Japanese Tea Ceremony: All you need to know about Japanese Tea Ceremony

by Melo! SG on March 18, 2021

The Japanese tea ceremony is also called sado or chado, literally translated as “The Way of Tea”. It encompasses the teachings related to the organization of a tea ceremony. The ceremony itself consists of serving guests with matcha (tea leaves grounded into a fine powder) in a traditional manner.

A cultural experience

Even so, the Japanese tea ceremony is not just about serving and drinking matcha. It is a complete cultural experience. The garden outside has been landscaped to offer a feeling of serenity. The tearoom is carefully decorated with flower arrangements, calligraphy and other such elements. The utensils are all crafted by the traditional Japanese arts, with exquisite ceramics patterned in seasonal motifs. Even the Japanese sweets served with the tea contribute to the entire experience.

In fact, the ceramics and tearoom decorations are hand-picked by the host to complement the personal attributes of the guests. Different occasions and seasons call for their own unique preparations, choice of utensils and teaware, flower arrangements and other such decorations. In addition, the host and guests are usually dressed in kimono. Although this is no longer compulsory in modern times, respectful attire is still expected. As a result, some might say that the Japanese tea ceremony is a composite artform which represents the ideal of Japanese lifestyle.

A spiritual process

The Japanese tea ceremony has its roots in Chinese Zen philosophy and can be a highly spiritual process. To immerse oneself in the way of the tea is to separate yourself from the stresses of daily life and seek inner peace and harmony. This is why there are never any gaudy designs or attire in the Japanese tea ceremony. Much attention might be paid to the decor of the tearoom, but it will always have a look of simplicity and tranquility. Appreciating the simple, classic design of the tearoom is also part of the experience. The ultimate aim of the Japanese tea ceremony is the attainment of deep spiritual satisfaction through the drinking of tea and silent contemplation.

A social event

On a different level, the Japanese tea ceremony can simply be a social event where guests are invited to drink tea in a pleasant and peaceful environment. The ceremony can serve to strengthen the ties between the host and guests. In this way, the Japanese tea ceremony teaches one about good manners and hospitality. Every single movement made by the host during the ceremony has been choreographed to be pleasing to the guests, as well as to indicate esteem and hospitality. As mentioned, the host would have chosen the specific ceramics with the individual guests in mind. On top of that, the utensils will be set out in a way such that the guests will have the best view of them. Meanwhile, the guests are also expected to behave in a certain way to show appreciation and respect, both for the host and the other attendees.

Tea philosophy

Wa, Kei, Sei, Jaku - Harmony, Respect, Purity, Tranquility. These are the four principles of the Way of the Tea. In pursuing these four principles during the Japanese tea ceremony, practitioners also do their best to integrate them into their daily lives.

Wa (Harmony). The Japanese tea ceremony is not a solitary affair It is a process that is shared and enjoyed by the host and guests in harmony. This harmony also extends to the surroundings. The garden, tearoom and utensils should all be in harmony with each other.

Kei (Respect). Respect is the ability to have due regard for others, to understand and accept them even when they are different from you. In the Japanese tea ceremony, both the host and guests regard each other with the highest consideration. Everyone and everything taking part in the ceremony should be accorded with the same esteem. How the host greets the guests; the manner which the guests enter the tearoom; the way they are seated, how the utensils are handled; the way they share the tea - every single action is carefully carried out with utmost respect.

Sei (Purity). The purity of the Japanese tea ceremony is often represented by the cleanliness and simplicity of the space, as well as the ritual cleansing of the tea apparatus. Nevertheless, the true essence of this principle actually denotes the purity of one’s heart. The ability to leave behind the worries of mundane life and harsh thoughts, and to treat oneself and others with a genuine and open heart.

Jaku (Tranquility). The principle of Jaku can be realized after the first three concepts are attained. Only after embracing harmony, respect and purity can a practitioner achieve true tranquility.

Apart from the four main principles, there are two secondary concepts associated with the Japanese tea ceremony:

Wabi (Loneliness). Wabi can be literally translated to “loneliness”. This is because the traditional meaning conveys “the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society”. From this, we can infer that the true concept is about appreciating a simple life, and the beauty of things that are modest and natural. In the Japanese tea ceremony, this concept can be seen from the basic, rustic design of the tearoom, with the use of natural elements as much as possible.

Kokoroire (Devotion). Kokoroire translates as “devotion” and essentially means “pouring one’s heart completely into the tea ceremony”. It refers to practitioners of the Japanese tea ceremony who devote their lives to the ritual and the way of tea.

History of the Japanese tea ceremony

The drinking of green tea has been recorded in China as early as the fourth century. Green tea was then introduced to Japan around the 8th century, when the first tea plant seeds were brought from China by Buddhist monks Kukai and Saicho. During this period, the tea plants grown in Japan were mainly consumed by priests and noblemen as medicine.

Religious roots

Some schools of thought attribute the cultivation of green tea for religious purposes to a Japanese priest called Myoan Eisai. Eisai traveled to China in 1187 to study philosophy and religion. After returning to Japan, he became the founder of Zen Buddhism and built the first temple of the Rinzai sect. Eisai went on to become the first person to write a Japanese book on tea in 1211. Eisai believed tea drinking to hold vast health benefits and that tea can be a cure for all disorders. In his book, Kissa Yojoki (Tea drinking is good for health), Eisai wrote that tea drinking could cure the loss of appetite, paralysis, beriberi, as well as boils and sickness from contaminated water.

Status symbol

By the 13th century, a feudal military government ruled Japan and tea became a luxury item under their power. The Japanese tea ceremony had turned into a status symbol, enjoyed by the Japanese upper classes. Extravagant tea parties were thrown amongst the Japanese nobility where participants had to guess the type of tea they were drinking. These extravagant, rowdy affairs were a complete contrast to the initial simplicity espoused in the tea ceremony. It also led to social tensions over the perceived elitism.

Wabi-cha

But during the 15th and 16th centuries, views on the Japanese tea ceremony started to shift back to its spiritual roots. Sen no Rikyu, the head tea master of powerful Japanese politician Hideyoshi Toyotomi, was a key figure in this transformation. Rikyu and his teachers promoted “wabi-cha”, which emphasizes simplicity. This is the style of the Japanese tea ceremony which we are familiar with today. Instead of decadent tea parties featuring expensive teaware and decorations, wabi-cha advocated a quiet, reflective ceremony and the use of simple designs. Rikyu also highlighted the philosophy of Ichi-go ichi-e, which translates to “one time, one meeting”. This philosophy describes the idea of cherishing each individual tea ceremony as it is unique and may never happen again.

The popularity of tea continued to grow in the 17th and 18th centuries. But it was still mainly enjoyed by the upper classes, with mostly the samurai class who performed the tea ceremony as a vital part of their meetings. It was only during the 19th century, after the government abolished the samurai system, that the tea ceremony was recognized as an important cultural heritage. Thereafter, all social classes started to enjoy the tea ceremony.

What exactly is matcha?

Many people think that matcha is just your usual green tea in powdered form. But matcha actually has its own distinct characteristics and nutritional profile. Unique to Japan, matcha is cultivated using a specific method developed specially in the country.

Firstly, matcha always comes in powdered form rather than loose leaves or in tea bags. Secondly, whereas normal green tea is yellow-brown in color, matcha is a vibrant shade of green thanks to its rich chlorophyll content.

This is because matcha is ground using a traditional slow-moving stone mill (ishi-usu). The steady, deliberate motion minimizes friction that might “cook” the tea. Ishi-usu is made of granite, a “softer” stone, which also reduces friction during the grinding. This helps matcha retain its chlorophyll and other nutrients. Meanwhile, normal green tea powder is ground using high air pressures which heats up the tea and turns it yellow-brown. It is also because of this difference in process that matcha can have up to 15 times the amount of nutrients than regular green tea.

Taste-wise, matcha has a sweet, smooth and earthy flavor, with a slight bitter aftertaste. On the other hand, normal green tea typically has a less intense flavor.

In general, matcha can be categorized into two main grades: ceremonial grade and culinary grade.

Ceremonial grade and Culinary grade matcha

Ceremonial grade matcha is the highest grade available and this is the type that has been used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony for centuries. It is made from the youngest tea leaves with the stems and veins completely removed before processing to obtain a very smooth and fine texture. While culinary grade matcha powder is also made from young tea leaves, they are older when compared to those used for the ceremonial grade.

As a result, ceremonial and culinary grade matcha have different characteristics which make them more suited for their different uses.

Purpose: Ceremonial grade matcha is used for traditional occasions, such as Japanese tea ceremonies. It should be served as purely as possible, mixed only with hot water and no other ingredients added. To prepare ceremonial grade matcha, add half a teaspoon of the matcha for every eight ounces of hot water before whisking the mixture thoroughly. It is not advisable to use ceremonial grade matcha for cooking and baking as you will lose the refined characteristics of this premium grade.

Meanwhile, culinary matcha powder can be used for cooking, baking and in the concoction of drink recipes. It is not necessarily true that culinary grade matcha is of a lower quality than the ceremonial grade. This type of matcha has just been prepared in a different way to suit its uses in cooking and baking.

Color, flavor, aroma & texture: As ceremonial grade matcha is harvested from younger leaves, it is a more vibrant green color than culinary grade matcha. It has a more refined, delicate flavor and should never feel gritty. On the other hand, culinary grade matcha tastes more robust and bitter. This is why this culinary grade matcha can be used in cooking and baking without losing its unique flavor.

The aroma of matcha is the same for both grades: fresh with a slightly grassy undertone. Otherwise, it is an indication that the quality of the tea has been compromised.

Usucha and Koicha: For ceremonial grade matcha, there are two different types of preparation methods known as usucha (thin tea) and koicha (thick tea). Usucha is usually made from tea leaves which are less than 30 years old, while koicha is generally made from the first harvest of plants that are over 30 years old.

But the key difference for usucha and koicha is the amount of water added:

  • To prepare usucha, add about one gram of matcha to 80-100 milliliters of water. Whisk the tea in a “W” or “M” motion until there is enough froth on the surface.
  • To prepare koicha, add about four grams of matcha to 30 milliliters of water. Don’t whisk too much as there should not be any froth on koicha. Instead, mix using a gentle up-down, left-right “massaging” motion, just enough to produce a thick consistency.
Due to the different amounts of matcha and water used, the viscosity and flavor of koicha and usucha are quite distinct. Koicha is more viscous like a thick hot chocolate and tastes more sweet. On the other hand, usucha is more watery and not as sweet. Nevertheless, usucha should never be unpleasantly bitter.

Preparing the tearoom

A traditional Japanese tea ceremony is held in a tearoom/teahouse surrounded by a peaceful garden with a garden path leading up to the tearoom. On the other hand, tea ceremonies can also be held outside in a picnic-style (nodate).

The tearoom usually has tatami floors and an alcove where flowers, scrolls containing calligraphy or paintings and other decorations can be displayed. The host will have invested a lot of time and effort to adorn the tearoom for that specific occasion - and so, appreciating the decorations is an important part of the Japanese tea ceremony.

Cleansing

Another key step is to clean the tearoom thoroughly as purity is one of the key principles of the Japanese tea ceremony. The tatami mats are vigorously swept using a houki broom, which are usually made from bamboo or millet grass. Millet grass is softer and prevents damage to the tatami mats. The sliding doors and windows of the tearoom will be carefully inspected for holes or stains. The paper used to line the screens will have to be replaced with new ones if damaged or dirtied.

On top of that, the garden and pathway leading up to the tearoom must also be cleaned. The plants in the garden need to be trimmed and weeded, and fallen leaves swept away. However, some fallen leaves can be left behind so that the garden will look more natural. This ties in to the appreciation of things that are natural.

The host will carry out a ritual cleansing of certain tea utensils (the more important ones such as the tea caddy) in front of the guests during the tea ceremony itself. The cleansing is done carefully and gracefully, but it is just a symbolic gesture to show that the highest standards of cleanliness are being observed. The actual cleaning of the utensils must be done before the tea ceremony and before they are brought into the tearoom.

Preparing the tea

The actual steps in the preparation of the tea for the Japanese tea ceremony is basic and unpretentious. This is befitting of the principle of simplicity embraced by the Japanese tea culture. But there are fixed movements for each step, which have to be carried out in a meaningful and reflective manner. In addition, utensils have to be arranged in a certain way.

Furo and Ro

There are actually many different types of preparation styles, all varying according to the seasons or the level of formality. But there are two main preparation styles for the Japanese tea ceremony, distinguished by the summer and the winter seasons. During the summer, tea is prepared with the iron kettle placed on the brazier (furo). Meanwhile for the winter season, the kettle is placed in a sunken hearth (ro). The procedure for adding charcoal to the fire (sumi-demae) and the arrangement of the utensils to prepare the tea are different as a result. Accordingly, the way to finish the Japanese tea ceremony also differs.

The main steps of a typical Japanese tea ceremony

Step 1: The Japanese tea ceremony actually starts even before the day of the ceremony itself. It begins when the host sends out the formal invitations to the guests. In keeping with the principle of simplicity, the invitations are usually elegant and classic in design. The host will also learn about the guests so that he/she can select tearoom decorations and ceremony utensils that best reflect the personalities of the attendees.

Step 2: On the day of the Japanese tea ceremony, the host will rise early in the morning to start preparations. The tearoom will be cleaned and arranged accordingly before the guests arrive.

Step 3: The guests need to do their part too. Before entering, guests have to wash their hands as a symbolic cleansing of the outside world from themselves. Thereafter, they will remove their footwear and wait for the host to announce that he/she is ready to receive them. The guests will then step through a low door, such that they have to bow down as they enter. This is a sign of respect for the host and the tea ceremony. The door also represents a barrier against the outside world, making the tearoom a peaceful sanctuary conducive for the quiet contemplation necessary for the ceremony.

Step 4: Guests are usually seated in order of their status/seniority. The first guest is called the shokyaku and he/she plays a very important role. The shokyaku represents all the other guests and is the only person to converse directly with the host. If the other guests want to query the host about something, they will direct their request to the shokyaku, who will then help them ask the host. This is to aid in keeping the tearoom quiet and tranquil.

The participants also need to sit in a poised manner throughout the entire process. As the Japanese tea ceremony advocates quiet harmony, there should be no redundant movements or unnecessary words spoken.

Step 5: The host proceeds to clean the tea ceremony tools with calm, dignified movements. Concurrently, water is being boiled in an iron kettle either on the brazier or a sunken hearth according to the seasons. To handle the hot kettle, the host will take out a silk cloth from his/her kimono sash. This silk cloth signifies the host’s spirit and is inspected and unfolded carefully before being used.

Step 6: Matcha is scooped into a bowl with a small amount of hot water mixed in and carefully whisked to make a thin paste. Following that, the host will pour additional hot water to make the green tea, which is then served to the guests.

Step 7: The host places the bowl of green tea in front of the first guest, who will thank the host for it. Following that, the guest will place the bowl between himself/herself and the next guest and bow to excuse himself/herself for tasting the tea first. Thereafter, the guest will pick the bowl up and admire its elegant design.

Next, he/she will rotate the bowl 180º with two turns before taking a few sips of the green tea. This ensures that the guest does not drink from the decorative front of the bowl. It is customary for the guest to offer compliments to the host while tasting the tea. The guest will then wipe the rim of the bowl and turn it so that the front of the bowl is again facing him/her, before passing it on to the next guest. When returning the bowl back to the host, the last guest must ensure that the front of the bowl is facing the host.

Traditional Japanese sweets (wagashi) are usually served as a complement to the tea.

Step 8: The host will clean the tools after all the guests have tasted the tea and the bowl is handed back to him/her. The guests can then request to view the cleaned utensils, as a sign of respect for the host and appreciation for the beautiful implements used. Thereafter, the host will gather the utensils and the guests with bow one more time before leaving. The ceremony is then brought to a close.

Types of Japanese tea ceremonies

One might think that there is only one fixed standard of Japanese tea ceremony, but there are actually many different variations. They can typically be classified into two main types.

The first is chakai. This is an informal tea ceremony which is more simple and includes traditional Japanese sweets (wagashi) and a more diluted tea (usucha). The second is chaji. This is a full-length, highly formal event which can last around four hours. It includes a special full-course meal (kaiseki), wagashi, a thick tea (koicha), before being followed by usucha. During a chaji, guests are typically offered small breaks to walk around the gardens surrounding the tearoom.

Apart from the above two main categories, there are many other types of Japanese tea ceremonies which are held in accordance to the occasion, season and time of day.

Akatsuki-no-chaji (Tea ceremony during dawn in winter)

Akatsuki-no-chaji is performed at dawn on a cold winter day, to enjoy the emergence of the first rays of the sun as one sips tea. The tearoom is usually lit by candles so that participants can appreciate the changes in the appearance of the utensils from candlelight to sunlight.

Yuuzari-no-chaji (Tea ceremony during the early evening the warmer months)

Yuuzari-no-chaji is the reverse of the akatsuki-no-chaji. Held during the early evening of the warmer months, this tea ceremony lets participants appreciate the gradual transition from the bright summer daylight to dusk when candles are lit.

Asa-cha (Tea ceremony during the early morning in summer)

Asa-cha is carried out during the early mornings of the summer season, when one can still cherish the cool air before the real summer heat takes over. It can be rather challenging to practice tea ceremony during the Japanese summers, which are usually very hot and humid. Most tearooms are compact and the burning of charcoal in the braziers can accentuate the already soaring temperatures.

Shoburo (Tea ceremony when the brazier is used for the first time for the year - held in May)

Shoburo is conducted to honor the first time the brazier is used for the year. Going by the Gregorian calendar, this occasion generally falls around the month of May and is a celebration of the coming summer.

Nagori-no-chaji (Tea ceremony honoring the last remains of the year's supply of tea and the transition into winter - held in October)

Nagori-no-chaji is carried out to show appreciation for the final remnants of this year's supply of tea. This tea ceremony is also held to celebrate the transition into the winter months, and is symbolic of the act of letting go of the old in anticipation of the new.

Kuchikiri-no-chaji (Tea ceremony honoring the breaking of the seal on a jar of new tea - held in November)

Kuchikiri-no-chaji is performed to pay tribute to the breaking of the seal on a jar of new tea (kuchikiri). Tea leaves are harvested in spring time and stored in jars in a cool place until early November when the new tea season begins. The seal on a jar of tea in broken and fresh tea leaves are used to brew tea for the first time for the year. The sunken hearth is also used for the first time to boil water, to signify the beginning of the winter season.

A formal Japanese tea ceremony (chaji) is always held to celebrate the breaking of the seal and welcome the new tea season. This is called the “ro shogo no chaji” and is the most formal tea event of the year, often held up as the gold standard of the Japanese tea ceremony. For this very special occasion, the tearoom usually undergoes a total revamp with new tatami mats, sliding screen doors, bamboo fences and bamboo gutters.

Yobanashi (Tea ceremony during the evening in winter)

Yobanashi is performed to pay tribute to the long winter nights. This tea ceremony starts in the evening when guests get to enjoy tea in a dusky tearoom lit with candles. Candles and lanterns will also be lit in the gardens outside the tearoom.

Hatsugama (Tea ceremony for the boiling of the first kettle)

Hatsugama is one of the most auspicious tea gatherings and is a formal affair (chaji) with the finest teaware, quality cuisine, festive decorations and exquisite kimono. This is when the teacher of the Japanese tea ceremony will prepare a full chaji for all his/her students. As a full chaji is very complicated, it is impossible to teach the entire process all at once. Students typically have to learn it in parts. As a result, hatsugama is the first time the students get to participate in a full chaji, complete with kaiseki meal, breaks and the entire tea ritual carried out to its fullest. The teacher will host the hatsugama, but may have some students helping out with the ceremony. This is also a great opportunity for the teacher to highlight some details regarding the flow of a full chaji.

Essential utensils used in the Japanese tea ceremony

There is a wide range of utensils used in the Japanese tea ceremony. Below is a list of some of the more important main tools.

Chawan (Tea Bowl): As the actual tea bowl used to serve guests the green tea, the chawan holds the main spotlight. It is often seen as the most vital piece of tea equipment. In fact, chawan are often given names by their sculptors or tea masters. The most valuable chawans are crafted by hand and irregularities and imperfections in the bowls are highly prized, so much so that they are often featured as part of the front design of the bowl. When a chawan is cracked, they will be carefully repaired using a natural adherent which includes lacquer mixed with powdered gold. As a result, the repaired part is called kintsugi (joint with gold) and is usually highlighted with additional designs. This celebration of irregularities and imperfections in chawans is tied to the Japanese tea ceremony’s key concepts of simplicity and modesty.

Available in a wide variety of designs, different chawan styles are used depending on the type of tea and the seasons. For example, shallower bowls are used in the summer so that the tea can cool off more quickly. Meanwhile, deeper bowls are used in the winter months to keep the green tea heated for as long as possible.

Cha-ire (Tea Caddy): The cha-ire is a tea caddy for thick tea (koicha). It is typically a long, slender ceramic container topped by an ivory lid with a gold leaf underside. Cha-ire are usually stored in decorative drawstring pouches called shifuku. The cha-ire is considered one of the more important tea equipment and the host will clean it with a silk cloth (fukusa) in front of the guests during the ceremony. Guests can also request to view the cha-ire.

Natsume (Tea Caddy): Natsume is a tea caddy for thin tea (usucha). Natsume also refers to the natsume fruit (jujube), and this tea caddy is thus named because of its resemblance to that fruit. Made from lacquered or untreated wood, it is usually short with a flat lid and rounded bottom. Like the cha-ire, natsume is one of the more important tea utensils and will be cleaned with a fukusa and put on display for the guests to view.

Shifuku (Drawstring Pouch): Shifuku is a drawstring pouch used to store the cha-ire. It is typically woven out of very fine material, such as silk brocade, damask or a type of Chinese striped silk called kantou. The shifuku is considered a valuable item in the Japanese tea ceremony and will be carried into the tearoom to form part of the aesthetics. In fact, a single cha-ire can have a set of three to five distinct shifukus, so that a different pouch can be used and appreciated for each individual ceremony. It is very common for guests to request for a closer view of the pouch.

Chasen (Whisk): Chasen are tea-whisks carved from a single piece of bamboo. They are used to whisk hot water together with the powdered green tea. There are different varieties of chasen and their usage depends on the type of tea served. Chasen can be made from fresh bamboo, dried bamboo or smoked bamboo. The heads of the whisk can also vary between fine, medium and coarse.

Chashaku (Tea Scoop): Chashaku are tea scoops whittled from a single piece of bamboo or ivory. Those made from bamboo are considered more casual. Chashaku is used to scoop tea from the cha-ire into the chawan. The dimensions of the chashaku is important as it determines the amount of green tea powder used.

Kama (Iron Kettle): The kama is used to heat the water for making the green tea. Made from iron or copper, the kama has a lid (futa) which will be removed at the start of the tea-making and then replaced after the guests have finished sipping their tea. Futa are usually made from cast iron and forged at the same time as the body so that they will match perfectly. However, futa can also be made of bronze, copper, brass or silver. Kama are often globular or cylindrical in shape, with rounded, squarish or slanted shoulders. They will also have a loop cast on either side for inserting metal handles so that they can be carried and hung over fire. Sometimes, kama can even be forged in the general design of an ogre or lion face.

A kama that has been passed down the generations are given special names which reflect its design, or even the legacy of the original owner.

Chakin (Hemp Cloth): The chakin is a white rectangular cloth made from linen or hemp, with different styles used for thick and thin tea. The chakin is usually used by the host to wipe the chawan after the last guest has finished drinking the green tea and returned it. During preparation, it is usually folded properly and arranged together with the chawan.

Fukin (Hemp Cloth): Fukin is a cloth made from hemp used to wipe the teapot after serving the guests. It is also used when refilling the fresh water jar (mizusashi) to prevent water spillage.

Fukusa (Silk Cloth): Fukusa is a square double-layered silk cloth used to clean the other tea utensils, as well as to handle the hot kama. The cloth is typically plain and of one color, with men usually using purple fukusa and women using orange/red ones. There are also distinct colors and designs used by people of varying ages, status and schools, as well as for different ceremonies.

A special type of fukusa, called kobukusa or dashibukusa, are used by guests to hold the tea utensils when admiring them, so as to protect those implements. It is called kobukusa when the guests bring their own, and dashibukusa when it is provided by the host. Kobukusa/dashibukusa are generally thicker and possess a more elegant design than the normal fukusa.

Furo (Portable Brazier): Furo is a portable brazier used during the spring and summer seasons to heat the hot water kama to make the tea. The earliest furos were made of bronze, but iron and ceramic ones are now more common. Unglazed ceramic furo coated with black lacquer and placed on a lacquered board is usually used for formal Japanese tea ceremonies. Kouboku aromatic wood is the incense used in furo.

Ro (Sunken Hearth): Ro is used during the colder months of the autumn and winter seasons. A pit is dug into the floor to put the kama in. A box-like frame will be created around the kama so that it will heat up faster and stay warm longer. The incense used in ro is called neriko, which are small balls kneaded from a mixture of woods, spices and herbs.

Hishaku (Ladle): Hishaku is a long bamboo ladle used to transfer hot water from the kama to the chawan when making tea. In certain types of ceremonies, it can also be used to transfer fresh water from the fresh water container (mizusashi) to the kama and chawan. Hishaku of varying sizes are used for the different ceremonies and seasons. The ladle used by guests to scoop water for their ritual cleansing before entering the tearoom is also called a hishaku, albeit a bigger version of it.

Kensui (Waste Water Receptacle): Kensui is a container into which leftover water/waste water from rinsing the chawan is poured. Kensui are typically bowl-shaped and made from metal, clay or wood. A clean kensui must be used for each tea ceremony. The disposal of waste water is viewed as an “unclean” task and reusing it in front of guests is regarded as a rude gesture.

Mizusashi (Cold Water Container): Mizusashi is a lidded container that holds fresh cold water. It serves multiple purposes, but its primary function is to refill the kama and clean the chasen Mizusashi are usually crafted out of ceramic, but can also be made from glass, wood or metal. Mizusashi come in many different designs. As it is one of the key utensils that contribute to the aesthetics of the Japanese tea ceremony, the host will carefully select one that fits the specific theme of the ceremony.

Mizutsugi (Water Pourer): Mizutsugi is a lidded water pitcher used to replenish the mizusashi at the end of certain tea ceremonies. There are two main kinds of mizutsugi. Katakuchi is made of bentwood, lacquered wood or ceramic, while yakan is made of metal.

Japanese tea ceremony etiquette

The Japanese tea ceremony is about cultivating tranquility, showing respect and encouraging good manners. As mentioned earlier, the guest is not a passive participant in the Japanese tea ceremony. Everyone has a part to play in the ceremony and there are some basic etiquette that guests have to comply with to make the tea gathering a pleasant affair for all.

  • The host will be in kimono and guests are also encouraged to wear kimono. But in these modern times, it is no longer compulsory for the latter. Nevertheless, guests are expected to dress in a conservative manner. Revealing or flashy attire have no place in the Japanese tea ceremony. Participants are also encouraged to set aside their jewellery and watches, as well as avoid putting on strong-smelling fragrances.
  • All mobile phones and other similar electronic devices should be turned off during the ceremony, or at least switched to silent and non-vibration modes.
  • Guests are expected to arrive a little earlier than the stipulated time. Tardiness is considered very rude, while turning up too early might inconvenience the host.
  • Participants have to remove their footwear at the entrance to the teahouse, where they will put on a pair of indoor slippers provided by the host. Thereafter, they will wait to be invited in. As participants have to remove their shoes, it is important for them to be wearing a clean pair of white socks.
  • Guests should avoid stepping in the middle of the tatami and use closed fists when touching the mats. They must also greet and bow to the host.
  • Silence is expected during the Japanese tea ceremony, especially when the host is cleansing the tools. Small talk is discouraged. Any conversation is to be quiet, subdued and focus on the ceremony itself and the seasonal changes.
  • Guests should show their appreciation for the tea ceremony by commending the host on his/her efforts. They should take the time to admire the tea bowls and other important tools, as well as the decor of the tearoom. It is also good manners to compliment the tea and Japanese sweets served.
  • Participants are expected to make a quarter turn of the tea bowl before drinking it and then wipe the lip of the bowl afterwards. This is for hygiene purposes as all guests taste the tea from the same bowl.
  • Additional etiquette: These might be expected of more advanced practitioners in a Japanese tea ceremony, but will be graciously overlooked if the guest is a beginner/foreigner.
    • Advanced practitioners must bring their own paper fans and sit in a kneeling position for the entire tea ceremony. First-timers are not expected to do so and can sit in a more comfortable cross-legged stance. Nonetheless, all guests are expected to sit in an upright and dignified manner.
    • It is common practice for Japanese to eat traditional sweets in three bites and drink their tea in three sips. Again, beginners/foreigners are not expected to know this and will be excused if they don’t practice it.
    • It is considered good manners in Japan to make a slurping sound after finishing the tea. This shows the host that the guest has finished his/her tea and enjoyed it very much. Many foreigners do not know this practice or they are uncomfortable making the sound (it can be considered rude in Western cultures to make a slurping noise). As a result, beginners/foreigners will not be censured for not doing it.
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