Thursday, April 25, 2013

Japanese tea ceremony - an art and a form of meditation

I first experienced the "Japanese tea ceremony"  or "Sado" during the Golden Week (end of April) in 1999,  nearly 14 years back. I still have a very vivid memory of the whole thing as it was quite a unique experience. I was visiting my friend's family in Osaka for the holidays and it was his mother who suggested I experience one and I got quite excited about the idea. I remember how she took out all her kimonos one by one from the closet and asked me to choose one and then she helped me into it. Wearing a kimono took me about half an hour. As I have mentioned in one of my previous articles, it is not easy to wear one. And I thought wearing a sari was the most difficult task in this world :) 

Finally I was ready and we started with the ceremony. My friend's mother took me through the whole ritual step by step, explaining in detail what each action signified and I was amazed at how a simple day-to-day affair like making tea can be like a "work of art", time consuming, seeking our undivided attention to detail but unique, and striving for perfection. It turned out to be an extraordinary learning experience, although I do remember feeling a wee bit exhausted after the whole thing was over. I guess it was because of the kimono and sitting in a "seiza" ** position for long.

My friend's family has a "chashitsu" or tea-room in their house with a proper "ro" or a square hole in the tatami flooring where the tea is prepared. I believe not many homes in Japan have a "chashitsu" and having one in your house is a matter of pride. The tea prepared in tea-ceremonies is usually "matcha", a type of finely ground, high quality green tea.

Like everything Japanese, the tea-ceremony has a set of etiquette that should be strictly adhered too. For foreigners like me, following each and every rule may seem like a little tedious at times but then each of these "predefined actions" have a significance and are thus an integral part of the ceremony.

The room had this beautiful "Tokonoma" (an alcove), which i was told, is the most important part of a tea-room. It had a "kakejiku" (hanging scroll)  hung inside, with a "chabana" or flowers displayed on a small table. It is important that the main guest be seated nearest to the Tokonoma, considering that it is the most important part of the room. As you probably know, Japan is a hierarchical society and so the Japanese are very conscious about their position in any social setting and act (and are expected to act) accordingly. The tea ceremony is no different. 

Right from how the guests and host enter the room, how they sit, how the tea utensils are bought into the room, their placement on the tatami floor, how they are held, how the sweets are offered and eaten, how the the tea is consumed, to how everybody leaves the room, is all governed by a set of rules which takes each individual's position into consideration. The guests take time to drink the tea, appreciating it's color, taste and aroma and making appropriate gestures whenever required. This is a way to show their respect and gratefulness towards to host for inviting and honoring them. 

For the host, it is important that everything takes place strictly in accordance with these predefined rules and the guests leave happy and satisfied.

My friend's mother told me that it sometimes takes years for a person to master the "art" of tea-ceremony perfectly. She had also taken dedicated classes in the subject and it took her a few years before she felt confident about holding a tea ceremony on her own.

Though it is a unique and an interesting ritual, I have always wondered why the Japanese convert a simple and relaxing affair of preparing and having tea into such a complicated and tedious affair. I am sure many of you must have asked this question to yourself or to your Japanese friends. Obviously, it is very different from our modern ways of serving and drinking tea. At times I have felt that the strict protocol kind of hinders the actual free spirit behind the whole thing, which is quite contradictory to how a tea-gathering should be. 

For the Japanese, it has a spiritual and aesthetic value attached to it. It is almost like meditation for them. It is a way of connecting with not only the people around them but also the surroundings. Deeply rooted in the Zen philosophy, it is a way to remove oneself from the mundane affairs of life and achieve serenity and peace, even if it is only for a short time.

Since I mentioned scrolls, there is one very interesting thing that I would like to share with you  The scroll hung in the alcove of my friend's tea-room had the phrase "一期一会 " (ichigo-ichie) written on it.  His mother told me that It is a phrase that you will often see on scrolls hung in the Japanese tea rooms. It can be literally translated into "a once in a life time meeting", which basically conveys the idea that each time we meet for tea, is unique and special in its own way. While we may meet again it the future, no meeting will be quite the same. Thus, it basically emphasizes on the fact that we should not engross ourselves too much in the future, but try to live in now and treasure the people and our encounters with them. Such a simple phrase and yet the meaning it conveyed was so strong. I was moved.  

The Japanese tea ceremony originated from China and was initially enjoyed only by the Samurai class. Eventually, people from all walks of life started having small tea gatherings and that is when this  tea culture reached it's peak. In the modern society, tea-ceremony is not a as much a household affair as it used to be. Most Japanese regard it as something which is a part of their cultural heritage and their interest in it is kind of limited. The younger generation finds it to be a tedious and boring ritual. 

The ceremony is however quite popular among the tourists for whom the whole idea of being a part of one seems exciting and unique. Kyoto's Gion district is one place where tourists throng in large numbers to attend tea-ceremonies hosted by a Geisha. Interestingly, the traditional tea-ceremony is being given a "face-lift" by a tea-ceremony promoter Nozomi Taneda, who is mainly targeting the office goers and spreading the message that they too can "take a mental break anywhere, and it doesn't have to be fancy.” You can read more about it here:

In India, although there is no "tea-ceremony" as such but offering tea to guests is considered as an act of politeness. It is common to offer tea with sweets/snacks to your guests and many households believe that a guest should not leave one's house without having a cup of tea. In my previous post, I mentioned about my love for "chai" or Indian milk tea. For me, and I believe many of my Indian friends, drinking tea everyday is like a form of meditation too. It helps me relax and "unwind my mind from the daily grind"...

How about you? 

I found this great website that talks about the Japanese tea ceremony, its history and techniques in detail. I am sharing the link, in case you are interested.

Photo credits:


  1. Hi Puneeta, I love reading your insights into Japanese life. I would like to nominate you for a Liebster Award

    1. Hi Sophelia,Thank you so much for your feedback. Sorry for getting back late. I was a bit tied up and did not visit my blog. Liebster Award seems interesting :) I will need some time to write down the answers and the questions. I hope that is OK? And I loved reading your blog. Keep it up!! Looking forward to more posts from you!!