What to Expect at a Japanese Tea Ceremony

If you think a Japanese tea ceremony revolves around the refreshments, think again!  Every moment in a Japanese tea ceremony is significant.  Your host prepares hours before the arrival of guests to demonstrate the necessary refinement during this special gathering.  Participating in a Japanese tea ceremony provides great insight into the nation’s culture and lifestyle, as this tradition first began over a thousand years ago, and has evolved to emphasize qualities of grace and good etiquette that are hallmarks of Japanese society.  Therefore, knowing how to behave as a guest is a good idea!  If you know what to expect during a tea ceremony, you’ll be able to fully appreciate the atmosphere of mindfulness and tranquility, as well as all the hard work your host performs to ensure that the ritual is successful.  To start your visit to a chashitsu (tearoom) off on the right foot, read all about the stages of a Japanese tea ceremony below:

Step 1: The Host Prepares

The first step of a Japanese tea ceremony doesn’t involve the guests at all, but is no less important.  Before your arrival, your host has likely spent hours cleaning the grounds and tatami mats of the chashitsu, and preparing spiritually to achieve the state of repose that will set the tone for the ceremony.  The host also chooses tea equipment appropriate for the season and time of day, and which reflects the unique importance of the occasion.  As such, each tea gathering is a singular, special event.

Step 2: The Guests Arrive

This is where you come in!  Demonstrate courtesy and arrive early; this will leave you plenty of time to enjoy the beautiful natural surroundings of your chashitsu as you wait outside.  Guests must wait for the host to invite them in before the ceremony begins.  Take this time to wash your hands and mouth to rid yourself of impurities from the outside world.  There may be a hanto (host’s assistant) on hand to provide a tour of the property and offer guests general assistance throughout the day.

When the host is ready for guests, take off your shoes, and crawl through the nijiriguchi door.  A nijiriguchi is a small opening that obliges guests to bow when entering a tearoom, which begins the experience with a gesture of respect and courtesy.

Step 3: Meet the Host

The host greets guests with a bow, and promptly commences a series of pre-tea rituals with astounding finesse and grace.  The charcoal ceremony, which involves building the fire to heat the water for tea, is followed by a show of cleaning the tea utensils in front of guests.  Your host’s precise, deliberate gestures should draw your attention to the aesthetics of the tea equipment, and inspire a meditative atmosphere that helps you remain fully engaged in all aspects of the ceremony.

Step 4: Tea Time!

In a chaji ceremony, a formal meal of several courses is served before tea.  If you’re attending a chakai ceremony, only tea will be provided.  Either way, sweets are always included, which help the palate acclimate to the bitter taste of the tea.  The host prepares the drink in a large bowl by thoroughly whisking scoops of powdered matcha and water.  The liquid turns into koicha, a thick tea enjoyed by guests from the same bowl.  Traditionally, the host passes the tea bowl to the Shokyaku, the guest who enjoys the highest status in the room, and the only person allowed to interact with the host directly.  The Shokyaku rotates the bowl three times before taking a drink, wipes the rim with a cloth (so don’t worry about germs!), and then passes the bowl to the next person.  During the consumption of koicha, the Shokyaku can ask the host about the tea equipment used in the ceremony, helping to shed light on the significance of the day’s selection of utensils for the other guests.

When every guest has taken a drink, the host adds more water to the tea bowl to make usucha, a thin tea similar to the version enjoyed in most parts of the world.  Usucha is served in individual cups.

Step 5: Clean Up

When everyone finishes their usucha, the host cleans the tea bowl, whisk, and powder scoop for a final time.  Afterward, guests thoroughly inspect the utensils to show their admiration for the host’s hospitality.  Once everyone is satisfied, the host packs up the tea equipment, and guests exit with a final bow that concludes the ceremony.

Witnessing the precision and grace of a tea ceremony in Japan provides an unforgettable experience for all ages.  If you get the chance to attend a ceremony during your visit to the Land of the Rising Sun, don’t miss out!

About the author:

Dana Silverman credits her passion for travel to Girl Scouts, which provided her with amazing opportunities to attend summer camps throughout the United States during her childhood. She’s lived in Australia and New Zealand, and she’s planning a trip to Japan around her appreciation for the country’s cuisine and temples.