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Japanese Tea Ceremony

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Japanese Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony is a ritualized way of preparing and drinking tea which was perfected in the latter half of the 18th century by Sen-no-Rikyu. It was inspired by Zen and continues to reflect the Zen ideals of aestheticism, peace, harmony and discipline. Today it is still a popular pastime, and for many it is a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of busy modern-day life.

During the Kamakura period, many Japanese priests and scholars traveled to China to study the high level of culture which typified the Southern Sung Dynasty (1126-1278). Among these priests was Eisai, who after returning to Japan in 1191, established the Zen sect of Buddhism and brought with him tea seeds and the custom of ritualistic tea preparation. In 1214, he presented his book, Kissa Yojoki (The Health benefits of Drinking Tea) to the Shogun Minamoto Sanetomo in which he states, "Tea is a medicine which cures diseases and promotes long life." Eisai is also credited with introducing the method of making tea by drying and grinding the young leaves into a fine powder. This type of tea, called matcha is the tea used in the tea ceremony today.

It is believed that Eisai's close friend Myo-e planted the first tea seeds brought back to Japan by Eisai and made the cultivation of tea shrubs part of his spiritual regiment. Myo-e planted tea shrubs throughout the Kyoto countryside and the demand for tea grew.

When the Kamakura shogunate fell in 1333, civil wars began in which northern and southern clans fought for control of the government. A new class of nobles emerged whose extravagant tastes turned the tea ceremony into a pretentious affair which was executed in grand banquet style. Great tea parties were held in which guests were invited to sample a wide variety of teas and guess their origin.

Later under the Ashikaga clan of the Muromachi period (1573-1603), Zen Buddhism and the tea ceremony flourished. The Zen priest Murata Shukou (1422-1502), called the father of the tea ceremony, is credited with uniting tea and spirituality and introducing it to the common people. Shukou, believing that a small intimate environment was more consistent with the Zen spirit of the tea ceremony, began designing tea rooms (sukiya) which were 4 ½ tatami mats in size (app. 9 square yards) and accommodated up to five people. Also, unlike earlier tea masters, Shukou began the custom of serving tea to guests himself. He emphasized the spiritual aspect of the tea ceremony stressing three basic rules. The first states that purity of mind should be observed at all times; the second that consideration and self-control between host and guests should always be maintained and the third, that persons of lower social status should be given the same respect as those of higher social status.

While Shukou is credited with being the father of the tea ceremony, Sen-no-Rikyu (1522-1591) is credited with perfecting "the way of tea" or shado. Not only did he become Japan's best known tea master but he was also accomplished in the arts of flower arrangement and poetry writing– both disciplines complimentary to the art of tea. Traditionally, the utensils used in the tea ceremony and the artwork decorating the tea room walls were expensive Chinese pieces. It was through the vision of Sen-no-Rikyu that simple utensils were not only accepted as appropriate but embraced. His own tea-room was a simply adorned thatched hut where he invited people of every social station. Sen-no-Rikyu is responsible for synthesizing aspects of daily life with the highest spiritual ideals and wrote prolifically on the subject.

Chanoyu (the Way of Tea) represents the quintessence of Japanese culture and Zen philosophy. By participating in a tea ceremony, or visiting a temple closely associated with the tea ceremony, you'll become acquainted with the spirit of Japan. Our guide is Sen Sooku, hereditary successor to the Mushakoji Senke Tea School and direct descendent of the founding Grand Master, Sen-no-Rikyu.

An authentic tea ceremony takes place in a tearoom where a hanging scroll and arranged flowers adorn an alcove; tea utensils are waiting. But Sen Sooku says, "You can call any gathering a tea ceremony as long as there are guests and Matcha." Matcha is a powdered form of green tea leaves ground by a millstone. Hot water is added to the powdered tea in a vessel and whisked rapidly. It is rich in vitamin C and minerals. Matcha is made from the choicest hand-picked leaves, carefully ground into extremely fine powder. Since only 45 grams of powdered tea can be made with a millstone in an hour, it's truly an extravagant drink. The tea leaves are actually imbibed, and the insoluble ingredients are absorbed by the body.

The exchange between host and guests is one of the pleasures of the ceremony. When serving, the host prepares each bowl of matcha with great care, taking into consideration the preferences and physical conditions of the guests. For example, if a guest is perspiring and looks thirsty, a host will make the matcha slightly weaker and in larger quantity. Tea bowls are carefully selected. Different from other types of tea, the way of serving matcha is the origin of counter-style service at a bar or other culinary establishment. It is indeed a highly customized and personalized form of service.

A trip to Japan would not be complete without experiencing the Japanese tea ceremony, or cha-no-yu.  The tea ceremony has developed into a ritual seeking to combine the four qualities of respect, harmony, cleanliness, and tranquility.

The steps to the ceremony are quite simple:  clean the serving bowls, boil a pot of water, serve a sweet treat to guests before the tea, mix powdered green tea (Matcha) and water to make a frothy tea, serve the tea to guests. [ The flavors of the sweets and bitter tea compliment each other.   This is a sign of harmony. ]


List of Japanese Tea Ceremony Utensils

Tea equipment is called dōgu (道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 essential components:

* Chakin. The "chakin" is a rectangular, white, linen or hemp cloth used to ritually cleanse the tea bowl. Different styles of "chakin" are used for thick and thin tea.

* Fukusa. The fukusa is a square silk cloth used for the ritual cleansing of the tea scoop and the tea caddy, and to handle a hot kettle or pot lid. Fukusa are sometimes used by guests to protect the tea implements whilst examining them (though usually these fukusa are a special style called kobukusa or "old fukusa." Some traditions prefer to call it dashibukusa or "fukusa for serving". 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. Some schools, including the Urasenke, prefer to introduce variants with brocades or patterns, while some prefer to use simpler ones. The size and way of making fukusa was purportedly established by the Rikyu's second wife, who was also an expert of this way.

* Ladle (hishaku). This is a long bamboo ladle with a nodule in the approximate center of the handle. It is used to transfer 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 version 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 tea preparation; 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.

Two modern "thin tea" bowls

* Tea bowl (chawan). Tea bowls are available in a wide range of sizes and styles, and different styles are used for thick and thin tea (see 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 four hundred 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, so this repairment is often referred as kintsugi or "joint with gold", 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.

A typical lacquerware natsume

* Tea caddy (cha-ire and natsume). 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 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 called shifuku. 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. Cha-ire and natsume are used in different ceremonies; normally cha-ire is used for containing koi-cha, and natsume for usucha.

* Tea scoop (chashaku). Tea scoops are carved from a single piece of bamboo or ivory. Sometimes, it is made of the tree of Japanese apricot, pine, or cherry blossom. Bamboo tea scoop in the most casual style is 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 (preparation area), but these are not seen by guests. Different styles and colours are used in various 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. Though they are a necessary part to serve tea, whisks themselves aren't considered as dōgu. 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 the tea ceremony. This custom itself doesn't belong to the tea ceremony though, but because of the close relationship between the tea ceremony and traditional religions, this kind of delicacy in the treatment of discarded things is esteemed in general.

In addition to the above, the core set of dōgu include mizusashi, kama, futaoki and tools for coal treatment (sumi demae).

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.