Posted in Kafevend Blog
We're just as devoted to tea as we are to coffee here at the Kafevend blog and to that end, we've looked at aspects of the renowned Japanese Tea Ceremony from time to time over the past few years. Nevertheless, the ceremony, or Way of Tea as it's also known, plays such a significant role in Japanese cultural heritage, that we feel there's still more to share about it. So whether you're an old hand or entirely new to the concept, stay with us as we return to a variety of aspects of this most intricate of ceremonies in some of our blogs over the coming weeks.
As far as historians can tell, tea was introduced to Japan during the course of the eighth century by Buddhist monks returning to Japan from China. The first tea plants were brought back and cultivated as well. At first, tea was venerated for its medicinal properties; it took time for its status as a refreshing drink to become established. Then, in the following century the monks' missions to China ground to a halt and so too did the drinking of tea. It wasn't until some three hundred years later during the twelfth century, that once again monks, this time from the Zen tradition, reintroduced tea.
As tea drinking began to spread to other sectors of Japanese society the tea ceremony was developed as an occasion for the wealthy to show off their valuable Chinese porcelain and utensils in luxurious tea houses. There would often be an extensive range of teas for guests to taste and try to guess the origins of. Nevertheless, in time the influence of the Zen tea masters prevailed and the tea ceremony became the aesthetic and spiritual discipline that it still is today.
Participation, either as a guest or as the host, requires total focus on the present moment. There are several aspects which help to achieve this state of mind. Firstly, many tea houses are set in a tea garden, a very peaceful and carefully set out environment, designed to help the guests clear their minds of everyday thoughts as they wander about prior to the ceremony.
Next comes the entrance to the tea house itself. Some have very small doorways, requiring the guest to deposit any worldly possessions outside before stooping to enter. This also serves the purpose of making all guests equal, removing signs of social identity. Inside the floor is covered by tatami mats. These are six feet by three feet in size and typically a traditional tea room is four and a half mats, or nine feet square – so quite compact.
The tea master, or host, will have given careful thought to the theme of the ceremony, or the season in which it takes place, and any decoration will be a reflection of that theme. The decoration won't be ostentatious; a flower arrangement, painting or piece of calligraphy is generally chosen – something for the guests to view, discuss and show appreciation for. The equipment used to make and serve the tea is also accorded consideration and respect. As you might expect, the preparation and serving of the tea itself is very precise, with set movements designed to accommodate the wearing of a kimono.
No general gossip then; the Japanese tea ceremony is a time set apart from the trials and tribulations of the world outside, an opportunity for the mind to unwind by focussing on the intricate details of the ceremony itself. As Nambo Sokei, a tea master of the sixteenth century once said, 'The truth lies in a bowl of tea'. During the weeks ahead we'll return to various features of this most fascinating of tea traditions.