How Japanese tea ceremony schools are keeping the ‘art of tea’ alive

How Japanese tea ceremony schools are keeping the ‘art of tea’ alive

Japanese tea ceremony or Chado is based on four main principles – Wa, Ke Sei and Jaku

Japanese Tea Ceremony
Japanese Tea Ceremony Image Credit: Pixabay

Dubai: In Japan, tea ceremony schools have tea masters who teach the ‘art of tea’. This four-hour long ritual is based on philosophical principles, where matcha tea is prepared, served and drunk ceremoniously. Every step, right from how the host and guests walk in, sit, greet and drink tea is choreographed.

Gulf News Food team met with Sora Muratova Aivera, a Japanese language teacher and Mariko Dedousi, a tea master with Chamei Soshin (a Japanese tea school), both of who are based in Dubai, for a step-by-step understanding of the Urasenke (the main school of Japanese tea ceremony) tea ceremony, its significance and why every action matters.

A glimpse of Japanese tea ceremony Stefan Lindeque/Gulf News

Dedousi explained that the Japanese tea ceremony is based on the principles of Wa, Ke, Sei and Jaku, and it takes decades of study – philosophy, art, calligraphy, for one to master the art of serving tea. Rooted in Zen Buddhist principles, Wa means being in harmony with Nature so that the same quality transcends to the tearoom among the guests and host or teishu. Ke stands for respect, which means the guests must respect their surroundings, irrespective of their status. They should kneel, sit in the seiza position (kneeling down, keeping a straight back and sitting on out-turned heels) on the tatami mat and carefully handle and observe the tea bowl in which they drink their tea. Towards the end, guests watch the chawan or decorated tea mug, beautifully crafted with seasonal motifs and often reflect: ‘When will I get to see you next?

The third principle of Sei, stands for purity. When walking into the tearoom, one should ideally leave behind all thoughts and worries of everyday life and enjoy the company of the guests present. It also implies cleaning the utensils in front of the guests for transparency. The fourth and final principle of Jaku, or tranquillity, is achieved after embracing the first three principles.

Contrary to modern-day teahouses, in a traditional Japanese tearoom or cha-shitsu, matters of everyday and personal lives are not discussed. Rather the taste of the tea prepared, seasons and Nature are preferred topics to converse.

The ceremony and steps

On the day of the tea ceremony, the host rises early to prepare tea and snacks for their guest. The tearoom is sparsely decorated with tatami mats and a flower arrangement for guests, ranging anywhere between two to three in number. The host and guests are dressed in traditional Japanese attire called Kimonos - a long robe with wide sleeves traditionally worn with a broad sash as an outer garment.

Guests and host sitting down on tatami mats for the tea ceremony. Image used for illustrative purpose only
Guests and host sitting down on tatami mats for the tea ceremony. Image used for illustrative purpose only Image Credit: Pexels

The ceremony begins with the host walking in with the utensils, stepping their right foot first, making a gliding sound to suggest their arrival. The host gracefully walks in, places the utensils, sits kneeling and bows to greet the guests. Next, a silk cloth called fukusa is pulled out from the Kimono sash, folded and inspected to handle the kettle of hot water. The utensils are cleaned gently with warm water – by pouring in water from a ladle called hishaku, in front of the guests and wiped dry with the fukusa, which is then folded back in the same manner and placed in the Kimono. Then the host scoops out matcha powder using a spoon or chashaku into a chawan or tea bowl to whisk thoroughly with warm water.

The ceremony progresses in silence, for the most part, amplifying delicate sounds – walking in and out, using a bamboo whisk, hushed voices, nod, walk, bow and boiling water. So much so that one can hear people holding their breath in anticipation of something important that is to happen.

The bowl of matcha is then passed to the first guest, who rotates it twice slightly to avoid drinking from the decorative side. The exact process is repeated for the rest of the guests. Traditionally sweet and savoury snacks called wagashi (traditional  Japanese sweet made of rice flour, beans and agar or jelly like substance) and azuki are served to complement the bitter taste of matcha. Once everyone has had tea, the utensils are cleaned wiped with the dry cloth, marking the closure of the ceremony.

A look at the history of tea ceremonies in Japan

According to Dedousi, the influential tea masters – Murata Juko also known as the father of the tea ceremony and Sen no Rikyu introduced the concept and formed the modern-day Japanese tea ritual. In the early days, Japan’s ruling elite and samurais were fond of tea parties but later, preparing and drinking tea became popular with all social classes. Over time, schools were formed to preserve and pass on this tradition. It has taken Dedousi more than 15 years of practice to become a Grade 2 instructor or teacher of Urasenke (one of the leading schools of the Japanese tea ceremony), just a step away from becoming a master.

Both, Dedousi and Aivera, practice tea ceremony in Dubai, and they often have guests of different nationalities participate. While it may not be possible to adhere to all traditional rules, some cardinal rules are based on mutual respect that needs to be kept in mind. For instance, when attending a tea ceremony, dress conservatively, if not a Kimono, arrive on or before time, remove footwear at the entrance, walk on the sides of the tatami mat, avoid small talks and gossip, appreciate and be grateful for the tea, host and the space.

Sora Muratova Aivera and Maria Mariko Dedousi
Sora Muratova Aivera and Maria Mariko Dedousi take us through the Japanese tea ceremony Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/Gulf News

Tea ceremony utensils 

Chawan: Decorated tea bowl

Hishaku: Ladle used to pour water made out of bamboo

Kaiseki: Delicate meal sometimes eaten during a tea ceremony

Kama: Iron pot used for hot water

Matcha: Bitter green tea prepared in a powdered form

Natsume: The decorated tea jar that the green tea comes in

Shokyaku: The primary guest or guest of honour at the tea ceremony

Tatami: The type of mat found in a tea house

Teishu: The host of the tea ceremony

Here is a recipe for matcha tea

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