Japanese tea ceremony: history

Practised for centuries the Japanese tea ceremony can be experienced and appreciated today across Japan. For those hoping to experience a deeper, richer, more profound interaction with authentic Japanese culture, the tea ceremony should not be skipped. And for those just hoping to get their caffeine fix, the tea ceremony is not to be skipped either!

The origins of the tea ceremony in Japan go back to around the 9th century when tea and tea culture first started making waves on the island nation. The Japanese tea ceremony has much older precedents from China and Korea, but the authentically Japanese take on tea started developing during the Heian period.

The art of enjoying tea as well as the import of tea seeds, leaves, and even whole plants was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks returning from their studies in China. A notable monk, in particular, is Eisai, who is also said to be the “father of Japanese tea culture”.

Eisai helped introduce wider tea consumption and culture to the wider Japanese populace. Originally, the drink was very expensive and was only enjoyed by the aristocracy and rulers and by Buddhist clergy during their rituals and to keep them awake and alert during their long periods of meditation. Eisai helped to spread tea as a healthy drink, one that could balance the body’s constitution and enhance health.

He was also instrumental in connecting tea, Zen Buddhism, and the rising warrior class of Japan. The tea ceremony was developed around Zen Buddhist philosophy, with its solemn focus on ritual, being present and aware in the moment, and becoming cognizant of the ephemerality of life, as represented by the preparation, brewing and finally consumption of the tea.

The tea ceremony became popular among the samurai class and the shogun of Japan. By the 1600s the next major figure in the tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu came on the scene. Since the time of Eisai, tea ceremonies had become lavish and stately affairs. Vaulting teahouses to demonstrate temporal power and militant opulence were built by aristocrats and warlords.

Rikyu intended to return the tea ceremony to it’s Zen roots. He helped to develop the aesthetic philosophy of wabi sabi. The wabi sabi aesthetic is the appreciation and deep contemplation of the weathered, fleeting, flawed, and imperfect.

Instead of massive tea houses, Rikyu developed a smaller tea room or chashitsu. Based on the little rustic huts Taoist and Buddhist recluse poets would live in to escape from society. The pathways to the little tea room hut would meander and be surrounded by nature, some of which was allowed to become overgrown or withered to reflect the reality of life.

There was only one entrance and exit. The dimensions of the door were purposely designed to be too short and too narrow for someone to enter without bowing, and also disallowed anyone to enter while girded with swords. This created a different kind of sacred space, one of peace and remoteness, away from any trouble or problems.

The ceremony was highly ritualized and followed specific steps and used particular equipment and instruments. Activities like viewing calligraphy, flower arrangements, appreciating incense, and tasting rice cake would also be part of the tea ceremony. Colours and designs would be selected according to the season or time of day.

The tea ceremony would also include moments of more natural interaction between guests, one in which rank and station did not matter. Unfortunately, Rikyu ended up clashing with his patron, the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Rikyu opposed Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea, and for this perceived insubordination, Hideyoshi ordered Rikyu to commit ritual suicide.

But, Rikyu would certainly live on! He is remembered today for his profound and deep impact on the Japanese tea ceremony and tea culture at large. Rikyu’s style, procedures, and wabi sabi philosophy are followed in Japanese tea ceremonies even today.