Have you ever been to a Japanese tea ceremony?
In Japan, the custom of drinking tea (green tea) is rooted in daily life – after a meal, to quench your thirst, to warm you up, and for refreshment. At home, it is common to use a teapot and tea leaves in order to make the tea. You can also see many people on the city streets drinking tea from plastic bottles, like the famous “PET Bottle.” Beverage manufacturers sell many types of bottled beverages in vending machines and convenience stores – cold ones in summer, and warm ones in winter. In Japan, tea is not something that only certain people drink. It is an essential part of life which everyone enjoys in their own way, regardless of age or gender.
Tea is so popular with Japanese people that a culture evolved around it called “the tea ceremony”, which boasts a history of 400 years. The “tea ceremony” regards the manner in which tea is made or served. It has many rules of etiquette, but at its essence lies a warm exchange in which the guest devoutly receives the tea the host has put their heart into making.
Tea is said to have been originally imported from China, and it was at first a very costly product that only members of the upper class could taste. Having passed through various historical developments, the tea ceremony was finalized in its current form as we know today by Sen no Rikyu, a tea expert from the 16th century as “Wabi-cha”. The “Wabi-cha” style emphasizes simple and quiet surroundings, doing away with the luxury of utensils and furniture. The form of the present-day tea ceremony originates from this “Wabi-cha” style. In addition, the spirit of the tea ceremony is based on Zen concepts. Sen no Rikyu explained the rules of the tea ceremony in the form of “Four Principles and Seven Precepts”.
The “Four Principles” refer to the spirit of “Wakei-seijaku”. “Wakei-seijaku” is the philosophy of the tea ceremony, whose meaning is that the host and the guest should humble themselves in order to show respect and keep the items and the ambience of the tea room in a state of purity.
“Wa” – The host and the guest opening up their souls to each other
“Kei” – Mutual respect
“Sei” – Keeping your soul and your surroundings pure
“Jaku” – Not being disturbed by anything
The “Seven Precepts” refer to the right attitude when entertaining guests.
1. “Make the tea so it’s good to the one who drinks it” – sense how your guests feel and be purposeful when making tea. Good means not only the taste, but also temperature, darkness, timing, and preference.
2. “Lay enough charcoal for the water to boil” – make sure to arrange and prepare everything when entertaining guests
3. “The flowers should be as they are in the fields” – feel the beauty and dignity of things as they are
4. “Cool in summer, warm in winter” – be considerate of guests and treat them in ways that are suited to the season
5. “Prepare in advance for the appointed time” – give yourself room to spare, both in your schedule and in your mind.
6. “Prepare an umbrella, even if rain doesn’t fall” – when making preparations, keep in mind what the guests may be worried about.
7. “Be mindful of your guests” – entertain your guests wholeheartedly
There is one more expression important for the tea ceremony. It is “Ichigo-ichie” meaning “treasure every encounter, for it will never recur”. There are many rules of etiquette in the Japanese tea ceremony, but the most important thing is a warm exchange between the guest and the host. If you are invited to a tea ceremony, please think of it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and cherish the time spent.
By Emi Sotome
Translated by Rafael Olivares
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at Japanese Culture Salon SAKURA