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Japanese Tea Ceremony

“Chanoyu” means “hot water for tea," but it is also the term for traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. A historical part of Japan, the tea ceremony is an art and a form of spiritual cleansing influenced by Zen Buddhism and practiced all over the nation to this day. All aspects of chanoyu are heavily ritualized and codified, so no matter where you go, the procedure is the same.

Chanoyu, like many aspects of Japanese tradition, originates from Chinese culture and religion. It was brought to Japan by a Buddhist monk who had returned from a voyage to China during the 9th Century. He brought along with him powdered green tea from across the waters, which he then served to Emperor Saga in a formal presentation. Soon after, the act of drinking tea transitioned to a masterful art which aims to teach the importance of purity, tranquility, harmony, and respect between people.

To hold a tea ceremony, the host first needs matcha -- powdered green tea -- and small sweets called kashi to cut the bitterness of the tea. After the host has the supplies, in order for the ceremony to proceed, the ritual of gathering and drinking the tea must be followed to the letter. Every act has its own spiritual meaning that each attendant takes very seriously.

How to Hold a Tea Ceremony

Before the actual ceremony, each guest must walk through the house's garden path, traditionally called "roji," meaning dewy ground. This purifies the guests, symbolizing the removal of the dust of the world before the ceremony. Upon reaching the end of the path, they wash their hands and mouth to further cleanse themselves. Then, they enter through the path's low exit into the machiai (waiting room), which forces them to make a bowing motion, a sign of humility, honor, and respect to the host. The host bows in return to greet them, then goes to prepare the chashitsu, or tea room, for the ceremony proper. If the ceremony is a formal one, the host may serve a three course meal beforehand; otherwise, simple sweets precede the serving of the tea. Guests exchange pleasantries quietly and eat, and when the host is ready, everyone enters the tea room. When they arrive, they sit in seiza -- on their knees, with their bottoms resting on the heels of their feet. The guest of honor sits next to the host.

To prepare the tea, the host cleans the tea container, matcha scoop, whisk, and serving bowl using ritual motions to calm and relax the guests. Then, the host scoops out matcha powder into the guests' tea bowl, with three scoops for each guest. Hot water is added, and the host whisks the water and powder together into a soup-like consistency with just a bit of foam on top. The first guest takes the bowl of mixed tea from the host, both exchange bows, and then the guest compliments the aesthetics of the tea bowl before rotating it and taking a sip. After drinking, each guest wipes the edge of the bowl and hands it to the next guest, until everyone has finished the tea. At that point, the host cleans all the utensils again, and the guests bow before leaving the tea room. If they wish, before leaving, the guests may examine the tea ceremony utensils by holding them with a cloth.

The Meaning of the Tea Ceremony

Chanoyu's elaborate ritual is not as simple as it sounds, and even those well versed in its procedure may still fail to do it properly every time. It is a meditative practice focused on the moment, and guests are expected to ponder its spiritual nature during the course of the ceremony and experience a sense of closeness and oneness with the universe. They are to leave their worldly concerns behind and focus on the beauty in ordinary things that make up the decidedly extraordinary chanoyu: the glow of the fireplace, the delicate porcelain of the tea bowl, or the beauty of the tea room, for example. Idle talk and gossiping is discouraged, but verbal appreciation of the ceremony itself is welcome.

Through tea ceremony, participants are expected to learn harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility. Chanoyu is a practice that must be learned, mastered and experienced for a person to truly understand its meaning and spirit.