Cultural background: tea ceremony

Chances are that if you are friends with an elderly Japanese woman, she has arranged an opportunity for you to try tea ceremony. It is perhaps one of the most accessible forms of Japanese traditional culture, and can often be found (albeit in a more tourist-friendly form) at temples and other tourist attractions throughout the country. A number of schools also host tea ceremony clubs for their students. But what exactly is the “ceremony,” and why does it remain so popular in modern Japan? The conventional English translation obscures the real nature of this unique practice, which blends cuisine, design, meditation, and choreography in an act that is ultimately about building human relationships.

The wide variety of tea ceremony styles trace their heritage back to the figure of Sen-no-Rikyu, who rose to fame as the tea master of Oda Nobunaga in 1579, though elements of the modern tea ceremony had existed before then. He perfected a particular aesthetic that was defined by its simplicity and appreciation for long-term wear (wabi-sabi). Unfortunately, for reasons that remain a mystery, Sen-no-Rikyu was ordered by Nobunaga’s successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi to commit seppuku, but his legacy lives on in the practices of the matcha tea ceremony schools. The design of teahouses, selection of pottery, the flow of the ceremony, and the tools used were all affected by his philosophy.

In addition to the method by which the matcha is prepared and the selection of sweets to pair it with, tea ceremony focuses on a prescribed choreography of movements that emphasize the relationship between the host and the guest or customer, emphasizing mutual appreciation and respect. After entering the teahouse in a low, crouched manner, the guest first enjoys a sweet snack while the host carefully prepares the matcha, each movement carefully prescribed according to their particular school. The proper appreciation of the tea room’s decorations and ceramic ware in which the matcha is served is one of the guest’s main responsibilities, along with respectful greetings to the other guests respectfully acknowledging their participation. In the case of large numbers of guests, particularly for tourists or those unfamiliar with tea ceremony, the final serving of matcha can be abbreviated so that all guests receive tea at the same time, as opposed to the more traditional individual preparation and serving. In formal gatherings of tea ceremony schools, this ritual may be much more elaborate, involving thick, high-grade “koicha” matcha and possibly even a full course meal.

In the last decade matcha has become popular worldwide, and in Japan it is enjoyed in a variety of forms, from snacks to noodles to lattes; there is no need to visit a tea house to enjoy matcha. Nevertheless, trying matcha in a quiet teahouse in a garden, perfectly decorated with flowers, ceramics, and a hanging scroll to match the season, is a quintessentially Japanese experience, for both casual visitors and for those who would like to learn more about traditional Japanese culture.