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Friday, December 28, 2007

Traditional Tea Ceremony


With the winter months now setting in, thoughts turn to warm beverages shared by good friends. Perhaps cocoa is your beverage of choice when the snow starts falling. Others may turn to coffee as the night creeps in earlier and earlier. But I'm guessing you're a tea person, aren't you? Well the best way (well maybe not the best, for for the sake of this article I'm saying it anyway) to enjoy some lovely tea in the company of good friends is to have an authentic Japanese Tea Ceremony. (Provided that the tea you had in mind all this time was green tea - I don't believe there's a traditional English Tea Ceremony for all of you Earl Grey fans out there, though I could be wrong.)

So, you think you're ready to host your own Japanese Tea Ceremony? Hopefully you've done a little bit of research and you're aware that it's not just a bunch of people getting together and pouring them all some name-brand canned "green tea" and playing your favorite J-Pop Mix CD and talking about which Inuyasha characters you all fantasize about while munching on some Pocky. The Japanese Tea Ceremony has a long and lavish history, requires dedication and poise, and a great deal of knowledge about the tools and the seasons themselves if you want it to be done correctly. The ceremony itself was started in the 9th century when a Buddhist monk first brought tea to Japan when he returned from China. The ritual of drinking the tea and meditating spread as a religious Buddhist ceremony, which was picked up by the samurai who used it as a ritual for meditation and focusing energies, and it eventually became a nationwide tradition in Japan due to its roots and principles: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.

In fact, you may want to start with preparing your calligraphy wall scrolls that contain philosophical sayings or key words/phrases - appropriate for the current season, time of day or central theme you have for the ceremony. Oh, you don't have calligraphy wall scrolls? Better go out and get some, or possibly learn to make them - I know how, but that's a subject for another time. Also make sure you have your chabana, "tea flowers", arranged around the room - high vases with seasonal flowers only, no filler and simple, usually only housing one full blossom per arrangement. Oh, you're not well-versed in the language of flowers and their meanings or connections to the seasons? Again, that's a topic for another day - try asking a flower expert or make an educated guess, I suppose. If you're having a FULL ceremony, make sure to have your kaiseki ready - the MEAL you plan on serving before the tea makes its entrance, usually accompanied by sake, Japanese rice-wine (if you're of proper age to be purchasing/serving alcohol).

Now that you're prepared the room, it's time to make sure you've got everything you need for your proper ceremony itself. Complete your checklist!

Chakin, the rectangular white cloth used to clean out your tea bowl.
Fukusa, the square silk cloth used to clean the other equipment and handle hot things.
Hishaku, the ladel used to either transfer water while preparing the tea or used in the ritual purification performed by guests before entering the tea room.
Tana, the "shelves" or technically any furniture placed in front of the host on which to prepare the tea.
Chawan, the tea bowl, which is the most important part. Shallow bowls are used in summer to cool tea down quickly, and taller bowls are used in winter.
Natsume, the tea caddy that contains your usucha-style matcha - used to make thin tea, the common variety.
Chashaku, the bamboo/ivory tea scoop used to transfer the matcha to the water.
Chasen, the bamboo one-piece whisk traditionally used to prepare the tea.
(optional) Cha-ire, the tea caddy that contains koicha-style matcha - used to make thick tea, which is not done in every tea ceremony.

Got it all? Then it's time to invite over some kimono-wearing guests and get ready to have a calm, tranquil Japanese Tea Ceremony! Don't forget to remind them to pack their kaishi, special rice papers used to hold sweets and kept in the breast of the kimono, if you plan on serving sweets instead of (or after) the traditional meal. Got them assembled already? Then let's press on and get this ceremony started! After all, the usual traditional tea ceremoney takes between an hour to five hours, depending on the meal possibility and variety of teas being served.

Step 1: After waiting in the garden or sitting room, when you beckon your guests into the tea room/house, they should all perform the cleansing ritual. They wash their hands and rinse their mouths with water. Then they can remove their shoes and enter the room where the tea ceremony will take place.

Step 2: Have your guests admire your calligraphy wall scrolls and flower arrangements that you placed in the room. Then have them sit seiza-style (butt on heels, feet-tops flat on floor, hands in lap, back straight) arranged clockwise from the host/ess' position in order of prestige. After all, the best guest should get their tea before the less-honored guests, wouldn't you agree? Of course you would, it's tradition!

Step 3: This is the time when you can serve your food. Serve either your kaiseki (that meal I suggested you prepare in advance) or go straight to the sweets, which your guests can eat from the kaishi you reminded them to bring, right?

Step 4: The ceremony begins. You present each of your utensils (bowl, whisk, tea scoop, ladel) and ritually wash and clean them. This must be done in front of your guests, out of respect for them so they can be sure they are clean. Dry them with their respective cloths. You may then put the matcha tea powder into the tea bowl, add hot water, and whisk. If you have both usucha and koicha matcha, use the thick tea first. When the tea is ready, you may ladel it into a bowl.

Step 5: The bowl is presented to the guest of honor, or the most-prestigious guest. Bows are exchanged, between host/ess and guest of honor, then between guest of honor and second-prestigious guest. The bowl is raised in respect/honor for the host/ess, rotates the bowl to NOT drink from the front, and takes a few sips. Prayers may be said between sips depending on the theme/reason for your tea ceremony. The rim is wiped clean, then the bowl is rotated back to original position. The bowl is passed as the next round of bowing goes, followed by the same procedure for drinking and passing. If thick tea is used, there is another round of tea-making and bowl-passing for the thin tea.

Step 6: When the last guest has enjoyed the tea, it is time to begin the cleanup of the tools. Usually the guest of honor will request the host/ess to allow everyone to inspect, examine and marvel at the tools that were used to create the fine tea(s) they drank. The tools are then collected up by the host/ess, and the guests are allowed to leave the tea room.

Congratulations! You've just performed a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony!


Dr.Gray said...

You know I love Japanese tea as much as the next guy (maybe more). But why do the Japanese have so many rules?

Anonymous said...

Das glaubst du ja selbst nicht