Tea ceremonies have been held in Japan for over a millennium. It is thought to have been brought over from China sometime during the ninth century by a Buddhist monk. For some time after, a form of the ceremony was practiced by Japanese nobility to entertain and impress important visitors. The particular way of preparing the drink – by whisking the powdered tea and hot water together – started being used around the 12th century. Tea ceremonies continued to be popular among the higher classes as a kind of status symbol. The tradition as it is known today developed and was refined over the course of the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), and has changed very little in the time since.
There are countless accessories available to enhance the tea ceremony experience. These are known as chadougu. The tools are an important part of the ceremony and are handled with care, and there are a few that are essential. There is the tea bowl for preparing the tea, which is changed according to the season. Deep bowls keep the tea warm in cool weather, while shallow ones suit the warmer months. There’s also the tea caddy, or natsume, which stores the tea before use, a scoop, and finally the tea whisk. The host will also want to use their best tea cups for the tea serving. Since tea ceremonies are meant to be performed and shared with guests, the quality and ornamentation of the tools, dishes and utensils are a reflection of the host. The utmost care is taken when cleaning, storing and handling the chadougu.
Tea ceremonies are often held as part of chaji, or a formal tea gathering, including kaiseki, a traditional Japanese multi-course meal. However, this is not necessary and short tea ceremonies can be held on their own. Before the ceremony, guests may symbolically purify themselves by washing their hands (and mouths, if it’s a very formal occasion) in a provided basin. The host enters last and ritually washes each of the utensils to be used in the ceremony and lays them out in prescribed order according to the school they adhere to. The host then prepares the thick tea (koicha).
The first guest accepts the tea bowl full of koicha with a bow to the host and to the second guest, before rotating the bowl and taking a sip. After enjoying a few more sips, the guest wipes the rim of the bowl clean with the white chakin and passes it to the next guest. This continues until all the guests have had a chance to enjoy the tea. The bowl is then returned to the host, who cleans all the utensils and prepares for the second, more casual part of the ceremony. The host prepares thin tea (usucha) in a bowl for each guest. Conversation flows more comfortably and the host will usually provide light snacks.
During a tea ceremony, guests will often show their appreciation by complimenting the host on their tea, tools and utensils. During the koicha portion, few words are exchanged between the participants, except to formally accept and compliment the tea. The host will allow the bowl to be admired after the tea has been served. At the end of the ceremony, guests are often encouraged to admire the tools used, often wearing special gloves or using cloths to handle them. They are more often than not a source of pride for the owner, sometimes handed down through generations.
As an important part of traditional Japanese culture, there are many places to enjoy a tea ceremony in Tokyo. Kyoto-kan, a Kyoto information center in Tokyo, hosts short tea ceremonies for 500 yen from 12:30-4:30PM, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Nadeshiko, a kimono rental shop, has a full kimono and tea ceremony experience for around 4,400 yen with reservations. If you want to try hosting your own tea ceremony, the chashitsu (tearooms) in public parks are often available for rental. Those, like Mukōjima-Hyakkaen, will have tea ceremonies you can join for a small fee during special events like tsukimi (moon-viewing parties). For a large community experience, the Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony is held annually each fall.