In Japan, tea is more than just a hot drink. It is a very important ritual that has a lot of meaning within the Japanese culture. Life in relative seclusion for centuries and the cultural isolation from the continent have shaped Japanese history and development over many centuries. This other philosophy of life, researching the auxiliary effects in tea, appreciation for this special natural product, devotion, warm hospitality and the Zen-Buddhism are elements that became part of the Japanese tea ceremony. The tea ceremony represents purity, tranquility, respect and harmony and a lot of preparation goes into this important event. A very important concept to the aesthetics of the tea ceremony is “Wabi-sabi”, what translates to elegance and simplicity. Experiencing a traditional Japanese tea ceremony gives you a glimpse into a fascinating part of Japanese culture that has a lot of history and cultural significance.
Matcha for the Tea Ceremony is being prepared, around 1920
How did the tea ceremony start?
With the tea also the Chinese tea etiquette found its way to Japan, what lead to influences to the Japanese tea ceremony and therefore the Japanese tea ceremony in its early stage. The Japanese tea ceremony is rooted in a ritualization of the tea preparation in Zen monasteries from the Chinese Tang period and its further development in Japan.
In the 12th century, Buddhist monks brought powdered tea, Matcha, from China to Japan.
Fist in use as medicine and used as a concentration aid for the meditation in monasteries as an "addition" for the dissemination of the Zen philosophy. After around two hundred years, Matcha was - served according to certain established guidelines - also found in illusory societies of gamblers and bon vivants.
Again, another 100 years later, Zen-Priest Murata Jukō (1423-1502) brought back the tea ceremony from this elegant world to the monasteries. Murata Jukō and Takeno Jōō (1502- 1555) were figures of great importance for the further development of the tea ceremony.
Matcha ready to be prepared using a sunken hearth (炉, ro)
Matcha and Wagashi (Traditional Japanese sweets)
Sen no Rikyu
But the most poignant figure in the history of the Japanese tea ceremony is without a doubt Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). Born as the son of fish merchants in Sakai (Osaka), he discovered his love for tea through his father, and at the age of sixteen he began to learn the way of tea from Kitamuki Dōchin (1504-1562), a friend of Takeno Jōō (1502-1555).
After his father’s death Sen no Rikyu studied Zen in Kyoto. And was later recommended to Takeno Jōō, as his student. Later he made a name of himself as a tea master, and his services were very coveted. He then became the tea master for the powerful daimyo Oda Nobunaga, and after his death in 1582 he became the chief tea master for Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598). Around the time of the big tea gathering in 1587, the relationship between Sen no Rikyu and Toyotomi Hideyoshi began to sour. After Sen no Rikyu and Toyotomi Hideyoshi began to divide more and more and when Rikyu placed a wooden statue of himself in the gate at Daikoku-ji Templel in Kyoto, Hideyoshi was furious. This literally was the straw that broke the camel's back. Hideyoshi was well known for his temper and in 1591, Hideyoshi ordered him to commit Seppuku, ritual suicide. In spring 1591, Sen no Rikyu held a last tea ceremony and then disemboweled himself with a sword.
Sen no Rikyu fundamentally changed the art. He prepared tea and shared it with a few guests, sometimes just one on one, in simple, rustic huts, with plain implements: rough ceramic bowls, bamboo scoops and whisks. Under his guidance, the Japanese tea ceremony became devoted to the quiet, the subtle, the unpretentious. Instead of a grand party, it became a way to understand how quickly life passes and how host and guest can communicate beyond words and learn fundamental truths about each other. Under Sen no Rikyu, the ceremony became “茶道” (Sadō),”, The way of tea.