The Japanese tea ceremony dates back to Sen no Rikyu, a tea master who served General Oda Nobunaga and then with his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He’s credited with his influence on the way of tea, also known as chado. The way of tea incorporated all of the major components of Japanese philosophy and aesthetics 500 years ago. Rikyu’s influence extended to introducing the concept of wabi-sabi – an appreciation for beauty that is imperfect and impermanent into the tea ceremony, a style known as wabi-cha. The classical Japanese art seen in calligraphy and ikebana, the Japanese style of flower arranging are brought into the tea ceremony along with the issue of harmony and balance, finding the universal in the immediate and simple thing in front of you.
A traditional Japanese tea ceremony lasts 4 hours. To do it right, you have a dedicated ceremonial room in the back of your garden with a low door. The low door symbolizes that whether you are a peasant or emperor, you have to bend down to get in, bringing each person into the same posture for the tea ceremony, among the stratified society. The tea ceremony is a place where everyone can be equal. The space where the ritual takes place is bare of adornment except for one flower arrangement and one piece of artwork hanging on the wall, usually a painting of nature or calligraphy. Typically, one to three guests take part at a time and they admire the painting and flower, commenting politely. Then, the tea-making begins. The coals are heated. The kettle is placed on them. The tea used in the ceremony should be high quality Matcha green tea. The pot and the chawan bowls should be expertly made but slightly imperfect, an element of zen Buddhism. When the tea is poured, the technique of the host is demonstrated as they use the chasen bamboo tea whisk to froth the Matcha. The host then drinks the tea first. He or she will then turn the bowl a quarter and pass the cup to the person on their right. This process is incredibly elaborate and stylized. These days even in Japan, the tea ceremony typically is abbreviated to only 45 minutes but still observes a relatively quiet, studied, meditative experience centered around the tea.
Joane Filler-Varty, our VP of hospitality shares her insights on how Japanese culture and the tea ceremony have influenced the tea programs she sets up for our four and five star hotels in Japan. “The aesthetic plays an important role—everything needs to look right and be in the right place. All the details are important. No one element sits by itself. Instead, it’s how the cup, teapot, and tea all combine together.”
Speaking of tea, the history of Matcha starts off in China where it was super-finely ground and found popularity there. Originally developed in China, in the 1300’s Matcha made its way to Japan. Matcha’s popularity died out in China after several hundred years, but flourished in its new home. Japan’s history has selected certain aspects of Chinese culture over the years and made them their own. So much extra work and care goes into making Matcha, and this green tea became uniquely Japanese. Matcha is typically reserved for use in the tea ceremony where its required focus and preparation come to life, but even in Japan it is now often consumed in smoothies, lattes, and the like.