Amongst all the tea cultures around the world, it is only the Japanese tea culture which has elevated tea and tea drinking to a ritualistic appreciation of aestheticism and authenticity, simplicity and spirituality as well as elegance and etiquette.

Deeply rooted in the Zen philosophy of wabi-sabi, the Japanese tea ceremony is a break from all that is material and mundane. It is an experience that takes one deeper into the elusive inner-space to see, and appreciate, the beauty of everyday things that are simple and natural. 


While the westerners have called it the Japanese tea ceremony, it is in fact an extremely understated ritual with precise chronology of events, established conventions and well-defined processes. From measured and minimalistic movements to graceful and gratuitous gestures, each small step and action has a deeper, profound meaning.


The Japanese tea ceremony signifies moments of tranquility in the stampede of life.


(Guests seated to receive tea : Print by Yoshu Chikanbou)


Strange as it may sound, the deeply spiritual and philosophical Japanese tea ceremony we know today has within its history and origin chapters of ruthless violence.


Tea is first thought to have been brought to Japan from China by a Buddhist monk named Eichū around the 9th century. Soon, tea cultivation started in Japan. For the first few centuries, tea was a drink limited to the emperors and meditating monks in monasteries. However, by the 12th - 13th century, tea had become a status symbol in Japan. The famed samurai warriors used to participate in contests that were inspired by the Chinese Tōcha ceremony, where participants would try and guess the type of tea served to them. The winners were awarded with elaborate gifts as prizes, which made this extremely competitive. This was the first time a conflict was emerging between the minimalistic and spiritualistic tea drinking of the monks and the opulent and aggressive tea competition of the military samurais.


It would take another 200 years before this conflict would be resolved with the influence of Zen Buddhism, particularly its profound philosophical thought of wabi-sabi.


Murata Jukō and Sen no Rikyū

Murata Jukō is widely considered to the father of the Japanese tea ceremony. In the 15th century, Jukō - a Buddhist monk, formalised for the first time the concept of the tea drinking ritual. It was called Chadō or Sadō, and traces its origins to the Chinese tea ceremony - Cha Dao (the way of tea). In Japan, the tea ceremony is also known as Chanoyu (hot water for tea). Jukō also introduced the four core values for Chanoyu : reverence, respect, simplicity and serenity.



(Tea - Master Sen no Rikyū : Painting by Hasegawa Tōhaku)


In the 16th century, it was Sen no Rikyū, a tea-master and a close confidant of the famous samurai king, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who further developed upon the core values of the tea ceremony introduced by Murata Jukō and made the tea ceremony more austere, simple and rustic through a concept wabi-cha. It was Sen no Rikyū who also introduced the concept of chashitsu (small tea house), the tatami (bamboo) mats, chawan (bowls) as well as other simple, everyday items like the chasen (bamboo whisk) and the chashaku (bamboo tea scoop) that have become an integral part of Chanoyu.


Tragically, Sen no Rikyū fell out of favour with Hideyoshi in the later years of his life. Eventually, Hideyoshi ordered Sen no Rikyū to commit ritual suicide. As his last worldly act, Sen no Rikyū held an elaborate and exquisite Chanoyu where he personally presented each of the guest with tea-equipment as a souvenir before finally stabbing himself with a dagger.


Chanoyu : Protocol, Preparation and Process 

A formal Japanese tea ceremony is an elaborate event lasting for a few hours. It is a holistic experience combining harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity - the tea philosophy of Chanoyu. It emanates from the Zen philosophy of wabi-sabi : the aesthetic art of appreciating beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete”.


Chanoyu revolves around key aspects. These include :


Roji - The Garden Path

The Chanoyu experience unfolds the moment one walks along Roji - the garden path leading to the tea house. The garden is deliberately kept simple and rustic, but immaculately clean. Dead leaves and withered flowers are carefully removed, but a few freshly fallen leaves are deliberately kept. Guests walk over carefully placed stepping stones, appreciating the natural beauty of the trees and the seasonal flowers in the garden. This walk through the garden also symbolizes the guests are leaving behind their materialist world and entering a spiritual and pure space.


Tsukubai – The Stone Basin 

At the end of the garden and just at the entrance of the main tea house is where Tsukubai – a small stone basin is kept. Guests wash their hands and drink some water as an act of purification before entering the main tea house - Chashitsu.


Nijiriguchi – The Guest Entrance

The entrance of the tea house is low and small, often just about 3 feet by 3 feet. To enter this low passage, every guest needs to bend down and crawl through - symbolizing leaving  behind of status, title, or position. It is specifically designed to make one humble, drop their ego, and bow down. In the olden days, the small entrance also meant that swords and other weapon had to be left outside.


Chashitsu – The Tea House


The tea house and the tea room where the actual Chanoyu is held is small, simple, clean and rustic. The standard size is around 8.2 square meters. There is a separate entrance for the host, a dedicated washing area as well as the main area. A sliding screen made with traditional translucent Japanese paper ensures each area is demarcated separately. The tea room does not have any furniture and is a celebration of the minimalistic. The only decorative elements are flowers in a flower-vase and hanging scrolls in the alcove.


The various objects for the decoration in the Chashitsu are so selected that no color, design or shape is repeated. This is to symbolize the unique individuality of everything in nature and appreciate their beauty as they are. For example, if the flower-arrangement is placed on a round table, there is be no other round-shaped item. If there is a black-lacquered tea container, the tea bowls should not be black in color. If there is a living flower, a painting of flowers is not allowed. If using a round kettle, the water pitcher should be angular. Every element used in the decoration is simple but elegant, minimal but exquisite - and never loud or gaudy or monotonous.


Ro and Kama – The Hearth and The Container


Ro is a square pit within which a charcoal hearth is installed. It is in this Ro that the Kama (also known as Chanoyugama or Chagama)  the metal container used for boiling the water for tea, is placed.


Tokonoma – The Alcove


Tokonoma is the alcove in the tea room. It has a very specific layout including the materials from which the upper part, the pillar and the lower platform is made. It is here that a simple and neat flower arrangement and a hanging scroll, usually Japanese calligraphy, are placed and are an integral part of the layout as well as the main ceremony.


Tatami Mats

These are mats made with straw, usually twice as long as they are wide. Tatami mats are used to cover the tea room where the Chanoyu is to be held. This specific area is also called the tatami room.



Cleanliness is of utmost importance before and during the tea ceremony. Before guests arrive, the Teishu (host) cleans both the Roji and the Chashitsu by sweeping and wiping every nook and corner. During the ceremony, the tea equipment are ritually cleaned in front of the guests using artful, minimal and measured movements.


The Ceremony


Once the Teishu is ready, guests are led to the Chashitsu through Roji by an assistant to the tea-master. They purify and cleanse themselves at the small stone basin Tsukubai and enter the Chashitsu through the small and guest entrance – Nijriguchi.


Once inside the Chashitsu, the guests first admire the hanging scroll and the flower arrangement at the Tokonoma. They then approach the seating areas and take their seats depending on the seating order. It is always the guest of honor who holds the main conversation with the host.


Guests are served a sweet dish, called the Wagashi. These are not to be eaten immediately, but only after the host has warmed the Chawan with hot water. All other tea equipment are then clean with either hot water and/or by wiping them with a clean silk cloth.



Tea is prepared by whisking Matcha green tea powder into a bright, frothy tea in the chawan with chasen. Once the tea is ready, the host places the chawan in front of the chief guest. The gestures and etiquette is extremely important, with profuse bows indicating gratitude, at every stage. The chief guest lifts the chawan with the right hand, and cushions the bottom of the chawan with the left hand. The guest then rotates the chawan so that the front of the chawan faces the guest. The guests appreciate the aesthetic design of the chawan. When raising the chawan to take a sip, the lower left hand is raised with the right hand supporting the chawan and used to tilt it. After drinking the tea, the guests show appreciation for the tea as well as gesture to the host indicating that the tea has been prepared well.


There are usually more than one round of tea drinking. In between rounds, guests can also spend some time in the garden so that the host can make preparation of the next round. When the guests re-enter the chashitsu, the flower-arrangement and hanging scroll are replaced with new ones.


After the guests have finished the final round of tea, the chawan is placed in front and its edges wiped clean. The guests also lift the bowl and turn it around to inspect it and once more appreciate its simplistic beauty. The chawan is rotated such that the front faces the host, and then placed exactly in the same place where the host had placed it. The guests then bow to the host to show their gratitude for being served tea.


The host then asks the guests if they would like another round of tea. If the guests decline, it indicates the end of the tea ceremony. If there are more than one guest at the ceremony, the guest of honor will ask the other guests if they have had enough tea. Once all guests say they have had enough, the guest of honor politely requests the host to end the ceremony. The host will then start the formal process of finishing the Chanoyu.


Finishing the Chanoyu

The host will formally announce that Chanoyu is being finished. The host will carefully pour cold water into the chawan (bowl). Then, holding the chawan in their left hand, they will gently immerse the chasen (bamboo whisk) with their right hand into the cold water and rotate it gently to clean it.


In the same way, the chashaku (bamboo tea scoop) is carefully cleaned with a silk cloth so that there are no traces of Matcha tea on it. Cold water is added to the cool the Kama and the lid is placed on the top, indicating that it will not be used any more. Finally, all the utensils are returned back to the preparation area in the same order as they were taken.


The host then kneels down for the last time in front of the guests, places both hands on the tatami and bows in gratitude, thanking the guests for coming. The guests do likewise and then leave the Chashitsu. The host then closes the door.


Many though there be,
Who with words or even hands
Know the Way of Tea.
Few there are or none at all,
Who can serve it from the heart.

                         ~ Sen no Rikyū



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