Japanese Tea Ceremony Explained

The meaning of tea ceremony

Tea ceremony can be explained by this simple phrase: ichi go ichi e which means each moment only occurs once. The purpose of tea ceremony is all about being present in the moment and remembering that this very moment will never come back again. When we participate in the ceremony we have to forget about everything and just focus on drinking tea in harmony with people around us. Building on this philosophy, Rikyu introduced the 4 main principles of tea ceremony: WA, KE, SEI and JAKU, also known as, harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.

kimono tea ceremony The most important concepts of tea ceremony are Wa, Kei, Sei and Jaku



The whole tea ceremony procedure is about how a host and guest beautifully enjoy a bowl of tea in harmony. Harmony has so much importance in the Japanese culture that the kanji character of Japanese (和) is similar to the kanji character of harmony (和). Harmony is the foundation of Japanese culture and Japanese people believe harmony is not only limited to humans, it can be between humans and objects and between humans and nature.



Tea ceremony may look simple but actually, the host goes through many steps to please the guest and the guest responds with continued appreciation throughout. Every little thing from the flower arrangement to the scroll on the wall indicates the utmost attention paid to the preparation for the ritual. One of the many aspects of the tea ceremony that the foreign guests may not realize is the ritualistic way of showing appreciation by guests. For instance, the person who is sitting close to the hanging scroll must make some positive comments about the room design prepared for that day. After drinking the tea, the guests should put their bowl on the floor and then pick them up and take a close look and then make some positive comments about how interesting and unique the bowls are. This is all to show appreciation and the underlying respect. As stated in the book cha no yu "The guest must fully realize the pains taken by the host, to give him as little trouble as possible. The ideal relationship between them is a mutual understanding and appreciation that needs no words to express."



Even though the utensils used in tea ceremony are usually prepared and cleaned in advance, one goes through the tedious process of cleaning the utensils in front of the guests over and over again. The guests wash their hands before entering the tea room purifying themselves from the worldly things. The symbolic cleansing implies purifying one's heart and mind while cleaning the tea utensils.  Everything must imply purity from the sound of hot water pouring into the bowl to the smell of freshly powdered matcha. The tea ceremony in general is heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism but the ritualistic purity aspect has no doubt been influenced by Shintoism as well.



Jaku is not an effortful process, it is the natural result of practicing harmony, respect, and purification that leads to peacefulness and calmness that give people the power of controlling their worldly desires. The philosophy of zen suggests that simple actions in daily life (e.g. carving the wood, brushing a script, etc.) leads to awakening. When performing tea ceremony, a simple act of preparing tea with a clear mind paves a way to the awakening of our souls. One does not have to think about the intricate processes of tea ceremony and smoothly moves with nothing in mind that creates inner peace the realization of self. We should remember that the ultimate rule of awakening is the "presence" at the moment and understanding the true "self." Thus, tea ceremony helps individuals deepen their connection to their inner spirit.
kintsugi Wabi Sabi: Asymmetrical and imperfect things can be aesthetically pleasing



Wabi means seeing beauty in the imperfectness and impermanence of nature. Sabi means things that are old and covered are more appealing than new things or things that stand out. Together, wabi-sabi usually refers to beauty in simplicity. “Elegant simplicity” is present in all aspects of the tea ceremony. At the same time, one must note that tea ceremony is not only appreciating simple things (e.g. a simple cup) but also simple routines (e.g. cleaning the cup).



It means a profound awareness of the universe. True beauty is deep and difficult to understand on the surface. Tea ceremony may first look boring and simple but the movements in the ritual are uniquely beautiful and can be enjoyed only after practicing it for a while and observing a true master. Tea ceremony helps people learn to discover the aesthetics in mundane things. Tea ceremony involves using all 5 senses simultaneously (taste, touch, sound, smell, and sight).



In Japan, everything must follow a form, kata, a certain procedure, clearly established rules. Everything has a right and proper way to do what is called “do (道” in Japanese. That is why most Japanese arts and traditions end with -do: aikido, judo, bushido, sado, kado, etc. Tea ceremony is not about the taste, but, the protocol. When boiling and serving the tea, one does not necessarily take the easiest and most practical way. In the tea ceremony, nothing is a detail, nothing is unimportant, nothing is a nuisance.
tea ceremony Maikoya Tea ceremony has certain steps participants have to strictly follow



Tea ceremony is a form of meditation. Participants have to get rid of all the materialistic thoughts before entering tea room, forget about the worldly things, control materialistic desires, take their watches off and put aside their smartphones. Talking should be kept to the minimum and only at the beginning and the end. In this way, one can see his-her true nature and gradually experience an awakening. Even the mundane task of cleaning utensils can help one become enlightened by concentration on the task.



As the reflection of respect (kei) and the Japanese omote-nashii spirit (subjugation of self for the service of the guest), selflessness is demonstrated by both the host and the guest during the tea ceremony. First, the host enters the room from a tiny low-level gate by kneeling down and serves the tea before drinking it. The guest who receives it first should say “osakini” (if you don’t mind I'll drink it) to the guest next to him/her. The receiver should rotate the tea bowl twice to drink from the most beautiful side of the bowl because the host makes sure the most beautiful side faces the guest. The receiver holds the bowl and slightly bows while sitting before taking the first sip. The guest makes the slurping sound after finishing the tea to show appreciation. The server feels happy and relaxed by serving others and making sure others are satisfied.



It is known that one of the main goals of martial arts is to create a strong mind by practicing self-control. Similarly, tea ceremony also promotes self-control in various aspects. For example, participants are served Japanese sweets at the beginning, but, they have to wait for the right moment to have their sweets. The host and the guests must wait for their turns to enjoy the tea. Participants must sit on their knees for hours firmly bent on the hard floor.



The environment of the tea ceremony must be interconnected to nature. Tea rooms are usually set up next to a Japanese garden the participants have to pass through. The wagashi served in the ceremony are supposed to be not sweet in order to enjoy the natural taste of the tea. Display of metal, plastic, and artificial things should have abstained.

Shibumi Teahouses are very simple yet still elegant



Just like kaiseki meals, kimono motifs, tatami rooms, or anything Japanese, the design of tea ceremony rooms and the utensils tend to be simple yet very elegant. These concepts are similar to wabi-sabi but not necessarily giving the nature-made feeling. Zen proposes that we should not judge things immediately and we should not judge things based on how they first appear to our eyes (including objects). Tea ceremony rooms tend to have a simple design compared to the architecture from other countries yet both Japanese and foreigners feel calm and relaxed after spending some time in a tea ceremony room driven by the simple but elegant design.



In many cultures, it may be considered a bit strange if adults come together and drink tea in a quiet small room. In Japanese culture however, chinmoku (silence) has a positive meaning. Silence is perfectly normal and should be cherished. The true meaning of things is usually hidden in words that are not spoken.



The concept of ma is similar to chinmoku. In Japan, it is believed the space between things does not separate, but, connect them. This is similar to the way "silence" between the "notes" create meaningful melodies. So, the space, gap, and intervals among things are seen positive in Japanese culture. As he matter of fact, space or emptiness is the foundation of zen philosophy where awakening is synonymous with making sense of the vast emptiness of the universe. The empty tea ceremony room with no furniture reminds us that it is life itself that occupies the emptiness in the room. The big white background on hanging scrolls or space between tea ceremony room flowers always reminds us how "pause" in life makes our lives more meaningful.



Many tea ceremony scholars believe that the biggest overarching goal of tea ceremony is to create a bonding between the participants as in the original ceremony people had to share the same bowl in a tiny  2-tatami room (4m2). In Japan, meetings are usually for bonding and updating others, not to make decisions; while for Westerners, it is difficult to understand how bonding can occur without much talking. The explanation is ishin denshin where Japanese people can sense the needs and thoughts of others after spending time with them. Similarly, during the tea ceremony, there is little eye contact between the parties as communication is from the heart to the heart.



Seasons influence peoples’ lives in all cultures but perhaps not as much as they do in Japan. Tea ceremony, along with kaiseki meal, is the epitome of the impact of seasonality on daily life. Tea ceremony in the summer and winter is not the same as every season many aspects of the ceremony change, including but not limited to, the scroll on the wall (seasonally relevant scrolls should be put up), the flower arrangement on the floor (seasonal flowers should be displayed), the tea bowl (deep bowls for the winter and shallow bowls for the summer), the sweets (seasonal sweets should be served), the matcha (thin or thick matcha), the way the kama and chashaku are placed on the utensils (upside down or backward) and the way tatami floors are configured, and so on. All these changes imply how much effort put into the preparation of the room for the guests.



Perfection can be reached after countless performances and one should do everything possible to be perfect at what he/she is trying to do. While Western culture emphasizes the importance of progress, Japanese culture focuses on the importance of perfection and mastery. The focus on perfection does not go against the value of wabi-sabi as it usually refers to processes, not things.



Just like many Japanese movies, the tea ceremony also follows the jo ha kyu routine where guests wait in the tea garden for a while, wait for the host, wait for the tea preparations in a quiet atmosphere but drink tea and pass the bowl rather fast.


Come experience tea ceremony at Maikoya today.