How the Tea Ceremony Works

Japan tea ceremony 1930-40
A tea ceremony is anything but a casual affair. Touring Club Italiano/Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A tea ceremony isn't your average tea party. There aren't any scones or Mad Hatters. Rather, a tea ceremony is a solemn, symbolic and profound affair. Many Asian countries practice some sort of tea ceremony, but perhaps the most famous version is the one performed in Japan. When you attend a Japanese tea ceremony, you're taking part in a historic tradition, one that allows you to seek enlightenment and search for beauty and peace in our hectic world.

Tea ceremonies are governed by a concept known as ichgio ichie, or one time, one meeting. Even though the same series of tasks is performed at every tea ceremony, there is an awareness of the fact that every moment that the host and guests spend together is a unique one that can't be duplicated. Understanding this concept forces participants to slow down and focus on each second, appreciating it for its distinctiveness, and it also forces the host to put on a special, meaningful event.


Long before the guests arrive, the host of the ceremony is hard at work on a to-do list that would make Martha Stewart shudder. The host must devise a theme for the event, such as an appreciation for sunrise or sunset or an awareness of the changing of the seasons. To emphasize this theme, the host selects a calligraphy scroll and creates flower arrangements that will accent the tearoom. Tearooms are traditionally entered through a garden, so in addition to cleaning the room, the host must also tend and clean the garden. One of the most difficult tasks might be selecting the utensils that will be used to serve the tea since there is a wide array of bowls that are made specifically for these ceremonies. Depending on the type of ceremony, a meal must be prepared, and of course the finest tea must be procured. In other words, the tea ceremony host must be a master of many Japanese arts, from calligraphy to ceramics, and tea masters study for decades to stage one event.

What happens once the guests arrive? We'll delve further into the tea ceremony next.


Tea Ceremony Steps

Whisking the tea
Whisking the tea
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Tea ceremonies usually take place in a tearoom, and traditional tearooms are located in teahouses set in a garden. Traversing the garden is an important step for guests of the tea ceremony; this time allows them to set their intentions for the ceremony and leave the everyday world behind. The host has an assistant who guides guests through the garden, which includes a stop at a water basin to wash their hands. Before arriving at the tearoom, the guests must elect a "head guest" who will be the one to communicate directly with the host. Tearooms usually have smaller doors that force guests to bow to enter; this step signifies that all are equal within the tearoom.

The host meets his guests with a bow. Upon arriving, guests will see the scroll and flowers selected by the host; the floor will be covered with tatami, or woven mats that serve as units of measure. Each tatami measures approximately 6 feet by 3 feet (0.91 meters by 1.82 meters) and a traditional tearoom is 4.5 tatami, which means the space is quite small and intimate. In a traditional ceremony, guests will be wearing kimonos, and they will sit or kneel on the tatami. First, they will observe their host perform a charcoal ceremony, a special method of building the fire that will heat the water for tea.


There are two ways the ceremony could proceed following the work with the charcoal. In a chaji, which lasts about 3 to 4 hours, the host will serve a formal meal of several courses and then serve tea; a chakai, on the other hand, doesn't include a meal but merely the tea. But whether there is a meal or not, guests are served small sweets which prepare their palates for the tea.

Next, it is time for the host to make tea, which is done with very precise, choreographed movements. The host heats the water over the fire and cleans the tools and utensils. First, the host prepares a thick tea by adding a little bit of water to several scoops of powdered green tea and whisking the ingredients together. The result is almost paste-like, and the taste is quite bitter. The host passes the bowl in which the tea was mixed to the head guest, who turns the bowl three times before sipping. The head guest then wipes the bowl and passes it to the next guest, and it continues to pass until all guests have had some tea. During this time, the head guest will question the host about the utensils and bowls used during this part of the ceremony; many of these instruments will have a long and storied history.

After the thick tea, the host will make a thin tea, which is the liquid version that we're familiar with. The host will add more water and the tea will be served in individual cups. Once these guests have finished their tea, the ceremony is over. Little talking, other than the discussion of the tea ceremony instruments, takes place. Instead, both host and guests use the ceremony as a time to try to live fully in the moment, meditating on these ritualized actions and appreciating the aesthetics of the room and the ceremony.


History of the Tea Ceremony

Geisha receive a samurai for tea, circa 1880
Geisha receive a samurai for tea, circa 1880
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Tea came to Japan from China in the ninth century. Though the Chinese had long valued tea for medicinal purposes, Buddhist monks in the country realized that consuming the beverage helped them stay alert during long stretches of meditation. They passed this tip along to Japanese monks who visited, and as tea became standard in Japanese monasteries, it also became popular with elite members of Japanese society, such as emperors, aristocrats and warriors. From the ninth to the 15th century, two different types of tea ceremonies emerged -- a simple one performed by the monks and an elaborate one enjoyed by the nobility. The latter ceremony could last for days, as aristocrats and rulers presented dozens, even hundreds, of cups of tea for their guests to taste while they enjoyed dance performances, lavish banquets and athletic competitions.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, three men shaped the style of the tea ceremony as we know it today. The first was Murata Shuko (1423-1502), who was appalled by the ostentatious nature of the ceremonies hosted by the elite. He had studied Zen Buddhism and wanted the tea ceremony to be simpler and more aligned with Zen beliefs. Zen Buddhists hold that everyday activities can lead to enlightenment, and Shuko believed that by serving tea in a deliberate, studied manner, people could better appreciate the world around them.


Shuko's mission was carried on by Takena Joo (1502-1555), who reclaimed the tea ceremony from the upper classes by establishing tearooms that were simple and unadorned, so that guests could focus more fully on the task of tea. Joo's disciple, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), was probably the most influential of the three men. Rikyu believed that tea ceremonies must demonstrate the aesthetic of wabi, which refers to a kind of spiritual poverty, because by emptying themselves, people could find fulfillment with something greater. Rather than indulging in extravagance, tea ceremony participants should seek simplicity. They should strive for awareness of the natural world and find beauty in imperfections.

Additionally, Rikyu claimed there were four principles of tea: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. Every movement within a tearoom on the part of the host and the guests is in service of living these principles -- the host should pick utensils that are harmonious with a given theme, and guests must show respect by handling the utensils with care. Purity is achieved by leaving the secular world behind and focusing on this special ceremony -- tranquility is considered attainable after the first three principles are met.

When Rikyu died, his three great-grandsons founded three different schools of tea. The tea ceremony has evolved slightly under the tea masters from these schools, but traditionalists continue to practice serving tea as Rikyu did. Rikyu also had immense impact on tea ceremony sets and utensils, which we'll discuss next.


Tea Ceremony Sets

Some tea ceremony utensils
Some tea ceremony utensils
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In the first few centuries that tea ceremonies were practiced in Japan, the participants used tea sets and utensils from China; after all, that's where the practice of serving tea originated. When tea ceremonies were the favored activity of the nobility, many people sought out expensive pieces from China. Showing off these extravagant tea sets became one of the main reasons for hosting a tea ceremony, and guests would spend hours looking at the fancy pieces. Many of these extraordinary pieces are now in museums.

One of Sen no Rikyu's influences on the practice of tea was doing away with these foreign and elaborate tea sets. Rikyu preferred very simple and rustic pieces from Japan, and if they had some kind of flaw, then so much the better -- trying to see beauty in the simple and the imperfect was one of Rikyu's goals throughout his work with the tea ceremony. Today there are many craftsmen in Japan that have studied the kind of ceremony utensils that Rikyu used, and people can visit their studios to examine the process of creating ceramic bowls.


Hosting a tea ceremony requires an immense amount of utensils and tools, and there's no shortage of craftsmen and manufacturers who provide the equipment. Collectors could probably spend the rest of their lives acquiring tea sets without ever lacking for something to buy. But for the purposes of this article, we'll cover just a few of the basics that are necessary for a tea ceremony. Depending on the season, hosts need a ro or a furo; a ro is a sunken hearth that is used in the winter, and a furo is a brazier, or a pan that is used in the summer months on an open fire. The ro and the furo provide the heat for boiling the water for the tea.

The kama, or kettle, would be placed atop the ro or furo, full of water from the mizusashi, or water jug. As the water heats, the ceremony host would use additional water to wash the tea bowl, called a chawan. The host would then take the green tea from the usuki, the tea container, using a chashaku, or tea scoop. The host adds the powdered tea to the chawan, and then adds the boiling water with the hishaku, or ladle. Then, the host would take the chasen, a bamboo whisk, to stir the tea, which he would then present to the guests. Throughout the ceremony, several types of napkins and cleaning cloths would also be used.

Those are the main parts of the tea set that would be required to host a tea ceremony. Next we'll consider some other information you need to know before hosting such an event.


Tips for Hosting a Tea Ceremony

Hosting a tea ceremony
Hosting a tea ceremony
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Sen no Rikyu, the man who so influenced the traditional tea ceremony, once offered seven rules for hosts of the ceremony:

  • Make a delicious bowl of tea
  • Arrange the charcoal so the water boils quickly
  • Arrange the flowers as they grow in nature
  • Keep the tearoom cool in the summer and warm in the winter
  • Have everything prepared ahead of time
  • Be prepared for rain
  • Give your guests every consideration [source: Washington and Lee]

According to legend, Sen no Rikyu once explained these rules to one of his students, and the student, confused by the simplicity of these rules, claimed that anyone could do these things. Sen no Rikyu told the student that if any person could be found who obeyed these rules perfectly, then that person would become Sen no Rikyu's master -- and Sen no Rikyu would study under him.


If you'd like to host a tea ceremony, you should consider Sen no Rikyu's rules as well as his belief that they are deceptively simple. However, even if you fail in fulfilling all of the rules, your tea ceremony can be successful so long as you remain, at all times, conscious of these guidelines. The tea ceremony is meant to be a time-out from the world, one in which both hosts and guests can focus solely on small tasks and seek enlightenment and peace in their completion. In holding a tea ceremony, you should be mindful of all the decisions you make and actions you take. Don't pick up a ladle without being aware of what you're doing and concentrating on only that; remember that tea ceremonies are meant to have a sense of ichgio ichie, or one time, one meeting, so allow yourself to be fully present during this precious time. By finding beauty in the imperfect and in the mundane, you will come closer to fulfilling Sen no Rikyu's rules.

Many people study for decades in order to host a tea ceremony, so if you'd like to host one, you would probably find it beneficial to spend some additional time reading about the subject; you can get started with the links and articles that follow.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Chinatown Connection. "Japanese Tea Ceremony." (July 18, 2011)
  • Genocchio, Benjamin. "The Art of Tea." The New York Times. March 22, 2009. (July 18, 2011)
  • The Japanese Tea Ceremony Web site. (July 18, 2011)
  • Kirkpatrick, Melanie. "A Tea Ceremony for Today." The Wall Street Journal. May 6, 2009. (July 18, 2011)
  • Lee, Anthony Man-tu. "The Japanese Tea Ceremony." The Ivy Press Limited. 1999.
  • Muschamp, Herbert. "Steeped in Simplicity." The New York Times. April 14, 1996. (July 18, 2011)
  • Stinchecum, Amanda Mayer. "The Where and Ware of Hagi." The New York Times. July 3, 1988. (July 18, 2011)
  • Urasenke Organization. "Chado -- The Japanese Way of Tea." (July 18, 2011)
  • Ursasenke Foundation, Seattle. "Chado, the Way of Tea." (July 18, 2011)
  • Washington and Lee University's Japanese Tea Room Web site. (July 18, 2011)
  • Weisman, Steven R. "As High Priests of Tea Meet, a Cool Breeze Builds." The New York Times. April 9, 1990. (July 18, 2011)