What’s the point of Japanese tea ceremony?

Podcast show host Kyota Ko explains, in layman terms, its enlightening goal, its link with Zen, its intriguing gimmicks, and why you should make it your next new hobby.

Hello world, you are listening to the Metro/classic Japanese, bringing you a podcast this time to spill the secrets, or I should say spill the tea of Japanese tea ceremony. My name is Kyota Ko.

What is tea ceremony? Actually, not many people in Japan would be able to tell you what the big fuss is about making the act of sipping tea into a ceremony. 

It’s like if you live in the States, you know what a brownie is and what it tastes like, but you wouldn’t know what a brownie ceremony would be if it ever existed. Why would anyone need a formal ceremony to enjoy brownies? And that’s exactly how most people in Japan feel about tea ceremony. Most of us don’t really know what it’s for and how or why it’s appreciated.

But tea ceremony has been around for at least 500 years. There’s got to be something extraordinarily fun about it to withstand the test of time. So today, let me clarify the point of tea ceremony from a few different perspectives, and also how it influences Japanese people’s cultural values still now, without them even knowing it. 

Tea ceremony is a cultural representation of Japan

So first of all, let’s point out the obvious here. Like many other traditional martial arts or art forms in Japan, tea ceremony is a cultural representation of Japan. 

Matcha is served in tea ceremony. Matcha is a very thick form of green tea, and yes, when you take a sip, you do feel like you are drinking Japanese culture off of a bowl. 

I don’t know why but when you taste something that thick and undiluted, you taste culture. Like when you have espresso, it feels like you are tasting Italy. When you have those 70% or 80% cacao chocolate, it feels like you’re having a taste of Africa. When you have a thick, gooey brownie, it feels like you are tasting America. At least I do. And I love brownies.

But matcha is actually not the most significant part of tea ceremony. It is integral because otherwise it wouldn’t be called a tea ceremony, but the role matcha plays in the experience is just a fraction of the whole. 

Tea ceremony is the art of throwing a Zen tea party

When you participate in tea ceremony for the first time, you will be busy trying to figure out what in the world is going on, but when you take an objective view, you’ll start to notice things that are just so Japan. 

Now tea ceremony is not really a ceremony or party. It’s more of a type of performance art. It can never be performed again in the exact same way, just like musicals or operas. 

If I dare to oversimplify tea ceremony for the sake of understanding the basic point of it, I think it’s best to call it the art of throwing a zen tea party. You do everything you can to make the one bowl of tea you serve to your guest an enjoyable one. 

And just like how musicals and operas are made up of several different art forms combined together, like acting, singing, music composition, stage setting and costume design, tea ceremony also consists of several different elements. They all contribute to making that one occasion – that one day – a one and only experience. 

So what are those elements of a tea ceremony? I can name 3 biggies. 

1. The utensil and props

Important element number 1 is the utensils and props the tea master or in other words the host of the ceremony chooses to use for that ceremony. They’re like props of a movie or opera and each one helps to realize the central theme or message of that particular tea ceremony the guests are invited to join. 

I’ll post a photo of the items you’ll typically see in tea ceremonies on my blog post for this podcast, but again, it’s important to know that each item – each prop is chosen by the tea master. 

Some of the numerous items used in tea ceremony

Drawing by Kyota Ko of The Metro-classic Japanese.

You know, if you plan a party you may think of a special theme for it, like an Alice in Wonderland theme party. Then you would gather props that remind you of the story of Alice in Wonderland. You’d bake cookies that say Eat me or Try me. You’d decorate the room with cards and roses and maybe stuffed cats and bunnies. 

Same thing with tea ceremony, although it wouldn’t be that apparent. There would often be a scroll hung on the wall over an elevated platform you’ll always find in a tea room. It’s like a staged area for you to decorate, just like a window sill in Western homes, except there is usually a scroll in place of a window there. These platforms are found in the guest room of almost any traditional Japanese house. 

Or, the next time you stay at a Japanese style hotel – they are called ryokan – if you stay in a tatami room, you’ll most likely find this staged platform in your room.

The scroll on the wall in a tea room would often have a calligraphic Zen Buddhist writing on it. Whatever it says would set the theme and central message of the tea ceremony. 

For example if it’s a scorching summer day and you come into the tea room as a guest and you see a Kanji character written on the scroll that means “Cool breeze”, the tea master probably wants to help you forget the heat outdoors. That’ll be the theme of the tea ceremony. 

Other props would cohere with that central theme, like the tea bowl may be made of glass instead of soil, and a single tall stem of a seasonal flower may be put in a vase that’s perhaps colored turquoise, to create a chill feel.

Now also the tea utensils are handpicked just for that occasion, and the tea master would try to pick ones that he or she feels are beautiful, and I’ll explain in more detail later, but what’s important here is that “expensive” doesn’t translate directly to “beautiful.” Finding beauty in items that are not considered worthy of a hefty price tag yet is what innovates people’s values. It’s one thing tea ceremony teaches you.

In the early ages of Japanese tea, like in the 14th and 15th centuries, decorative Chinese porcelain tea wares were typically used, because they looked pretty and glamorous. 

But from around the 16th century, the concept of beauty in tea ceremony shifted greatly towards considering humility, simplicity and imperfection as what makes things interesting and beautiful. A Buddhist monk who is considered to be the person who brought the concept of Zen into tea ceremony – he’s called MURATA Jukou – pointed out that the moon when it’s partially covered in clouds was more beautiful than a full moon on a clear night. I fully agree. So tea ceremony from the 16th century on promoted the idea of what is called Wabi-sabi – the concept of beauty found in imperfection. 

So Korean tea ware which were slightly more asymmetrical, hand-shaped and earthy came to be preferred. They are still commonly used in tea ceremony today, by the way. And then soon in the same century, a particular tea master started making the ideal, imperfect, or I should say the wabi-sabi-perfect tea ware called Raku ware. The tea master’s name was Sen-no Rikyu.

Rikyu lived during a time when Japan was still ruled by samurais. He was not the person who started tea ceremony but he was the one who made tea ceremony into a thing in Japan – into a major movement, and established the basis of what it is now. 

I’d say he is the Snoop Dogg of tea ceremony. If you ask an American person whose not particularly interested in rap the question “Do you know anything about rap?” He may answer “I know Snoop Dogg.” And if you ask a Japanese person whose not particularly interested in tea ceremony the question “Do you know anything about tea?” He may answer “I know Rikyu.”

So anyway Rikyu instructed the first craftsman of the Raku family lineage – he was called RAKU Chojiro – to make the ideal tea ware in his mind. And out came these super asymmetric, simple in design but complex in shape, thick tea bowls. They look and feel really satisfying when you hold them, kinda like really chunky, gooey, doughy cookies. You know it’s going to taste good just by how it looks and feels. 

Raku ware contrasted greatly from the fine and delicate Chinese porcelain that were considered valuable for the longest time. Rikyu was all for discovering value and use in places you would normally not look for instead of consuming already-existing values. He was a very creative person. 

The idea of wabi-sabi influenced people outside the world of tea, and it influences us Japanese people’s aesthetic preferences even today. We tend to see beauty in things that are seasoned well and look handcrafted. Those are the good types of imperfection.

2. Tea room

Important element number 2 is the tea room and garden the ceremony takes place in. Tea ceremony can be performed anywhere, even outdoors, but in its most formal form, it’s supposed to happen in a tea room made just for tea ceremony. If you visit a park with a Japanese garden in Japan, you’ll actually see one of these tea rooms often nestled in an exclusive, densely wooded area. There’s a good reason for this.

Tea ceremony is supposed to be a special occasion. It’s supposed to make your day extraordinary, so the pathway in the Japanese garden leading up to the tea room will create an illusion where you feel you have roamed into a different world, a world set apart from your daily life.

There’s a small but really nice museum in the Omotesando area of Tokyo – that’s one station away from Shibuya Station – a museum called Nezu Museum. Nezu Museum is an excellent example of how a Japanese garden and tea room lures you into a world of fantasy. The museum itself is interesting to see but what’s more impressive is that it has a medium-sized Japanese garden which magically makes you feel you have suddenly come into a huge serene forest although a few minutes ago you were walking in a posh shopping street of Omotesando. Nezu Museum is a must-go especially in autumn, I’ll post a photo up in the blog to show you why.

And I’ll give you a list of a few more places with tea rooms I recommend visiting too. Typically, you won’t be able to go inside tea rooms unless you make a reservation or sign up for a trial tea ceremony experience, but some of the tea rooms I’ll introduce in my blog are made into cafes so you can enjoy tea ceremony minus the ceremony part, just have good matcha and Japanese confectionery and hang around for an hour or so. 

Now in the more traditional form of tea rooms, the size of the room changes the experience dramatically. The smaller it is, the more intimate the tea session will be. 

The standard size is supposed to be 4 and a half tatamis big. That’s a square room of 273 cm x 273 cm, or almost 9 feet x 9 feet. So if you take the ex-Chinese NBA All Star basketball player Yao Ming who’s like 7 feet 6 inches, multiply him by 3 and lay them horizontally side by side, they’ll be left with a very narrow breathing space. If they wriggled a lot, they wouldn’t be having a very pleasant experience in there.

So 4 and a half tatamis is an intimate space that’s not too small for about 3 well-behaved people. 

I’ve seen a 3 tatami-wide tea room before, but most tea rooms nowadays are far bigger so don’t lose hope in experiencing tea ceremony if you’re claustrophobic. 

Anyway, being in an intimate space is important because one point of tea ceremony is the expression of utmost hospitality by the host through the one bowl of matcha, and the comprehension of that hospitality by the guest. 

Being physically close to the host allows the guest to notice all the small and subtle acts of kindness and consideration the host makes during the session, which leads us to the next important element of tea ceremony.

3. Procedures and mannerisms

Important element number 3 is the procedures and mannerisms of the host and guests, not just in making the bowl of matcha and drinking it but also every action and decision before and after it. 

Tea ceremony is like a classical piano recital in a way. Every single motion taken during the ceremony like sitting down or extending your hand to receive food or tea, have strict choreographies. Like literally every move. Apprentices need to memorize the choreographies by heart first.

But there is a rational reason for, for example, how there is a specific way the guests need to enter the tearoom. there is a reason where the guests are supposed to sit are predetermined. There is a certain direction the bowl is supposed to face when the host offers matcha and there is a reason for that, and on and on. The whole ceremony is carefully thought out to be carried out in the most efficient and beautiful way imaginable. 

Tea ceremony has a lot in common with Zen, which is not surprising because tea first came into Japan through a Buddhist priest who brought back tea from his visit to China. Tea was like coffee exclusively drunk among Buddhist monks until the 13th century. It was drunk because it helps you digest, feel calm and suppress your sexual desires, so it was the prefect drink for monks.  

So what tea ceremony has in common with Zen is that the whole practice revolves around reaching a mental height through perfecting your day-to-day motions. In Zen temples, monks would wake up at 3 and meditate, eat very small meals and clean the temple, and then meditate some more. They constantly feel hunger. I think I can safely say that their lifestyles are farther from freedom than the average prisoner’s. They are technically free, but choose to discipline their lives. 

When you keep repeating the same motions every day for months, you start to recognize your inner greed. I saw a blog by a person who tried living in a Zen temple called Eiheiji temple for a year, and he described the experience really well. 

Zen-no Shiten – life. Accessed Oct, 2020.

So you are constantly hungry and you feel you are deprived of vitamins so when you get your pitiful serving of vegetable soup everyday, and you see another monk getting one slice of carrot more than you did, you feel jealousy and anger. For such a petty thing! He says that he was really surprised to find out that such greed even existed deep down in his heart.

So with time, Zen monks would learn to discipline or let go of these basic greeds, again through repeating the day-to-day motions over and over again. By continuing this lifestyle, they manage to become selfless. And when you become selfless, you focus on becoming altruistic. You focus on helping others because. 

And tea ceremony seems to aim for something similar. By going through the strictly choreographed motions again and again and just focusing on perfecting them leads to letting go of your ego, like for example your wanting to be perceived as someone unique – someone who does tea ceremony, “how classy am I?” – you let that greed go, or for example your wanting to post a picture of yourself doing tea ceremony on Instagram – you’re thinking “how many likes will I get?” – see, you are not serving tea for your guest, that’s using a guest to serve you Instagram likes for yourself. 

You discipline yourself from pursuing these egos by striving to perfect the way you sit or handle the tea utensils, and thereby becoming selfless. When you become selfless, you are ready to serve others, the guest. Then what the guest receives as a result is pure hospitality. Hospitality with no egos attached. How often will you get that? It will become an unforgettable, one and only experience. 

Tea ceremony is an exchange of heart to heart

So while the host of the tea ceremony aims to give pure hospitality, what does the guest do? The guest’s job is to receive that hospitality in its purest form. There is in fact an interesting device in the most authentic tea rooms that helps the guest do so. 

The Nijiri-guchi entrance

The entrance to the smaller tea rooms are really small. It has only half the height of the average door so you literally need to crawl into it. This type of entrance is called “Nijiri-guchi” which translates to “crawling entrance.”

Nijiri-guchi was first installed into a tea room by the tea master Sen-no Rikyu. We already know him from directing the crafting of Raku ware. So Rikyu was a philosopher who spread his idea of beauty and sophistication through influencing samurai lords by teaching them his way of tea ceremony, and what he taught them eventually contributed significantly to shaping the common values and virtues of us Japanese people living today, namely the Japanese idea of hospitality.

The reason station staff and train attendants in Japan treat tourists courteously is partly thanks to Rikyu for setting standards to hospitality some 500 years ago. 

So Rikyu was teaching the way of tea to samurai lords during a time when war and battles were commonplace. Samurais had to be fierce almost all the time, they had to sleep with a sword in their hands because they didn’t know when they’d get killed, even by their subordinates or family members. 

So the really small tea rooms Rikyu created were meant to be a place where the guest – samurai lords – can forget about having to be on their feet to not get stabbed in the back, and forget about who they were: a person in power. Being a person in power is a life-threatening risk even today, right? Presidents and Prime Ministers need to be manned with bodyguards. It is only by forgetting they are in power that they can start to truly relax. 

So finally coming back to Nijiri-guchi, the half-sized entrance. When a person goes through a Nijiri-guchi, he or she inevitably transforms into a kawaii existence. It’s one of the humblest state of a human being. 

You know, even if you were a multimillionaire business owner of a company everybody knows and you were dressed in a full Armani suit and sunglasses, when you enter the tea room through the Nijiri-guchi, your butt’s gonna wiggle and if you’re over 35 or so, you’re going to be making what I call ojisan-noise. 

Huh! mmmmOooh my God…. aghhhh… yoisho. 

The Nijiri-guchi forces anyone to be in their humblest state, and therefore forces them to undress their acquired identity, like social status and money. You go back to being you purely. And the tea master would do his very best to create the most satisfying tea for you, not because you are his customer or his boss or the ruler of Japan. It’s because you are another human being and you are an important guest, and there is no other reason.

Rikyu thought that it was only through this setup that people could have a heart-to-heart.

Becoming your true self in a world apart from yours

The director of the Tea Museum of Shizuoka Prefecture, Pf. Isao Kumakura points out in his *book a very interesting point about the effect of having a Nijiri-guchi for a tea room.

*Kumakura, Isao and Inoue, Osamu; Cha to Hana; P. 188

In almost any culture, going through a narrow hole signified transportation into a different world. For example in Alice in Wonderland, Alice finds herself in a strange world after crawling into a rabbit hole. If you watch Ghibli movies, you may recall that falling down a hole is a key moment of many Ghibli stories, for example in My neighbor Totoro and Naussicca of the Valley of the Wind. 

Also, during the time Rikyu was around, stages for stage performances had similar, small entrances. The actors would crawl onto the stage from back stage. You can still see this type of entrance on Noh Theater stages, by the way. The reason is believed to be that it helps the actors feel they have entered a fictional world. 

So Nijiri-guchi helps the guests feel like they have left the world behind and come into a tea room where they can forget about work and their problems, and purely enjoy spending time there in the tea room. The guests and the tea master would be able to have a meaningful conversation, which is often hard to have especially in Japan where the social norm is to observe hierarchy and to keep a friendly distance with people who are not family or not yet friends. 

It probably feels really enlightening to experience that moment of connecting with your counterpart’s heart. I’d like to experience that one day. 

Why do people learn tea ceremony?

So lastly, why do people learn tea ceremony? I think I have an answer to this. 

There was a 20th century Japanese philosopher by the name of Muneyoshi Yanagi – he was the pioneer and leader of a so-called folk handicraft movement of which aim was to promote the value and beauty of handcrafted everyday necessities like kitchenware and food utensils in Japan – looking at many of his writings, it seems like he tries to explain that tea ceremony is the application of your idea of beauty in your everyday life. 

Yanagi, Muneyoshi; Cha no Kaikaku; 1958. P. 208

So you expose yourself to the beautiful tea utensils, tea rooms and tea mannerisms, and at first you struggle to even understand what’s going on and you’re not sure what and how to enjoy anything. But you eventually learn to be able to tell the value in design and the subtle motions tea masters make, and you learn to have meaningful time with the people in the tea room. You eventually internalize all these and become able to do them from gut feeling. 

Then you will naturally start applying your tea room norm into your daily life. Not only will you keep your house clean, but you’ll know how to decorate your room in a simple yet interesting way. You’ll think about how your table should be set, how your bed should be made, what your Instagram photos should look like, how you should talk to others, how you should walk, how you should lift a cup of coffee. You’ll have your own standard of beauty and therefore everything you do will carry a philosophy. Your philosophy of what’s beautiful. 

If everything you do feels beautiful, imagine what life will be like. 

A shout out to a fellow Japanese culture podcast Japan Experts. They have an interview episode on Japanese tea and it covers more details on how to enjoy different forms of tea. Check it out if you’re interested. 

So, I hope you enjoyed this episode. And I hope I spilled enough tea about tea ceremony. I’m not a hardcore practitioner of tea per se – I am interested in all types of Japanese cultural representations.

But to see what’s fun about them requires a lot of background knowledge. I grew up in Japan but it’s only after I went to see those cultural representations myself, interviewed specialists and read many books about them that I could really start to understand why Japan has decided to keep them. 

It’s hard to understand and on top of that, it’s hard to explain. And that’s what I’m trying to do. I’d like to explain these in a way anyone can comprehend. 

Because if it’s not communicated well, even if you have good stuff, it’s good as non-existent from the eyes of other people. 

So please allow me to continue doing what I do by keeping myself connected with you. Please subscribe to this podcast, bookmark my blog site metro-classic-japanese.net or follow The Metro-classic Japanese on Instagram or Facebook.

Thank you for listening!

Q&A on Tea ceremony

Q1. When was tea first imported into Japan and how did it become popularized?

It is commonly understood that in the year 805, a Japanese Buddhist monk by the name of Eichū brought back some seeds of tea shrubs and grew tea leaves in what is now Shiga Prefecture. *In 815, The 52nd Emperor Saga was offered tea by Eichu, and because the emperor either liked it or was fond of imitating Chinese culture, tea was to be grown widely in the region where we now have Kyoto and Osaka.

*Fujiwara-no-Otsugu, Nihon Kōki, 840.

But the practice of drinking tea seemed to have been on the down-low until around the 12th century when another monk called Eisai brought home green tea and the latest tea culture from his trip to China.

Eisai wrote a book (Kissa Youjou-ki, 1211) in which he promoted the consumption of tea as medicine. Marketing tea as a drink with medical benefits is thought to have been the reason tea, this time, went viral in Japan. But tea was largely drunk among Buddhist monks only for a while.

Historians think that tea had spread from the world of monks to ordinary people by the end of the 13th century. There is an interesting episode written in a piece of literature from 1283 (Mujū, Shaseki-shū)  that goes as follows:

A cattleman saw a monk drinking tea and asked what kind of medicine it was and if he could have a bit of it. The monk replies to tell the cattleman that tea is medicine with three benefits. One, it helps you wake. Two, it helps you digest. Three, it keeps your sexual desires in check.

The cattleman responds in dismay: why would you want to awaken yourself when sleeping tight is what’s enjoyable about sleep; why would you empty your stomach faster when food is always scarce; why would you suppress your sexual desires and risk dissatisfying your wife. The cattleman ran away.

This excerpt suggests that the benefits of tea were widely known in Japan by the time Shaseki-shū was published.

Q2. How was tea enjoyed before tea ceremony was created?

Before MURATA Jukou set the basic principles of tea ceremony as we see it today (which is called Wabi-cha), royalty and samurai lords used tea as an excuse to throw big parties.

It seems in the early 14th century, Japanese people had a lot of pent-up energy. They frequently gathered to sing and dance, and tea parties were a new and exciting event for these party-throwers and party-goers. Tōcha was a blind tea-tasting contest that involved gambling.

Japan had always been a big fan of Chinese culture until it switched its target of awe to the Western world in the late 19th century. Lots of Chinaware and other Chinese artifacts were imported, and owning many of them was evidence of wealth and power.

So participants of Tōcha brought over the Chinese artifacts they had bought and collected (or won as prizes at other Tōcha parties) and competed with others to gain even more. When there was a winner, there was a feast with food and alcohol, and it is said that sometimes these parties escalated into orgies. The practice of tea was not quite Zen as it is now.

The government put out a notice in 1336 in an attempt to restrict these gatherings because, as you can imagine, gambling addiction and people going broke was becoming a social problem. There were even people who committed suicide from losing at a Tōcha party.

Q3. How did tea ceremony come to be appreciated?

Tea parties had become a distasteful hobby of the rich, and although the imports from China were in fact very much sophisticated and therefore enriched people’s lives and sense of beauty, they were too pricey for the vast majority of Japanese people, even the upper middle class, to lay hands on.

So Jukou taught that there was no point in longing for the unattainable enjoyment of tea in the elaborate but super-expensive world of Chinaware and Chinese art, and instead promoted the idea of discovering beauty after cutting decorative corners and the beauty of imperfection and simplicity, which links with the concept of Zen.

In a letter he wrote to his apprentice, Jukou described the way of tea (which is called Sadō 茶道 or Cha-no-yu 茶の湯 in Japanese)  as a philosophy in which practitioners should strive to conquer and let go of their greed, and also emphasized the importance of appreciating not just Chinese tea items but also Japanese ones.

Therefore, tea became a more practical hobby for most, and one could argue that Jukou thereby contributed greatly to making tea stay.

Q3. I’ve heard there is a golden tea room. Does it really exist?

There was a tea room entirely made of gold called Ōgon-no-chashitsu 黄金の茶室 that was made in the late 16th century under the supervision of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ruler of Japan then. Everything – from the walls, ceilings, even the tea utensils were made of gold.

This golden tea room obviously goes against the teachings of the way of tea we were just discussing, which is supposed to value simplicity and humility, and yes, it is still a major controversy in the world of tea.

Hideyoshi used (and one could argue he abused) tea ceremony as a means to display the great political power he possessed by for instance commissioning Sen-no Rikyu to create this unprecedented golden tea room, holding the *biggest tea ceremony event ever and setting up the golden tea room for him to be in, right in the center of the tea exposition.

*An event called the Grand Kitano Tea Ceremony, held in 1587. It was open to all people of all social ranks, hundreds of tea rooms were set up and was planned to be an expo-like event lasting as long as 10 days. However it was dismissed after the first day, and the reason is unknown.

It’s suspected that Hideyoshi got tired of making tea for hundreds of guests himself, or that the number of participants was shy of Hideyoshi’s expectation and therefore continuing the event would have resulted in representing the low popularity of Hideyoshi as a ruler.

The golden tea room was, to be frank, a distasteful display of glamour, but it has high cultural value because:

  1. It was the first ever tea room to be made of gold
  2. It’s an assembling tea room and therefore also a portable tea room. Like Ikeya furniture!

Replicas of the golden tea room can be seen at the following places:

Q4. Where can I learn tea ceremony?

You can learn tea ceremony in a tea ceremony class held by any certified tea master. The location will typically be at a venue with an authentic tea room, however lately, there have been classes for Tabletop Sadō and these can be held in any setting, which means you won’t have to sit on your legs on a tatami mat – an excruciatingly painful experience if it’s your first to several dozen times.

Q5. Are there different schools of tea ceremony?

There are three and only three major schools of tea ceremony:

  • Omote Senke 表千家
  • Ura Senke 裏千家
  • Mushano-kouji Senke 武者小路千家

All three are supervised by the direct descendants of Sen-no Rikyu, and Sadō teachers need to be given approval by one of these families to be able to teach.

The reason there are three and not just one school may be interest to know.

Sen-no Rikyu was actually killed off by the aforementioned ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1591. Rikyu was the right-hand man of Hideyoshi and undoubtedly supported his great climb to power from a samurai of peasant origin (which was rare and therefore Hideyoshi must have been subject to discrimination early on in his career) all the way to becoming the kind of Japan.

Although at first the two seemed to share ambitions and used tea ceremony as a means to exercise political influence, as Hideyoshi started preferring against Rikyu’s preferences and philosophy in tea and their political agendas conflicted, their relationship fell apart. Eventually, something Rikyu did (unknown to this day) infuriated Hideyoshi and Rikyu was ordered to kill himself.

Later on, Rikyu’s grandson Sen-no Sōtan split the family (in Japan during the age of samurai rule, a family was equivalent to a business and the head of the family was equivalent to a business owner) in three ways, each run by one of his sons.

Sōtan (1587 – 1658) had been offered a position by different state governors several times, but he never served, although that meant his family was kept poor. Pf. Kumakura theorizes that the reason Sōtan refused to get employed was to prevent history from repeating itself, namely what happened to his grandfather Rikyu.

Becoming a tea master under a samurai lord came along with the risk of losing the credibility of the family’s good name on a dime in case he or his boss – the samurai lord – did something to upset the top-most ruler.

He encouraged his sons to serve for different samurai lords to disperse the risk, and this is how the three schools of tea ceremony were founded, and luckily, still survive today.

The mannerisms in tea ceremony will differ depending on which school you learn from.

Tea ceremony terms

Here is information on some of the numerous kinds of tools used in tea ceremony.

Chawan 茶碗

A tea bowl, used to make matcha in, and then to drink tea off of. In tea ceremony, overly decorative designs tend not to be preferred, and bowls with a satisfying weight and feel when held are thought to be good. There are several kinds of Chawan used in tea ceremony, some of which are:

  • Ido-chawan 井戸茶碗: Handcrafted Korean bowls made in the 16th century. Also called Kōrai Chawan 高麗茶碗. They were not valued much in Korea and therefore the maker of these artifacts are left unknown, but Japanese tea masters imported them as they saw huge potential in its use in tea ceremony.
  • Raku ware 楽焼: Handcrafted Japanese bowls first made by RAKU Chojiro, who was supervised by Sen-no Rikyu. These thick and meaty, asymmetrical bowls fit into your hands well and induces a sense of satisfaction when you hold them. However Raku ware are very fragile. Handle with care!
  • Karatsu ware 唐津焼: Bowls created primarily in the Karatsu region of Saga Prefecture in Japan Karatsu ware first appear in Japanese historical records in 1580. The production technique originally comes from Korea.
  • Hagi ware 萩焼: A powerful samurai lord of Western Japan, Mouri Terumoto commissioned Korean potters to produce these beautiful glazed bowls in Hagi city in Yamaguchi prefecture.
  • Kutani ware 九谷焼: Porcelain with elaborate designs and vivid colors, primarily made in Ishikawa Prefecture. Excessively decorative bowls of this kind are not suitable for tea ceremony.
  • Oribe ware 織部焼: Pottery with avant-garde designs from the 16th century for which the development was supervised by tea master FURUTA Oribe, an apprentice of Sen-no Rikyu. There is a Japanese comic book series entirely about FURUTA Oribe’s life, FYI.
  • Shino ware 志野焼: Pottery with white glaze from around the 15th-16th century, for which the development was supervised by tea master SHINO Soushin.
  • Tobe ware 砥部焼: White and blue pottery primarily made in Ehime Prefecture. The first one of its kind is said to have been made in 1777.

Chagama 茶釜

An iron pot used to boil water to make tea. Also simply called Kama 釜. Its origins are in China, and it has evolved into its current form through time.

It holds a special position among tea items as there is no making tea without the pot. The type of furnace used differs depending on the season, and therefore the type of pot used also differs accordingly:

  • Furo-gama 風炉釜: pot used between the summer season of May and October. The drawing is this type.
  • Ro-gama 炉釜: pot used between the winter season of November and April. Flatter and smaller than Furo-gama.

Iron pots were commonly used in Japan for daily hot-water needs by the 12th century, but iron pots specifically meant to be used for making tea began to be made once Matcha was brought into Japan by Eisai and Tōcha (blind tea tasting contests) became popular.

Kakejiku 掛け軸

A hanging scroll with calligraphy, painting, Chinese writing, Buddhist proverb, or a combination of the aforementioned. It is meant to be hung on the wall of Tokonoma, an elevated space typically found in traditional Japanese reception rooms.

It’s basically a picture and frame in one, which is portable and wouldn’t take up space to store when you want to change the mood of the reception room.

The earliest Kakejiku commonly featured paintings of Buddha and therefore hanging one in a room carried a religious purpose. By the 14th century, Kakejiku started to become an art form independent of religion as they began to be used to display ink wash paintings.

Needs to be stored in a place with little change in humidity.

Hishaku 柄杓

A long wooden ladle used to scoop water from the Kama (pot). Also found in shrines for visitors to cleanse their hands soon after entering the shrine’s vicinity.

A slightly larger Hishaku is used in winter, and a slightly smaller one is used in summer to conform with the difference in size between the Furo-gama and Ro-gama.

You will see the tea master holding the Hishaku up in front of him/her as if to look into a small mirror before starting to make tea, and that is when, at least in formality, he/she is building focus.

Bon 盆

A tray used to carry tea utensils, namely the Chawan (tea bowl), Chasen (hand mixer), Chashaku (tea scoop) and Chaire (Matcha container) into the tea room and out.

Each of the three major schools teaches an abbreviated form of tea ceremony in which is performed on a single Bon.

The abbreviated tea ceremony is the form often taught to beginners, as the number of utensils that come into play is limited.

You will see Bon used not only in tea ceremony but at almost any traditional Japanese restaurant. Some Bon would have openings on the side so as to allow holding it easy.

Chasen 茶筅

A hand mixer often made of bamboo, used to stir matcha so that the powder spreads in hot water evenly (Matcha does not dissolve in water).

After purchasing one, it is advised to wash it once in hot water so that the curl of the tip stand, making it easier to stir. They are disposable and for formal tea ceremony, they would need to be replaced after a few uses or even just once as the beautiful curl of the tip will be lost and will not look pretty.

There are over 60 types of Chasen that come in different sizes and number of prongs, but all of them are carved out of a single bamboo.

Mizusashi 水指

A pot to keep water in, which can be added to the Kama (pot) or used to wash the Chawan (bowl) and Chasen (hand mixer) after they are used.

Many that are used lately are made of ceramics but there are also metal and wooden Mizusashi. Some come with a lid and some don’t. There are Mizusashi of Vietnamese, Dutch, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese origin. The procedures in handling Mizusashi differs depending on the type in use. They can be placed directly on the tatami floor or on a handheld shelf.

Wooden ones are traditionally meant for one-time use and were disposed after a single ceremony.

Chashaku 茶杓

A stick, often made of lacquered bamboo, used to scoop Matcha powder out of the container and put into the tea bowl. The unit of Matcha powder to be used to make tea is Shaku 杓. A heap scoop of Matcha powder is 1 shaku. The volume of Matcha is determined as follows:

  • Usucha 薄茶: light Matcha, made from 1.5 shaku (using a Chashaku) of Matcha powder and 0.5 shaku (using a Hishaku) of hot water
  • Koicha 濃茶: thick Matcha, made from 3 shaku of Matcha powder and 0.5 shaku of hot water.

Because it was traditionally considered a disposable item, there aren’t many old ones left for tea masters today to see or use. Nowadays they are stored in a tube-shaped container. Some tea masters would hand-craft their own Chashaku.

Fukusa 帛紗

A cloth often made of silk used to wipe tea utensils and to take the lid off of the iron pot. Most are colored purple but female tea masters may use red ones so that their lipstick adhering onto Fukusa wouldn’t be a problem.

Chakin 茶巾

A cloth made of hemp and bleached white, used to wipe the tea bowl during tea ceremony. Comes in the size of 30cm x 15cm or 30cm x 12cm depending on the type specified for use by the school of tea.

After washing the Matcha off of a tea bowl with water, The tea master would let Chakin absorb the moisture left on the tea bowl by holding it gently onto the inner surface and then rotating the bowl.

Chaki 茶器

Containers to store Matcha powder. There are various categories of Chaki, and each kind has a particular way of handling in tea ceremony. Some of which are below:

Chaire 茶入

A ceramic container for storing Matcha powder, specifically the dark-green Koicha 濃茶. The lid is typically made of ivory, and Chinese-made Chaire tend to be seen as having higher prestige than Japanese-made ones.

There are 5 categories of Chaire:

  1. Karamono 唐物: Chinese ceramic containers for tea originally made during the Sung and Yuan dynasties
  2. Shimamono 島物: Ceramic containers for tea made in South East Asia, in regions such as Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, etc.
  3. Setomono 瀬戸物: Ceramic containers for tea originally made in what is now the town of Seto in Aichi Prefecture. Seto was the center of ceramics in Japan.
  4. Nochigama 後釜: Ceramic containers for tea made in Seto after the late 16th century.
  5. Kuniyaki 国焼: Japanese ceramic containers for tea made in regions other than Seto


A lacquered wooden container for storing Matcha powder, specifically the light-green Usucha 薄茶. Many have Maki-e (a technique of applying design on wood by sprinkling gold powder after drawing a pattern with lacquer) floral patterns applied on the surface.

It is assumed that these containers were originally used to store medicine, and tea masters eventually started using them in tea ceremony. The earliest record of such is the tea party conducted by TSUDA Soutatsu in 1564.

There are numerous categories of Natsume design, some of which are called:

  • Rikyu Natsume 利休棗
  • Hira Natsume 平棗
  • Naga Natsume 長棗
  • Oshiroidoki Natsume 白粉解棗
  • Shiribari Natsume 尻張棗
  • Washi Natsume 鷲棗
  • Doubari Natsume 胴張棗
  • Maru Natsume 丸棗
  • Kawataro Natsume 河太郎棗
  • Gone Natsume 碁笥棗
  • Oimatsu 老松棗

Chazutsu 茶筒

A cylinder-shaped container for storing Matcha powder. Made of a variety of materials, including tin, wood, ceramics, bamboo and silver.

Outside the world of tea ceremony, Chazutsu is often used to store tea leaves to make Sencha 煎茶 and the lid can be used to eyeball the amount of tea you will use.

Kensui 建水

A pot made of various materials, used to dispose “used” water. The mouth is made wide to allow easy disposal of water.

After the tea master uses hot water to warm the tea bowl or cold water to cleanse the tea bowl, the water is then poured into Kensui.

Hanaire 花入

A vase or a basket to display the flower the tea master picked for the ceremony, placed at Tokonoma along with a hanging scroll. Made of a variety of materials and comes in a variety of shapes and designs.

There are three forms of Hanaire, each with a unique way of displaying the flower:

  • Kake Hanaire 掛花入: Hanaire hung on a pole on the side of Tokonoma (elevated platform of a tea room).
  • Tsuri Hanaire 釣花入: Hanaire hung from the ceiling of Tokonoma.
  • Oki Hanaire 置花入: Hanaire placed on the platform of Tokonoma.

Kougou 香合

A container for incense. Incense is put into the furnace before tea ceremony starts. There are three main categories:

  1. Kougou made of ceramics are used in the winter season along with Ro 炉 between November and April.
  2. Kougou made of wood are used in the summer season along with Furo 風炉 between May and October.
  3. Kougou made of metal can be used in either season.

Wabi-sabi わびさび

A term that represents the Japanese aesthetic preference of simplicity and imperfection.

Wabi refers to the mindset of accepting and enjoying circumstances that are out of your control, such as age. Sabi refers to the beauty seen when the essence of things reveals itself visibly as classiness.

Yatsushi やつし
Another term that represents one of the most fundamental aesthetic values of Japanese culture. It describes the beauty felt when something or someone with authority and credibility is seen or represented in a humble state.

Kinda like the awe you feel towards Keanu Reeves when you see him in denim eating a sandwich at a park.