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With a series of ancient rituals that take place in traditional houses with tatami mat floors and sliding paper doors, the Japanese tea ceremony makes putting the kettle on look primitive.
As a tour leader, I get asked a lot of questions. The two most difficult are “what is Japanese tea ceremony?” and “what is Zen?” The latter is a topic for another time, and I must admit that while it directly influences tea ceremony, I’m not an expert in Zen Buddhism. The former, on the other hand, I can say a thing or two about.
While I’m most definitely not an expert in tea ceremony, I have had formal training in the school of thought called Omotesen-ke by the most recent teacher to the descendants of the Tatebayashi Tokugawa Clan, the family that produced the 5th shōgun of the Edo Period. It’s considered the strictest and purest version of tea ceremony developed by the original tea master himself, Sen no Rikyū.
History of the Japanese tea ceremony
So, where to begin? At its most basic level, tea ceremony is escapism – at least in theory. It was developed as Japan entered a period of stability after 100 years of civil war.
For a century, samurai warlords had been vying for power and making outrageous land grabs. From time to time, warlords who respected each other’s military prowess but might be sworn enemies would meet and discuss terms of defeat or the possibility of forging a new alliance. However, in the tea house, no swords were allowed. Ego was checked at the door – a door that was intentionally designed so low that it required all who enter to bow their heads in humility. Once you entered the room, status didn’t matter. You were about to make tea for another person’s enjoyment, and in turn, they would make tea for you. The playing field was level and being humble and respectful was key.
But being humble and respectful wasn’t the only element at play. If you’ve ever studied a martial art, you may know the term kata. These are “forms” that are practised and perfected through repetition. Every motion in tea ceremony is repeated and refined – any small mistake criticised and corrected by the teacher until you get it right.
I’ve often described it as “the most convoluted way to enjoy a cuppa”, but you can always get a simple cup of tea. However, just like repetition of kata is required to master martial arts like karate or sword play – and mastery could save your life – repetition and perfection of the standard movements with grace and elegance elevate your enjoyment and presentation of tea ceremony.
Tea ceremony in modern Japan
So, is this practice relevant today? On a superficial level, tea ceremony is important for preserving the traditional Japanese culture that crystalised in the Edo Period (1600-1868) but has been disappearing in modern times. On a practical level, it has a relevance that most people don’t think about.
Firstly, if you watch samurai movies or other Japanese historical dramas, the actors need to understand the kata of tea ceremony to pull off convincing performances. As a foreigner, with only limited training, I resort to tea ceremony kata when speaking with Japanese in formal and semi-formal situations. Because of the repetition, I don’t even think about it. It’s become an automatic reaction. You can think of it as body language or non-verbal communication, but it’s something the Japanese also automatically respond to. It shows respect and conveys a mutual understanding of the culture. Having a repertoire of these kata is invaluable when speaking to Buddhist monks, Shintō priests, and senior citizens.
As I said earlier, this may be “the most convoluted way to enjoy a cuppa”, but it’s a backdoor into Japanese culture and thinking. On the surface, it seems like it’s just about enjoying tea. However, I’d argue it has very little to do with drinking tea. It’s about enjoying the beauty of the moment and the grace of movement and execution. It’s also about using formality as a sign of respect to those around you and, most importantly, a continuation of the beauty of traditional Japanese culture.
Learning just a little bit of Japanese tea culture will enhance your experience during your travels here. The locals are always surprised to when they see foreigners use body language that they consider distinctly Japanese, and you’ll enjoy the smiles on their faces and the respect they give back to you.