Ever wondered what all the hype surrounding the Japanese tea ceremony is about? Trust us when we say that there’s a lot more to it than just putting the kettle on and dipping a tea bag into some hot water. Join us while we spill the tea on what this ceremony is all about.
sadō, The way of tea
Tea has been drunk in Japan for more than 1,000 years, however, its highly ritualized and performative aspect only came into play around the 16th century. This can be attributed to the country’s wealthy elite; merchants, warlords, and intellectuals, who all competed against one another to host the most lavish and sophisticated tea ceremonies.
In their efforts to outperform each other, form took precedence over function, and the enjoyment of actual tea became an afterthought. Instead, the Japanese way of tea is all about etiquette, with predetermined conversation, stylized movements, and luxurious props. It’s more theater than tea really.
For all its relative strangeness, the tea ceremony is a quintessentially Japanese experience, and Kyoto is at the heart of it. Much of Japan’s famously delicious matcha is grown in the southern suburb of Uji, where you’ll also find the best schools that specialize in the art of sadō.
The details of each tea ceremony vary slightly, but they all start with a purification ritual. In traditional venues, this begins in a garden. However, most modern venues lack a garden. Instead, you may be led into a tranquil room, aimed to calm your spirit, where you must wash your hands and rinse your mouth with water from a stone basin. This is done to symbolically rid yourself of the dust and dirt of the outside world.
Enter the tearoom
The tea ceremony is traditionally held in a tatami room, a minimalist space with sparse decor. The entrance to the room may be low, so watch your head! This is done so that entering guests have to bend over, showing humility. Once you are seated seiza-style (sitting on your heels) on the mat, bow your head to those who you’re sharing this experience with.
The star of the show will enter the room and greet each guest individually. The host will clean and prepare all the necessary utensils in front of you. What do you do in the meantime? Nothing. Do not attempt to make small talk with the host or fellow tea-tasters. This is considered highly rude and may disturb the spiritual atmosphere of the ceremony. In certain modern venues, however, there may be some allowances made to reduce any awkward tension, but we highly suggest reading the room before you crack an infuriateaing joke.
Enjoy the tea
Once your delicious cup of matcha has been prepared, the host will first pass it to the main guest, followed by the other guests. Upon receiving your cup, raise it up and admire it as a gesture of respect. Inspect any fine carvings, the lower it to your lips and sip gently. Avoid finishing the cup, no matter how matcha you love matcha. Once you’re done, wipe the rim of the bowl clean, bow, and then offer it to the next guest. This is done to avoid other guests drinking from the same spot as you. Some venues may require you to place the tea back on the mat when you’re done.
When everyone has had the chance to drink from the same bowl, the last person will place the bowl on the mat, front-facing, towards the host. This marks the end of the Japanese tea ceremony.
Best places in Kyoto for a tea ceremony
Kyoto is rife with venues offering authentic tea experiences. Some may be fraught with tourists, or offer commercialized sub-par experiences. We’ve picked some top venues to enjoy your cuppa at.
Camellia is relatively new in the Kyoto tea scene, but their nuanced approach to this traditional ceremony is as refreshing as the tea they serve. Thanks to a bilingual owner, the venue feels more welcoming to travelers. The ceremony is carried out in a relaxing way, without sacrificing tradition, and you’ll have a blast picking out stunning kimonos with the friendly staff.
Wak offers a tailored experience to guests, from stylish kimonos or opting to stay in your own clothes, to private ceremonies, you can pick the intensity of your experience. Their ‘Way of Tea’ ceremony has been a bestseller for ages.
Tea Ceremony at Temples
Besides formal tea venues, many temples offer modest tea ceremonies with no frills in which you will be served a Japanese-style sweet with a bowl of matcha (powdered green tea). The upside of this experience is that you’ll usually be outside, in nature, looking out onto a traditional Japanese garden. Prices are in the ¥500-1000 range. Two popular temples for this are Nanzen-ji Temple and Shoren-in. If you’re keen on temples, we suggest you check out Enryaku-ji as well, it’s stunning.