When you hear the splash
Of the water drops that fall
Into the stone bowl
You will feel that all the dust
Of your mind is washed away.
— Sen no Rikyu
The Japanese tea ceremony follows two main concepts — wabi sabi and ichigo ichie. Wabi-sabi, although hard to define literally, is a concept centered around the appreciation of imperfection. While ichigo ichie is an idiom meaning “one time, one meeting” and emphasizes the fact that each and every meeting is special in that it can only happen once.
Each tea ceremony is a special occasion of its own. Traditionally, the tea master invites one guest whom he wishes to treat with tea. This main guest might choose to bring along one or two more people, but the proceedings of the ceremony will remain centered around the main guest.
When one enters the tea hut all thoughts of the outside world are meant to be abandoned. The tea ceremony focuses on enjoying the tea ceremony completely.
The entrance of the hut serves as a divide between the world of calm contemplation and everyday calamity.
Before entering, the guests purify their hands and wash their mouth from a special water basin using a bamboo scoop.
When entering the tea hut, the guests bow down in admiration of the specially prepared calligraphy scroll and flower arrangement, both of which were carefully selected by the tea master in accordance with the season and reason for the tea gathering. After which the guests take their respective seats, all which are specially designated in accordance with the tatami placement and the tea master.
Each movement within a tea hut should be performed with great consciousness. A tea master stresses the importance of each movement to be perfectly in place, without any unnecessary motion. Every movement is performed slowly and intentionally.
Japan is considered a country of 24 seasons, in accordance with the changes observed in the nature and seasonality of plants and foods. The tea ceremony also moves with each season.
This is seen in every aspect of the tea ceremony, including the hanging scroll, flower arrangement, the tea bowls, the tea master's kimono (especially if the master is a woman), the incense chosen for the occasion (which often times comes from a temple of the master’s choice), and the wagashi (Japanese sweets) served before tea.
Wagashi are always served before the tea and are meant to be eaten completely before the guest drinks tea. This practice emphasizes the importance of being fully conscious of every action and dedicating your mind to each aspect of the ceremony separately.
The wagashi are most commonly made from bean paste, rice, and/or kanten (a jelly made from algae), and seasonal ingredients. Their shape and color are also meant to resemble the season. Wagashi are a true art-form of their own (a quick google search can show just how intricate these sweets can be). The preparation alone often requires many days and constant tending to the process.
Sakuramochi, a form of wagashi usually eaten during the spring cherry blossom season. This Japanese sweet consists of a cherry blossom flavored sweet rice cake wrapped in a pickled cherry blossom leaf.
During the ceremony, the tea hut remains so quiet that the subtle sound of water simmering in the cast iron kettle can be heard by the guests. All talk about everyday life and gossip is discouraged. Instead, guests talk about their appreciation for the elements of the ceremony, like the scroll and the teaware.
Japanese tea masters stress that to become a practitioner, it is not something that is learned through taking a certain amount of courses, but rather a practice that is studied throughout one's entire life. It is a lifestyle to be lived and experienced even within one's everyday life.
However, to experience the beauty of the ceremony one does not need to be a practitioner. Ceremonial grade matcha can always be enjoyed in the comfort of one's home and in the company of close friends. Make sure to follow the principles of wabi-sabi and ichigo ichie, connect with your bowl of matcha, and you may be able to envision yourself sitting in a small wooden hut, surrounded by a beautiful garden, feeling nothing but peace and relaxation from within.
The tea gathering changes not only with season, but also in accordance with time of day, tea harvest, certain holidays, and other variables. We will touch upon other types of Japanese tea ceremonies in succeeding articles, all of which are published every Monday and Wednesday.
Click here to read our previous article on the history of tea in Japan and how it all started.