Tea is an integral drink in most Eastern cultures and many Western ones as well. Though many Americans much prefer their ritual morning cup of coffee, cultures around the world have sacramental associations with tea, wherein the beverage plays the leading role in various ceremonies.
One of the most elaborate and illustrious tea ceremonies comes from Japan, where men and women still practice the delicate art of serving and drinking tea. The Japanese Tea Ceremony, or chanoyu, is beautiful and elegant when executed well, but clumsy or sloppy services are a profound embarrassment to hosts and guests.
Nipponophiles (lovers of Japanese culture) can host their own Japanese Tea Ceremony from home — but the service requires quite a bit of preparation and training to get it right. Read on for more information on the Japanese way of enjoying tea, as well as steps to do it yourself.
Almost all Eastern cultures have some form of formal tea ceremony, but Japan’s is the most famous for its emphasis on tradition and connection to history — as well as its intricacy, which we’ll discuss later.
Tea arrived in Japan around the 9th century, and almost immediately sacred institutions began developing ceremonies around the beverage. Monks, samurai warriors and others quarreled over the appropriate way to serve and accept tea until the 16th century, when the highest tea master selected the best principles of the differing schools and crafted an ultimate tea ceremony, which is still in practice today.
Every Japanese Tea Ceremony should have at its foundation the concept of “ichigo, ichie,” or “one time, one meeting.” Though the ritual of serving and accepting the tea may be repeated each time the ceremony takes place, the hosts and guests must be aware that this event — in this place, with these people — will only happen once. It forces participants to appreciate the moments of the ceremony as well as the efforts of the host. The themes of humility, respect and reflection should be present throughout the ceremony for the experience to be true and rewarding.
The host should begin preparations for the event weeks (if not months or years) in advance. Japanese men and women spend lifetimes studying the delicate movements of preparing, serving and accepting the tea, so it is best for hosts to practice the basic actions as much as possible before the event. Though the ritual is intricate and difficult to learn, the best hosts make the motions appear simple and seamless; needless to say, most outsiders fail to come close to the perfection of Japanese tea masters. Still, memorizing the steps of the ceremony is a must for a successful experience.
Formal invitations must be sent through the mail or delivered in person, not over the Internet. Green tea is the most common variety served at Japanese Tea Ceremonies, and you can find high-quality tea from Buddha Teas. Decorations for the tea room and garden area should be simple and classic: Scrolls with Japanese characters for the season and flower arrangements dispersed around the room should suffice. Selecting the utensils is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of a host’s preparations, as there are several types of bowls for different types of ceremonies. You should do some research on tea equipment before selecting a certain style.
On the day when the event is to take place, guests should walk through a garden or decorated outdoor space to reach the tea room. On the way, they may wash their hands to signify the purity of their spirits and their readiness for the sacred beverage.
After bowing in respect to the tea room and one another, the guests watch as the host gracefully washes his or her tools and lights a small charcoal fire to heat the water. Once everything is clean and aesthetically displayed, the host may mix the water and green tea in a bowl, whisking vigorously (yet with poise) to create a perfect solution.
Finally, once the green tea is properly produced, the host presents the bowl to the “main” guest. Now, the guests must elegantly display their affection for the host’s actions. Before drinking, the main guest must admire the tea by watching the beverage as he or she turns the bowl. After taking a small sip, the guest passes it to another guest, who repeats the ritual. Once the last guest has had a drink, the bowl returns to the host.
Throughout the ceremony, neither guests nor host should perform movements or speak unnecessarily; every action should have essential intent for the ritual. The slow, deliberate movements are meant to inspire thought on the moment and gratitude for the work of the host. At the end of a successful ceremony, you and your guests should feel fulfilled, both from a meditative event and a warming bowl of green tea.
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