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What is the Japanese Tea Ceremony Anyway?

Matcha tea may be a trendy drink that constantly shows up in health blogs, diet recipes blogs,  and medical journals for it’s amazing benefits…It’s also all over Pintrest, Facebook and Instagram for it’s brilliant abililty to turn everyday foods into InstaFoodPorn..but, did you know this green wonder actually has very historical roots. In Japan, matcha is prepared in an elaborate, traditional ceremony, which is called “The Way of Tea.” The ancient Japanese tea ceremony is a way to enjoy the art of tea and honor ancient cultural traditions.

The History of the Tea Ceremony

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The first recorded use of tea in Japan happened in the ninth century when a Buddhist monk served tea to Emperor Saga in the year 815. In the years after this first introduction, tea became a popular custom among nobles. By the late 1100s, another monk had brought the tea preparation called tencha to Japan. During tencha, hot water was poured into a bowl filled with powdered tea, and the tea and water would be gently whipped into a frothy drink. Buddhist monasteries throughout the country used tea in elaborate religious rituals, and the preparation of tea began to evolve into an elaborate ceremony that would eventually be a cultural tradition.

Performers of the Tea Ceremony

The host of a ceremony is called the Teishu, and they are responsible for making and serving the tea. Usually, the Teishu will wear a traditional Japanese kimono, since many of the ritual movements during the ceremony involve moving long kimono sleeves out of the way. Being able to perform a tea ceremony requires years of practice and the ability to pay for expensive certifications. People who are interested in being able to host a tea ceremony, people usually join a tea circle. In a tea circle, students pay a monthly fee to study with a teacher and use the teacher’s equipment. Students first learn the proper way to do basics such as cleaning the tea equipment, and they gradually progress to learning how to prepare the tea. Once a person has received a certificate of mastery for every portion of the tea ceremony, they can host their own ceremony.

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Events of the Tea Ceremony

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Though there are different types of tea ceremonies, they all follow the same basic sequence. First, the host thoroughly cleans the tea room and changes the tatami carpets. When the guests arrive, they wash their hands before entering and bow to the host as they walk into the tea room. In a series of elaborate and beautiful gestures, the host then cleans all of the tea instruments and prepares the matcha. The movements of the host during the tea ceremony are like an elaborate and graceful dance. The matcha is first served to the Shokyaku, who is the main guest at the event. After taking a sip, each guest carefully wipes the rim of the bowl and passes it on to the next guest. After the tea, the guests will eat sweet things in order to counterbalance the strong flavor of the tea.

Types of Tea Used in the Ceremony

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When making macha in the ceremony, two different types of tea may be made, depending on the level of formality. Usucha is the most basic version of matcha, that makes a thin, mostly liquid brew. At the more casual tea ceremony, called chakai, just thin tea and some sweet snacks may be served. When making usucha, one uses a bamboo whisk to create a frothy top on the tea. This is the type of machta that is most popular in Americanized tea shops. Koicha is a thick tea that uses three times as much powder as usucha, and the texture is almost like honey. At the more formal tea ceremony, chaji, koicha is always made. A formal chaji involves making thick koicha, serving a tasteful meal, then serving usucha and dessert. To make koicha, a person gently massages the powder and a very small amount of water together. Since koicha involves so much powder, only the highest grade of tea is used to create koicha.

Tea Ceremony Equipment

Japanese tea ceremony setting on old wooden bench. Studio photo. Green tea utensils. From top.

Traditionally, the tools used within the tea ceremony are very important. They are often honored heirlooms, and they are always treated with the utmost respect. Tools include a kettle for boiling water, a jar of fresh water, a silk pouch to hold the tea leaves, a bamboo scoop to measure matcha, a whisk to stir the tea, a bamboo water ladle, and a bowl to make the tea in. Though these tools are essential for all types of tea ceremonies, many ceremonies often include the use of other tools. The tea room will also have a beautiful flower arrangement that is designed to make guests appreciate a moment of beauty and reflection. Another essential item for the tea ceremony is a hanging scroll that the host selects to fit whatever theme they wish to emphasize for that particular ceremony. A hanging scroll can have a proverbial saying written in beautiful calligraphy, a poem, or a painting of a beautiful natural setting.

The Meaning of the Tea Ceremony

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The Japanese tea ceremony has many important meanings, and it is linked to many ideals of Buddhist philosophy. The main purpose of the tea ceremony is to create a peaceful moment that focuses on the tea and to honor the relationship between hosts and guests. The clean, calm, and quiet environment of the tea room encourages discipline and self-contemplation. Instead of chattering about current events or gossiping, the host and the guests focus on truly connecting with each other. Before going to the tea room, guests endeavor to leave any worldly worries outside. The scrolls and flower arrangements give guests an uplifting theme to contemplate as they take part in the ceremony. Participating in a tea ceremony gives people the opportunity to truly be present, connect with each other, and appreciate the tastes of green powdered tea.

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