The Surprising Origins of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

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Tea varies by country to country, and culture to culture. In the U.S., tea is often nothing more than a store-bought sack dipped in a cup of hot water. In Morocco, green tea is frequently served with mint and plenty of sugar already added. In the U.K., high tea is still practiced by some. It should come as no surprise, though, that Japan has some of the most intricate tea traditions of all.

Japanese tea ceremonies have been in practice for over a thousand years now, and the ceremony is as much about the process of serving the tea, as it is about the tea itself.

Surprising Origins

You may not have realized it, but for centuries, Japan and China — along with other Asian nations — were trading ideas, traditions, philosophies and more. Tea was no exception, and the tea ceremony found its infancy in China.

Once it got to Japan, however, it developed into its own unique tradition that lives on today in many ways. Traditionally the ceremony was an incredible four hours long, and was done while wearing a kimono and kneeling in the seiza style. Great emphasis was placed on proper styling, including the tiniest of movements. Today, the average ceremony is much shorter, befitting modern audiences who may want a cup of tea but do not necessarily want to wait all morning long for it.

The Modern Ceremony, or “Chakai”

These modern, short tea ceremonies taking place in tea houses are known as Chakai, and they are a lot easier on the knees. It is still an interesting, traditional ceremony that can help people understand the basics of the world of Japanese tea, culture, and matcha, a Japanese powdered green tea.

The Host

Tea houses have a tea master, or host. In Japan, there are still famous tea masters that have spent many years of their lives learning the ancient art of the tea ceremony, and perfecting their approach to it.

Not Just a Boiling Kettle and Water

Believe it or not, there are potentially hundreds of tools used for making a cup of matcha, though the majority of practitioners will have a few standard favorites. The most common items, though, are things such as the bamboo whisk (for stirring the tea), ceramic tea bowls, and a storage container for the tea powder.

How Can You Experience Tea Houses?

In China, Tea Appreciation Day is held during the first weekend of May (and the majority of teas used there are grown in the mountains of Taiwan). If you are not in China, though, there are a variety of local ways you can experience a tea ceremony. There are over 18 million Asian Americans in the U.S., or about 6% of the population, and many of them are involved in local Asian-American groups that will host cultural events, such as tea ceremonies; just check your local event listings.