The Way of Tea: Part One

Bowl of matcha tea
Fig 1. Bowl of Japanese tea

The Way of Tea is a two part blog series on the Japanese tea ceremony.

Now I’m sure you know that here at The Water Cooler Today, we are big coffee drinkers. However, what you may not be aware of, is that we love a good cup of tea. This week we have been investigating ‘The Way of Tea’, or Chanoyu, as it is known in Japan. Chanoyu refers to the Japanese ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha tea, a powdered green tea. Today we will be discussing the symbolism and history of this beautiful ceremony.

The history

The history of tea ceremonies in Japan dates back to the 9th century, when the Buddhist monk, Eichu, visited China. On his return to Japan, he prepared and served Sencha tea to Emperor Saga in 815. It evidently went down a storm, and Japanese nobles began to drink more and more tea.
Tea hut
Fig 2. Traditional Japanese building
Towards the end of the 12th century, a style of preparation called ‘tencha’ was introduced to Japan by a monk called Eisai. Tencha involves powdered tea and hot water being whisked together in a bowl. It was popularised in Buddhist rituals within monasteries. By the 13th century, tea drinking had become a status symbol – particularly among the warrior class in Japan, who would even host tea drinking parties. Maybe we should be hosting a few of these ourselves!
By the 16th century, tea drinking had spread across all sectors of society in Japan. A tea master named Takeno Joo introduced the concept of ichi-go ichi-e. This philosophy states that each meeting should be highly valued, as it will never and can never happen again.

The symbolism

Tea room
Fig 3. Traditional Japanese tea room

The Way of Tea is deeply meaningful and intertwined with Zen Buddhism. There are two main principles within all Japanese tea ceremonies – Sabi and Wabi. The Wabi principle refers to the inner and spiritual experiences of human lives. When performing a tea ceremony the Wabi principle is shown in quiet and sober refinement. Simple, plain instruments and environments are used to reflect this. In contrast, the Sabi principle refers to the outer, material elements of life. To observe the principle of Sabi in a ceremony, you must consider emptiness as a key to spiritual awakening.

The seasons and, in particular, the changing of the seasons is very important to tea ceremonies. Tea practitioners divide the year into two seasons; the sunken hearth half (November-April), and the brazier half (May – October). The ceremony changes according to the season you find yourself within, with specified utensils.


Bowl of green tea
Fig 4. Bowl of matcha tea
The Way of Tea changes, like most things, according to formality level. If you are having an informal tea gathering, known in Japan as a ‘chakai’, you will simply serve thin tea alongside confections, and possibly a small meal. A more formal tea gathering is known as a ‘chaji’. It generally includes a full meal (kaiseki), thick and thin tea, and confections. You need stamina to get through a chaji ceremony – as it lasts for up to four hours!
We hope you’ve enjoyed this sneak peek into the beautiful chanoyu ceremony. Next blog we’ll be discussing the ceremony itself. Have you ever been to a traditional Japanese tea ceremony? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.