Jody Victor Tells About the Japanese Tea Ceremony

Cha-no-yu, or “hot water for tea,” is a Japanese tea ceremony dating back 500 years.

The tea ceremony originated in China, where its practice eventually died out. Japanese monks studying Buddhism in China brought the “Way of Tea” back to Japan 1200-1300 years ago. They learned the manners and rules of tea appreciation and applied them to their daily rituals. The monks enjoyed drinking tea while in meditation and while reading their scriptures. The Buddhist monk, Sen No Rikkyu is recognized as the founder of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Sen No Rikkyu honed the simple tea habits of the monks into the ritual it remains today. He stressed four principles in his ceremony: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. These were the principles that were interwoven in the daily environment of the monasteries.

There are many different versions of the tea ceremony and they vary according to one’s teacher and his or her training. Most versions do have some common features:

  1. The ceremony always involves a host and several, but not many, guests.
  2. The ceremony can be held in a screened-off alcove of a main room, but if possible a teahouse and garden are built.
  3. The guests wait in a special waiting room until summoned by the host. They walk through the garden to the teahouse, which is traditionally elevated and has a three-foot-tall door.
  4. The host ceremonially decorates the teahouse with screens and a scroll or flowers.
  5. Guests are served a small meal, including a sweet.
  6. The host brings in tea utensils and begins to prepare the tea. The water is boiled and the tea bowl and whisk are heated. The powdered tea is placed in the bowl and whisked to a thick consistency. After the guests drink the bitter tea the host cleans the utensils and the guests examine and discuss the utensils.

A full tea, or Chaji, involves a meal and the serving of two different types of tea. Full tea ceremonies are held to honor special guests or to celebrate special occasions such as the anniversary of a family event, the blossoming of the cherry trees or the admiration of the full moon. For each occasion the flowers, vase, wall hangings and tea wares are specially chosen for the event, time of year and the desired atmosphere. The host will spend days going over minutiae to insure the ceremony is perfect. Through the tea ceremony recognition is given that every human encounter is a singular occasion, which will never repeat exactly again.

When the guests arrive, they are not greeted at the door by their host or hostess but follow through a series of open doors to the machiai (waiting room). Here they are served a small cup of water taken from the kettle in the tearoom by the hanto (assistant to the host) as a foretaste of the water to be used in the ceremony. While in the waiting room the guests choose one person in their group to be the main guest. The assistant leads them, with the main guest directly behind, to the garden. They walk quietly and calmly through the water-sprinkled garden. Here the guests rid themselves of the dust of the world. This walk through the garden represents a breaking of ties with the everyday world and allows the guests to clarify their senses through the aural and visual enjoyment of trickling water, birdsongs, trees, plants and flowers. Mid-way through the garden the guests sit and relax on the koshikake machiai  (waiting bench) anticipating the approach of the teishu (house master).

Just before receiving the guests the host fills the tsukubai (water basin), which is set among low stones at the entrance to the teahouse, with fresh water. Taking a ladle of water the host purifies his/her hands and mouth then proceeds through the chumon (middle gate) to welcome his/her guests with a bow. No words are spoken. The host leads the assistant, the main guest and the others (in that order) through the gate, which symbolizes the way between the coarse physical world and the spiritual world of tea. The guests and assistant purify themselves at the basin and wait to be invited into the teahouse.

The entrance to the tearoom is a sliding door that is so low (usually 36”) that everyone must stoop or crawl to go through. It is a symbolic gesture of humility. The door points to the reality that all are equal in tea, irrespective of status or social position. The last person in latches the door.

Once inside, the guests spend a few minutes admiring the kama (kettle), the furo (hearth), and the Buddhist scriptures on the scrolls adorning the walls. They then kneel on straw mats and sit back on their heels. Greetings are exchanged and the guests watch while their host performs the ceremony of lighting the charcoal fire.

Each guest is served a meal consisting of three courses. White rice, soup, raw fish and pickled vegetables are set out on a tray made of fresh cedar. These dishes are eaten with each course. Sake is served followed by the first course consisting of yakimono (grilled foods), which are served in individual portions on ceramic plates. The second course consists of uminomono (seafood) and yamanomono (mountain food), which signify the abundance of the sea and land. The host eats during this course and is served sake by each guest acting as host, if only momentarily, insuring equality of all in the tearoom. The third course, konomono (fragrant things), is served in small ceramic bowls. Brown rice is served in salted water in a lacquer pitcher. It represents the last of the rice. The host then invites the guests to return to the garden (or waiting room) while he/she prepares the tea. Once the guests have departed the room is swept and the scrolls are removed and replaced by flowers. The utensils for preparing the tea are arranged. Over thirteen individual items are used. Each item is costly and considered an art object.

If tea is served during the day a gong is sounded; in evening a bell is used. Usually struck five to seven times, it summons the guests to return to the teahouse. They purify hands and mouth again at the water basin before re-entering. The host enters with the chawan (tea bowl), which holds the chasen (tea whisk), the chakin (a bleached white linen cloth for drying the bowl), and the chashaku (tea scoop). These items are arranged next to a stoneware jar called the mizusashi. The stoneware jar contains fresh water, symbolizing purity and is touched only by the host.  The tea is held in a small ceramic container called a chaire, which sits beside the stoneware jar. The host then retires to the preparation room and returns with the kensui (waste water bowl), the hishaku (bamboo water ladle) and the futaoki (a green bamboo rest for the kettle lid). Using a fine silk cloth the host purifies the tea bowl and scoop. Much significance is found in the host’s careful inspection, folding and handling of the silk cloth. Hot water is ladled into the tea bowl, the whisk is rinsed and the tea bowl is emptied and wiped with the linen cloth.

Lifting the tea scoop and tea container, the host places three scoops of tea per guest into the tea bowl. Hot water is ladled into the bowl from the kettle creating a thin paste. It is then whisked into a thick liquid consistent with pea soup (adding more water if needed). The host passes the tea bowl to the main guest who bows in accepting it. The bowl is rotated and admired. The guest then drinks some of the tea, wipes the rim of the bowl, and passes it on to the next guest. When all of the guests have tasted the tea the bowl is returned to the host who rinses it. The whisk is rinsed and the tea scoop and tea container are cleaned. They are offered to the guests for examination. A discussion of the objects and presentation takes place.

The fire is then rebuilt for usa cha (thin tea). This tea will rinse the palate and symbolically prepares the guests for leaving the spiritual world and re-entering the physical world. To compliment usa cha, higashi (dry sweets) are served. The thin tea is made in the same manner as the thick tea, using less tea powder of a lesser quality. This time the guests are served the tea in individual decorative bowls. The guests express their appreciation for the tea and their admiration for the art of the host. They leave as the host watches from the door of the teahouse.