This winter, I experienced the Japanese Tea Ceremony, or Chanoyu, at the Hōjū-ji Temple in Kyoto. Just before the ceremony, I walked around the quiet temple grounds, giving me a sense of peacefulness and self-awareness. I walked through the sliding doors of the main hall onto the tatami mats. As I walked towards the table in the center of the room, I noticed the meticulous level of care that had gone into the preparation, decoration and cleanliness of the room as well as the simplicity of the tools, signaling that this ritual was more than merely a rigid set of rules, but a spiritual practice. The Japanese tea ceremony is an embodiment of Zen Buddhist philosophy of appreciating the beauty of ordinary life through thoughtful practice and meditation.
Originally from China, green tea was once consumed only by monasteries and within the aristocracy. It was not until a Buddhist monk returned home to Kyoto and planted green tea seeds on the grounds of the Daitoku-ji Temple that green tea started growing in Japan. They then refined and crushed the tea leaves into a powder creating what we now know today as matcha. Matcha comes in ceremonial grade, the highest quality and culinary grade which also has its own sub-types. The ceremony I participated in was relatively quick and simple, however, this is not always the case. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Zen Buddhist masters altered the ceremony to serve tea in a humble manner meant to enhance the spirit. One tea master named Sen no Rikyu stripped the ritual down to its core using only simple utensils to prepare and drink the matcha tea. The lack of decoration in the tearoom is intentional, as participants should only focus on the careful details of each movement to evoke and appreciate simplicity, naturalness, respect, harmony and purity. One is to look inside themselves to find true spiritual wealth with no attachment to material objects.
Matcha, originally from Kyoto, is a fine-powdered form of green tea. The green tea plants that will eventually become matcha are shaded for up to five weeks, usually in spring, which gives it the strongest flavor. The leaves are then harvested, steamed, dried and ground into a fine powder. The main difference between matcha and brewed tea, is that with matcha you drink the entire tea leaf in powder form and are able to reap the benefits of all its nutrients.
Tea Ceremony Preparation
Guests must spiritually prepare themselves before entering the ceremony by leaving their worldly worries behind. They must wait for the host to announce them before entering the room and wash their hands to symbolically remove the dust from the outside world. Once in the room, everyone is treated as equals. The tools used in the ceremony will be cleansed in front of the guests. Each movement is designed aesthetically and done with complete concentration. There are no frivolous movements made nor words spoken. Sweets are served and eaten, before the matcha tea is provided, to balance out the bitterness of the tea. A common sweet seen is wagashi, made with mochi, anko (bean paste) and fruit.
rice or tea bowl (chawan)
linen tea cloth (chakin)
bamboo scoop (chashaku)
bamboo whisk (chasen)
matcha sifter (furui)
Directions for Usucha (thin matcha):
- Heat water and pour into the tea bowl until 1/3 full
- Place the bamboo whisk into the tea bowl so that the prongs are wet
- Once the bowl is heated from the water, empty out the water and dry the bowl with the linen tea cloth
- Using the matcha sifter, remove any potential clumps of the powder
- Use the bamboo scoop and measure three scoops and place the powder into the warm tea bowl
- Measure 2.3 ounces of hot water
- Let water cool before pouring into the tea bowl
- Once the water is added into the tea bowl, use the bamboo whisk to mix the powder and water together
- Rapidly whisk in a W pattern until a thick froth has formed
Note: You can also make koicha, thick matcha, by using similar tools.
Receiving & Drinking Tea
- Place sweet given by the host onto folded paper before eating
- Eat the sweet by using a cake pick for moist sweets or your hands for dry sweets
- When given the tea bowl, place it between you and the next guest
- Bow to excuse yourself for going first
- Put the bowl in front of your knees and thank the host
Put the bowl in the palm of your left hand
Raise the bowl slightly and bow
Turn the bowl so that the kiln mark is away from your lips
Drink and wipe the place you drank from with your fingers
Turn the bowl so that the kiln mark is facing you
Put the bowl down on the tatami mat in front of you with elbows above your knees
Pick up the bowl to admire it at a low position near the tatami mat
When returning the bowl, ensure the kiln mark is facing the host