Chanoyu tea ceremony

Sipping a cup of warm tea in the most serene and tranquil environment is a wonderful moment. Doesn’t it sound beautiful? Oh definitely yes it does! This is how Japanese  Chanoyu tea ceremony would make you feel. Tea holds many traditional and cultural values in various cultures around the world besides being a simple every-day beverage.

And, tea is a tradition in itself in Japan that not just binds people together but also reflects their hospitality and generosity towards guests.

Chanoyu Tea Ceremony- a brief introduction

The Japanese tea ceremony is an important cultural ritual of making and serving Matcha, powdered green tea of Japan. In the local language, the ceremony is popularly known as “Chanoyu” meaning “hot water for tea” and “Sado” or “Ocha” meaning “way of tea”.

The whole process of the Chanoyu tea ceremony is not just limited to drinking tea but it also relates to connecting with guests at a high spiritual level. What draws attention towards the Japanese tea ceremony is its beauty and elegance while preparing a bowl of tea for guests; it showcases the open heart, true friendship, and gratitude of the host towards his guests.

Purpose of the Chanoyu Tea Ceremony

Chanoyu tea ceremonyThe purpose of the Japanese tea ceremony is to establish a seamless communication between the host and his guests. Although the main objective of the ceremony revolves around tea (Temae) serving etiquette, it is also associated with the roots of architecture, paintings, landscape gardening, unique tea utensils, ceramics, flower arrangement, Zen Buddhism, calligraphy and other such elements.

As per the traditions, its ultimate aim is to achieve deep spiritual satisfaction by drinking tea and contemplating in peace. However, on another level, the Japanese tea ceremony is meant to entertain guests while they savor the tea in a relaxed ambiance. As the host prepares the tea and serves to his guests, the bonding of friendship and respect are more strengthened.

Philosophy of the Chanoyu Tea Ceremony

It was in the late 12th century that the custom of drinking tea paced in Japan when Zen monk Eisai brought tea back from China. There was a custom of drinking “matcha” prevalent in China during that time and it was known as the Zen ceremony.

Matcha, basically, is a kind of green tea prepared by grinding the tea leaves into powdered form with the help of a hand mill. Matcha tea is made by mixing the powder in hot water instead of infusing tea leaves into the hot water.

This custom of drinking Matcha tea became a part of the Zen ceremony. And from 15th century onward, it became popular as “Chanoyu”.

Zen ceremony focuses on maintaining the order of an individual’s state of mind and training to realize such state, respectively. This tea ceremony grew as one of the popular methods to practice it and highly influenced the Japanese life-arts such as drawing, architecture, gardening, cuisine, serving dish and calligraphy. One can clearly see the Zen concept deeply rooted in the aesthetics of Japanese culture.

Brief History of the Japanese Chanoyu Tea Ceremony

Tea seeds were brought for the first time in Japan during the Tang Dynasty when the cultural and goods exchange bonds were flourishing between the two countries.  During the 8th century, the first formal tea ceremony has been mentioned; however, it was very basic and simple version of tea preparation as known today. Also, in that time-frame a Chinese Buddhist authored a book elaborating the correct method of making tea; it is believed that Japanese tea ceremony of today is largely influenced by this early tea book.

Around 710-794 tea plants were grown during the Nara period in Japan, but these were for medicinal purposes and mainly taken by the noblemen and priests of the country. Contrary to this, tea was slowly transforming from a medicinal beverage to a social beverage, but in Japan, it was still considered as a valuable commodity till the year 1192.

As tea was becoming a social beverage, rules and formalities were set around it. It is believed that if Japan had been a native producer of tea and the beverage could have been easily accessible to a common man, there wouldn’t have been any existence of the Japanese Chanoyu tea ceremony.

Chanoyu tea ceremonyDuring the year 1187, a Japanese priest Myoan Eisai came to China to study religion and philosophy. He was known as the founder of Zen Buddhism when he came back to his country; many historians consider him as the first person to grow tea for religious purpose unlike others who cultivated it for medicinal uses only. He was also known as the first individual to write a treaty on tea in Japan and let people know the benefits of tea.

Later in the 13th century, Samurai made the tea ceremony quite popular among the patrons in Japan. They organized grand parties with numerous guests and played tea games for testing their ability to differentiate between a tea and other herbal beverages.

By that time, Japanese tea ceremony had gained immense popularity. Therefore people from different social classes apart from the Samurais started to organize the small tea parties in tea rooms in accordance with their social status. It is believed that from that point the small tea room’s concept evolved.

Another Zen priest named Murata Shukou, also reckoned as the father of the tea ceremony was one of the prominent designers of the small tea rooms. He dedicated his complete life in learning as well as perfecting the art of tea ceremony. The spirit and philosophy of tea ceremony are known to be his creations.

The 16th century witnessed tea drinking as a common practice across all social levels in Japan. Senno Rikyū, another historical figure in establishing tea ceremony developed the major concepts of tea culture (sei, kei, wa and jaku) during 1552-1591

Japanese Chanoyu Tea Culture

Needless to say, tea is the most commonly drunk beverage in Japan and it is an integral part of the country’s culture. The principles of Zen Buddhism are known to have highly influenced the tea ceremony; the reflections of it can be seen in the culture of Japan (for example calligraphy, architecture, and gardening). Tea gatherings (‘chaji’ or ‘chakai’) are held as a part of the Japanese tea culture.

Chanoyu tea ceremonyA chakai is a simple hospitality event, organized with thin tea, a light meal, and confections while a chaji is more of a formal gathering which consists of a full course kaiseki meal, confections followed by thick and thin tea.

The tea ceremony is organized in any room or space where the host can prepare the tea in front of the seated guests. In order to make the perfect Japanese tea, specialized tools are required. Although there are various tools depending on the style of a tea ceremony, the basic ones include ‘cha-ire’ (tea caddy), ‘chasen’ (tea whisk), ‘chashaku’ (tea scoop), ‘fukusa’ (silk cloth) and ‘kama’ (iron pot).

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The Chanoyu Tea Ceremony

The Japanese Chanoyu tea ceremony differs depending on the time of day, venue, season and many essential factors. The guests need to wear the traditional Japanese socks to be a part of the ritual; they then wash their hands and rinse mouths at the stone basin, from where they move towards the tea house. Further, the guests get seated on the tatami according to their status. Once, everyone is seated, the host gives a signal by the sound of the closing door.

Chanoyu tea ceremonyThe ceremony begins from the time of preparing tea by the host and adding Matcha with hot water; he then serves the tea bowl to the main guest and they exchange bowls. The guest admires the tea bowl and rotates it before taking a sip; he wipes off the rim of the tea bowl and offers it to the next guest to repeat the same movements.

Finally, the bowl reaches the host after each guest has taken a drink of the tea. The host performs the cleansing ritual in front of the guests who later inspect the utensils as a part of gratitude and respect towards the host.

Being an indispensable part of Japan’s tea culture, tea can be seen easily in high-end restaurants, social gatherings, convenience stores and even the street-vending machines. And, during the tea ceremony, it gains immense importance where the main emphasis is on the unusual art of preparing tea.

Japanese Tea Flavors

Chanoyu tea ceremonyFor everyday consumption, the sencha version of green tea is widely popular among the Japanese. The sweet flavor, light green color and its refreshing aroma make it the perfectly balanced tea to drink daily.

On the other hand, the gyokuro grade is known for being the finest tea of the country. It has a unique sweetness, which is attained by keeping the tea leaves in shelter from direct sunlight for 20 days before the harvesting.

Among the other variants, matcha is widely consumed here and is a part of the Japanese tea culture as well. The leaves are crushed to powder during the production phase, thus it provides the drinker with a healthy intake of nutrients. The highest version of matcha is recognized by a sharp, sweet taste along with a yellowish color.

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Where to Enjoy Japanese Chanoyu tea ceremony?

The tea ceremony being an important part of the Japanese tea culture, there are many places to enjoy this artistic ritual. The most popular tea ceremony centers are:

Joan Tea Pavilion

Located in pristine surroundings, Joan Tea Pavilion is an ideal place to witness the Japanese tea ceremony. The aesthetically beautiful interior of this tea room was designed by Oda Uraku (Joan). It features a tea master mat of three-quarter size, a 2.5 mm mat for guests and a Tokonoma.

The novel planar design of Joan tea room is also distinct from Renjimado, the windows covered by bamboo lathe work. Another interesting feature of the tea room is Shitajimado, a unique kind of window that is made by leaving the lathe exposed and not plastering a section of the wall.

This allows sufficient light to fall on the mat of the host; pages of the old almanacs are used for wainscoting the lower portion of the walls. The Joan Tea Pavilion is considered as one of the most important assets of the Japanese Chanoyu tea ceremony.

Jikouin Tea Pavilion

In the memory of his beloved father, Katagiri Iwaminokami Sadamasa (also known as the founder of the Sekishu School) built the famous Jikouin tea pavilion. The two original buildings are Shoin and tea room; the Shoin features a thatched roof along with rustic exteriors and a beautiful garden sprawling outside it. The numbers of pillars supporting the veranda is less in number so that the people inside the tea room can enjoy the scenic beauty of the garden without any obstruction.

Kodaiji temple Ihoan (Iho-an) Tea Hut

Best known as the Cottage of Lingering Fragrance, the beautiful Ihoan tea hut is another major spot for attending the Japanese Chanoyu tea ceremony. It was a favorite tea room place for Haiya Shoeki, a rich merchant, and Yoshino Dayu, a famous beauty and dancer who later married Shoeki. Along with the Kodaiji temple tea house, they also represent the Onigawara-Seki, another tea ceremony house.

Originally, the temple had a majestic grandeur but due to the frequent fire accidents after 1789, only a few buildings can be seen today, like the Kaisan-do, tea ceremony rooms, etc. And, these are counted among the important cultural properties of Japan.

Besides these exquisite tea ceremony houses, one can enjoy the magical tea of Japan at various other places. Many local venues like the Japanese sweet shops and hotels have dedicated tea rooms for their guests to experience the traditional Chanoyu tea ceremony. Also, foreign visitors can attend the different events and workshops organizing the tea ceremony. This will enlighten your spirits and give a completely new perspective towards drinking tea.

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Since past many centuries, the matcha tea ceremony is considered as a crucial part of the Japanese tea culture. Matcha green tea is much more than a simple beverage for people here. The grace and simplicity with which the tea ceremony is organized just win the heart of people leaving them with lifetime experience. The ritual denotes the strong bonding experience of respect, mindfulness and focuses on the present scenario.

Having such rich history and great importance, tea culture of Japan is undoubtedly fascinating. If you are in Japan next time around, it is highly recommended to experience the Chanoyu tea ceremony without any miss. Right from the cafes at the airport to your hotels, many places in the country offer opportunities to experience the Japanese Chanoyu tea ceremony with English guidance.

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