We’re back with another dive into the customs of the world’s big tea drinking nations. This time, we’re sailing the East China Sea to the island country of Japan.
It’s widely acknowledged that Japanese monk Eisai Zenji introduced green tea to Japan when founding the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism in the twelfth century. Tea was quickly adopted as a method for staying alert during mediation (the wonders of caffeine), but the ritual of tea making itself quickly transcended to a form of meditation in its own right.
These close ties between tea drinking and philosophy are encapsulated in the concept of chadō or ‘the way of tea’. Does that sound familiar?
As we saw last week in our look at Chinese tea tradition, chadō is more of the over-arching concept of Japanese tea tradition rather than the ritual itself but the terms are often used interchangeably.
This is a gross over-simplification but traditional Japanese tea ceremony is all about accepting the transient nature of reality and appreciating the unrepeatability of a moment.
Ichi-go ichi-e（一期一会）or 'one time, one meeting’ is the Japanese idiom that reminds people to cherish each moment and is closely associated with chadō.
Great attention should be given to a tea gathering, which we can speak of as "one time, one meeting" (ichigo, ichie). Even though the host and guests may see each other often socially, one day's gathering can never be repeated exactly. Viewed this way, the meeting is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. The host, accordingly, must in true sincerity take the greatest care with every aspect of the gathering and devote himself entirely to ensuring that nothing is rough. The guests, for their part, must understand that the gathering cannot occur again and, appreciating how the host has flawlessly planned it, must also participate with true sincerity. This is what is meant by "one time, one meeting.”
If you have a cup of tea in front of you, now would be a great time to stop reading for a second, and have a good, mindful sip. That’s it. Lovely.
Now pop it back down and let’s continue.
Okakura Kakuzō coined the term ‘teaism’ in his 1906 English language ‘The Book of Tea’. Okakura argued the idea of the ‘way of tea’ is difficult for westerners to grasp.
Okakura was a staunch defender of traditional Japanese customs and pushed back against the western hegemony and its caricaturing of Japanese customs.
He argued that Japanese tea culture can be better understood as a worldview rather than a specific sequence of activities involved in making matcha popular in Japan. Hence adding the ‘ism’.
‘[Teaism] insulates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.’
Okakura Kakuzō - The Book of Tea
The Book of Tea is still in print and easy to get hold of. It’s also free as an audio book. Well worth a read if you’d like to understand more about how philosophy relates to tea and Japanese life more broadly.
Matcha do about nothing
There are loads of really great articles and videos which detail the actual processes and techniques of preparing and presenting matcha. We’re more interested in what is behind some of these things so we’ll give a very quick overview.
The first thing to say is that the majority of tea consumed in Japan is matcha - a powdered form of green tea.
It’s made from shade-grown tea leaves that are covered with shade cloths for several weeks before harvest. These leaves are called tencha.
Shading the leaves enhances the production of chlorophyll and amino acids, resulting in a rich green colour and flavour. After harvesting, the leaves are steamed, dried, and then ground into a fine powder using traditional stone mills called ishi usu.
As with most types of tea, there are different grades of matcha which determine what it will be used for.
Ceremonial grade matcha is the highest quality and is primarily used in traditional tea ceremonies that most people will have in their mind’s eye when they read the words ‘Japanese tea ceremony’.
There are subsets of ceremonial matcha including blends, premium and sweet matches. The grades are based on how young the leaves were when harvested, how they were ground and all the other things you’d expect including flavour, aroma and colour.
Culinary grade matcha is used in cooking and baking and has slightly more bitter flavour and is less of a vibrant green. Think back to the matcha KitKats that your friend bought you at Tokyo airport after forgetting to go gift shopping on their business trip.
For more on tea grading, have a look at our beginners guide to tea grading.
Formal or informal (but still quite formal)
Japanese people, like everyone else, have busy lives where tea plays a normal part in life.
There’s an overstatement of the Japanese tea ceremony being an overly formal almost religious practice when in fact, it’s mostly just making nice tea for your friends, family or colleagues. However, there are distinctions of tea events with varying degrees of formality.
Informal tea gatherings are known as chakai, and chaji are formal tea gatherings. It's fair to say that by Western standards of tea practices, they're still quite formal!
A chakai is a relatively simple, formal occasion, where guests are offered confections known as wagashi (more on this below), thin tea, and sometimes a light meal. The western equivalent would probably be a couple of people coming to yours or meeting in a Devonshire tea room for a cup of tea, a chat and some scones. Picture this with an extremely thoughtful host who puts a lot of effort.
In Japan, chakai is likely to be held in tea rooms but equally, could happen in your house or garden.
Seasonality plays a big part in Japanese tea ceremony with the year being divided into two main seasons: the sunken hearth (colder moths) and the brazier (warmer months). Each season will influence the choice of decoration, the utensils used and the wagashi on offer.
Chaji is the formal, full-length, full fat, bells and whistles tea gathering that most westerners are likely to picture when they think of a Japanese tea ceremony.
During a chaji, the host prepares and serves matcha to a small group of guests in a carefully choreographed manner. The ceremony follows a specific sequence of actions, including the purification of the tea utensils, the whisking of the matcha, and the presentation of sweets to accompany the tea.
It’s considered a holistic experience that encompasses all the things we talked about at the beginning of this post such as aesthetics, mindfulness, and hospitality. It’s an opportunity for people to really appreciate the beauty of nature, the artistry of the tea utensils, and the serenity of the moment.
One thing that comes through in a lot of the texts around Chaji is the intention of the people involved in every aspect of the tea ceremony.
You might shut your eyes when handling the bowl you’ll be drinking out of to pay more attention to how it feels. Once happy its in the optimal position in your hand, you open your eyes and inspect the underside for a makers mark.
You realise that the mark is a haptic prompt to help you find the most comfortable position more quickly.
It is this appreciation of design, craft and intention that runs throughout the Japanese tea ceremony. But you’ll never pick up on any of it if you’re not paying attention. It’s a mindfulness practice that should go throughout everything you do before and after the tea.
Attending a chaji is a privilege, and guests are expected to observe proper etiquette and manners. This includes showing respect to the host, observing silence during certain parts of the ceremony, and following specific rituals like bowing before and after receiving tea.
A full chaji can last anywhere from two to four hours, although it can be even longer for more elaborate or special occasions.
Choosing the tea, the music and the confections is all part of curating a once in a lifetime experience for your guests. Not ‘once in a lifetime’ like bungee jumping on your honeymoon but in a more literal sense of appreciating the moment for its own sake. As a particular set of variables coming together a specific time.
The wagashi on offer play a big part in this and will be heavily influenced by the season.
For example, you could be remembering a winter gone by with a saka-manju - a sweet bun of dough made from yeast mash left from sake manufacturing known as sakadane. (Sake is traditionally manufactured in the colder months).
Or looking forward to spring with kusa rice cakes made from mugwort which sprouts in early spring.
Wagashi is a tempting rabbit hole to dive down and could easily be its own blog post.
Read more about it here.
Participants are expected to maintain a quiet demeanour throughout proceedings. Talking should be kept to an absolute minimum and complete silence is observed at certain points of the ceremony.
The main reason for silence is respect. For the host, for the tea itself, for the effort and skill involved in everything that has gone into making the tea and bringing it to your mouth.
The influence of Zen Buddhism on the development of the tea ceremony in Japan also has a part to play. Silence was considered essential in Zen practice to facilitate introspection and the cultivation of a calm and focused mind.
Silence also symbolises purity, simplicity, and tranquillity in Japanese culture so keeping it schtum helps to create an environment that aligns with these qualities.
This goes for taking a sip too. No comedy slurping sounds to show your appreciation. Arguments of ‘but it aerates the tea’ will fall on deaf ears.
Handling Utensils (use both hands)
Imagine yourself at a chaji and dropping your drinking vessel. The bowl shatters. The atmosphere shatters. Your already fragile welcome to this illustrious event shatters. The family heirloom becomes a thousand heirlooms.
So for goodness sake, hold your cup with both hands.
You are encouraged to show your appreciation to your host throughout the ceremony for the preparation they’ve made.
This can be done by bowing, smiling, remaining attentive and many other subtle gestures.
That will have to do for now. There are hundreds of directions this could take you in and we encourage you to do your own research. The way that tea is appreciated and revered in this tradition is an amazing way in to many other fascinating aspects of Japanese culture.
The tension between striving for perfection while at the same time accepting that it will never be achieved is so beautifully demonstrated in the humble act of making a lovely cup of tea.