Japanese Tea Ceremony

This post was written on Tuesday, February 20, 2007

I spent the last week marinating myself in Japanese history, culture, cuisine and sake(rice wine). The most interesting part of my trip was when I got an opportunity to attend a tea ceremony at the Happo-en gardens in Tokyo. In Japan tea and the tea ceremony are almost symbols of the Japanese culture. In today’s VERITAS I will try to give a short description of the ceremony, its history and its relationship to the Japanese culture.

        Tea was introduced in Japan with the spread of Buddhism from China. During the rule of the Tang dynasty in China in the 8th Century a
poet named Lu Yu wrote a book- the “Chaking”(The holy scripture of tea). In this book he formulated ways and manners related to growing, making and drinking tea. His work was heavily influenced by the “Chan” school of Buddhism. The “Chan” school of Buddhism spread to Japan and became “Zen”. And with Zen the culture of tea was also introduced in Japan in the 12th Century when Yeisai-Zenji returned from his trip to China. By the 15th century the tea ceremony had been perfected and a book written about its intricate details: Cha-no-yu: The art of Tea. Some of the major influences on the tea ceremony were Ikkyu and Sen Rikyu.

        The tea ceremony is not just about making and drinking tea. it is something much bigger: it is related to flower decoration, the architecture of the tea house, the appreciation of paintings, the beauty of the kimono, the philosophy of Zen and the manners of the tea drinkers and the tea maker.

Tea House


Tea ceremonies are done in separate tea houses. The architecture of tea houses was specified by Jowo- a 15th century tea master. There is a tea room called Sukiya.



There is a room where utensils are arranged called Midsuya. The guests wait outside the tea house in a room called Machiai. They have to wait till they are summorned to the tea room. The path between the Machiai and the Sukiya is called the Roji. The Roji is usually a garden path. The Roji on which I walked was surrounded by cherry trees in full blossom- cherry blossoms are called Sakura in Japan. The seating in the tea room is Tatami( on the floor on special mats).



                        I looked beyond;
                        Flowers are not,
                        Nor tinted leaves.
                        On the sea beach
                        A solitary cottage stands
                        In the waning light,
                        Of an autumn eve.
                                        (Kakuzo Okakura- The book of Tea)

        The door of the tea house is very low. So everyone bows his head while entering- in the tea house the tea maker is supreme. All others-
from the Emperor to the poor worker have the same status while sitting in the tea room. In the tea room there is a small flower decoration and
a small painting. The flower decoration is placed on the Tokonama. Nothing else is placed near it. This is to allow the guests to appreciate the
flower arrangement without distraction. The guests first bow  to the flower and then to the host. After that they look at the painting and admire it.

        Apart from the flower arrangement and the small painting the tea room is quite bare. Also there is asymmetry in the tea room. The Zen
Buddhists believe that the mind should complete the symmetry- if art itself is symmetrical then the mind will not get a chance to exercise its imagination.

 The guests sit quietly as the host prepares tea. The guests are supposed to enjoy the atmosphere created by delightful sounds of the boiling water, the waterfall outside and the chirping of the birds. The host cleans the utensils in the order of the guests. Then tea is prepared. Every motion of the hand and every step of making the tea is a precscibed one. The tea maker has no room for changing any step. The steps prescribed in Cha-no-yo have to be perfectly followed. Tea masters are not rated accoring to innovation- they are rated as to how deep their knowledge of the Cha-no-yo is and how perfectly can they follow it.

        After the tea is prepared it is served to the guests and they receive the bowls with a bow. Drinking the tea is also a detailed affair.
The bowls have to be rotated clockwise 2-3 times before taking the first sip. Before the second sip the bowl is rotated anti-clockwise. And so on.

        I cannot describe the whole tea ceremony. It is a very complicated affair. I saw an english translation of the Cha-no-yu- it is about 600 pages long. The tea masters have to go through several years of practice and study before they can do tea ceremonies.


        One of the most beautiful things that happened during the tea ceremony was that when serving tea the host said the words- “Ichigo Ichi-e”.
These words are always said when the tea master gives the tea bowls to the guests. The words literally mean “Only one chance!”. So the tea master says that we have only one chance to enjoy this moment of harmony, togetherness and joy. This concept moved me- there was no talk of future aims and ambitions, deadlines and plans. There was just a realization that the present moment will never come again – let’s enjoy it now.

 After attending the tea ceremony I understood the Japanese culture a lot more. Their gentle manners, their decorations of nearly everything, their
pretty dresses, their delicate sets of food and chopsticks- the whole country and culture seems to be influenced by the way of the tea- Cha-no-yo. A few days back while discussing Japan’s immense industrialization after world war II, Dave Allen had told me that one reason for this huge advance is that Japanese take a process and then refine it to perfection. And it is these near perfect processes that have helped them create products that were far superior than those from other countries. While coming back from the tea ceremony I thought about this and it seemed to me that this desire for “perfect processes” has a link with the Tea Ceremony- Not everyone has to be innovative. Innovation is good but sometimes taking a process and making it perfect is even more important. I see this in the processes of the “Tea ceremony” and also in the
processes that have led the Japanese to create the Toyotas and the SOnys.

        Some of the information for this VERITAS has been taken from the book “The book of Tea” written by Kakuzo Okakura. You can borrow this book from me. The Wikipedia has some excellent information and pictures related to the tea ceremony.


  Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:                 
  Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:                 
  Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,                          
  Correct old time and regulate the Sun;                             

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