Japanese culture. This ceremony, also considered to be a form of moving meditation, teaches many things, such as patience, respect and modesty. After attending a tea ceremony in Uji, we learned about the various steps and what significance they hold.
Before the development of the modern tea ceremony, tea was seen as an opportunity for the upper classes to showcase their wealth. They held gatherings in Then a man known as Sen no Rikyu came along with a more humble vision for what a tea ceremony should look like.
Rather than a gold plated façade, Rikyu advocated for a rustic and small tea house away from the noise of the city. The first step of the tea ceremony begins not when you walk inside the teahouse, but actually on the path leading up to it. While walking along this path, guests purify their hearts and thoughts and leave their worldly worries behind. In a symbolic gesture, guests also purify their hands and mouth in this water before entering the tea house. This allows them to wash away the dust from the outside world. The guests then wait outside the tea house to quiet their mind before entering.
The tea ceremony is built on the philosophy Wa, Kei, Sei, Jaku. Harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.
An example of Harmony is shown in the gardens around the tea room. The gardens are to be an extension of the flora surrounding it, living in harmony with nature.
The next concept is “Kei” or respect. The guests need to respect all things, regardless of their status or position in life. This is demonstrated at the entrance of the tearoom, where guests crawl through a small door. In order to get through the door, they need to bow. Samurai must bow, emperors must bow and commoners must bow. Once inside the tearoom, all guests are equal, regardless of their status outside.
The third concept “Sei” or purity, is demonstrated by the tea master once the guests enter the room. Through a series of refined movements, the teamaster cleans and purifies the utensils used in the ceremony. The concept of “Sei” does not simply refer to physical purity, but also spiritual and mental purity. The guests need to purify their mind of thoughts and worries when entering the tea house. It is only then that they will be able to enjoy something as simple as a bowl of tea in silence.
Finally, after all three concepts are discovered and embraced, all people in the ceremony can embody “Jaku” or tranquility. This was the vision that Sen no Rikyu had for the tea ceremony, and his teachings still live on, not only inside the tearoom, but outside as well.
The inside of the tearoom is modestly decorated. Each tea ceremony follows a theme, and that theme is simply conveyed through the use of a flower arrangement and a scroll. The theme of today’s tea ceremony is “wood” and the flower arrangement conveys the leaves beginning to fall from the trees. The scroll on the wall expresses the intention of cleansing our hearts before the upcoming winter season.
The theme of “wood” is also conveyed in the objects used in the tea ceremony. Here is an incense holder made from bamboo gathered around Uji. There is also another small object that is used to produce a specific scent in the tea room. The rest of the objects are used for the preparation of the matcha.
First we have the Hishaku, a bamboo ladle used to scoop hot water out of the Kama or iron pot. A small square is carved out in the tatami mats to make room for this iron pot and keep the water hot throughout the day.
Next, we have the tea bowl or Chawan. This is a clay bowl made by hand inspired by Furuta Oribe, a disciple of Sen no Rikyu. The bowl has a weight to it that conveys the importance of what’s inside.
Next we have the Fukusa, the cloth that is used to clean off the tea utensils before using them. This is a sign of respect for the guests and it is done in a series of graceful movements.
The Natsume or tea caddy is the vessel that the matcha tea powder is kept in. Matcha tea has to be protected from light and humidity to maintain its quality.
The Chashaku is the bamboo spoon used to scoop the matcha powder into the bowl, and the chasen is the bamboo whisk that’s used to mix the powder into water and form a nice foam.
To prepare the matcha for the tea ceremony, the host first must prepare the tea whisk and the tea bowl. She pours hot water from the iron pot into the tea bowl to warm it up. Then, she will take the tea whisk and gently soak each side of it. This does two things, first, it heats up the tea bowl so that it does not cool the matcha down too quickly, and it also makes the bamboo whisk more pliable. The chasen tea whisk is made out of a single piece of bamboo, with very fine bristles that can break if it is too brittle. That is why she gently moves the whisk through the water first before preparing the tea.
The host then discards the water in to a Kensui or waste water bowl. The bowl is then cleaned with a different type of cloth called the Chakin. Once the bowl has been thoroughly cleaned, it is time to add the matcha. The host adds two large scoops of matcha into the bowl. In this case, the host is preparing Usucha, a normal matcha but she may also use more matcha and less water to create a powerful Koicha, or thick matcha.
Next, water is added to the bowl using the Hishaku or bamboo ladle. Finally, the host begins the whisking of the matcha. The bamboo whisk is specifically designed to mix the matcha into the water in the perfect way. The whisk also creates small air bubbles in the tea, giving it a smooth and creamy taste. The host starts by scraping off the sides of the bowl, and then moves into a diagonal movement to create a foamy texture. Once the matcha has been prepared, the host presents the bowl to the guest, with the most decorative side facing them. This is a sign of humility and respect, allowing others to enjoy the most beautiful part of the bowl.
When the guest is finished with the matcha, they place the bowl on the other section of the tatami mat.