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Japanese Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony is a traditional ritual influenced by Zen Buddhism in which powdered green tea, or matcha, is ceremonially prepared by a skilled practitioner and served to a small group of guests in a tranquil setting.

Cha-no-yu, literally "hot water for tea", usually refers to a single ceremony or ritual, while sadō or chadō ("the way of tea", refer to the study or doctrine of tea ceremony. The pronunciation "sadō" is preferred by the Omotesenke tradition, while the pronunciation "chadō" is preferred by the Urasenke tradition.

Cha-ji refers to a full tea ceremony with "kaiseki" (a light meal), "usucha" (thin tea) and "koicha" (thick tea), lasting approximately four hours. A "chakai" (literally "tea meeting") does not include a kaiseki meal.

Since a tea practitioner must be familiar with the production and types of tea, with kimono, calligraphy, flower arranging, ceramics, incense and a wide range of other disciplines and traditional arts in addition to his or her school's tea practices, the study of tea ceremony takes many years and often lasts a lifetime. Even to participate as a guest in a formal tea ceremony requires knowledge of the prescribed gestures and phrases expected of guests, the proper way to take tea and sweets, and general deportment in the tea room.


""The tea ceremony requires years of training and practice... yet the whole of this art, as to its detail, signifies no more than the making and serving of a cup of tea. The supremely important matter is that the act be performed in the most perfect, most polite, most graceful, most charming manner possible"".
-- Lafcadio Hearn

Drinking of tea was introduced to Japan in the 9th century CE by a Buddhist monk from China, where it had already been known, according to legend, for thousands of years. Tea soon became widely popular in Japan, and began to be cultivated locally.

The custom of drinking tea, first for medicinal, and then for purely pleasurable reasons, was already widespread throughout China. In the early 9th century, Chinese author Lu Yu wrote the "Ch'a Ching" (Classic of Tea), a treatise on tea focusing on its cultivation and preparation. Lu Yu's life had been heavily influenced by Buddhism, particularly the Chan school which evolved into Zen in Japan, and his ideas would have a strong influence in the development of the Japanese tea ceremony.

In the 12th century, a new form of tea, matcha, was introduced. This powdered green tea, which sprouts from the same plant as black tea but is unfermented, was first used in religious rituals in Buddhist monasteries. By the 13th century, samurai warriors had begun preparing and drinking matcha, and the foundations of the tea ceremony were laid.

Tea ceremony developed as a "transformative practice," and began to evolve its own aesthetic, in particular that of wabi. Wabi (meaning quiet or sober refinement, or subdued taste) "is characterized by humility, restraint, simplicity, naturalism, profundity, imperfection, and asymmetry [emphasizing] simple, unadorned objects and architectural space, and [celebrating] the mellow beauty that time and care impart to materials" ("Introduction: Chanoyu, the Art of Tea" in Urasenke Seattle Homepage). Ikkyu, who revitalized Zen in the 15th century, had a profound influence on the tea ceremony.

By the 16th century, tea drinking had spread to all levels of society in Japan. Sen no Rikyu, perhaps the most well-known - and still revered - historical figure in tea ceremony, introduced the concept of ichi-go ichi-e, (literally "one time, one meeting"), a belief that each meeting should be treasured, for it can never be reproduced. His teachings led to the development of new forms in Japanese architecture and gardens, fine and applied arts, and to the full developmnet of "sado". The principles he set forward - harmony ("wa"), respect ("kei"), purity ("sei"), and tranquility ("jaku") - are still central to tea ceremony today.


A set of implements for the Japanese tea ceremony. From bottom left: chashaku (tea scoop), sensu (fan), whisk shaper, chasen (bamboo whisk) and fukusa (purple silk cloth)

Tea equipment is called "dōgu" (literally tools). A wide range of "dōgu" is necessary for even the most basic tea ceremony. A full list of all available tea implements and supplies and their various styles and variations could fill a several hundred page book, and thousands of such volumes exist. The following is a brief list of the most essential components:

*Chakin, a rectangular, white, linen or hemp cloth used for the ritual cleaning of the tea bowl. Different styles are used for thick and thin tea.

*Fukusa. The fukusa is a square silk cloth used for the ritual cleaning of the tea scoop and the natsume or cha-ire, and for handling hot kettle or pot lids. Fukusa are sometimes used by guests for protecting the tea implements when they are examining them (though usually these fukusa are a special style called "kobukusa" or "small fukusa." They are thicker, brocaded and patterned, and often more brightly coloured than regular fukusa. Kobukusa are kept in the kaishi wallet or in the breast of the kimono). When not in use, the fukusa is tucked into the obi, or belt of the kimono. Fukusa are most often monochromatic and unpatterned, but variations exist. There are different colours for men (usually purple) and women (orange, red), for people of different ages or skill levels, for different ceremonies and for different schools.

*Ladle (hishaku). A long bamboo ladle with a nodule in the approximate center of the handle. Used for transferring water to and from the iron pot and the fresh water container in certain ceremonies. Different styles are used for different ceremonies and in different seasons. A larger style is used for the ritual purification undergone by guests before entering the tea room.

* Tana. Tana, literally "shelves," is a general word that refers to all types of wooden or bamboo furniture used in the preparation of tea; each type of "tana" has its own name. Tana vary considerably in size, style, features and materials. They are placed in front of the host in the tea room, and various tea implements are placed on or stored in them. They are used in a variety of ways during different tea ceremonies.

*Tea bowl (chawan). Arguably the most essential implement; without these, tea could not be served or drunk at all. Tea bowls are available in a wide range of sizes and styles, and different styles are used for thick and thin tea (see The tea ceremony, below). Shallow bowls, which allow the tea to cool rapidly, are used in summer; deep bowls are used in winter. Bowls are frequently named by their creators or owners, or by a tea master. Bowls over 400 years old are said to be in use today, but probably only on unusually special occasions. The best bowls are thrown by hand, and some bowls are extremely valuable. Irregularities and imperfections are prized: they are often featured prominently as the "front" of the bowl.

Broken tea bowls are painstakingly repaired using a mixture of lacquer and other natural ingredients. Powdered gold is added to disguise the dark colour of the lacquer, and additional designs are sometimes created with the mixture. Bowls repaired in this fashion are used mainly in November, when tea practitioners begin using the "ro," or hearth, again, as an expression and celebration of the concept of wabi, or humble simplicity.

*Tea caddy (natsume, cha-ire). Tea caddies come in two basic styles, the natsume and the cha-ire, though there is variation in shape, size and colour within the styles. The natsume is named for its resemblance to the natsume fruit (the jujube). It is short with a flat lid and rounded bottom, and is usually made of lacquered or untreated wood. The cha-ire is usually tall and thin (but shapes may vary significantly) and has an ivory lid with a gold leaf underside. Cha-ire are usually ceramic, and are stored in decorative bags. Natsume and cha-ire are used in different ceremonies.

*Tea scoop (chashaku). Tea scoops are carved from a single piece of bamboo with a nodule in the approximate center. They are used to scoop tea from the tea caddy into the tea bowl. Larger scoops are used to transfer tea into the tea caddy in the mizuya or preparation area. Different styles and colours are used in the Omotesenke and Urasenke tea traditions.

*Whisk (chasen). Tea whisks are carved from a single piece of bamboo. There are thick and thin whisks for thick and thin tea.

Old and damaged whisks are not simply discarded. Once a year around May, they are taken to local temples and ritually burned in a simple ceremony called "chasen kuyō," which reflects the reverence with which objects are treated in tea ceremony.

All the tools for tea ceremony are handled with exquisite care. They are scrupulously cleaned before and after each use and before storing. Some components are handled only with gloved hands.

The Tea Ceremony

"When tea is made with water drawn from the depths of mind"
"Whose bottom is beyond measure,"
"We really have what is called cha-no-yu." —Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Two main schools, the Omotesenke and Urasenke, have evolved, each with its own prescribed rituals. A third school, Mushanokōjisenke, is largely unknown outside Japan. Currently, the Urasenke School is the most active and has the largest following, particularly outside Japan. Within each school there are sub-schools and branches, and in each school there are seasonal and temporal variations in the method of preparing and enjoying the tea, and in the types and forms of utensils and tea used.

All the schools, and most of the variations, however, have facets in common: at its most basic, the tea ceremony involves the preparation and serving of tea to a guest or guests. The following description applies to both Omotesenke and Urasenke, though there may be slight differences depending on the school and type of ceremony.

The host, male or female, wears a kimono, while guests may wear kimono or subdued formal wear. Tea ceremonies may take place outside (in which case some kind of seating will usually be provided for guests) or inside, either in a tea room or a tea house, but tea ceremonies can be performed nearly anywhere. Generally speaking, the longer and more formal the ceremony, and the more important the guests, the more likely the ceremony will be performed indoors, on tatami.

Both tea houses and tea rooms are usually small, a typical floor size being 4 1/2 tatami, or woven mats of straw, the traditional Japanese floor covering. The smallest tea room can be a mere two mats, and the size of the largest is determined only by the limits of its owner's resources. Building materials and decorations are deliberately simple and rustic.

If the tea is to be served in a separate tea house rather than a tea room, the guests will wait in a garden shelter until summoned by the host. They ritually purify themselves by washing their hands and rinsing their mouths from a small stone basin of water, and proceed through a simple garden along a "roji", or "dewy path," to the tea house. Guests remove their shoes and enter the tea house through a small door, and proceed to the "tokonoma," or alcove, where they admire the scroll and/or other decorations placed therein and are then seated seiza style on the tatami in order of prestige.

Guests may be served a light, simple meal called a ""kaiseki"" or ""chakaiseki"" , followed by sake, Japanese rice wine. They will then return to the waiting shelter until summoned again by the host.

If no meal is served, the host will proceed directly to the serving of a small sweet or sweets. Sweets are eaten from special paper called "kaishi"; each guest carries his or her own, often in a decorative wallet. Kaishi is tucked into the breast of the kimono.

Each utensil - including the tea bowl ("chawan"), whisk ("chasen"), and tea scoop ("chashaku") - is then ritually cleaned in the presence of the guests in a precise order and using prescribed motions. The utensils are placed in an exact arrangement according to the ritual being performed. When the ritual cleaning and preparation of the utensils is complete, the host will place a measured amount of green tea powder in the bowl and add the appropriate amount of hot water, then whisk the tea using set movements.

Conversation is kept to a minimum throughout. Guests relax and enjoy the atmosphere created by the sounds of the water and fire, the smell of the incense and tea, and the beauty and simplicity of the tea house and its seasonally appropriate decorations.

The bowl is then served to the guest of honour (""shokyaku"", literally the "first guest"), either by the host or an assistant. Bows are exchanged between the host and guest of honour. The guest then bows to the second guest, and raises the bowl in a gesture of respect to the host. The guest rotates the bowl to avoid drinking from its front, takes a sip, murmurs the prescribed phrase, and then takes two or three more sips before wiping the rim, rotating the bowl to its original position, and passing it to the next guest with a bow. The procedure is repeated until all guests have taken tea from the same bowl, and the bowl is returned to the host. In some ceremonies, each guest will drink from an individual bowl, but the order of serving and drinking is the same.

If thick tea, koicha, has been served, the host will then prepare thin tea, or usucha, which is served in the same manner. In some ceremonies, however, only koicha or usucha is served.

After all the guests have taken tea, the host cleans the utensils in preparation for putting them away. The guest of honour will request that the host allow the guests to examine the utensils, and each guest in turn examines and admires each item, including the water scoop, the tea caddy, the tea scoop, the tea whisk, and, most importantly, the tea bowl. The items are treated with extreme care and reverence as they are frequently priceless, irreplaceable, handmade antiques, and guests often use a special brocaded cloth to handle them.

The host then collects the utensils, and the guests leave the tea house. The host bows from the door, and the ceremony is over.

A tea ceremony can last between one hour and four to five hours, depending on the type of ceremony performed, and the types of meal and tea served.

Source: Wikipedia

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