How the Tea Ceremony Works

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.