Japan is famous for its teas and the tea ceremony. It only follows, then, that one of the most elaborate tea-serving rituals in the world should have originated there. The Japanese tea ceremony – locally known as Sado, Chanoyu, or simply Ocha – started off about 700 years ago when Buddhist monks began exploring the ritual of serving tea as an art form. However, the ceremony, as practiced by them, was very simple in nature, and it was honed into a stylized, perfectly choreographed ritual by founder Sen No Rikkyum 200 years later.
Although, in its most basic form, the Japanese tea ritual is about preparing and serving green tea – Matcha – along with traditional Japanese sweetmeats to guests, the ceremony isn’t limited to just that. In addition to drinking the matcha prepared by the hostess and complimenting her on a job well done, it’s also about incorporating four important principles into the ceremony – harmony, tranquility, respect, and purity.
The ceremony is an extremely formal one and the hostess usually goes over all the steps days in advance to ensure that there are no mistakes. While the host or hostess is garbed in a traditional kimono, it’s not important for the guests to wear one. However, they should be attired formally to keep up the serious mood of the occasion.
The tea ceremony can be held either in the tea room or the tea house. What’s the difference, you may ask. While a tea room is located inside the host’s house, the tea house is a separate structure altogether. Located in a beautifully tended garden, it is used exclusively for the purpose of the tea ceremony. The tea house is bare in its decoration save for, perhaps, a scroll painting (kakemono) that is chosen specifically by the host to signify the theme of the ceremony.
If the tea ceremony is being held in the tea house the guests are asked to wait in the garden until they are invited in by their hosts. On entering the outer room of the tea house, they are required to wash their hands and rinse their mouths with water filled in a stone basin. No words are spoken among the guests and hosts and the host and guests greet each other only with bows. The main tea house is accessible through a sliding door around three feet high so you have to enter with your head bowed. Not only does this denote humility but also equality regardless of social position or status. Guests are seated in order of importance and verbal greetings are only exchanged with the hosts once he’s also seated.
The steps of the ceremony are quite simple but they need to be carried out in a prescribed order. The host cleans the serving bowls, builds a charcoal fire, boils the water, serves sweets to the guests before tea, makes a frothy tea by mixing matcha to the boiling water, and serves it to the guests, beginning with the most important one first.
When the guests are served the cup of tea (chawan) they are expected to bow, while receiving it with their right hand and placing the chawan in the palm of their left hand. Before drinking, the chawan has to be turned three times, clockwise. After taking a drink, wipe the part of the chawan that has been touched by your lips before turning it counter-clockwise and returning it to the host.
The Japanese tea ceremony may or may not include a meal. However, a full Japanese Tea Ceremony that includes several guests and a meal can take up to four hours to complete.
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